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Trembling hands, 1922
And wonderful things.
There lay the sealed doorway, and behind it was the answer to the question.
A few weeks ago I touched briefly on Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb on Tutankhamun, as he first encountered a “sunken staircase entrance” blocked with rubble. I promised to return to this, as this is the centenary month, so here we are.
Howard Carter (1874–1939) grew up in Norfolk and showed early artistic prowess. This attracted the attention of Mary Cecil, Lady Amherst, who lived nearby at Didlington Hall, where her family kept a large collection of Egyptian antiquities. She urged the Egypt Exploration Fund to let Carter help her friend, Egyptologist Percy Newberry, and thus began his career in the same field. From 1907, he worked for George Herbert, Earl of Carnarvon, who later won the right to dig in the Valley of the Kings. By 1922, they had found very little, and Carter’s team was having one last go…
After his initial discovery (though apparently the actual discovery of the steps may have been from the team’s water boy tripping over one of them), Carter actually refilled the pit to await Carnarvon and to improve his team. On 23rd November 1922, the work resumed – and the doorway seal was found to have Tutankhamun’s name on it. On the 26th, the seal was breached…
We have three different accounts of these events from Carter himself, each becoming more detailed (or embellished, in the case of the last one, perhaps) – I’m going to include two of them here. The first were very brief notes recorded in his appointment diaries (such as ‘Slept night at tomb. Took photos. and notes’). Next came more detailed journal entries which he stored in a ring binder, so let’s start with those.1
[First, Carter’s very brief notes as recorded in his appointment diaries. Arthur Callender was a retired engineer and archaeologist who Carter had called in to help. Lady E. is Evelyn Herbert, Carnarvon’s daughter.]
Friday 24th November
Lady E. arrived.
Callender reached as far as the first doorway. There proved to be sixteen steps.
Now that the whole of the sealed doorway was laid bare various seal impressions bearing the cartouche of Tut.ankh.Amen were discernible, more in particular in the lower portion of the plastering of the doorway where the impressions were clearest…
Slept the night in the valley. Carpenters commenced upon making a temporary wooden grill for fixing over first doorway.
Saturday 25th November
Noted seals. Made photographic records, which were not, as they afterwards proved, very successful. Opened the first doorway; which comprised rough stones built up from the threshold to the lintel, plastered over on the outside face, and covered with numerous impressions from various seals of Tut.ankh.Amen and the Royal Necropolis seal. The removal of this blocking exposed the commencement of a completely blocked descending passage, the same width as the entrance staircase and rather more than 2 metres high. It was filled with its local stone and rubble, probably from its own excavation, but like the doorway it showed distinct traces of more than one filling…
As we cleared the passage we found mixed with the rubble broken potsherds, jar seals, and numerous fragments of small objects; water skins lying on the floor together with alabaster jars, whole and broken, and coloured pottery vases; all pertaining to some disturbed burial, but telling us nothing to whom they belonged further than by their type which was of the late XVIIIth Dyn. These were disturbing elements as they pointed towards plundering.
Sunday 26th November
After clearing 9 metres of the descending passage, in about the middle of the afternoon, we came upon a second sealed doorway, which was almost the exact replica of the first. It bore similar seal impressions and had similar traces of successive reopenings and reclosings in the plastering. The seal impressions were of Tut.ankh.Amen and of the Royal Necropolis, but not in any way so clear as those on the first doorway…
Feverishly we cleared away the remaining last scraps of rubbish on the floor of the passage before the doorway, until we had only the clean sealed doorway before us. In which, after making preliminary notes, we made a tiny breach in the top left hand corner to see what was beyond. Darkness and the iron testing rod told us that there was empty space. Perhaps another descending staircase, in accordance to the ordinary royal Theban tomb plan? Or may be a chamber? Candles were procured – the all important tell-tale for foul gases when opening an ancient subterranean excavation – I widened the breach and by means of the candle looked in, while Ld. C., Lady E, and Callender with the Reises waited in anxious expectation.
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 first impression of which suggested the property-room of an opera 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.
We closed the hole, locked the wooden-grill which had been placed upon the first doorway, we mounted our donkeys and return home contemplating what we had seen.
Advised the Chief Inspector of the Antiquities Department, who was with us at the commencement of the opening of the first doorway, and asked him to come as soon as possible, preferably the following afternoon to enable us to prepare an electrical installation for careful inspection of this extraordinary and pleasing discovery.
To read Carter’s third account of these events you’ll need a paid subscription, and as a special Black Friday 2022 offer (closes on 28th November), you can get a whole year for only $20! Your support is appreciated.
The next day, they installed electric lights. Carter observed, “As the better light fell upon the objects we endeavoured to take them in. It was impossible. They were so many.” The clearance of these objects would ultimately take months, and of course inspired the world – and the final item was not removed until 1930. (For more on the ‘Tutmania’ phenomenon, do read Caroline Roope’s article in the November issue of Discover Your Ancestors.)
In 1923, Carter and his collaborator Arthur Cruttenden Mace, an expert on preserving ancient artefacts, wrote the first volume of their book The Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amen (billed on the cover as “the suspense-crammed story of the archaeological find of the only intact royal tomb of Egypt…”). And it was there that the more famous, perhaps by now slightly embellished account of the discovery appeared. Here it is:2
[November 26th] was the day of days, the most wonderful that I have ever lived through, and certainly one whose like I can never hope to see again. Throughout the morning the work of clearing continued, slowly perforce, on account of the delicate objects that were mixed with the filling.
Then, in the middle of the afternoon, thirty feet down from the outer door, we came upon second scaled doorway, almost an exact replica of the first. The seal impressions in this case were less distinct, but still recognizable as those of Tut.ankh.Amen and of the royal necropolis. Here again the signs of opening and re-closing were clearly marked upon the plaster. We were firmly convinced by this time that it was a cache that we were about to open, and not a tomb. The arrangement of stairway, entrance passage and doors reminded us very forcibly of the cache of Akh.en.Aten and Tyi material found in the very near vicinity of the present excavation by Davis, and the fact that Tut.ankh.Amen's seals occurred there likewise seemed almost certain proof that we were right in our conjecture. We were soon to know. There lay the sealed doorway, and behind it was the answer to the question.
Slowly, desperately slowly it seemed to us as we watched, the remains of passage debris that encumbered the lower part of the doorway were removed, until at last we had the whole door clear before us. The decisive moment had arrived. With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left hand corner. Darkness and blank space, as far as an iron testing-rod could reach, showed that whatever lay beyond was empty, and not filled like the passage had just cleared. Candle tests were applied as precaution against possible foul gases, and then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle and peered in, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn and Callender standing anxiously beside me to hear the verdict. At first could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment—an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by—I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” it was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.” Then widening the hole a little further, so that we both could see, we inserted an electric torch.