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EgyptRevealed.com -- Discovering the Tomb of Tutankhamun

by Nicholas Reeves

"Slowly, desperately slowly it seemed to us as we watched, the remains of the passage debris that encumbered the lower part of the doorway were removed, until at last we had the whole door clear before us. The decisive moment had arrived."

- [The Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amen, vol. I, by Howard Carter and Arthur C. Mace (London, 1923), pp. 95-96]

On November 4, 1922, Howard Carter and his sponsor, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, made a discovery in Egypt's Valley of the Kings that would change the face of archaeology forever. The two Englishmen had, for the first time in recorded history, stumbled upon the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh the boy-king Tutankhamun, son and successor of the heretic Akhenaten. The grave was piled high with magnificent treasures and gold.

The popular perception of Egyptology changed overnight. No longer the province of dusty academics, it was now seen as high-stakes adventure. Without the excitement of Tutankhamun, Indiana Jones would never have been born.

"With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left-hand corner. Darkness, and blank space, as far as the 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."

The story of the find reads like a fairy tale: Carter dug fruitlessly for years in pursuit of an impossible dream. Then, in his final season, he found the tomb he had been seeking for so long. The discovery's impact exploded around the world and turned its discoverers into celebrities overnight. But with the unexpected death of Lord Carnarvon the supposed victim of an apocryphal "pharaoh's curse" the triumph turned sour.

Against a background of jealousy, greed and nascent revolution, the situation in Egypt spiraled downward, out of control. It would result in an end to the generous, 50-50 division of artifacts upon which archaeological work in Egypt had for long years been based.

"At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle 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."

Later research showed Tutankhamun died unexpectedly in 1323 B.C., probably from a blow to the head and perhaps at the hands of an assassin. His burial, within a small, adapted private tomb, had been hastily assembled by his successor, the "god's father" Ay, who did the boy proud. Three of the tomb's four chambers were laden with ritual paraphernalia intended to see Tutankhamun safely into the next life.

Only gradually did it sink in that these rooms had actually been plundered in antiquity, on two separate occasions, by grave robbers. But in the fourth chamber, within a series of four huge, gilded shrines, a beautiful quartz-and-sandstone sarcophagus, and a nest of three magnificent coffins (the innermost of solid gold), lay the royal mummy itself. Eaten away by the very unguents intended to foil the corruption of time, the body was crowned by a sublime gold portrait mask and smothered with layer upon layer of precious jewelry and amulets.

"For the moment an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by I was struck dumb with amazement."

Despite his riches, Tutankhamun had in life been a relatively insignificant king, too young to impose his personality on his kingdom and forgotten by those who came after. But Tutankhamun became, 3,000 years after his death, the most famous of the pharaohs. He stands as an icon not only of Egyptology, but of archaeology itself.

"When Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, 'Can you see anything?' it was all I could do to get out the words: 'Yes, wonderful things.'"

NICHOLAS REEVES, Director of the Amarna Royal Tombs Project, Valley of the Kings, continues digging where Carter left off. He is an Honorary Fellow at the Oriental Museum, University of Durham, and Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. He has written extensively on Tutankhamun.








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