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On This Day: Tutankhamun’s tomb unsealed

Updated: Feb 17

February 16th, 1923: One hundred years ago today Egyptologist Howard Carter unseals Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Despite the builders’ best efforts most of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were robbed of their treasures. The only one to remain untouched was that of boy king Tutankhamun, the seemingly unremarkable 11th Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, who was made famous by the discovery of his intact tomb (KV 62) by the British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922.

Who found the tomb? There is a very interesting photograph, one of hundreds taken at the time, of an Egyptian boy aged between 9 and 12 and wearing a plain white linen jalabeya (right). Around his neck is a lavish and spectacular pectoral necklace featuring scarab beetles carved from lapis lazuli. Why would such an important piece of jewellery have been given to this boy to model? The answer, omitted from Carter’s official dig account may be that the boy, Hussein Abdel Rassul, had discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Young Hussein was employed by Carter as a water boy, responsible for bringing water by donkey from the Nile to the dig site in the Valley of the Kings. The water jars had pointed bases so shallow holes had to be dug in the ground to stop them toppling over. It was while digging such a hole, on the early morning of November 4th, 1922, that the boy, revealed a stone step in the floor of the valley. Over the next two days clearance revealed Hussein’s discovery to be the top of a flight of descending steps cut into the bedrock that ended at a rubble wall blocking further access.

Telegram This was the moment for which Carter and his aristocratic patron, Lord Carnarvon, had been working toward for 15 long years in the heat and dust. Carter immediately sent a telegram to Carnarvon, who was 2,500 miles away in Highclere Castle (‘Downton Abbey’) his stately home in Berkshire in the South of England.

‘At last have made wonderful discovery in valley. A magnificent tomb with seals intact. Re-covered same for your arrival. Congratulations.’

When Carnarvon arrived in Luxor on November 23rd, he and Carter looked on anxiously as the rubble wall was cleared revealing a plastered doorway. The doorway was stamped with indistinct cartouches (oval seals with hieroglyphic writing). As Carter wrote:

‘On the lower part, the seal impressions were much clearer, and we were able to make out on several of them the name of Tut-ankh-amun.’

In due course the blocked doorway was dismantled only to reveal a sloping tunnel filled from floor to ceiling with limestone chippings. As workmen struggled in the confined space to clear the tunnel, they encountered a second doorway likewise covered with seals naming Tutankhamun.

The tomb unsealed At four o’clock on the afternoon of November 26th, 1922, with Lord Carnarvon, his daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert, and others in attendance, Carter made a ‘tiny breach in the top left-hand corner’ of the doorway using a chisel his grandmother had given him for his 17th birthday. Carter peered in by the light of a candle and saw that many of the gold and ebony treasures were still in place. He did not yet know whether it was ‘a tomb or merely a cache’, but he did see a promising sealed doorway between two sentinel statues. Lord Carnarvon asked, ‘Can you see anything?’ Carter replied with the famous words: ‘Yes, wonderful things.’ Carter had discovered the antechamber to a forgotten tomb.

Treasures The next several months were spent cataloguing the contents of the antechamber so, it was not until February 16th, 1923 that Carter broke the seal on the doorway to the actual tomb. Inside he found a burial chamber, and Carter got his first glimpse of the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun. The tomb was considered the best preserved and most intact pharaonic tomb ever found in the Valley of the Kings. It was also the last tomb in the valley to be found.

Tutankhamun‘s burial chamber contained weapons, furniture, jewellery and model boats, as well as the king’s famous coffins and mask. Many of these items were made of solid gold or were richly decorated with gold leaf. The king was buried with his two still-born daughters and a lock of his grandmother’s hair.

Carter’s painstaking cataloguing of the thousands of objects in the tomb continued until 1932, most being moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Tutankhamun’s life (and death)

Tutankhamun (c. 1341 BC to 1323 BC), sometimes referred to as ‘King Tut’, was an Egyptian pharaoh and the last of his royal family to rule during the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty during the New Kingdom of Egyptian history. His father is believed to be the pharaoh Akhenaten commonly known as the 'heretic king' because he replaced the traditional cult of the god 'Amun' with the solar deity 'Aten' to assert his authority as pharaoh in a new way.

Parents Originally known as Tutankhaten, the prince’s parentage remains uncertain. An inscription from Hermopolis refers to ‘Tutankhuaten’ as a ‘king's son’ in a style reminiscent of how Akhenaten’s daughters were also described. Medical analysis of Tutankhaten’s remains have revealed he shares very close physical characteristics with the mummy discovered in tomb KV 55 in the Valley of the Kings. Some scholars identify these remains as those of Smenkhkare, who seems to have been coregent with Akhenaten in the final years of his reign, while others have suggested the mummy may be Akhenaten himself. His mother is his father's sister as identified through DNA testing of an unknown mummy referred to as ‘The Younger Lady’ found in KV 35.

It is widely accepted that Tutankhamun ascended to the throne in 1332 BC [1] at the age of eight or nine following the death of Akhenaten’s coregent, Smenkhkare. Shortly after his coronation, Tutankhamun married his paternal half-sister Ankhesenpaaton, Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s third daughter and (probably) the eldest surviving princess of the royal family. During their marriage the couple lost two daughters, one at 5 to 6 months of pregnancy and the other shortly after birth at full-term.

Restoration According to the most important document of Tutankhamun's reign, the Restoration Stele, his father's supposed reforms had left the country in a bad state. The traditional gods, seeing their temples in ruins and their cults abolished, had abandoned Egypt to chaos so, in his third year as king, Tutankhamun reversed several changes made during his father's reign. His administration began restoring old monuments damaged during the previous Amarna period and restored the old religion endowing the priestly orders of two important cults. Tutankhamun reburied his father's remains in the Valley of the Kings and relocated the capital from Akhetaten back to Thebes, the capital of the ancient Egyptian empire at its heyday. He changed his name from Tutankhaten - 'living image of Aten’ [the sun god] - to Tutankhamun, in honour of Amun. His queen, Ankhesenpaaten also changed the name on her throne to read Ankhesenamun. A temple dedicated to Amun was built at Karnak in Thebes as part of this restoration.

Discovery The discovery of Tutankhamun's mummy revealed that he was about 19 when he died. There are no surviving records of Tutankhamun's final days. What caused his death has been the subject of considerable debate. Major studies have been conducted to establish the cause, but although some believe Tutankhamun was assassinated, the consensus is that his death was accidental possibly resulting from an injury received while hunting. We do know from analysis of his mummy that Tutankhamun was physically disabled with a deformity of his left foot along with bone necrosis that required the use of a cane, several of which were found in his tomb. He had other health issues including scoliosis and had contracted several strains of malaria.

Tutankhamun was buried in a tomb that was unusually small considering his status. This may be good evidence that his death may have occurred unexpectedly and before the completion of a grander royal tomb. It is thus thought his mummy was buried in a tomb intended for someone else. Regardless, the tomb was robbed at least twice in antiquity but based on the items taken (including perishable oils and perfumes) and the evidence of restoration of the tomb after the intrusions, it seems clear that these robberies took place within several months (at most) of the initial burial.

Eventually, the location of the tomb was lost because it had come to be buried by limestone chippings from later tombs, either dumped there or washed there by floods. In the years that followed, some huts for workers were built over the tomb entrance, clearly without anyone knowing what lay beneath. When at the end of the 20th Dynasty the Valley of the Kings burial sites were systematically dismantled, Tutankhamun's tomb was overlooked, presumably because knowledge of it had been lost, and his name may have been forgotten. He lay undisturbed for 3,245 years until in 1922 a water boy made an unexpected discovery.

‘Pharaoh’s Curse!’

We know the ancient Egyptians believed in magic and the use of spells. We also now know the ancient Egyptians, especially pharaohs, were desperate to preserve their bodies and their souls for the afterlife. For a pharaoh buried with all that tempting treasure, they would hardly want their tombs raided and robbed, risking damage or destruction to their mummy. In some tombs, therefore, curses have been found - spells believed by some to be cast upon any person who disturbs the mummy of an ancient Egyptian, especially a pharaoh. One such curse reads:

‘Cursed be those who disturb the rest of a Pharaoh. They that shall break the seal of this tomb shall meet death by a disease that no doctor can diagnose.’

The ‘curse of the pharaohs’, which seemingly does not differentiate between thieves and archaeologists, is alleged to cause bad luck, illness or death. For many years, rumours of a ‘curse’ (probably fuelled by newspapers seeking sales at the time of Carter’s discovery) persisted. Stories emphasized the early demise of some of those who had entered the tomb. Those deaths popularly, but in all cases tenuously, attributed to Tutankhamun's ‘curse’ include:

  • The first of the mysterious deaths was that of Lord Carnarvon, patron and financial backer of the excavation team who was present at the tomb's opening. Pictured on the left with Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon had been bitten by a mosquito while in Egypt. The bite became infected when he accidentally cut it while shaving resulting in the sepsis (blood poisoning) that killed him. Two weeks before Carnarvon died, Marie Corelli wrote an imaginative letter that was published in the New York World magazine in which she quoted an obscure book that confidently asserted that ‘dire punishment’ would follow any intrusion into a sealed tomb. A media frenzy followed, with reports that a curse had been found in the King's tomb, though this was untrue. Lord Carnarvon died on April 5th, 1923 some four months and seven days after the opening of the tomb.

  • George Jay Gould I, a visitor to the tomb, died in the French Riviera on May 16th, 1923 after he developed a fever following his visit.

  • Prince Ali Kamel Fahmy Bey of Egypt died July 10th, 1923, but he was shot dead by his wife.

  • Colonel The Hon. Aubrey Herbert MP, Lord Carnarvon's half-brother, became nearly blind and died on September 26th, 1923 from blood poisoning related to a dental procedure intended to restore his eyesight.

  • Sir Archibald Douglas-Reid, a radiologist who x-rayed Tutankhamun's mummy, died on January 15th, 1924 from a mysterious illness.

  • Sir Lee Stack, Governor-General of Sudan, died on November 19th, 1924 when assassinated while driving through Cairo.

  • C. Mace, a member of Carter's excavation team, died in 1928 from arsenic poisoning.

  • The Hon. Mervyn Herbert, Lord Carnarvon's other half-brother and the aforementioned Aubrey Herbert's full brother, died on May 26th, 1929 reportedly from ‘malarial pneumonia’.

  • Captain The Hon. Richard Bethell, Carter's personal secretary, died on November 15th, 1929 after being found eating poison in his bed.

  • Richard Luttrell Pilkington Bethell, 3rd Baron Westbury, father of the above, died on February 20th, 1930 when he supposedly threw himself off his seventh-floor apartment.

  • Howard Carter, who had opened the burial chamber on February 16th, 1923, died well over a decade later on March 2nd, 1939. Despite no evidence whatsoever, some still attribute his death to the ‘curse’.



1. Ruled c. 1332 BC to 1323 BC in the conventional chronology.


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