Tutankhamun tomb discovery is 100 years old

Deutsche Welle

Posted at Nov 04 2022 11:32 PM

EPA-EFE/Stringer
Tourists visit the tomb of King Tutankhamun as Egypt marks the 100th anniversary of its discovery, in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt, Nov. 4, 2022. Egypt is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the 3,000-year-old tomb of the Golden King Tutankhamun that was made on Nov. 4, 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter. EPA-EFE/Stringer

For six years, the archaeologist Howard Carter had dug up the desert sands in the Egypt's so-called Valley of the Kings area in search of the tomb of the famed boy pharaoh Tutankhamunbut to no avail. His financier, the Earl of Carnarvon, had become impatient, and Carter had one last chance to discover the crypt.

Then, a local boy named Hussein Abd el-Rassul, who was bringing water to the workers, hit a stone step under the rubble. Carter later liked to tell the story that the boy had wanted to emulate the archaeologists from Europe and had therefore poked around with a stick. In the process, he said, he hit the stone surface.

'Wonderful things'

From then on, gripped with anticipation, the excavation team did not stop. They uncovered 16 steps in all and also found two seals with Tutankhamun's royal mark. But it wasn't until Lord Carnarvon arrived from England that Carter opened the tomb's antechamber on November 26, 1922, and the real breakthrough happened.

"Can you see anything?" the earl, standing in the dark passage, is said to have asked.

"Yes, wonderful things," Carter answered back.

The men had stumbled upon priceless treasures that no human eye had seen in more than 3,000 years. "We had the impression of looking into the prop room of the opera of a vanished civilization," Carter later described his first impressions. "Details from inside the chamber slowly emerged from the mist — strange animals, statues, gold. Everywhere, the glint of gold."

Hype about the pharaoh

Word of the sensational find spread quickly, triggering worldwide "Egyptomania."

Harry Victor Frederick Winstone, author of "Howard Carter and the Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun," first published in 1991, writes how the discovery prompted architects to create Egyptian-style facades. Handbags, cookie jars and juice bottles bore the unmistakable symbol of the gilded king's mask, Winstone wrote, adding that even Tutankhamun blouses were for sale and that carmaker General Motors touted a vehicle in the shape of a pharaoh.

In the Valley of the Kings itself, onlookers crowded the excavation site. Locals and tourists from all over the world wanted to catch a glimpse of the treasures while possibly grabbing a souvenir. Carter and his team had trouble keeping the people at bay.

Anubis, the god of the dead

For ten years, the British archaeologist and his assistants meticulously cataloged every tomb artifact. Every single piece was photographed and packaged; larger exhibits were transported to the Nile by a small light railroad and loaded onto ships. The most important finds are now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and in Luxor itself.

The most famous of the approximately 5,400 objects found is still the 11-kilogram blue-gold death mask of Tutankhamun himself. Carter found it in the coffin chamber. Enclosed by four shrines of gilded wood, a stone sarcophagus and three mummy-shaped coffins placed one inside the other, was where the embalmed pharaoh lay, in a 225-kilogram coffin of pure gold. The death mask covered his face.

In another treasure lay a statue of the Egyptian god of the dead, Anubis, guarding a shrine containing Tutankhamun's entrails.

Anubis was an ancient Egyptian god of the underworld who guided and protected the spirits of the dead. Anubis is associated with mummification, funerary rituals, and the cemetery in ancient Egyptian myth, and is usually depicted as a black canine, or a man with a canine head.

Family identities

Pharaoh Akhenaten was Tutankhamun's father. Nefertiti Tutankhamun was not his mother though, as was previously thought, after a genetic study conducted on discovered mummies suggested otherwise.

Tutankhamun was the child of a mistress, most likely the sister of his father, identified through DNA testing as an unknown mummy referred to as "the younger lady."

The young pharaoh ascended the throne at the age of eight. At first, he was called Tutankhaton — "living image of Aton" — because at his birth the god Aton was still worshipped. Later, when the priesthood worshipped the god Amun, he changed his name to Tutankhamun.

The child king of the New Kingdom of the 18th Dynasty died in 1323 B.C. at the age of just 18 or 19. Examinations of the mummy indicate that Tutankhamun died in an accident, though this is not known for sure.

Apparently, however, the young pharaoh was quite frail during his lifetime. A team of scientists from Tübingen, Germany, Bolzano in northern Italy, and Cairo found out years ago that he suffered from a severe bone disease and malaria, as well as genetic deformities such as a cleft palate and a club foot.

The curse of the pharaoh

In his lifetime Tutankhamun was not a powerful pharaoh. Today the whole world knows his name. KV62, the scientific name for his tomb (where KV stands for King's Valley), is still a tourist magnet today. Unlike the treasures found within, the sarcophagus with the mummified body of the pharaoh still rests in the burial chamber. On its walls, magnificent paintings illustrate the life and death of Tutankhamun.

To this day, the story of the so-called pharaoh's curse, with which he protected his tomb against intruders, still haunts. Shortly after the chambers were opened, Carter's client Lord Carnarvon died, and other mysterious deaths in the archaeologist's entourage followed. This further fueled media hysteria, even though Carter described the alleged curse as "absolute nonsense."

Damage done to Tutankhamun

After remaining undiscovered and unscathed for more than 3,000 years, the tourist frenzy visibly affected Tutankhamun after his discovery. Over the years, the combination of dust, humidity fluctuations and visitors entering the tiny chamber took its toll.

Although a plexiglass lid now protects the sarcophagus from the elements and from decomposition, action was urgently needed. And so, in 2009, a team of 25 restorers set to work to repair the damage already done to the tomb and to take measures to prevent further damage in the future. In 2021, the work was completed. The ancient wall paintings shine in new splendor; new barriers, a sophisticated ventilation system and a new visitor platform were installed.

Zahi Hawass, the former secretary general of the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, had initiated the restoration project. To this day, he calls for massive restrictions on the number of visitors to the tomb. "If we continue to allow mass tourism here, the tomb will not survive another 500 years," he warns, suggesting that an identical copy be built near the real tomb. "We have to think about the future," Hawass stresses. "Otherwise, at some point, there will be no more Valley of the Kings."

Museum opening postponed

Actually, the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb was to be celebrated at the new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) on November 4. The Egyptians wanted to open the gigantic building with an area of more than 40,000 square meters on this symbolic date, but time has run out and the GEM is now scheduled to open its doors in 2023.

The world's largest archaeological museum is located in Cairo, in the immediate vicinity of the Giza pyramids. For the first time, all 5,400 objects from Tutankhamun's tomb are to be exhibited here together, along with countless other ancient exhibits, some of which have never been on display before. Until now, the largest part was located in the overcrowded Egyptian Museum at Tahrir Square in the center of Cairo.

At more than 3,000 years old, a huge statue of the third pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty of Egypt — Ramses II — is already on site, waiting to welcome visitors. Tutankhamun's mummy, however, will not move in here. He continues to rest in his burial chamber, where he has remained for over three millennia.

Translated by: John Silk