Tutankhamun: 100 Years Since Carter’s Wonderful Discovery

By Donna K. Keesling

When British archaeologist Howard Carter declared that he saw “wonderful things” when he peeked into the tomb of Tutankhamun, little did he know that one hundred years later people would still exclaim about the wonders that were brought out of the boy king’s tomb.

Howard Carter was born in Kensington, England in 1874. He learned to draw and paint from his father. His skills enabled him to secure a position with the Egypt Exploration Fund at the age of seventeen. He began working at the Middle Kingdom tombs in Beni Hasan in 1891. He learned about field archaeology and excavation from the British Egyptologist Flinders Petrie and was appointed as Chief Inspector of Antiquities for Upper Egypt at the age of twenty-five. In 1908, he was introduced to the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and began supervising Lord Carnarvon’s sponsored excavations. Lord Carnarvon and Carter believed that Tutankhamun’s tomb had not yet been found, so Carter continued searching for it in the Valley of the Kings year-after-year.

The Valley of the Kings, just west of the Nile River in Upper Egypt, was part of the ancient city of Thebes. There are sixty-three known tombs in the valley – burial sites of most of the kings of the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties (known as the New Kingdom) who lived between 1539 and 1075 BCE. Many of the tombs were robbed during the New Kingdom. Almost all the tombs were cleared out during the 21st dynasty to protect the royal mummies and enhance the royal treasury with the valuable funerary objects.[1] Tutankhamun’s tomb, located on the floor of the valley, was protected by a pile of rock chippings, and remained mostly undisturbed until 1922.

In early November 1922, Carter was working in an undisturbed area of land near the tomb of Ramesses VI. On this ground were the remains of stone huts that had been inhabited by the workers who built the tombs. The huts were dismantled so that Carter’s team could excavate down to bedrock. One of the men discovered what appeared to be a step that had been cut into the floor of the valley. The men continued to clear the area, discovering a total of twelve steps and the upper part of a door with the royal necropolis seal – depicting captives on their knees and Annubis, the jackal god of the dead – still intact. Carter notified Lord Carnarvon by telegram of his “wonderful discovery” and waited for him to return to Egypt before opening the tomb.[2]

The tomb is made of four separate rooms. Behind the door at the bottom of the stairs lies a corridor that is 25 feet long and 5 ½  feet wide. At the end of the corridor is the entrance to the room known as the Antechamber. The Antechamber, 26 feet wide by 11 ½ feet deep, was filled with tomb furniture. An opening in the west wall of the Antechamber leads to a room that is 14 feet by 18 ½ feet. Also filled with furniture, it was dubbed the Annex by Carter. The Burial Chamber, 21 feet long and 13 ½ feet wide is accessed through the north wall of the Antechamber. Within the Burial Chamber were four shrines, the sarcophagus containing three nested coffins, and the mummy of Tutankhamun. The last room, called the Treasury, housed the shrine that contained the king’s internal organs.[3]

Carter initiated a project that would take ten years to complete – documenting, conserving, and removing close to 6000 items from Tutankhamun’s tomb. The excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun was captured in photographs by the renowned archeological photographer, Harry Burton. His services were volunteered by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Burton photographed the objects as they appeared in the tomb, and again after they had been cleaned and repaired. A set of his prints and negatives is in the archives of the Metropolitan Museum and another set is with the Griffith Institute at The University of Oxford in England.[4] The photographs were on display at the museum in an exhibit in 2006 and were featured in the exhibit catalogue titled Tutankhamun’s Tomb: The Thrill of Discovery.

By international convention, all the artifacts exhumed from the Tutankhamun tomb are considered property of the Egyptian government. Until recently, the artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb were stored and displayed at The Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Objects on display in the second floor galleries included the golden funerary mask, the second and inner sarcophaguses, the canopic coffins, and the throne. Many of the artifacts have been transferred to a new museum called the Grand Museum of Egypt (GEM) near the Pyramids of Giza. Construction on this museum began in 2005 but was interrupted in 2011. It is expected to open in 2023.

The first United States exhibition of artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb took place in 1961. The exhibit titled Tutankhamun Treasures, featuring 31 small pieces, toured seventeen cities, and was installed at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. In 1972, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the discovery by Carter, an exhibition titled Treasures of Tutankhamun opened at the British Museum in London. It was on view for nine months and featured fifty objects. Treasures of Tutankhamun opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1976 featuring fifty-five artifacts in celebration of the 55th anniversary of the discovery. The exhibit toured seven North American cities. The most recent touring exhibit, Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, opened in 2018. The exhibit, featuring 160 artifacts, was forced to close and cancel all remaining tour stops due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.[5]

Now the treasures from Tutankhamun’s tomb are back in Egypt. The GEM intends to display – for the first time since the discovery by Carter – the complete Tutankhamun collection. All 5,000 items from the young king’s tomb will be on view. The GEM plans to showcase the objects in a realistic manner that will enable visitors to experience the inside of the original tomb just as it was.[6]

[1] P.F. Dorman and Margaret Stefana Drower, “Valley of the Kings,” Encyclopedia Britannica, September 29, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/place/Valley-of-the-Kings.

[2] Oxford University Press, “The Discovery of Tutankhamun’s Tomb,” World History Encyclopedia, last modified October 17, 2022, https://www.worldhistory.org/article/2063/the-discovery-of-tutankhamuns-tomb/.

[3] Susan J. Allen and Harry Burton, Tutankhamun’s Tomb: The Thrill of Discovery. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006, 10-11.

[4] Allen, 6.

[5] Christina Riggs, Treasured: How Tutankhamun Shaped a Century (New York: Public Affairs, 2021), 354.

[6] Allison Keyes, “For the First Time, All 5,000 Objects Found Inside King Tut’s Tomb Will Be Displayed Together,” Smithsonian Magazine, December 21, 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/grand-egyptian-museum-next-big-thing-180961333/.