10 things to know about the discovery of King Tut’s tomb
- History & Culture
Few people believed that it could be found. Here’s how the historic discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb changed archaeology, and our understanding of ancient Egypt.
Published October 21, 2022
8 min read
Tutankhamun’s tomb, discovered in 1922, is still the most intact pharaoh’s tomb ever found. At the time, King Tut‘s exquisite artifacts and his elaborate burial shrine captivated the world and provided new insights about ancient Egypt. The discovery remains astonishing a century later and has had enduring influence on archaeology and Egyptian national identity.
(Graphic: See the enduring power of Tut as never before. )
Why did the discovery of the tomb of this young king, who ruled for less than a decade some 3,000 years ago, have such enduring impact? It had less to do what happened after his death than who he was as an individual. The most important thing was how and when his tomb was discovered. Here are ten things to know about the discovery, why it was such a big deal at the time, and why it still matters today.
1. The tomb of Tut was extremely well hidden.
The tomb of Tutankhamun was near the center of a crowded Pharaoh’s graveyard called the Valley of the Kings, west of the city of Thebes. These tombs were not like pyramid burials which announced the presence great treasures. They were often covered over to keep looters out. Tut’s tomb was eventually found under more than 150,000 tons of rocks, including debris from a tomb dug into the hillside above his. (How ancient Egyptians of all classes strived for eternal life.)
2. Few people believed that the tomb could be found.
The search for Tutankhamun was a true believer’s quest. Experts at the time stated that all tombs in the valley were either excavated in antiquity or discovered more recently by archaeologists. Unimpressive tomb, identified as Tut’s tomb, was one of the sites that had been excavated. Tut also seemed to have been a minor pharaoh, with only a few artifacts in the surviving record bearing his name.
3. Howard Carter refused to give in.
Archaeologist Howard Carter went against the prevailing opinion and kept up the search. Carter continued digging for years, even during World War I. He almost lost the faith and funding of Earl of Carnarvon, his English benefactor. Then, in November 1922, just days after starting what was to be the final year of excavations, the team found the top step of a staircase leading down to the tomb. (How grit and luck led to the discovery of Tut’s tomb.)
4. Tut’s tomb had already been broken into.
The door the team excavated at the base of the stairs was sealed shut, but the tomb had been broken into twice. The robberies had taken place shortly after the burial, some 3,000 years prior to the discovery by Carter, with thieves stealing mostly smaller objects, such as precious stone beads. After the last breach, ancient officials had filled the cracks in the outer doors with plaster and imprinted new seals. An inner door down a sloping corridor had also been broken and re-sealed.
5. The royal tomb was somewhat disorganized.
In the first room Carter opened, called the antechamber, many precious items were arranged precariously, likely re-stacked in a hurry by officials restoring the tomb after the final robbery. Carter was surprised at the magnitude of the contents. Upon his first glance into the room, he declared it “wonderful.” Once the mist cleared, he could see by flashlight the many “strange animals, statues, and gold–everywhere the glint of gold.” (Discover King Tut’s 5,000 treasures, by the numbers.)
6. It set new standards in archaeology.
Carter extended techniques he had learned in previous work and set a new bar for meticulousness and comprehensiveness. Before Harry Burton, the world’s best archaeologist photographer, captured every scene, electric lighting was installed in the tomb. Numbered cards were placed by individual artifacts in photos before any object was moved, and Carter took detailed notes and sketches before packing up the inventoried treasures.
7. It helped us understand Egyptian history.
Nearly intact, the tomb provided unmatched insight into this moment in Egyptian history. The tomb provided unmatched insight into the moment in Egyptian history. It included artwork, weapons, clothing, and chariots that reflected Egypt’s war tactics and who its enemies were. Murals displayed religious beliefs, including a restored reverence of Amun, which Tut’s predecessor had lost. Archaeologists were able to better understand elaborate burial practices by using undisturbed coffins. (King Tut’s mummy hid many treasures. This graphic unwraps them.)
8. “Tutmania” spread throughout the globe.
Thanks to Burton’s detailed photos of the artifacts and a press more global in nature than ever before, news of the unparalleled find reached a worldwide audience. Even the Queen and King of England were eager for updates. Egyptian and Tutankhamun motifs appeared in popular music and fashion, architecture and decor, and even in brands of fruit.
9. Egypt retained control over Tut’s antiquities.
Unlike many discoveries found in Egypt, Tut’s treasures didn’t leave the country. Lord Carnarvon expected to claim a large portion of the antiquities as was standard for most excavations. In part because of Carter’s irascible personality but largely because Egypt was asserting its independence from England at the time of the discovery, the government instead insisted that they all remain in Egypt.
10. Tut continues to inspire a new generation archaeologists.
At the time of the discovery, Tut quickly became a symbol of Egyptian identity. Now the roughly 5,400 treasures from Tut’s tomb will be the centerpiece of a new Grand Egyptian Museum, and more and more Egyptians are directing archaeological work being done in the country. (Go inside Egypt’s new billion-dollar museum, deemed fit for a pharaoh. )
Tut was an influential pharaoh, restoring the importance of gods that his predecessor had dismissed, but he had a very short rule and did not feature prominently in the historical record. He’s globally famous 3,000 years after his death because his tomb was so marvelous and so complete.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.