Into the Tomb
Archeologist Howard Carter unlocks the secrets of King Tut in the Valley of the Kings
When walking through Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, take a moment to think of the Egyptian boy who found a slab of limestone while digging a space in the sand for the water jars he was carrying. His ordinary task led explorer and archeologist Howard Carter to King Tut’s tomb, an extraordinary discovery that had been many years in the making. Almost ninety years later, the artifacts are just as stunning as they were in November 1922.
The English-born Carter was raised with an appreciation of art by his father Samuel John Carter, an artist. The thrill of Egyptology came at the hands of fellow Englishmen Percy Newberry, who took him under his wing. Carter applied his art skills to designing a new protocol for copying tomb art, a skill epigraphers still use today.
It wasn’t until 1907 when Carter’s quest for Tutankhamun’s tomb took flight. He partnered with Lord Carnarvon, a wealthy British earl also interested in finding the tomb. After five years of searching, Lord Carnarvon became discouraged by the lack of progress, not to mention the expense, but at Carter’s insistence, he relented and in 1922, gave the green light for continued exploration.
Exhibition curator & University of Penn David Silverman says Carter’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb was no accident. In fact, Carter’s search methods in the Valley of the Kings were spot-on and sensible.
“He had laid out a systematic plan for excavation before he began, leaving the least likely locations at the end of the list. When all of the more likely areas of interest had proved unfruitful, Carter had to tackle what he had at the end of the list,” Silverman says.
That unlikely end led him near the floor of the Valley, which was covered with ancient huts of workmen. Carter and his crew would go on to remove the mud, brick structures which would reveal the first step of the 16 leading to the entrance of the young king's tomb. The location was surprising as well, because it was an unlikely place for a royal burial of the 18th dynasty.
In a time when information is instantaneous and people can virtually be anywhere thanks to technology, it’s hard to imagine how agonizing it must have been for Carter to wait until Lord Carnarvon arrived from England to the Egyptian site. Carter’s excitement was evident in a telegram he sent to Carnarvon that read, “At last have made wonderful discovery in the Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; recovered same for your arrival; congratulations.”
It was late November 1922, when Carter had his first taste of what laid beyond the stone. Once the stairs were cleared and the name of Tutankhamun was discovered on the lower part of the blocking sealing the doorway, it confirmed Carter’s hunch. Silverman says Carter’s thoughts on the tomb location are still very important, even today.
“Unlike other royal burials that were discovered in Egypt, this one was the most intact and it had the potential of solving mysteries that existed about exactly what happened toward the end of the 18th Dynasty,” Silverman says.
The unique treasures are gifts that keep giving, explaining the past in wondrous detail.
“Today, the mummy and its treasures are still providing answers to our questions, the most recent of which were the answers regarding his parentage, his health, and the possible reasons for his early death, all deriving from DNA, CT scans and other analyses,” Silverman says.
Carter was quoted as saying he saw wonderful things, as he peeked into the tomb. Dismantled chariots, ritual couches and pieces of furniture littered the Antechamber of the tomb. Carter and his team cleared it and proceeded deeper into the tomb, which yielded jewelry, model boats and other treasures.
The road to King Tut’s tomb certainly wasn’t paved in gold. Silverman says before the discovery Carter had to face competition for government concessions to work in the area he wanted from several other archaeological teams from different countries. And he didn’t really have the opportunity to bask in the glow of his discovery either.
“Once the discovery was made, he had to deal with the deluge of the press and then the onslaught of tourists,” Silverman says. His meticulous drawings and writings are still praised today and considered invaluable by scientists. Silverman says it was no small feat to accomplish.
“He also had the Herculean task of overseeing the recording, photographing, conserving, preparing, wrapping, and transporting of all of the more than 5,000 artifacts back to Cairo. He also needed time to interpret the material and then publish the results of his finds,” Silverman says.
Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs gives modern-day explorers a glimpse into the past, at times transporting them back to the Valley of the Kings and all the great treasures buried there.