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.
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.
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:
- Tutankhamun’s Tomb, History.com
- King Tut died long ago, but the debate about his tomb rages on, New York Times
- Mysteries of King Tut: What we still don’t know, National Geographic
- How Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s Tomb, Smithsonian Magazine
- King Tut: Mysteries still surround Egypt’s boy pharaoh, Newsweek
- The Felines of Tutankhamun, Ancient Origins