Mar 182013

The 16th February 2013 marked the 90th anniversary of Howard Carter’s historic unsealing of the royal burial chamber of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings. He had been searching for the tomb for many years, with the financial backing of Lord Carnarvon, and its discovery was not only the greatest achievement of his career but also the greatest archaeological find of modern times.

Crowds gather around the entrance to the tomb of Tutankhamun
Lord Carnarvon: Gaumont Graphic Newsreel 05-03-1923

Howard Carter’s personal diary and journal (now held at the Griffith Institute, Oxford)  provide a fascinating account of how the tomb was finally discovered in November 1922.  On Sunday the 5th November, he sent the following telegram to Lord Carnarvon

At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley a magnificent tomb with seals intact recovered same for your arrival congratulations

It took several months to record the hundreds of wonderful objects stored in the antechamber before the team could proceed to investigate the sealed burial chamber. Lord Carnarvon  travelled from England to witness the event on 16th Feb 1923 and the world press descended.

The following clip from Gaumont Graphic Newsreel includes Howard Carter showing  Lord Carnarvon and others around the site in early March 1923. A month later, Lord Carnarvon died suddenly from blood poisoning which originated from a mosquito bite and rumours began to circulate about the curse of  Tutankhamun.

Howard Carter talks to Lord Carnarvon at the tomb of Tutankhamun
Lord Carnarvon: Gaumont Graphic Newsreel 05-03-1923

Tutankhamun ruled Egypt between 1336 and 1327 BC and was a Pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Although his tomb was relatively small for an Egyptian Pharaoh it was of enormous significance because very little looting had occurred and the burial chamber was still sealed. HV Morton, the only journalist allowed into the tomb, wrote vividly of astonishing sights which included not only magnificent treasures but also stores of food, perfumed face creams and withered garlands of flowers. The King had been buried with everything he could conceivably need to sustain him in the afterlife.

Carter was famous for his systematic approach to recording archaeological artefacts, ensuring the context of an object was recorded in addition to information about the object itself. His team used Carter’s own card system to record the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb and he employed Harry Burton to photograph the excavation as it progressed, providing an invaluable visual record of the tomb in situ.

Contents of the tomb are removed in wooden crates after they have been carefully recorded
Lord Carnarvon: Gaumont Graphic Newsreel 05-03-1923

The discovery of Tutankhamun captured the imagination of the public at a time when such exciting events could be watched on early newsreels as well as being reported in print. This was to have a big impact on archaeology and the way in which it was communicated to a new audience.  Brian Hope-Taylor talks about this in the following  film called ‘The Investigators’ and discusses how archaeologists are equally concerned with finding out about the lives of ordinary people as well as royal ones.

A statue of Anubis guards the tomb of Tutankhamun
Who were the British?: The Investigators: Anglia Television Library 1965

Egypt’s tourist industry boomed as the media fuelled public interest in Egyptology. Take your own tour of  Aswan, Luxor and the Valley of the Kings by watching this 1959 Roving Report presented by the famously combative George Ffitch.

George Ffitch is driven to the Valley of the Kings
The Grandeur of Egypt: Roving Report 29-04-1959

Until the 1960’s all artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb were housed in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. As a result of political change it was made possible for the major items to be exhibited throughout the world and they still continue to travel the globe .

The Treasures of Tutankhamun‘  came to the British Museum in 1972 and was their most successful ever exhibition attracting over 1.6 million people. Click on the image below to watch an ITV news clip broadcast on the eve of its opening.

Scarab Beetle from the ‘Necklace of the Sun in the Eastern Horizon’
Tutankhamun Exhibition Opened: ITV News 29-03-1972

Tutankhamun has drawn people to Egypt for decades. Click on the image below to watch ITN footage of the Princess of Wales visiting Cairo and the Valley of the Kings in 1992. She was lucky and did not have to queue in the heat to see all his splendours.

Princess of Wales looks at the Golden Mask of King Tutankhamun
Princess of Wales Egypt Visit: ITN 14-05-1992

We now know much information about the boy king as a result of modern technology. There have been many theories about  Tutankhamun’s early death at around 19 years of age and many believed he had been murdered (evidenced by a skull injury). In 2005 the king’s mummified remains were scanned and results indicate  it is much less likely that he was deliberately killed. DNA testing  in 2010 shows he probably suffered from malaria which would have resulted in a weakened constitution. Death most likely occurred as the result of a leg injury which failed to heal properly. You can follow this story and find out more about his parentage and physical condition by clicking on the image below:

The real face of Tutankhamun
DNA reveals some mystery on King Tut: Getty (moving images) 2010

Recent work on the analysis of mummies has given us valuable information about our own health. This Lancet article shows that evidence of atherosclerosis existed in a third of the mummies which were examined, suggesting that modern lifestyle factors are not completely to blame for an individual’s predisposition to heart attack and strokes. Instead it’s possible atherosclerosis  may be linked more directly to the human ageing process.

The public face of the King – the Golden Mask of Tutankhamun
DNA reveals some mystery on King Tut: Getty (moving images) 18-02-2010

Controversies continue to follow Tutankhamun. There are problems concerning the deterioration of the King’s remains following their removal from the protective atmosphere of his sealed burial chamber, as well as the condition of the tomb itself. In addition there are the ethics of displaying a dead body, stripped of all the objects with which it had been buried. Many will argue  this is preferable to the looting which would have taken place once the location of the tomb was known, though some believe mummies should not be disturbed.

The legend of Tutankhamun, who died over 3,000 years ago and was sent into the afterlife with treasures beyond imagining, continues to fascinate us and even now he still  holds on to many of  his secrets.

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