Curator's Corner Howard Carter and Tutankhamun: The Story Behind the Discovery

Stewart Murray

By Stewart Murray
LBMA CEO (September 1999 - December 2013)

On 4 November 2022, the world of archaeology will celebrate the centenary of the discovery of the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh, the boy-king Tutankhamun, by the British archaeologist Howard Carter. As we will see, this was no lucky strike.

There must be few people who would not recognise a picture of the pharaoh’s golden death mask which covered and protected his mummified body.

Tutankhamun’s Death Mask

The mask is 54 cm tall and weighs 10.2 kg (equivalent to just under one Good Delivery bar). It is made from two layers of gold, varying from 1.5 mm to 3 mm in thickness. Two different finenesses were used: a lighter 18.4 karat shade for the face and neck, and 22.5 karat gold for the rest of the mask.

But this is only one, albeit the most renowned, of the thousands of objects – large and small – which Carter eventually recovered from the tomb during the 10 years following the initial discovery in November 1922. The objects are displayed in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities (aka the Cairo Museum), although it’s possible they will shortly be moved to the soon-to-be-opened Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza.

Accompanying Tutankhamun on his journey through the underworld was a vast collection of objects, ranging from utilitarian personal possessions (including his chariots and pieces of furniture) to fabulous items of jewellery. And as Carter himself observed, on first looking into the tomb, there was “everywhere the glint of gold”.

But aside from the stunning beauty of many of these items, the story of Carter’s achievement in finding the tomb is utterly fascinating, as revealed in the first of the three volumes that he wrote in the decade following the discovery.

The mask is 54 cm tall and weighs 10.2 kg (equivalent to just under one Good Delivery bar).

Magnet for Tomb-Robbers

It was the gold contained in the 60-odd other tombs and caches in the Valley of the Kings – amazingly, nearly all within 100 metres of Carter’s discovery – that had led to them having been stripped of their treasures in ancient times by tomb robbers. It is worth noting that only a tiny area (approximately 150 m x 200 m) of the Valley was used as the necropolis for the pharaohs and other dignitaries of the New Kingdom (the five centuries, commencing around 1550 BCE, encompassing the 18th, 19th and 20th Dynasties). This was when Egypt was at the height of its powers.

The design of the tombs typically included stairways cut into the limestone bedrock, plus passageways (of up to 40 metres in length) often elaborately decorated and leading to the ‘living quarters’ of the expired pharaoh. The latter might include the burial chamber plus other rooms for the personal possessions of the deceased. In the three thousand years since the decline of the New Kingdom, the Valley has been a magnet for tomb robbers, tourists and archaeologists. Already in the Roman era, tourists were visiting some of the tombs.

Right from the start, tomb-robbing was a problem for the authorities.

Right from the start, tomb-robbing was a problem for the authorities. Carter describes in some detail the generally unsuccessful attempts to deter or prevent such thefts. Even the tombs that were discovered (or rediscovered) by 19th century archaeologists were found to have been plundered. By the time the 17-year-old Carter arrived in Egypt in 1890 (to work for the great British archaeologist Flinders Petrie), the Valley had been fairly well explored. But many tombs were still to be discovered in the following two decades of intensive excavation by European and American searchers. One of the most active was the US archaeologist, Theodore Davis, who was granted the concession to dig in the Valley in 1902. In the following 12 years, he discovered many tombs, but none unplundered. By 1914, Davis was convinced that the Valley had little left to offer, a view which was almost universally shared by the archaeological community – but not by Carter, who had a strong belief that the tomb of Tutankhamun was still to be found and that it might be located on the Valley floor hidden under the thousands of tons of rubble deposited there from the building of the tombs of the 20th Dynasty.

The Partnership Which Made It Possible

Without Carter’s experience, knowledge, stubborn determination and intuition, it is quite possible that his great discovery might never have been made. Equally, it could not have occurred without finance and in this case that meant the wealth of the fifth Lord Carnarvon, who had first visited Egypt in the winter of 1903 for the sake of his health and immediately become fascinated by the idea of ‘digging’.

Very much an amateur, and clearly needing help, Lord Carnarvon was introduced to Carter by the director of the Department of Antiquities. Thus began the 16-year association between the two men, during which Carter made a number of smallish discoveries, allowing Carnarvon to add to his collection of Egyptian antiquities, which he established in 1907. Having secured the concession to dig in the Valley in 1914, serious work did not start until the autumn of 1917 – but during the next five years, the removal of thousands of tons of rubble from the Valley floor revealed almost nothing underneath.

Carnarvon became disillusioned and his ‘tangible net worth’ had suffered from the impact of the war. Carter, however, managed to persuade him to fund one more season of digging. Thus it was that Carter returned to Luxor in late October 2022, in order to restart the excavations. By 1 November, he had recruited his team of diggers who were instructed to remove the remains of the ancient workmen’s huts that had been found at the end of the previous season.

Tutankhamun Tomb

The three feet of soil below the huts was removed, revealing the first of 16 steps cut into the bedrock, leading to a sealed masonry door, beyond which a short passage led to the almost undisturbed tomb of Tutankhamun, consisting of four chambers piled high with unimaginable treasures. The ‘almost’ refers to the fact that ancient tomb robbers had managed to enter the tomb and remove a relatively small number of items. But it seems that they were interrupted in their work. The holes they had made in the doors were blocked up and resealed, and the entrance steps were effectively hidden with the excavated stone from the building of the tomb of Ramesses V just a few metres above them.

The Third (Innermost) Coffin – 110 kg of Solid Gold

Space allows us only the briefest description of what Carter found in the most important of the four chambers, the one containing the king’s mummy. Rather in the style of a set of Matryoshka dolls, the mummy was contained within no fewer than eight nested structures. From outermost to innermost, these consisted of four shrines (wooden boxes with hinged doors, each covered with elaborately decorated gold sheet); then a monolithic quartzite sarcophagus (with a massive granite lid weighing more than a ton and a quarter); followed by three coffins, each in the form of the young king. The two outer coffins were made of wood and covered with decorated gold, but the third, amazingly, was of solid gold, weighing just over 110 kg. Inside, Carter found Tutankhamun’s mummy and the now iconic death mask.

Rather in the style of a set of Matryoshka dolls, the mummy was contained within no fewer than eight nested structures.

Stewart Murray

By Stewart Murray
LBMA CEO (September 1999 - December 2013)