On November 26, 1922, British archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter and his financial backer Lord Carnarvon become the first people to enter the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in over 3000 years. Carter became world-famous after discovering the intact tomb (designated KV62) of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh, colloquially known as “King Tut” and “the boy king”. His original name, Tutankhaten, means “Living Image of Aten”, while Tutankhamun means “Living Image of Amun”. In hieroglyphs, the name Tutankhamun was typically written Amen-tut-ankh, because of a scribal custom that placed a divine name at the beginning of a phrase to show appropriate reverence. He is possibly also the Nibhurrereya of the Amarna letters, and likely the 18th dynasty king Rathotis who, according to Manetho, an ancient historian, had reigned for nine years—a figure that conforms with Flavius Josephus’s version of Manetho’s Epitome.
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s nearly intact tomb, funded by Lord Carnarvon, received worldwide press coverage and sparked a renewed public interest in ancient Egypt, for which Tutankhamun’s mask, now in the Egyptian Museum, remains the popular symbol. Exhibits of artifacts from his tomb have toured the world. In February 2010, the results of DNA tests confirmed that he was the son of the mummy found in the tomb KV55, believed by some to be Akhenaten. His mother was his father’s sister and wife, whose name is unknown but whose remains are positively identified as “The Younger Lady” mummy found in KV35. The “mysterious” deaths of a few of those who excavated Tutankhamun’s tomb has been popularly attributed to the curse of the pharaohs.
Howard Carter was born in Kensington on May 9, 1874, the son of Samuel John Carter, an artist, and Martha Joyce Carter (née Sands). His father trained and developed Howard’s artistic talents. Carter spent much of his childhood with relatives in the Norfolk market town of Swaffham, the birthplace of both his parents. Nearby was the mansion of the Amherst family, Didlington Hall, containing a sizable collection of Egyptian antiques, which sparked Carter’s interest in that subject. In 1891, the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF), on the prompting of Mary Cecil, sent Carter to assist an Amherst family friend, Percy Newberry, in the excavation and recording of Middle Kingdom tombs at Beni Hasan.
Although only 17, Carter was innovative in improving the methods of copying tomb decoration. In 1892, he worked under the tutelage of Flinders Petrie for one season at Amarna, the capital founded by the pharaoh Akhenaten. From 1894 to 1899, he worked with Édouard Naville at Deir el-Bahari, where he recorded the wall reliefs in the temple of Hatshepsut.
In 1899, Carter was appointed to the position of Chief Inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Service (EAS). He supervised a number of excavations at Thebes (now known as Luxor). In 1904, he was transferred to the Inspectorate of Lower Egypt. Carter was praised for his improvements in the protection of, and accessibility to, existing excavation sites, and his development of a grid-block system for searching for tombs. The Antiquities Service also provided funding for Carter to head his own excavation projects.
Carter resigned from the Antiquities Service in 1905 after a formal inquiry into what became known as the Saqqara Affair, a noisy confrontation between Egyptian site guards and a group of French tourists. Carter sided with the Egyptian personnel.
In 1907, after three hard years for Carter, Lord Carnarvon employed him to supervise excavations of nobles’ tombs in Deir el-Bahri, near Thebes. Gaston Maspero had recommended Carter to Carnarvon as he knew he would apply modern archaeological methods and systems of recording.
In 1914, Lord Carnarvon received the concession to dig in the Valley of the Kings,Cart er was again employed to lead the work. However excavations and study were soon interrupted by the First World War, Carter spending these war years working for the British Government as a diplomatic courier and translator. He enthusiastically resumed his excavation work towards the end of 1917.
By 1922, Lord Carnarvon had become dissatisfied with the lack of results after several years of finding little. He informed Carter that he had one more season of funding to make a significant find in the Valley of the Kings.
Carter returned to the Valley of Kings, and investigated a line of huts that he had abandoned a few seasons earlier. The crew cleared the huts and rock debris beneath. On November 4, 1922, their young water boy accidentally stumbled on a stone that turned out to be the top of a flight of steps cut into the bedrock. Carter had the steps partially dug out until the top of a mud-plastered doorway was found. The doorway was stamped with indistinct cartouches (oval seals with hieroglyphic writing). Carter ordered the staircase to be refilled, and sent a telegram to Carnarvon, who arrived two-and-a-half weeks later on November 23, along with his 21-year-old daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert.
The excavators cleared the stairway completely, which allowed clearer seals lower down on the door to be read, seals bearing the name of Tutankhamun. However, further examination showed that the door blocking had been breached and resealed on at least two occasions. Clearing the blocking led to a downward corridor that was completely blocked with packed limestone chippings, through which a robbers’ tunnel had been excavated and anciently refilled. At the end of the tunnel was a second sealed door that had been breached and re-sealed in antiquity.
On November 26, 1922, Carter made a “tiny breach in the top left hand corner” of the doorway, with Carnarvon, his daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert, and others in attendance, using a chisel that his grandmother had given him for his 17th birthday. He used a candle to check for foul gases, before looking inside. ‘At first I could see nothing,’ he would later write, ‘the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame 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’.
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. After a pause, Carnarvon asked Carter, “Can you see anything?” Carter famously replied, “Yes, wonderful things!” Carter had, in fact, discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb (subsequently designated KV62).
The end of November saw access to the antechamber and the discovery of the annex, and then the burial chamber and treasury. On November 29, the tomb was opened, and the first announcement and press conference followed the next day. The first item was removed from the tomb on December 27. The next several months were spent cataloguing the contents of the antechamber under the “often stressful” supervision of Pierre Lacau, director general of the Department of Antiquities of Egypt. On February 16, 1923, Carter opened the sealed doorway and found that it did indeed lead to a burial chamber, and he 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, and the discovery was eagerly covered by the world’s press, but most of their representatives were kept in their hotels, much to their annoyance. Only H. V. Morton of The Times was allowed on the scene, and his vivid descriptions helped to cement Carter’s reputation with the British public.
Carter’s own notes and photographic evidence indicate that he, Lord Carnarvon, and Lady Evelyn Herbert entered the burial chamber in November 1922, shortly after the tomb’s discovery and before the official opening.
Towards the end of February 1923 a rift between Lord Carnarvon and Carter, probably caused by a disagreement on how to manage the supervising Egyptian authorities, temporarily closed excavation. Work recommenced in early March after Lord Carnarvon apologised to Carter. Later that month, Lord Carnarvon contracted blood poisoning while staying in Luxor near the tomb site. He died in Cairo on April 5, 1923. Lady Carnarvon retained her late husband’s concession in the Valley of the Kings, allowing Carter to continue his work.
Carter’s painstaking cataloguing of the thousands of objects in the tomb continued until 1932, most being moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. There were a number of breaks in the work, including one lasting nearly a year in 1924-1925, caused by to a dispute over what Carter saw as excessive control of the excavation by the Egyptian Antiquities Service. The Egyptian authorities eventually agreed that Carter should complete the tomb’s clearance.
Despite being involved in the greatest archaeological find of his time, Carter received no honour from the British government. However in 1926, Carter received the Order of the Nile, third class, from King Fuad I of Egypt.
Carter authored a number of books on Egyptology during his career. During those years, he had also been awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Science by Yale University and honorary membership in the Real Academia de la Historia of Madrid, Spain.
Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten (formerly Amenhotep IV) and one of Akhenaten’s sisters, or possibly one of his cousins. As a prince, he was known as Tutankhaten. He ascended to the throne in 1333 BC, at the age of nine or ten, taking the throne name Nebkheperure. His wet nurse was a woman called Maia, known from her tomb at Saqqara. His teacher was most likely Sennedjem.
When he became king, he married his half-sister, Ankhesenpaaten, who later changed her name to Ankhesenamun. They had two daughters, both stillborn. Computed tomography studies released in 2011 revealed that one daughter was born prematurely at 5–6 months of pregnancy and the other at full-term, 9 months. No evidence was found in either mummy of congenital anomalies or an apparent cause of death.
Given his age, the king probably had very powerful advisers, presumably including General Horemheb (Grand Vizier Ay’s possible son in law and successor) and Grand Vizier Ay (who succeeded Tutankhamun). Horemheb records that the king appointed him “lord of the land” as hereditary prince to maintain law. He also noted his ability to calm the young king when his temper flared.
In his third regnal year, under the influence of his advisors, Tutankhamun reversed several changes made during his father’s reign. He ended the worship of the god Aten and restored the god Amun to supremacy. The ban on the cult of Amun was lifted and traditional privileges were restored to its priesthood. The capital was moved back to Thebes and the city of Akhetaten abandoned. This is when he changed his name to Tutankhamun, “Living image of Amun”, reinforcing the restoration of Amun.
As part of his restoration, the king initiated building projects, in particular at Karnak in Thebes, where he dedicated a temple to Amun. Many monuments were erected, and an inscription on his tomb door declares the king had “spent his life in fashioning the images of the gods”. The traditional festivals were now celebrated again, including those related to the Apis Bull, Horemakhet, and Opet. His restoration stela says:
“The temples of the gods and goddesses … were in ruins. Their shrines were deserted and overgrown. Their sanctuaries were as non-existent and their courts were used as roads … the gods turned their backs upon this land … If anyone made a prayer to a god for advice he would never respond.“
The country was economically weak and in turmoil following the reign of Akhenaten. Diplomatic relations with other kingdoms had been neglected, and Tutankhamun sought to restore them, in particular with the Mitanni. Evidence of his success is suggested by the gifts from various countries found in his tomb. Despite his efforts for improved relations, battles with Nubians and Asiatics were recorded in his mortuary temple at Thebes. His tomb contained body armor and folding stools appropriate for military campaigns. However, given his youth and physical disabilities, which seemed to require the use of a cane in order to walk (he died c. age 18), historians speculate that he did not personally take part in these battles.
There are no surviving records of Tutankhamun’s final days. What caused Tutankhamun’s death has been the subject of considerable debate. Major studies have been conducted in an effort to establish the cause of death. There is some evidence, advanced by Harvard microbiologist Ralph Mitchell, that his burial may have been hurried. Mitchell reported that dark brown splotches on the decorated walls of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber suggested that he had been entombed even before the paint had a chance to dry.
Although there is some speculation that Tutankhamun was assassinated, the consensus is that his death was accidental. A CT scan taken in 2005 showed that he had suffered a compound left leg fracture shortly before his death, and that the leg had become infected. DNA analysis conducted in 2010 showed the presence of malaria in his system, leading to the belief that malaria and Köhler disease II combined led to his death.
In June 2010, German scientists said they believed there was evidence that he had died of sickle cell disease. Other experts, however, rejected the hypothesis of homozygous sickle cell disease based on survival beyond the age of 5 and the location of the osteonecrosis, which is characteristic of Freiberg-Kohler syndrome rather than sickle-cell disease. Research conducted in 2005 by archaeologists, radiologists, and geneticists, who performed CT scans on the mummy, found that he was not killed by a blow to the head, as previously thought. New CT images discovered congenital flaws, which are more common among the children of incest. Siblings are more likely to pass on twin copies of deleterious alleles, which is why children of incest more commonly manifest genetic defects. It is suspected he also had a partially cleft palate, another congenital defect.
In late 2013, Egyptologist Dr. Chris Naunton and scientists from the Cranfield Institute performed a “virtual autopsy” of Tutankhamun, revealing a pattern of injuries down one side of his body. Car-crash investigators then created computer simulations of chariot accidents. Naunton concluded that Tutankhamun was killed in a chariot crash: a chariot smashed into him while he was on his knees, shattering his ribs and pelvis. Naunton also referenced Howard Carter’s records of the body having been burnt. Working with anthropologist Dr. Robert Connolly and forensic archaeologist Dr. Matthew Ponting, Naunton produced evidence that Tutankhamun’s body was burnt while sealed inside his coffin. Embalming oils combined with oxygen and linen had caused a chemical reaction, creating temperatures of more than 200 °C. Naunton said, “The charring and possibility that a botched mummification led to the body spontaneously combusting shortly after burial was entirely unexpected.”
A further investigation, in 2014, revealed that it was unlikely he had been killed in a chariot accident. Scans found that all but one of his bone fractures, including those to his skull, had been inflicted after his death. The scans also showed that he had a partially clubbed foot and would have been unable to stand unaided, thus making it unlikely he ever rode in a chariot; this was supported by the presence of many walking sticks among the contents of his tomb. Instead, it is believed that genetic defects arising from his parents being siblings, complications from a broken leg and his suffering from malaria, together caused his death.
Tutankhamun was buried in a tomb that was unusually small considering his status. His death may have occurred unexpectedly, before the completion of a grander royal tomb, so that his mummy was buried in a tomb intended for someone else. This would preserve the observance of the customary 70 days between death and burial.
King Tutankhamun’s mummy still rests in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. On November 4, 2007, 85 years to the day after Carter’s discovery, the 19-year-old pharaoh went on display in his underground tomb at Luxor, when the linen-wrapped mummy was removed from its golden sarcophagus to a climate-controlled glass box. The case was designed to prevent the heightened rate of decomposition caused by the humidity and warmth from tourists visiting the tomb.
His 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 stone chips from subsequent 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’s 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.
5,398 items were found in the tomb, including a solid gold coffin, face mask, thrones, archery bows, trumpets, a lotus chalice, food, wine, sandals, and fresh linen underwear. Howard Carter took 10 years to catalog the items. Recent analysis suggests a dagger recovered from the tomb had an iron blade made from a meteorite; study of artifacts of the time including other artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb could provide valuable insights into metalworking technologies around the Mediterranean at the time.
According to Nicholas Reeves, almost 80% of Tutankhamun’s burial equipment originated from the female pharaoh Neferneferuaten’s funerary goods including his famous gold mask, middle coffin, canopic coffinettes, several of the gilded shrine panels, the shabti-figures, the boxes and chests, the royal jewelry, etc. In 2015, Reeves published evidence showing that an earlier cartouche on Tutankhamun’s famous gold mask read “Ankheperure mery-Neferkheperure” (Ankheperure beloved of Akhenaten); therefore, the mask was originally made for Nefertiti, Akhenaten’s chief queen, who used the royal name Ankheperure when she most likely assumed the throne after her husband’s death.
This development implies that either Neferneferuaten (likely Nefertiti if she assumed the throne after Akhenaten’s death) was deposed in a struggle for power, possibly deprived of a royal burial—and buried as a Queen—or that she was buried with a different set of king’s funerary equipment—possibly Akhenaten’s own funerary equipment by Tutankhamun’s officials since Tutankhamun succeeded her as king. Neferneferuaten was likely succeeded by Tutankhamun based on the presence of her funerary goods in his tomb.
There was strong suspicion in 2015 that in the north wall of Tutankhamun’s tomb chamber was a doorway, blocked and hidden by decorated plaster, leading to another chamber, which was purported to possibly contain a burial of Nefertiti.
For many years, rumors of a “curse of the pharaohs” (probably fueled by newspapers seeking sales at the time of the discovery) persisted, emphasizing the early death of some of those who had entered the tomb. The most prominent was George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon who died on April 5, 1923, 5 months after the discovery of the first step leading down to the tomb on November 4, 1922.
A study of documents and scholarly sources led The Lancet to conclude as unlikely that Carnarvon’s death had anything to do with Tutankhamun’s tomb, whether due to a curse or exposure to toxic fungi (mycotoxins). The cause of Carnarvon’s death was pneumonia supervening on [facial] erysipelas (a streptococcal infection of the skin and underlying soft tissue). Pneumonia was thought to be only one of various complications, arising from the progressively invasive infection, that eventually resulted in multiorgan failure.” The Earl had been “prone to frequent and severe lung infections” according to The Lancet and there had been a “general belief … that one acute attack of bronchitis could have killed him. In such a debilitated state, the Earl’s immune system was easily overwhelmed by erysipelas”.
A study showed that of the 58 people who were present when the tomb and sarcophagus were opened, only eight died within a dozen years. All the others were still alive, including Howard Carter, who died of lymphoma in 1939 at the age of 64. The last survivors included Lady Evelyn Herbert, Lord Carnarvon’s daughter who was among the first people to enter the tomb after its discovery in November 1922, who lived for a further 57 years and died in 1980, and American archaeologist J. O. Kinnaman who died in 1961, 39 years after the event.
If Tutankhamun is the world’s best known pharaoh, it is largely because his tomb is among the best preserved, and his image and associated artifacts the most exhibited. As Jon Manchip White writes, in his foreword to the 1977 edition of Carter’s The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, “The pharaoh who in life was one of the least esteemed of Egypt’s Pharoahs has become in death the most renowned.”
The discoveries in the tomb were prominent news in the 1920s. Tutankhamen came to be called by a modern neologism, “King Tut”. Ancient Egyptian references became common in popular culture, including Tin Pan Alley songs; the most popular of the latter was “Old King Tut” by Harry Von Tilzer from 1923, which was recorded by such prominent artists of the time as Jones & Hare and Sophie Tucker. “King Tut” became the name of products, businesses, and even the pet dog of U.S. President Herbert Hoover.
Relics from Tutankhamun’s tomb are among the most traveled artifacts in the world. They have been to many countries, but probably the best-known exhibition tour was The Treasures of Tutankhamun tour, which ran from 1972 to 1979. This exhibition was first shown in London at the British Museum from March 30 until September 30, 1972. More than 1.6 million visitors saw the exhibition, some queuing for up to eight hours. It was the most popular exhibition in the Museum’s history. The exhibition moved on to many other countries, including the United States, Soviet Union, Japan, France, Canada, and West Germany. The Metropolitan Museum of Art organized the U.S. exhibition, which ran from November 17, 1976, through April 15, 1979. More than eight million attended.
In 2004, the tour of Tutankhamun funerary objects entitled Tutankhamen: The Golden Hereafter, consisting of fifty artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb and seventy funerary goods from other 18th Dynasty tombs, began in Basel, Switzerland, and went on to Bonn, Germany, on the second leg of the tour. This European tour was organized by the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), and the Egyptian Museum in cooperation with the Antikenmuseum Basel and Sammlung Ludwig. Deutsche Telekom sponsored the Bonn exhibition.
In 2005, Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, in partnership with Arts and Exhibitions International and the National Geographic Society, launched a tour of Tutankhamun treasures and other 18th Dynasty funerary objects, this time called Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs. It featured the same exhibits as Tutankhamen: The Golden Hereafter in a slightly different format. It was expected to draw more than three million people.
The exhibition started in Los Angeles, then moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Chicago and Philadelphia. The exhibition then moved to London before finally returning to Egypt in August 2008. An encore of the exhibition in the United States ran at the Dallas Museum of Art from October 2008 to May 2009. The tour continued to other U.S. cities. After Dallas, the exhibition moved to the de Young Museum in San Francisco, followed by the Discovery Times Square Exposition in New York City. In 2011, the exhibition visited Australia for the first time, opening at the Melbourne Museum in April for its only Australian stop before Egypt’s treasures returned to Cairo in December 2011.
The exhibition included 80 exhibits from the reigns of Tutankhamun’s immediate predecessors in the Eighteenth dynasty, such as Hatshepsut, whose trade policies greatly increased the wealth of that dynasty and enabled the lavish wealth of Tutankhamun’s burial artifacts, as well as 50 from Tutankhamun’s tomb. The exhibition does not include the gold mask that was a feature of the 1972–1979 tour, as the Egyptian government has decided that damage which occurred to previous artifacts on tours precludes this one from joining them. A separate exhibition called Tutankhamun and the World of the Pharaohs began at the Ethnological Museum in Vienna from March 9 to September 28, 2008, showing a further 140 treasures. Renamed Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs, the exhibition toured the U.S. and Canada from November 2008 to January 6, 2013.
After the clearance of the tomb had been completed, Carter retired from archaeology and became a part-time agent for collectors and museums, including the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts. In 1924 he toured Britain, as well as France, Spain and the United States, delivering a series of illustrated lectures. Those in New York City and other U.S. cities were attended by large and enthusiastic audiences, sparking American Egyptomania.
Carter died at his London flat at 49 Albert Court, next to the Royal Albert Hall, on March 2, 1939, aged 64 from Hodgkin’s Disease. Few people attended his funeral, one of them was his older brother William who died in the same year. Carter is buried in Putney Vale Cemetery in London. His epitaph reads: “May your spirit live, may you spend millions of years, you who love Thebes, sitting with your face to the north wind, your eyes beholding happiness”, a quotation taken from the Wishing Cup of Tutankhamun, and “O night, spread thy wings over me as the imperishable stars”.
Scott #C205 is an air post stamp released by Egypt on March 1, 1993. The 80-piastre stamp was printed using offset lithography, comb perforated 11½. It depicts the funerary mask of King Tutankhamun.