Howard Carter examines the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun

Uncovering a King

Howard Carter's journals from Egypt detailing his find of the King Tut's grave. Digital copy of original documents can be found at the Griffith Institute.
Howard Carter’s journals from Egypt detailing his find of the King Tut’s grave. Digital copy of original documents can be found at the Griffith Institute.

Today is a surprising geeky holiday that is not just for archaeologists. It’s King Tut’s Day, and everyone that loves the romance of digging up the past, Pharaohs, and gold can get behind. The story behind finding King Tut did not start with treasure hunting fever, but rather an accident.

Lord Carnarvon, AKA George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, wasn’t an Egyptologist, he was a dandy with a thing for fast horses and fast cars — if you can consider 20mph fast by today’s standards. He used to drive fast down the lane startling anyone near by. In an age where cars were outrageously expensive, early cars were fast enough to be dangerous and lacked any safety features. This was unfortunate for Lord Carnarvon, for in 1901, he was driving around recklessly in Germany. He crash and was seriously injured, leaving him severely weakened and unable to tolerate wet climates.

To escape the English damp, Lord Carnarvon spent his winters in Egypt. At first, he found it terribly dull. Then, he stumbled upon the mystery of Ancient Egypt, the lure of treasure, and the call of curiosity. Evelyn Baring, the first Early of Cromer and the British Consul General in Egypt, or simply Lord Cromer, assigned him an archaeology site in Luxor, assuming that this would cool Lord Carnarvon’s interest in archaeology.

Lord Carnarvon, ever the gentleman, sat primly in his screened tent to watch diggers work in Luxor for 6 weeks of frantic, unorganised digging. While they found nothing at the site other than a mummified cat, Lord Carnarvon realised he needed expertise to keep going. This is where Howard Carter enters the story, upon an introduction from Lord Cromer.

With Carter now in the front of the charge and on the west banks of Luxor, success started to come in. First with tomb of Tetiky, an early 18th Dynasty mayor of Thebes, then another tomb containing two wooden tablets. On one of these tablets was inscribed on one face with the precepts of Ptahhotep, a series of instructions for moral guidance. The other side was inscribed with text recording the initial steps in the expulsion of the Hyksos by the 17th Dynasty King Kamose.

Egyptian heart scarab made of blue frit in the collection of Medusa Art.
Egyptian heart scarab made of blue frit for sale from Medusa Art.

Now, they had the taste for more success and the fame that comes with it.

To this end, the pair set their eyes on the prestigious Valley of the Kings. In order to get there, they needed to prove they were worthy of such a location by earning recognition and prestige, along with showing they could excavate carefully. They achieved this by the uncovering of a joint tomb between Amenhotep I and his mother Ahmose-Nofretiri. Despite being plundered for some time by the locals, it still contained a number of grave goods including a mass of inscribed vessel fragments, a large heart-scarab of blue frit and a collection of fragments from the Third Intermediate Period burials which had been introduced to the tomb at a later date.

This was their first royal tomb. Not long after, Theodore Davis, the Egyptologist that had been working in the Valley of the Kings gave up his concession to work there believing it to be exhausted of possibilities. Upon this, Carter and Lord Carnarvon abandoned the work they were doing at Hawara and the pyramid complex of Amenemhet III to work on the tomb of Amenhotep III in the Valley of the Kings.

World War I made progress for Carter and Lord Carnarvon impossible. They had to abandon work for the 1916 season, only to come back in earnest in 1917. With no real discoveries from 1917 to 1922, Lord Carnarvon was losing patience and money. Carter suggested that they peruse the bazaar, pick up antiquities, and sell them for a profit back home. In the meantime, Carter dug deep into his own pockets and offered to pay for one last season at the Valley of the Kings. Impressed by the dedication and ingenuity, Lord Carnarvon paid for one last season while reaping the benefits of a fledgling black-market antiquities market.

On this day in 1922, amidst the roaring twenties of the Western culture, Carter found the top of a sunken staircase that by the end of the day would reveal 12 steps and the upper part of a plastered blocking, stamped over its entire surface with large oval seals. Carter could not read the name on the seals, but biting his tongue, he ordered the stairway to be refilled and the next day dashed off the now famous telegram to Carnarvon who was still in England.

I noticed at the top of the doorway, where some of the cement-like plaster had fallen away, a heavy wooden lintel. To assure myself of the method in which the doorway was blocked, I made a small hole under this wooden lintel – the R. hand corner, about 35 x 15 cms in size. By this hole I was able to perceive with the aid of an electrical torch that the a passage beyond was completely filled with stones and rubble up to its ceiling, which was again evidence of something that had required careful closing. It was a thrilling moment for an excavator, quite alone save his native staff of workmen, to suddenly find himself, after so many years of toilsome work, on the verge of what looked like a magnificent discovery –  an untouched tomb. With certain reluctance I reclosed the small hole that I had made, and returned to another careful search among the seals to see if I could not find some indication that would point to the identity of the owner, but it was of no avail for the small space bared by my excavation did not expose any impression sufficiently clear to be made out, other than that of the Royal Necropolis seal already mentioned. — From Howard Carter’s journal dated 5.November, 1922

This would have been a sight in general, but my favourite entry comes from the end of November when they finally laid eyes upon the Pharaoh chamber without knowing it.

Howard Carter's journal from 27.Nov.1922 digital copy from the Griffith Institute.
Howard Carter’s journal from 26.Nov.1922 digital copy from the Griffith Institute.

It was sometime before one could see, the hot air escaping caused the candle to flicker, but as soon as one’s eyes became accustomed to the glimmer of light the interior of the chamber gradually loomed before one, with its strange and wonderful medley of extraordinary and beautiful objects heaped upon one another. There was naturally short suspense for those present who could not see, when Lord Carnarvon said to me ‘Can you see anything’. I replied to him Yes, it is wonderful. I then with precaution made the hole sufficiently large for both of us to see. With the light of an electric torch as well as an additional candle we looked in. Our sensations and astonishment are difficult to describe as the better light revealed to us the marvellous collection of treasures: two strange ebony-black effigies of a King, gold sandalled, bearing staff and mace, loomed out from the cloak of darkness; gilded couches in strange forms, lion-headed, Hathor-headed, and beast infernal; exquisitely painted, inlaid, and ornamental caskets; flowers; alabaster vases, some beautifully executed of lotus and papyrus device; strange black shrines with a gilded monster snake appearing from within; quite ordinary looking white chests; finely carved chairs; a golden inlaid throne; a heap of large curious white oviform boxes; beneath our very eyes, on the threshold, a lovely lotiform wishing-cup in translucent alabaster; stools of all shapes and design, of both common and rare materials; and, lastly a confusion of overturned parts of chariots glinting with gold, peering from amongst which was a mannikin. the furniture The first im impression of which suggested the property-room of an opera-house of a vanished civilization. Our sensations were bewildering and full of strange emotion. We questioned one another as to the meaning of it all. Was it a tomb or merely a cache? A sealed-doorway between the two sentinel statues proved there was more beyond, and with the numerous cartouches bearing the name of Tut-ankh-Amen on most of the objects before us, there was little doubt that there behind was the grave of that Pharaoh. — Howard Carter’s journal from 26.November, 1922

The rest of the story you know from The History Channel, museum icons, and the history books. But think for a moment what it must have been like to stand there breathless, letting your eyes adjust to the dark to see if your dreams and efforts have finally paid off. To see if you’ve uncovered a King.

But the story doesn’t end there. There may be two more rooms that have secrets left to tell.

This piece has been edited and written using the following sources:


Lecture notes from Art, History, and Archaeology of Egypt, taught by Dr. Gordon Young on our trips to Egypt.

Notes: Dr. Young, was one of the best story tellers I ever had the pleasure of studying under. While standing in the blistering sun of Egypt, he would capture our attention by telling us what happened on the ground beneath our very feet and by whom. When he took our class to Egypt for “Maymester”, I didn’t know I’d be exploring pyramids, churches, gardens, and libraries. But explore I did. This piece is written in the same vein that he would have told it standing on the stairs down to the Boy King’s grave. 

Reeves, Nicholas. 1995. The complete Tutankhamun: the king, the tomb, the royal treasure. Thames and Hudson. New York.

Reeves, Nicholas. 2000. Ancient Egypt: the great discoveries: a year-by-year chronicle. Thames and Hudson. New York.

And, no story of King Tut would be complete without the full archives kept by The Griffith Institute of Oxford. Browse their entire collection and read Carter’s journals here:

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