In 1914, Howard Carter, an English Egyptologist, along with his friend and benefactor Lord Carnarvon, began his search for the tomb of the famous Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, beneath the Valley of the Kings. He worked for seven years without success, but in November 1922, during the last season of excavations, Carter’s Egyptian workforce discovered steps in the sand leading down to a sealed door. Working slowly, Carter broke through the sealed door, and found a rubble filled passageway. Once the debris had been cleared, Carter and his team noticed that the passageway led to another sealed door. This new door, though, was marked with impressions of Tutankhamun.
Howard Carter was convinced he’d found the king’s tomb, and on November 26th, he and Lord Carnarvon worked to free the second sealed door. Carter described that day as, “the day of days, the most wonderful that I have ever lived through.”
Conscious that the inside of the tomb may have been fitted with traps, Carter and his men worked slowly. When at last he made the door open, then, he opened it only a tiny fraction, and thrust a candle inside the darkness beyond. It was soon clear that this second space hadn’t been filled with stones, but was filled with strange animal statues, and more gold than he could ever have imagined. Carter records that he was “struck dumb with amazement.”
It took the archaeologist almost three months to catalogue the magnificent treasures found in that room, and in the antechamber attached to it. It wasn’t until February 16th 1923 that Carter was ready to open a fourth door seal that had been discovered on the other side of the chamber. Carter was convinced that the Pharaoh’s final resting place lay beyond this door, and such was his excitement, that he made a hole in the door to peer through before the seal was finally opened. When he looked inside Carter saw a solid wall of gold. He had indeed found the burial-chamber and sarcophagus.
The sepulchral chamber they had found was an enormous gilt structure (17 feet by 11 feet, and 9 feet high), which was overlaid with gold from top to bottom. Around the shrine, resting upon the ground, there were hundreds 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. The walls of the chamber, unlike those of the Antechamber, were decorated in brilliant colours.
The stuff of legend, the opening of King Tutankhamun’s tomb was one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time. And Howard Carter’s perseverance and belief had made it happen.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.