Ancient History & Civilisation

16/CARTER: THE TOMB OF TUTANKHAMEN

In 1902 Theodore Davis, an American, received permission from the Egyptian government to carry out excavations in the Valley of the Kings. There he dug for twelve long winters. Davis discovered such valuable tombs as those of the fourth Thotmes, of Siptah, and of Horemheb. He also found the mummy and coffin of the great “heretic King,” Amenophis IV, whose other name, as the religious reformer who for a time introduced sun-worship as a substitute for the traditional form of Egyptian religion, was Ikhnaton. Amenophis is remembered for the phrase: “The solar disk is satisfied,” and for the beautifully colored bust of his wife, Nefertiti, the most famous piece of Egyptian sculpture known (see Plate X).

In the first year of World War I Davis’s concession was transferred to Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter, and with that event began the most important of all Egyptian excavations. The story of this project, as Carnarvon’s sister later wrote in a sketch of her brother’s life, “starts like Aladdin’s miraculous lamp and ends like a Greek saga of Nemesis.”

The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen represents the very summit of success in archæological effort. It is likewise a critical turning point in our archæological drama, a drama in which the thematic material was supplied by Winckelmann and a long series of systematizers, methodologists, and specialists. The first rough knots in the growing net of action were tied by Champollion, Grotefend, and Rawlinson. The next archæologists substantially to advance the action and to earn plaudits for their mid-stage performance were Mariette, Lepsius, and Petrie in Egypt, Botta and Layard in Mesopotamia, and Stephens and Thompson in Yucatán. The action rose to a breathtaking dramatic pitch with the discoveries of Schliemann and Evans, the one in Troy, the other at Knossos, and those of Koldewey and Woolley in Babylon and Ur, home of Abraham. Schliemann was the last great amateur. By the time Lord Carnarvon and Carter appeared on the scene, whole staffs of experts were working steadily at Knossos and Babylon and other ancient sites. Governments, princes, rich Mæcenases, wealthy universities and archæological institutes, and private men of means from all parts of the modern world had been sending well-equipped expeditions to all corners of the antique world. But the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen summed up on a grandiose scale everything previously accomplished in scattered fashion throughout the whole range of archæological investigation. This triumph was one of scientific method. Layard’s work had been hindered by superstitious stupidities, and Evans’s by official jealousy, but all such difficulties were obviated in the Carnarvon-Carter expedition by the Egyptian government’s willing support. The professional envy that injured Rawlinson’s reputation and made life a hell for Schliemann was replaced by international cooperation and a readiness to help from many disparate scientific quarters. The pioneer phase of archæology was finished. Howard Carter was a disciple of Petrie and, as such, in touch with the older tradition. Under his ægis, however, Egyptology ceased once and for all to be a random striking-out into an unknown terrain and became a sort of cultural surveying process, marked by the strictest sort of adherence to method.

Yet just because he never lost his inspiration and feeling for the whole, Carter was able to make the very most of scientific exactitude and discipline. It was this combination of sweep and minute thoroughness that made Carter one of the greatest figures in the history of archæology. He definitely belongs among that select company whose primary interest was the solving of cultural mysteries.

Lord Carnarvon was a personality who could have been produced nowhere but in England, a mixture of sportsman and collector, gentleman and world traveler, a realist in action and a romantic in feeling. As a student at Trinity College in Cambridge, out of his own pocket he paid for having the wainscoting of his room, which had been disfigured by many coats of paint, restored to its original beauty. As a youth he haunted antique shops, and later became a passionate collector of old etchings and drawings. At the same time he went a great deal to the racetracks, made himself a good shot by constant practice, and also became a famous yachtsman. At the age of twenty-three, by which time he had come into a large fortune, he made a trip under sail around the world. The third automobile ever licensed in England was his, and fast driving became an obsession with him. This craze for fast driving was to give his life a new and decisive turn. About 1900 he tipped over in a speeding car on a road running into Bad Langenschwalbach and was badly hurt. All the rest of his life he suffered from difficult breathing, an infirmity that made it impossible for him to live in England during the wintertime. On this account in 1903 he went for the first time to Egypt in search of a mild climate and while there visited the excavation sites of several archæological expeditions. Immediately he saw in archæology a chance to combine his interest in collecting objets d’art and his delight in the sporting chance. In 1906 he began his own excavations. That same winter, realizing the deficiencies of his own knowledge, he went to Professor Maspero for advice. Maspero recommended the young Howard Carter as archæological aide.

The partnership proved to be an unusually happy one. Howard Carter was able to supply every quality that Lord Carnarvon lacked. He was the comprehensively informed scholar, who, before being made permanent supervisor of all Carnarvon’s diggings, had had considerable experience with Petrie and Davis. At the same time he was anything but an unimaginative collector of facts, although some critics of his work complain about what they conceive to be his pedantry. He was ever resourceful on the practical side, and when it came to nerve—indeed, to recklessness—he could not be outdone. This was proved by an adventurous episode that happened in 1916.

At this time Carter was taking a short leave in Luxor. One day the village elders came to him in great perturbation and begged for his assistance. The war was beginning to make itself felt even in Luxor, and the official apparatus, including the police force, had been drastically reduced. As a result the bold descendants of Abd-el-Rasul were again robbing tombs.

A gang of these Egyptian tomb-robbers had made a find on the western side of the mountain beyond the Valley of the Kings. A rival gang, hearing about this, had armed themselves for an attempt to force the others to share their treasures. What now happened was like a movie.

The two gangs fought a pitched battle. The first contingent of tomb-robbers was beaten and driven from the field, but there was still great, danger of further bloody altercation. Carter decided to intervene.

“It was already late in the afternoon,” he wrote later, “so I hastily collected the few of my workmen who had escaped the Army Labour Levies, and with the necessary materials set out for the scene of action, an expedition involving a climb of more than 1,800 feet over the Kurna hills by moonlight. It was midnight when we arrived on the scene, and the guide pointed out to me the end of a rope which dangled sheer down the face of a cliff. Listening, we could hear the robbers actually at work, so I first severed their rope, thereby cutting off their means of escape, and then, making secure a good stout rope of my own, I lowered myself down the cliff. Shinning down a rope at midnight, into a nestful of industrious tomb-robbers, is a pastime which at least does not lack excitement. There were eight at work, and when I reached the bottom there was an awkward moment or two. I gave them the alternative of clearing out by means of my rope, or else of staying where they were without a rope at all, and eventually they saw reason and departed. The rest of the night I spent on the spot.…”

Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter went to work. Not until the autumn of 1917, however, were they able to operate on a scale that promised success. And then something often experienced in archæology came to pass. By sheer good luck on their very first attempt the small area in the Valley of the Kings where discovery was possible was staked out for attack. Almost at once, however, outside distraction put a brake on the project. Critical deliberations, irresolutions, doubts, and, above all, expert kibitzing delayed—indeed, almost prevented—success.

It will be recalled in this connection that Cavaliere Alcubierre, the Neapolitan, on April 6, 1748, by a similar stroke of blind luck, hit squarely on the middle of Pompeii, but in his impatience to open up new and better sites filled in the initial excavations before he had ever begun to explore them properly. Not until years later did he find that his first location had been the right one all along.

Carnarvon and Carter looked down upon the Valley of the Kings. Dozens of others had dug there before them, but not one of these many predecessors had left behind any exact drawings or even rough plans for the guidance of future explorers. Great heaps of rubble towered on all sides, giving the valley floor a lunar aspect. Among the heaps, like pit-heads, were the entrances to already exploited tombs. The only possible mode of attack was to dig systematically down to the rocky floor. Carter proposed to excavate in a triangular area bounded by the tombs of Ramses II, Merneptah, and Ramses VI. “At the risk of being accused of post actum prescience,” he says, “I will state that we had definite hopes of finding the tomb of one particular king, and that king Tut.ankh.Amen.”

Exactly a hundred years before, Belzoni, after opening up the tombs of Ramses I, Sethos I, and of Eje and Mentuherkhepesh, had written: “It is my firm opinion, in view of my recent discoveries, that in the Valley of Biban el-Muluk there are no more [tombs] than those which are known today. For, prior to my quitting that place, I exerted all my humble abilities in trying to find another tomb, but without success. And, still greater proof, independently of my own researches, after I left the place Mr. Salt, the British consul, resided there for four months, and labored in a like manner to find another tomb, but in vain.” Twenty-seven years after Belzoni—that is, in 1844—the great Prussian expedition came into the Valley of the Kings and took detailed measurements of the whole site. When they withdrew, their leader, Richard Lepsius, was also of the opinion that everything had been discovered that was there to find. That did not prevent Loret, shortly before the turn of the century, from finding more tombs, and Davis still others shortly after Loret. But now every grain of sand in the Valley, it seemed, had been thrice sifted and turned. When Maspero, as director of the Egyptian antiquities department, signed Lord Carnarvon’s concession, he said very frankly that he considered the site to be exhausted and that further investigation would be a waste of time. The Valley, in his expert opinion, simply had no more finds to offer.

What was it, then, that despite all this discouraging advice gave Carter hope of finding not merely any old tomb, but a very definite one? He was personally acquainted with the finds of Theodore Davis, and in the Davis collection was a faïence cup bearing the name of Tutankhamen. This cup Davis had found hidden under a rock. In the same area Davis had also discovered a small rock tomb, and in the tomb a badly broken wooden box containing gold leaf also bearing the name of Tutankhamen. Davis had made the mistake of rashly concluding that the rock tomb was Tutankhamen’s. Carter, however, thought otherwise, and his doubts were substantiated when it was discovered that a third find by Davis had not been properly identified. This third find consisted of some apparently valueless potsherds and bundles of linen, cached away in large pottery jars, with sealed openings and hieratic inscriptions on their shoulders. A second examination, carried out at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, showed that very probably the jars and contents were funerary material that had been used during the rites of Tutankhamen’s interment. Moreover, Davis later found clay seals with the name of Tutankhamen in the tomb of Ikhnaton, the heretic King.

All this evidence pointed conclusively to the existence of a Tutankhamen tomb. It appeared that Carter had been justified from the first in assuming, despite the general skepticism, that the tomb must lie somewhere in the middle of the Valley, very probably near the site where Davis had made his finds. But when the effects of three thousand years of wear and tear were taken into account, the prospect did not look quite so rosy. During these three thousand years the contents of innumerable tombs had been removed by robbers and priests. Then, too, during the early days archæological research had often been crudely managed, and there was no telling what damage might have resulted from this. Carter’s four pieces of evidence were some bits of gold leaf, a faïence cup, a few clay vessels, and some clay seals. To build one’s hopes on such flimsy proof with an instinctively positive certainty of finding Tutankhamen’s tomb was indeed playing the longest kind of shot.

Once Carnarvon and Carter had begun the actual digging, in one winter’s work they cleared away from within their triangular area of operation a large part of the upper layers of piled rubble and reached the foot of the tomb of Ramses VI. “Here we came on a series of workmen’s huts, built over masses of flint boulders, the latter usually indicating in The Valley the near proximity of a tomb.

What now unfolded was extremely exciting, viewed within the context of the whole Tutankhamen drama. Since further attempts to enlarge the excavation in the projected direction would have blocked off the entrance to the tomb of Ramses, a very popular site with tourists, work was stopped until the work could proceed unhampered. Excavation was resumed in the winter of 1919–20, and at the entrance to the tomb of Ramses VI a small, but archæologically important deposit of funerary materials was unearthed. “This was the nearest approach to a real find that we had yet made in The Valley,” Carter remarks.

They had now “worried away,” as Petrie used to say, all of the triangle except for the one place where the workers’ huts stood. Again they left this last section untouched, for fear of inconveniencing visitors, and moved to another spot. In a small lateral valley where the tomb of Thotmes III was located, they dug for another two winters, finding “nothing of real value.”

They now took stock and gave serious consideration to the idea of moving to a completely new site, since several years of effort had yielded relatively little booty. Only the place with the workmen’s huts and flint boulders had yet to be investigated, this site, as I have said, being at the base of the tomb of Ramses VI. After much hesitation and several reversals of plan it was decided that the expedition would dedicate one last winter to the Valley of the Kings.

This time Carter went to work on the one spot where he should have concentrated six years before. Scarcely had the workmen’s huts been torn down and the soil beneath cleared away when he was upon the entrance to the tomb of Tutankhamen, richest in allEgypt. “The dramatic suddenness of the initial discovery,” Carter writes, “left me in a dazed condition, and the months that have followed have been so crowded with incident that I have hardly had time to think.”

On November 3, 1922—Lord Carnarvon was away in England at the time—Carter began to tear down the workmen’s huts. The next morning a stone step cut into the rock was discovered beneath the first hut. By the afternoon of November 5 enough rubbish had been cleared away to establish beyond doubt the fact that the entrance to the tomb had indeed been found.

But it might very well have been an unfinished tomb, one that, perhaps, had never been used. And if the tomb did contain a mummy, it might, like so many others, have already been plundered. And perhaps, to complete the list of pessimistic possibilities, the mummy was there, but might be nothing but that of some high official or of a priest.

The work was pressed feverishly, Carter’s excitement mounting as the day wore on. Step after step appeared out of the rubble, and as the sudden Egyptian night closed in, the level of the twelfth step came to light, disclosing “the upper part of a doorway, blocked, plastered, and sealed. A sealed doorway—it was actually true, then!… It was a thrilling moment for an excavator.”

Carter examined the seal and found it to be that of the royal necropolis. A royal seal was clear proof that a person of very high standing was interred within. Since the workmen’s huts had lain directly above the opening, it was obvious that at least since the Twentieth Dynasty the tomb had never been plundered. And when Carter, shaking with agitation, bored a peephole in the door “just large enough to insert an electric torch,” he discovered that the corridor behind the door was filled to the brim with stones and rubble—further reassurance that elaborate protective measures had been taken with the tomb.

Leaving his most reliable men to guard the tomb, Carter rode home down the Valley by moonlight, struggling against overwhelming temptation: “Anything, literally anything, might lie beyond that passage, and it needed all my self-control to keep from breaking down the doorway, and investigating then and there,” he wrote, describing how he felt after he had peered through the peephole. Now again, as his donkey was trotting homeward with him, he was bedeviled by desire, by impatience, by his inner voice telling him he was on the verge of incalculable discoveries. Yet this man, having made his great find at long last after six years of laboring in vain, had the self-discipline to cover up the tomb and await the arrival of his sponsor and friend, Lord Carnarvon, before proceeding to explore it.

On the morning of November 6 Carter sent the following telegram to Lord Carnarvon: “At last have made wonderful discovery in valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; re-covered same for your arrival; congratulations.” On November 8 two replies from Carnarvon were received: “Possibly come soon”; and “Propose arrive Alexandria 20th.”

On November 23 Lord Carnarvon, accompanied by his daughter, arrived in Luxor. For more than two weeks Carter had been waiting, consumed by impatience, on guard at the carefully covered tomb entrance. Two days after the discovery of the steps he had been flooded with messages of congratulations. But congratulations for exactly what? What was in the tomb? At this time Carter could not have said. Had he dug only a few inches lower down, he would have come upon the unmistakable seal of Tutankhamen himself. “Had I but known … I would have cleared on,” says Carter, “and had a much better night’s rest in consequence, and saved myself nearly three weeks of uncertainty.”

On the afternoon of November 24 the workers shoveled the last of the flight of steps free of rubbish. Carter went down the sixteen steps and stood before the sealed door. Now he could get a clear impression of the seal of Tutankhamen. And now, too, he became aware—the Egyptologist’s typical experience—that others had been there before him. Here, too, robbers had done their work.

“Now that the whole door was exposed to light,” Carter says, “it was possible to discern a fact that had hitherto escaped notice—that there had been two successive openings and re-closings of a part of its surface: furthermore, that the sealing originally discovered, the jackal and nine captives [the necropolis seal], had been applied to the re-closed 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 Ramses IV—but that they had not rifled it completely was evident from the fact that it had been re-sealed.”

But more revelations were in store for Carter. His confusion and uncertainty increased. When he had had the last of the rubbish blocking the stairs shoveled away, he found potsherds and boxes, the latter with the names of Ikhnaton, Sakeres, and Tutankhamen on them, also a scarab belonging to Thotmes III, and a piece of another, this one with the name of Amenophis III inscribed on it. Could all these names mean, against all expectation, a jointly shared rather than a single tomb?

Certainty could be achieved only by opening the door of the tomb. The next days were spent preparing for this move. Carter had seen the first time he looked through the peephole that the interior passage was clogged with rubble. This filling consisted of two clearly distinguishable kinds of stone. The shoulder-wide entrance cut by the robbers had itself been replugged with a kind of dark flint.

After several days of hard work the excavators, having penetrated thirty-two feet into the passage, found themselves hard up against a second door. The impressions of the royal seal of Tutankhamen and of the necropolis seal were also on this door, but there were signs, too, that intruders must have broken past this second obstruction.

Basing their reasoning on the resemblance of the whole layout to a cache of Ikhnaton that had been found near by, at this stage Carnarvon and Carter, with good reason, were tempted to believe that they were dealing with a common tomb, and not the original grave of an Egyptian king. And was there much to expect in a cache, especially one that had already been visited by robbers?

Their hopes, in short, for a time were dashed. The tension increased once more, however, when rubble was taken away from the second door. “The decisive moment had arrived,” Carter says. “With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left hand corner.”

Taking an iron testing rod, Carter poked it through the door and found an emptiness on the other side. He lit candles to ensure against poisonous gases. Then the hole was enlarged.

Everyone interested in the project now crowded about. Lord Carnarvon, his daughter, Lady Evelyn, and Callender, the Egyptologist, who had rushed to offer his help upon first receiving news of the find—all looked on. Nervously Carter lit a match, touched it to the candle, and held it toward the hole. As his head neared the opening—he was literally trembling with expectation and curiosity—the warm air escaping from the chamber beyond the door made the candle flare up. For a moment Carter, his eye fixed to the hole and the candle burning within, could make out nothing. Then, as his eyes became gradually accustomed to the flickering light, he distinguished shapes, then their shadows, then the first colors. Not a sound escaped his lips; he had been stricken dumb. The others waited for what seemed to them like an eternity. Finally Carnarvon could no longer contain his impatience. “Can you see anything?” he inquired.

Carter, slowly turning his head, said shakily: “Yes, wonderful things.”

“Surely never before in the whole history of excavation had such an amazing sight been seen as the light of our torch revealed to us.” So writes Carter, reporting on the sight revealed to the company as each in turn stepped up to the peephole. When the door was actually opened, on the 17th, this description proved to be not in the least exaggerated. The light of a strong electric lamp moved jerkily over golden couches, a gilded throne; and its softer reflection threw into relief two large black statues, vases of alabaster, and curious shrines. The shadows of bizarre animal heads played on the walls. A golden snake peeped out of the open door of one of the shrines. The two royal statues faced each other like sentinels, “gold kilted, gold sandalled, armed with mace and staff, the protective sacred cobra upon their foreheads.”

Amid all this splendor, an abundance that the eye could not take in at a single glance, they again found traces of intruders. At the door stood a vessel still half-filled with mortar, and near by a blackened lamp. There were fingerprints on a once freshly painted surface, and on the threshold a garland of flowers left in parting.

Dumbfounded as they were by so many impressions, it was some time before Carter and Carnarvon realized with a start that neither sarcophagus nor mummy was to be seen in this museum of treasures. The question of whether they were dealing with a royal tomb or a cache again rose in their minds.

Looking over the walls more carefully, they saw that there was a third sealed door between the two sentinel figures. “Visions of chamber after chamber, each crowded with objects like the ones we had seen, passed through our minds and left us gasping forbreath,” writes Carter. On the 27th of the month, with the aid of powerful electric lamps installed meanwhile by Callender, they investigated the sealed door. They found that a small opening had been made in it near the bottom, later filled up and resealed. Evidently the tomb-robbers had penetrated beyond the antechamber, as they called the first compartment of the tomb. What was there in the chamber or passage beyond? If there was a mummy beyond the door, was it all of a piece and untouched? The whole situation was shrouded in mystery. Not only was it physically unlike any of previous experience; it also posed the problem of why the robbers had gone to so much trouble to get through the third door without first making off with the wealth of valuables that lay at hand. What could they have been after to make them wade indifferently through the heaps of gold lying in the antechamber?

Sketch of the tomb of Tutankhamen.

When Carter had got his bearings in this astounding treasure-trove, he realized that the furnishings of the antechamber were valuable in a historic and æsthetic sense, beyond the intrinsic value of the precious metal used lavishly in their construction. What information these mute things gave archæology! There was a multitude of Egyptian objects of practical and cultural use and of luxury, any single one of which would have been considered ample reward for a whole winter’s hard digging. They revealed Egyptian art of a certain period in such strength and vitality that a brief survey sufficed to convince Carter that detailed study of the collection would “involve a modification, if not a complete revolution, of all our old ideas.”

It was not long before still another discovery was made. Some one, peering beneath one of the three great couches, saw a small hole. He called to the others, who came crawling up to him, dragging an electric lamp with them. They now peered into a small side chamber, or annex, smaller than the antechamber, but packed full of all sorts of material, objects both of utility and of decoration. The robbers, after their visit, had not bothered to straighten out this room, as apparently they had the antechamber. The thief who had ransacked the place had “done his work just about as thoroughly as an earthquake.” The intruders had turned the whole room topsy-turvy. It was obvious that they had thrown pieces taken from the annex about the antechamber, destroying some of the material. And yet in actual fact they had made off with very little, not even with the easily available articles that fell into their hands once they were beyond the second door. Had they been surprised at their work?

The discovery of the annex had a sobering effect. Up to this point the situation had been apprehended in a rush of excitement, which made for a badly confused impression of the whole. Now that the investigators were able to look more calmly, however, they became aware of the even greater treasures that might be expected behind the third sealed door. They realized, too, that a prodigious scientific task confronted them, one requiring much organization and a large labor force. The finds already made, leaving out of account those in prospect, could never be disposed of in a single winter’s work.

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