By August 27, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

Past Perfect: King Tut, I Presume? AO 5:04, Jul-Aug 2002.

TutankhamenWhile excavating in the Valley of the Kings, British archaeologist Howard Carter came face to face with Egyptian royalty

On November 26, 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter (1874–1939) and his patron, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, first glimpsed the dazzling contents of the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun (1336–1327 B.C.). Carter had arrived in Egypt nearly 30 years earlier to take a position with the Egypt Exploration Fund as an artist—a craft he learned from his father, an accomplished animal portraitist. The young man’s talents soon brought him to the attention of the most important Egyptologist of the time (perhaps of all time), the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie, who was then excavating at Tell el-Amarna. In 1899, after a brief but invaluable stint under Petrie’s tutelage, Carter was named Inspector-General of Antiquities for Upper Egypt. All this came crashing down in 1905, however, when he resigned his post rather than apologize for antagonizing a group of drunken French tourists who had harassed his workmen. For the next three years, Carter eked out a living as a commercial watercolorist and tour guide. Then, fortunately, he met Lord Carnarvon, whose interest in collecting antiquities led him to resuscitate Carter’s archaeological career—which culminated in the discovery of Tut’s tomb. When Lord Carnarvon died from a septic mosquito bite in 1923, the press was quick to dub him a victim of the “Pharaoh’s Curse.” Carter, however, was luckier- He spent the next decade cleaning and cataloguing Tut’s treasures before depositing them in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. He then returned to England, where he died in 1939.

This was to be our final season in the valley. Six full seasons we had excavated there, and season after season had drawn a blank; we had worked for months at a stretch and found nothing, and only an excavator knows how desperately depressing that can be; we had almost made up our minds that we were beaten, and were preparing to leave the valley and try our luck elsewhere; and then—hardly had we set hoe to ground in our last despairing effort than we made a discovery that far exceeded our wildest dreams.

Let me try and tell the story of it all … I arrived in Luxor on October 28, and by November 1st I had enrolled my workmen and was ready to begin. Our former excavations had stopped short at the northeast corner of the tomb of Rameses VI, and from this point I started trenching southwards. It will be remembered that in this area there were a number of roughly constructed workmen’s huts, used probably by the labourers in the tomb of Rameses … By the evening of November 3 we had laid bare a sufficient number of these huts for experimental purposes, so after we had planned and noted them, they were removed, and we were ready to clear away the three feet of soil that lay beneath them.

Hardly had I arrived on the work next morning (November 4) than the unusual silence, due to the stoppage of the work, made me realize that something out of the ordinary had happened, and I was greeted by the announcement that a step cut in the rock had been discovered underneath the very first hut to be attacked. This seemed too good to be true, but a short amount of extra clearing revealed the fact that we were actually in the entrance of a steep cut in the rock, some thirteen feet below the entrance to the tomb of Rameses VI, and a similar depth from the present bed level of the valley. The manner of cutting was that of the sunken stairway entrance so common in the valley, and I almost dared to hope that we had found our tomb at last. Work continued feverishly throughout the whole of that day and the morning of the next, but it was not until the afternoon of November 5 that we succeeded in clearing away the masses of rubbish that overlay the cut, and were able to demarcate the upper edges of the stairway on all its four sides.

It was clear by now beyond any question that we actually had before us the entrance to a tomb, but doubts, born of previous disappointments, persisted in creeping in. There was always the horrible possibility, suggested by our experience in the Thothmes [Thutmose] III valley, that the tomb was an unfinished one, never completed and never used- if it had been finished there was the depressing probability that it had been completely plundered in ancient times. On the other hand, there was just the chance of an untouched or only partially plundered tomb, and it was with ill-suppressed excitement that I watched the descending steps of the staircase, as one by one they came to light … Step succeeded step, and at the level of the twelfth, towards sunset, there was disclosed the upper part of a doorway, blocked, plastered, and sealed.

A sealed doorway—it was actually true, then! Our years of patient labour were to be rewarded after all, and I think my first feeling was one of congratulation that my faith in the valley had not been unjustified. With excitement growing to fever heat I searched the seal impressions on the door for evidence of the identity of the owner, but could find no name- the only decipherable ones were those of the well-known royal necropolis seal, the jackal and nine captives. Two facts, however, were clear- first, the employment of this royal seal was certain evidence that the tomb had been constructed for a person of a very high standing; and second, that the sealed door was entirely screened from above by workmen’s huts of the Twentieth Dynasty was sufficiently clear proof that at least from that date it had never been entered …

Once more I examined the seal impression for a clue, but on the part of the door so far laid bare only those of the royal necropolis seal already mentioned were clear enough to read. Had I but known that a few inches lower down there was a perfectly clear and distinct impression of the seal of Tut-ankh-Amen, the king I most desired to find, I would have cleared on, had a much better night’s rest in consequence, and saved myself nearly three weeks of uncertainty. It was late, however, and darkness was already upon us. With some reluctance I reclosed the small hole that I had made, filled in our excavation for protection during the night, selected the most trustworthy of my workmen—themselves almost as excited as I was—to watch all night above the tomb, and so home by moonlight, riding down the valley.

Naturally my wish was to go straight ahead with our clearing to find out the full extent of the discovery, but Lord Carnarvon was in England, and in fairness to him I had to delay matters until he could come. Accordingly, on the morning of November 6 I sent him the following cable- “At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; recovered same for your arrival; congratulations” …

On the 23rd Lord Carnarvon arrived in Luxor with his daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert, his devoted companion in all his Egyptian work, and everything was in hand for the beginning of the second chapter of the discovery of the tomb …

By the afternoon of the 24th the whole staircase was clear, sixteen steps in all, and we were able to make a proper examination of the sealed doorway … Now that the whole door was exposed to light it was possible to discern a fact that had hitherto escaped notice—that there had been two successive openings and reclosings of a part of its surface- furthermore, that the sealing originally discovered, the jackal and nine captives, had been applied to the reclosed portions, whereas the sealings of Tut-ankh-Amen covered the untouched part of the doorway, and were therefore those with which the tomb had been originally secured. The tomb then was not absolutely intact, as we had hoped. Plunderers had entered it, and entered it more than once—from the evidence of the huts above, plunderers of a date not later than the reign of Rameses VI—but that they had not rifled it completely was evident from the fact that it had been resealed …

[November 26] was the day of days, the most wonderful that I have ever lived through, and certainly one whose like I can never hope to see again. Throughout the morning the work of clearing continued, slowly perforce, on account of the delicate objects that were mixed with the filling. Then, in the middle of the afternoon, thirty feet down from the outer door, we came upon a second sealed doorway, almost an exact replica of the first …

Slowly, desperately slowly it seemed to us as we watched, the remains of 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. With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left-hand corner. Darkness and blank space, as far as an 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 … At first I could see nothing, 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 [see photo, above]. For the moment—an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by—I was struck dumb with amazement, and 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.” Then widening the hole a little further, so that we both could see, we inserted an electric torch …

Gradually the scene grew clearer, and we could pick out individual objects. First, right opposite to us—we had been conscious of them all the while, but refused to believe in them—were three great gilt couches, their sides carved in the form of monstrous animals curiously attenuated in body, as they had to be to serve their purpose, but with heads of startling realism. Uncanny beasts enough to look upon at any time; seen as we saw them, their brilliant gilded surfaces picked out of the darkness by our electric torch, as though by limelight, their heads throwing grotesque distorted shadows on the wall behind them, they were almost terrifying. Next, on the right, two statues caught and held our attention- two life-sized figures of a king in black, facing each other like sentinels, gold kilted, gold sandaled, armed with mace and staff, the protective sacred cobra upon their foreheads …

[By the middle of February 1923, Carter’s team had cleared this room, called the antechamber. He then prepared to open another sealed doorway at the northern end of the antechamber. After making a small hole in the doorway, he peered in and saw what appeared to be “a solid wall of gold.”]

With the removal of a very few stones the mystery of the golden wall was solved. We were at the entrance of the actual burial chamber of the king, and that which barred our way was the side of an immense gilt shrine built to cover and protect the sarcophagus … So enormous was this structure (seventeen feet by eleven feet, and nine feet high, we found afterwards) that it filled within a little the entire area of the chamber, a space of some two feet only separating it from the walls on all four sides, while its roof, with cornice top and torus moulding, reached almost to the ceiling. From top to bottom it was overlaid with gold, and upon its sides there were inlaid panels of brilliant blue faience in which were represented, repeated over and over, the magic symbols which would ensure its strength and safety. Around the shrine, resting upon the ground, there were a number of funerary emblems, and, at the north end, the seven magic oars the king would need to ferry himself across the waters of the underworld …

Here a surprise awaited us, for a low door, eastwards from the sepulchral chamber, gave entrance to yet another chamber [see photo, above], smaller than the outer ones and not so lofty. This doorway, unlike the others, had not been closed and sealed. We were able, from where we stood, to get a clear view of the whole of the contents, and a single glance sufficed to tell us that here, within this little chamber, lay the greatest treasure of the tomb. Facing the doorway, on the farther side, stood the most beautiful monument that I have ever seen—so lovely that it made one gasp with wonder and admiration. The central portion of it consisted of a large shrine-shaped chest, completely overlaid with gold, and surmounted by a cornice of sacred cobras. Surrounding this, free-standing, were statues of the four tutelary goddesses of the dead—gracious figures with outstretched protective arms, so natural and lifelike in their pose, so pitiful and compassionate the expression upon their faces, that one felt it almost sacrilege to look at them …

There were a number of other wonderful things in the chamber [later called the “treasury”], but we found it hard to take them in at the time, so inevitably were one’s eyes drawn back again and again to the lovely little goddess figures. Immediately in front of the entrance lay the figure of the jackal god Anubis, upon his shrine, swathed in linen cloth, and resting upon a portable sled, and behind this the head of a bull upon a stand—emblems, these, of the underworld … In the center of the room, left of the Anubis and the bull, there was a row of magnificent caskets of ivory and wood, decorated and inlaid with gold and blue faience, one, whose lid we raised, containing a gorgeous ostrich-feather fan with ivory handle, fresh and strong to all appearance as when it left the maker’s hand. There were also, distributed in different quarters of the chamber, a number of model boats with sails and rigging all complete, and, at the north side, yet another chariot.

How much time we occupied in this first survey of the wonders of the tomb I cannot say, but it must have seemed endless to those anxiously waiting in the antechamber. Not more than three at a time could be admitted with safety … It was curious as we stood in the antechamber, to watch their faces as, one by one, they emerged from the door. Each had a dazed, bewildered look in his eyes, and each in turn, as he came out, threw up his hands before him, and unconscious gesture of impotence to describe in words the wonders that he had seen. It was an experience which, I am sure, none of us who were present is ever likely to forget, for in imagination—and not wholly in imagination either—we had been present at the funeral ceremonies of a king long dead and almost forgotten.

—From Brian Fagan’s Eyewitness to Discovery, Oxford University Press, 1996.

Post a Comment