100 Years Ago, An Archaeologist Unearthed The Most Incredible Find In History

Howard Carter’s peers felt sorry for him.

The British archaeologist’s contemporaries watched him dig in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings year after year, grid by grid in what they were sure was a fruitless search for something that didn’t exist. Everyone knew the sand-covered necropolis had yielded all of its secrets. Everyone knew Carter was wasting his time — and the funds of his patron, the Earl of Carnarvon — looking for the tomb of an obscure, apocryphal boy king who allegedly ruled Egypt for nine years in deep antiquity.

After 15 years, the partnership between Carter and Carnarvon was about to end. Even the wealthy aristocrat had his limits, and after so much time and effort chasing an apparent mirage, Carnarvon declared he would pay for one final season of archaeological work in 1922.

Carter had been laboring in the necropolises along the Nile since he was a young boy and apprentice to the great archaeologists of his time. Aside from seasons that were cut short by war, the Egyptologist had spent three decades digging in those valleys. Now he was about to be out of a job and a patron.

Carter's notes
Howard Carter’s discovery made him the most famous archaeologist in history, but it also left him with the incredible task of preserving and cataloguing everything in the more than 3,000-year-old tomb. Here’s a page from Carter’s notes about a statue of Anubis. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Exactly 100 years ago today, Carter wrote a terse entry in his journal: “First steps of tomb found.”

Those steps descended to a door of limestone and plaster, marking the entrance to an antechamber. A second doorway lay sealed in the gloom, and after dispatching a letter imploring Carnarvon to make haste to Egypt, Carter waited for the arrival of his patron and chipped away at the second door, peering through a tiny hole.

With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left-hand corner. Darkness and blank space, as far as an iron testing-rod could reach, showed that whatever lay beyond was empty, and not filled like the passage we had just cleared. Candle tests were applied as a precaution against possible foul gases, and then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle and peered in, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn and Callender standing anxiously beside me to hear the verdict. At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.

The earl, sensing a shift in Carter’s mood, queried him: “Do you see anything?”

Carter paused to collect himself before answering.

“Yes,” he said. “Wonderful things!”

The rest is history.

It turned out the room Carter first glimpsed was yet another antechamber. It had been breached in antiquity and tomb robbers had taken some of its valuables before resealing it, but they hadn’t breached a second chamber, the one that contained what are now the most famous finds in archaeological history: The iconic gold funerary mask of King Tutankhamun, the ornate sarcophagus inscribed with prayers from the Egyptian book of the dead, a life-size statue of the boy pharaoh and other statuary, impeccably designed furniture, vases, funerary candle holders, textiles, canopic jars, even chariots and a model ship. There were cats too, including statues of felids big and small.

Tut coffin
A second coffin made of wood and gold encased the pharaoh’s body and was placed within the sarcophagus.

Everything was gilded, and everywhere Carter’s torch cast light was the glitter of gold. He had been vindicated. Subsequent rulers had almost erased Tut’s name from history, and many doubted he was a historical figure. Now Carter not only proved the boy pharaoh was real, he had discovered the best-preserved tomb in history, ignited renewed interest in ancient Egypt, and unearthed objects that would leave indelible marks on human culture.

For more about Carter’s historic discovery, King Tutankhamun himself and the impact of the incredible discovery as the world celebrates its 100th anniversary, here’s some further reading:

Funerary Mask of King Tutankhamun
The funerary mask of King Tutankhamun is perhaps the most recognizable and iconic artifact from ancient Egypt. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Leopard from King Tut's tomb
A sculpture of a leopard found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Cats were important in ancient Egypt, and feline/felid imagery abounds in depictions of deities, statuary and motifs. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

3 thoughts on “100 Years Ago, An Archaeologist Unearthed The Most Incredible Find In History”

  1. I genuinely wish I could afford the same memorials at the Pharaoh’s to my felines, Basil does have a stone-carved brick memorial at Tabby’s Place in the USA ( he was a tabby), and the others have various memorial donations in their names in multiple UK charities. Their ashes all live here with me. I do have a commissioned painting of Basil and images and favourite toys framed and a beautiful book made about Bets and her life. I guess if anyone found this house in a few thousand years, they would think, “wow, this guy really loved cats’ ( and they would be 100% right). The Pharaohs had the right idea.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Those are really good ideas to remember cats by. When did Basil cross the bridge? I can’t even think of losing Buddy without getting really, really upset and teary-eyed, which is tough to admit as a grown-ass man, but I try to appreciate him and the time I have with him. Even when he’s at his most annoying, I remind myself I’m lucky to have him.

      As for the Egyptians, the cat stuff goes deep. Multiple gods and goddesses have cat features, there’s been a lot written about how they revered cats in every day life, and of course there’s an abundance of statuary and other artifacts depicting cats.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Basil crossed in ’04. Yep, I cried for him for days as I did for the many others that have shared life with me. He was an odd cat, smelled funny was very small and would misbehave very badly but a real character (as are they all) looking at his picture now on the wall brings it all back. Cats bond themselves to my soul every time and I feel it like the Egyptians did every time. The Vikings also revered cats and would give kittens to couples as wedding gifts.

        Liked by 2 people

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