How the Ancient Discovery of King Tut's Tomb Changed the World
Updated: Nov 7
November 2022 marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of King Tut, and his tomb's secrets are still unraveling.
Tutankhamun is famous for his solid gold mask and intact tomb.
But what secrets lay beyond the boy king's golden mask?
He was just nineteen years old when he died, and his tomb may have been for someone else.
How did the groundbreaking discovery happen?
On November 1, 1922, Howard Carter led a British team to excavate the Valley of the Kings, Luxor.
On November 4, his team discovered the first step of a staircase, and one day later, they exposed an entire staircase.
At the end of the stairs, the team found a sealed doorway inscribed with the name: Tutankhamun.
Carter cut a small hole in the door, but he could only see rubble.
By November 26, the team reached yet another sealed doorway.
The opening of this seal is arguably one of the most famous events in Egyptian history.
With trembling hands, Carter describes how he made a small hole in the upper left-hand corner.
He lit a candle and pushed it through the hole.
As his eyes adjusted to the light, his life's obsession appeared. His colleagues begged, "Can you see anything?"
With eyes gleaming, he then spoke the famous words, "Yes, wonderful things. Gold—everywhere the glint of gold."
British Egyptologist Howard Carter was the first to see the tomb of the Egyptian king in over 3000 years.
Never before seen objects unique to ancient Egypt
Carter had discovered the antechamber, the store room before the tomb. It contained never before seen objects unique to ancient Egypt.
The team located two patched-up doorways that were breached by ancient grave robbers.
One exit led to a chamber filled with miscellaneous treasure, and the other was resealed in antiquity.
Tutankhamun's name was inscribed on many objects, indicating that this was his original burial.
The tomb room contained a massive gilded shrine protecting the sarcophagus & mummy and a smaller one for the canopic jars containing the king's internal organs (below.)
Personal items discovered include a golden throne chair, jewelry, a lock of hair from his grandmother, Queen Tiye, an ostrich feather fan, and, sadly, the mummified remains of two stillborn babies thought to be his daughters.
Was Tut's tomb opened in secret?
We don't know if the team broke the rules by entering the chamber before informing the Ministry of Antiquities.
We know that the team resealed the hole, and the original opening of the seal was a secret amongst Egyptologists.
Nearly one month later, the tomb was reopened, and the process of documentation and preservation began.
4 Facts about King Tut's famous gold mask
It's solid gold
It weighs 11 KG (22.5 lbs)
Tut's face and the gold mask were glued to the coffin. Carter used heated knives to melt the resin holding Tutankhamun's head inside the mask and later hung the coffin upside down over paraffin lamps to free the mask itself.
How did the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb change archaeology?
In 1822, Jean-François Champollion deciphered the hieroglyphs and marked scientific Egyptology's beginning.
Near the end of the 18th century, Napoleon Bonaparte's campaign documented Egypt's ancient sites for all the world to see.
With the description of Egypt's ancient wonders, a wave of Egyptomania hit Europe.
Upon Tutankhamun's discovery, Egyptology expanded profoundly.
The ancient curse of Tutankhamun
Soon after Tut's tomb was discovered, rumors swirled that whoever entered the tomb would be unceremoniously dispatched - plainly put: die or suffer an incurable fate.
The curse of Tutankhamun is said to have killed one of the first people to enter the tomb, Carter's financial backer, Lord Carnarvon.
Adding fuel to the fire, a series of seemingly suspicious deaths ensued.
Rumors aside, the public thirst for all things Egypt continued to grow.
Was Tutankhamun's tomb meant for someone else?
Tutankhamun's tomb is small and underwhelming compared to other pharaohs.
Initially, archaeologists thought he died suddenly, and they didn't have time to finish his tomb.
Some research suggests that behind Tutankhamun's tomb is the burial chamber of Queen Nefertiti, his stepmother.
The great queen's tomb has never been found.
In 2015, an Egyptologist argued that high-resolution images of the tomb showed lines underneath the surface of the painted walls alluding to a larger tomb.
Recent discoveries of hidden hieroglyphics give weight to the theory that it may be the tomb of Queen Nefertiti.
Researchers argue the scans are inconclusive. Is the tomb of Tutankhamun the outer part of a larger tomb meant for Queen Nefertiti?
We may never know.
Tutankhamun, the king behind the golden mask
Five thousand objects were discovered in Tutankhamun's tomb, and it took almost ten years to complete the excavation.
Howard carter wasn't an archaeologist but simply a man with a mission.
Crowned at the young age of 9, discovering the boy king's tomb changed the face of archaeology and Egyptian history.
Through Tutankhamun, we have a miraculous snapshot into the mysterious life of ancient royals.
His story provides a tangible connection to one of the greatest civilizations in the world and brings us closer to the humanity of ancient Egyptians.
Where is King Tut now?
The boy king's mummy rests in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings until he's transferred to the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
A century later, the tomb of the most famous pharaoh still contains unsolved mysteries.
Tourists from around the globe travel to Egypt to get a glimpse of the tomb that changed the world.
With Tutankhamun exhibitions worldwide, Tutmainia is alive and well.
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*All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
Thank you, to guest collaborator Anna Sunneborn Gudnadottir, of MENAM Archaeology.
Text & Editing by Anna Sunneborn Gudnadottir and Wendy Bradfield.
Reeves, Nicholas C.; Wilkinson, Richard H. (1995). The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, the Tomb, the Royal Treasure. Thames & Hudson.