What was really in the tomb of Tutankhamun? The true story of Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s discovery

What really happened in the Pharaoh's tomb? Did Howard Carter actually find the boy king? We dug up the truth

120219

This weekend in ITV’s Tutankhamun we’ll finally get to discover the tomb of the boy king with Howard Carter (a moustached Max Irons) and Lord Carnarvon (Sam Neill speaking the Queen’s finest). But what’s the real story of the discovery?

Advertisement

Here are your Pharaoh FAQs.

Did Howard Carter really find Tutankhamun’s tomb?

Well, depends on your viewpoint. Lord Carnarvon funded the expedition and Carter determined which unexplored area in the Valley of the Kings to start digging. But the tomb’s entrance stairs were brought to light by Carter’s water boy, who tripped over the first few steps in the sand, November 4th 1922.

After digging down the staircase, Carter unearthed a mud-plastered doorway with large oval seals bearing a blurred royal name stamped over its entire surface. He then ordered the stairs to be refilled (to hide them) and sent the famous telegram to Lord Carnarvon in Highclere Castle:

“At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; re-covered same for your arrival; congratulations.” 

Two weeks later Carnarvon and his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, stepped off the train at Luxor and work began the next day.

What happened when they opened the tomb?

It wasn’t the dramatic moment you might think. After breaking through the entrance door, Carter was greeted by a small corridor packed to the ceiling with limestone chips (which sounds way more delicious than it should).

And while that was soon cleared away, Carter, his assistant (the portly Arthur Callender), Lord Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn were met by another sealed doorway. 

But here’s where things got interesting. To check for any dangerous gases in the next chamber, Carter made a small hole in the second door and inserted a candle. 

“At first I could see nothing,” he would later write in his diary. “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.’”

So Carter actually said that ‘wonderful things’ line we saw in the trailer?

According to his diary, absolutely.

Interesting. So what actually were these ‘wonderful things?’

The greatest collection of Egyptian antiquities ever discovered. This so-called antechamber didn’t actually contain Tut’s remains, but it contained over 700 priceless objects. These included three beds, each decorated like an mythical animal (one bed was decorated like a creature with a lion’s body, crocodile head and hippopotamus tail).

This first room was so full of objects that it took two and a half months to carefully clear and catalogue the items.

Some of the first artefacts to be brought out of Tut’s tomb

So when did they actually get into Tutankhamun’s burial room?

February 16, 1923. Months after the entrance steps were initially found, Carter was ready to break through (another) sealed door. However, the archaeologist wasn’t greeted by an empty room with Tutankhamun’s golden mummy case in the centre.

Howard Carter (left) opening up the door into Tutankhamun’s burial chamber

Instead, a massive gilded wooden shrine (essentially a massive gold-plated box) almost entirely filled the room, with less than two feet between the stone walls and wood. Around this box, Carter found a smaller storage room to the side that contained over 5,000 different objects. 

Howard Carter opening Tutankhamun’s wooden shrine

This treasure trove included *start the Generation Game conveyor belt* thirty-six wine jars, a canopic chest, a large statue of Anubis (the dog-head god of the afterlife), a dagger made of iron from a meteorite, two chariots and two mummified foetuses historians believe to be the stillborn offspring of the boy king. 

So where was Tut? Deep within the sarcophagi (stone coffins) inside the the wooden box.

Right, so Carter had at last found the boy King?

Hold you chariots – not quite yet.

It was another year before Carter opened up the first layer of coffins that encased Tut. And then he got in an argument with Egyptian authorities over who had control of the dig site and left the excavation for the United States. And then it took another year for Carter to return and one more to open the final solid gold sarcophagus.

All in all, it took eight years to lay eyes on Tut and remove all objects from the tomb.

But at least Carter was the first one to step into the tomb, right? Right?!

Nope. When first breaking through into the tomb, Carter noticed that the entrance door had been hastily resealed twice before by the Egyptians. This meant the tomb had been robbed at least two times shortly after it was built.

Carter noted that while the robberies had stolen an estimated 60% of the treasures, one of the thieves appear to have been caught red-handed: a knotted scarf filled with eight gold rings within had been left behind in one of the chambers. If captured, that thief would have faced the preferred punishment of the ancient Egyptians: impalement on a sharpened stake. Ouch.

The real face of King Tut

Okay, but at least Carter fully explored the tomb, yes?

Perhaps not. Last year Egyptologists started to believe there are undiscovered chambers around Tutankhamun’s and that the boy king’s burial place is actually part of a larger tomb. 

Plus, in March this year, a radar scan revealed an extra two empty chambers just off Tut’s burial room with what some scientists say contain organic and metallic materials.

In other words, maybe they’ll be a drama in a hundred years set in the same tomb, but uncovering a completely different pharaoh…

Advertisement

Tutankhamun continues 9pm Sunday, ITV