“Everywhere the glitter of gold.” This is how British archaeologist Howard Carter famously recalled his first impression of Tutankhamun’s dazzling, treasure-filled tomb.
On November 26, 1922, he had raised a candle to peer through a tiny breach chiseled into a door sealed for three millennia. His protector, Lord Carnarvon, waited anxiously nearby.
The story of the couple’s incredible archaeological discovery, after years of excavating Luxor with little to show, has captivated the world and has been told time and time again.
Now, the transfer of the young king’s thousands of treasures to the soon-to-open, state-of-the-art Grand Egyptian Museum is enabling fascinating new research.
And a century later, there are new questions about how Tutankhamun became a political icon, whether Carter robbed his tomb, and why Egyptians got little credit for helping find it.
From the outset, the one-of-a-kind dig has been dogged by controversy.
Although the rules of the time dictated that the contents of an intact royal tomb must remain in Egypt, it was widely believed that there would be efforts to get them abroad.
Meanwhile, Carter and Carnarvon, grappling with a global media frenzy, struck a deal with a British newspaper that kept other journalists, including Egyptians, out of their graves. It created animosity.
Historian Christina Riggs says the couple came to be seen in Egypt as “very old school, very aligned with racist attitudes and the powers that be”.
The country had been occupied by British forces in 1882 but gained partial independence in early 1922. Tutankhamun became part of the ongoing struggle to free himself from imperial influence.
“This is a powerful symbol, that this king is being reborn just as Egypt is being reborn,” comments Dr. Riggs, who wrote Treasured: How Tutankhamun Shaped a Century.
“Egypt is the mother of civilization and Tutankhamun is our father,” Egyptian diva Mounira al-Mahdiya sang in the 1920s. Meanwhile, celebrated poet Ahmed Shawqi wrote defiantly: “We refuse to allow our heritage to be mistreated, or to be stolen by thieves.”
Egyptology’s most famous discovery owes much to luck. Carved into the floor of the Valley of the Kings, the debris had long hidden the entrance to the tomb from both thieves and archaeologists.
However, Lord Carnarvon’s luck ran out in early 1923. He died, apparently from an infected mosquito bite, although many media were quick to attribute it to a pharaonic curse.
Over the next decade, it was left to Carter to unpack the precious treasures in the tomb with his team. He was known as a stubborn and undiplomatic man and his relationship with the Egyptian antiquities service, which oversaw the work, could often be antagonistic.
From the very beginning there were rumors that he had attempted to steal. Now Egyptologist Bob Brier has uncovered solid evidence of thefts.
In his book, Tutankhamun and the tomb that changed the world, he quotes letters from philologist Sir Alan Gardiner complaining of his “uncomfortable” position after being told by an expert that an amulet and tomb seals Carter had given him were been stolen. .
“I found Carter was giving things away as souvenirs,” Dr. Brier tells me. “He just thought he owned it.”
The palatial rooms of Highclere Castle in Hampshire seem a long way from the dusty Valley of the Kings. But the stately home – now known as the setting for the costume drama Downton Abbey – was the ancestral home of Lord Carnarvon.
The lifelong adventurer, who had once tried to sail around the world, was also one of the first motorists who narrowly avoided death in a road accident before turning his attention to the ‘Egyptology.
In Egypt, he “found his passion for life,” according to the present-day Lady Carnarvon, who dug into her family archive to write The Count and the Pharaoh.
While he fretted about how to finance the costly preservation of her incredible find, she says she found a note from her relative that said she should stay in Egypt. Lady Carnarvon blames “a dreadful myriad of misinformation” in the press for suggesting otherwise.
“He was less interested in treasure and gold than in making discoveries,” she says.
Eventually, Egypt managed to preserve the wonders found inside Tutankhamun’s tomb. For decades they have been the precious exhibits of the neoclassical Egyptian Museum of Tahrir Square in Cairo.
Tutankhamun’s solid gold death mask, seen as a masterpiece of ancient art, has become an emblem for modern Egypt.
However, anger remains that the Egyptians themselves have been left out of the official story of the important 1922 discovery.
“Most of the names have disappeared from the archaeological record. We don’t know what they did. What were their reactions?” asks Egyptologist Monica Hanna.
In addition to the Egyptian workers used to clean up the tomb site, Carter also employed skilled Egyptian foremen, including Ahmed Gerigar, Gad Hassan, Hussein Abu Awad and Hussein Ahmed Said.
Like Carter himself — who had only limited formal education before traveling to Egypt to join an archaeological expedition at age 17 — they trained on the job.
This year an exhibition at the University of Oxford highlighted the role of Egyptian workers. But while there are official photographs of them, no records have been kept as to who was who.
After a hiatus, fascination with King Tutankhamun increased in the 1960s and 1970s when Egypt allowed his prized possessions to be loaned to overseas museums for successful exhibitions.
It led to the outbreak of what has been called “Tut-mania” in Western popular culture.
When the Grand Egyptian Museum – one of the largest in the world – opens near the pyramids of Giza, probably in 2023, it is expected to generate new interest. The hope is that it will boost tourism, bringing in 5 million visitors a year.
It will show for the first time the entire collection of Tutankhamun, some 5,400 pieces.
“The Grand Egyptian Museum will provide a unique opportunity to rediscover the tomb in the same way Howard Carter did 100 years ago,” says Tarek Tawfik, its former director.
Other highlights will be the magnificent old barge Khufu and the 83-ton statue of Ramses II, carefully moved from Cairo’s main railway station.
Meanwhile, 100 years later, Tutankhamun continues to inspire new waves of scientific discovery.
Modern conservation work is enabling the restoration of fragile artefacts, such as his sandals. There is new confirmation that a dagger he owns has an iron blade made from a meteorite.
Theories about the life of the young pharaoh are constantly being remade.
His mummy underwent CT scans, underwent facial reconstruction, and underwent DNA analysis. She constructed an image of him as a frail, lame, buck-toothed teenager suffering from a variety of genetic ailments, due to inbreeding into the royal family.
However, Dr Brier – known as “Mr Mummy” for his expertise in mummification – now questions the notion that Tutankhamun had a clubfoot, looking at his bones. He also notices worn armor and other artifacts in his grave that show him as a warrior.
Away from the “fragile pharaoh” idea, he says, “this all begins to add to the picture that at least Tutankhamun went into battle.”
After a century of headlines, Tutankhamun can boast an impressive afterlife. Just very different from what he would have ever imagined.