Descending into King Tut’s Tomb

November 4, 2022, marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, the largest and most significant archeological find of the 20th century, perhaps of all time. The story of its unearthing reads like fiction, not fact, including a “mummy’s curse.” 

A look at a mural and the sarcophagus in King Tut's tomb.
A View Inside King Tut’s tomb ©Debi Lander

Who was Howard Carter?

Howard Carter, a British illustrator who stumbled into archeology, worked for decades in Egypt. Tomb hunting, or in many cases, tomb raiding, occurred over centuries. By 1910, various parties uncovered 60 royal tombs in the Valley of Kings, but most were empty. Still, some desirable artifacts dangled hope that a lost tomb awaited.

Carter, at times a disagreeable fellow, thought the groups searching the valley used haphazard methods for their financial gain. He favored digging to discover Egypt’s history and began using a systematic or grid approach. But, those previously involved thought finding an intact tomb ranked near impossible. 

Image shows Howard Carter, the man who discovered King Tut's tomb.
Howard Carter, British archeologist who discovered King Tut’s Tomb

Despite the odds, Carter persisted; he wanted to continue digging and prevailed upon wealthy Lord Carnarvon to fund two more months of a dig. Although hesitant and with dwindling funds, Carnarvon agreed. What happened rocked the world.  

Who was Lord Carnarvon

The British 5th Earl of Carnarvon, with an even more pompous given name, was born in Highclere Castle. Yes, the same mansion featured in Downton Abby. His father, the 4th Earl, left the estate with outstanding debt. Fortunately, our hero met and married an ultra-wealthy woman (ssh – she’s an illegitimate daughter of a Rothchild). The two truly loved each other and made a good team. 

In 1901, Lord Carnarvon, who loved adventure, suffered a severe accident and became disabled. His doctors suggested wintering in a warm, dry climate. With Egypt in vogue, he went abroad and became enthralled with everything Egyptian. 

Photo fo Lord Carnarvon in Egypt.
The Fifth Earl of Carnarvon in Egypt.

Egypt at the Turn of the Century

At the beginning of the 20th century, wealthy individuals or universities financed many archeological digs, not the government. So, Lord Carnarvon entered the arena.

But financier Theodore Davis had been involved much longer and held the sole digging rights in the Valley of Kings. While his team made some significant discoveries, the tombs turned out to be empty. Davis decided to retire in 1914, allowing Carter and Carnarvon to gain rights. 

The Extraordinary Discovery

After a freak rainstorm, a young boy working for Carter showed him the top of the step. Carter understood the possibilities, and this team began moving the earth away. He writes to Carnarvon explaining that he cleared 12 steps and found a plastered door with seals still intact. Carnarvon leaves for Egypt. Carter makes a small opening in the doorway but sees only rubble. Is it a cache or raiders’ debris?

The interior of an outer room in King Tut's tomb was littered with relics.
A look at the relics found inside King Tut’s Tomb.

Carter maintains hope, believing the grave was opened in ancient times, then resealed. Some markings (cartouches) on pottery shards in the rubble held royal names.   

Carnarvon arrives, and digging proceeds down 16 steps. On November 24, the crew removed enough debris to find intact door seals with the name Tutankhamun. Two days later, they squeeze in and find a small passage under some piled objects. Carter discovers it leads to another sealed doorway. Now they are more convinced, but word has spread, and the Department of Antiquities insists they be present at the opening. So finally, on November 29, they unearth the extraordinary treasure trove. They find glinting golden statues, furniture, disassembled chariots, clothing, and much more . One cannot imagine such an unexpected feast for the eyes. 

Carnarvon goes back to England but returns for the burial chamber’s opening, which the government delayed again. Unfortunately, on March 19, a mosquito bites Carnarvon. The bite becomes infected, he suffers with blood poisoning, and on April 5, Lord Carnarvon dies. Is there a mummy’s curse on someone who opens a tomb? 

For the next ten years (yes, it took that long), Carter painstakingly and meticulously cataloged, made drawings, and photographed each item. The opening of the burial shrine revealed three outer coffins and three inner ones. Each one became more and more impressive, leading to the final one of solid gold. 

But not until October -November 1925 did Carter and medical experts open the final three inner coffins, unwrapping the mummy down to Tutankhamun’s bones. They find he is laden with 140 protective objects, jewels, and amulets. The solid gold death mask covering his face weighs an impressive 22.5 pounds.  

Howard Carter carefully studies the coffin of King Tutankhamun..
Howard Carter examines the coffin of King Tutankhamun.

The tomb contents, stacked from floor to ceiling, contained 5,398 objects for the pharaod to use in the afterlife. Eventually, some artifacts, including the gold death mask, go on display in the Cairo Museum, always a highlight for tourists. 

Now they have been moved to the new Grand Egyptian Museum, the GEM, awaiting its opening. The immense facility will show nearly all of Tut’s treasures for the first time. Originally scheduled to open in 2011, the GEM faced unexpected delays, an uprising in the country, and the pandemic. Will it open for the 2022 date? We’ll wait and see.

Exterior of the Grand Egyptain Museum, Giza.
The world awaits the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum.

Who Was Tutankhamun

Without the stunning discovery of the boy king’s intact tomb, history would record little about King Tutanhkamun (1341- 1323 BC), Carter, or Carnarvon. 

Young Tut, upon his father’s death, became the pharaoh at age nine. He ruled with the aid of regents. His father’s religious changes to worship a single god were not well received, and Tut returned and supported the belief in multiple Egyptian Gods. He begins to gain power but suddenly dies at age 19. A tomb was needed quickly, which may be why his burial site is the smallest in the valley. 

Understanding the Significance of Tutankhamen’s Tomb Today 

Undoubtedly, the discovery of Tut’s tomb significantly increased the collective knowledge of Egyptian life and history. Each item gave clues to the past. Massive scientific research followed and continues today. 

But, perhaps more important was the return of cultural pride. The civilization that produced these treasures was very advanced. The world noticed and applauded ancient Egypt. A renewed sense of history and pride returned and developed in Egypt’s citizens. 

The GEM’s construction will increase tourism, the primary source of income that sustains Egypt’s economy. King Tutankhamun continues to shower wealth beyond measure. 

My Descent  into Tut’s Tomb

The barren and rocky Valley of Kings in Egypt.
First look at the desolate Valley of Kings ©Debi Lander

Since childhood, I’ve held a fascination for mummies, pyramids, temples, and tombs. In January 2020, I finally toured Egypt, fulfilling a lifetime dream yet increasing my interest and passion.  

The day my small group explored the Valley of the Kings, I felt childlike with joy and anticipation. We arrived at a desolate, dry, rocky landscape I’d seen in photos. No wonder the area was chosen as burial grounds for the royal; who would suspect riches underground? 

 The first tomb I entered was Ramses IV, with walls crammed full of colorful, eye-popping hieroglyphics and an extended tunnel that led to the sarcophagus. The tombs themselves were designed to resemble the underworld. They feature a long, inclined rock-hewn corridor descending into an antechamber or a series of sometimes pillared halls . They end in the burial chamber. Once workers dug the tomb walls, they decorated them, incorporating scenes of the pharaoh’s life and tools needed for the afterlife. 

Colorful hieroglyhics adorn the walls of Ramses IV tomb.
Inside the grand hallway of RamsesIV tomb.

Many colorful paintings and reliefs were to assist the deceased into the next life. (For the dead to proceed, they’d have to meet challenges correctly, and these drawings were clues. This idea makes me think of the Indian Jones movie scene where they find the grail but to reach it; one must choose wisely.) 

Figures of gods, serpents, and descriptions aid the dead to their afterlife.
Painting on the walls of Ramses IV tomb ©Debi Lander.

When we came to the entrance to Tut’s tomb, I had no words to describe my expectations, but I was not disappointed.

Sign at entrance to Tut's tomb.
I arrived at the entrance to Tut’s Tomb.

The painted walls displayed vibrant colored images of Tut, various gods, and 12  baboons. I would later research the meaning of the murals; however, I admit the baboons fascinated me. According to one source, “The twelve baboons represent the twelve hours of the night. In Egyptian theology, the sun journeyed through the underworld during night hours until it was reborn at dawn. The baboons symbolize the resurrection and rebirth that Tutankhamun expected to undergo. Interestingly each baboon is individually named in the hieroglyphs next to their image.

Tut's sarcophagus remains in the burial chamber.
My photo of Tut’s sarcophagus and tomb walls in the burial chamber ©Debi Lander.

I saw the remains of the Boy King’s mummy in an antechamber and his heavy outer sarcophagus in the burial room. The guard allowed me to take cell phone photos. Now treasures I hold most dear.

Twelve baboons hold meaning to Tut's afterlife.
Twelve Baboons are painted on the walls of Tut’s tomb ©Debi Lander

Standing in Tut’s tomb was intense and palpable. I imagined it filled to the ceiling with priceless relics. I wanted to linger, to breathe in the history, but visitors are given a short time. Still, I stood momentarily, closed my eyes, and thought about the thousands of people who came here before; the workers who dug the chambers, the artisans who crafted the items, the priests who performed his funeral, and then Carter, Carnarvon, and all the workers who help bring the contents out. 

Photo of Tut's burial mask from the Egyptian museum.
King The famous burial mask of King Tutankhamun on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt. The 24 pound (11 kilogram) mask is made of gold, glass, and precious stones. The nemes headdress features a vulture, symbolizing sovereignty over Upper Egypt, and a cobra, symbolizing sovereignty over Lower Egypt.

Shrines that attract pilgrims gain an aura of respect over time. I believe the conscientiousness of souls venerates sacred places. While King Tut may or may not have been worshipped as a god in his lifetime, he has a legacy that withstands time. 

Black and White Photos from Wikimedia Commons.