Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 June 2005
Issue No. 748
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Tutankhamun's tomb -- the untold story

This is a big year for Tutankhamun, perhaps one of the most important since the discovery of his tomb 83 years ago. Jill Kamil recalls the drama that surrounded that event

Click to view caption
Howard Carter in discovery mode

While the boy king Tutankhamun has rarely been out of the limelight since Howard Carter found his tomb in 1922, interest in this enigmatic Pharaoh has proliferated in the past months. An exhibition of Tutankhamun's treasures kicked off its world tour in the German city of Bonn last year and has since moved on to Los Angeles, from where it will go on to three other American cities before returning to Europe. Meanwhile; the mummy itself has been subjected to 1,700 high-resolution CT-scanning by a multinational team of scientists with a view to uncovering facts about how Tutankhamun met his death (apparently not by foul play). Now, to satisfy curiosity about what he really looked like, three independent teams have reconstructed his features using the latest forensic techniques.

Does it matter what he really looked like when we have statues and representations of his beautiful young face on so many objects from his tomb? Was it necessary to carry out the scan on his mummy, only to confirm what had already been deduced by early scholars? The answer must, of course, be "Yes" -- if it is a question of maintaining interest abroad in Egypt and Ancient Egyptian treasures.

It is with this in mind that we recall the hullabaloo that surrounded events following the discovery of Tutankhamun's now famous tomb. The early 1920s was a period in modern Egyptian history when politics and archaeology commingled for the first time. Egypt was riding a wave of nationalism when Carter made his discovery in the Valley of the Kings only four years after the end of World War I. A constitutional monarchy was about to be declared, and it was therefore inevitable that the discovery of an intact royal tomb would be drawn into the political arena. It was a possibility of which Carter seems to have been unaware. He and his sponsor began their work during a period of foreign domination, and they regarded Egyptology as exclusively a Western domain.

There are many versions of the discovery and many articles have been written about the so-called "curse of the Pharaohs", but few references concern what actually went on behind the scenes: how Carter and his aristocratic British sponsor Lord Carnarvon insulted Egyptian government officials; how the tomb was officially closed for many years and Carter banned from working on the necropolis; or that the then antiquities law, tabled by Auguste Mariette in the reign of the Khedive Ismail and under which the discoverer and his sponsor were entitled to half of any objects found during an excavation, was re-tabled. For the first time Egypt managed to retain an entire collection from a single excavation in the home country. Such events, surely, are just as worthy of note as the results of modern technological experiments on Tutankhamun's deteriorated mummy.

When the British archaeologist located a doorway bearing the seal of the necropolis and realised that he had found an intact tomb in the Valley of the Kings, he secured it from robbers and reputedly waited until the arrival of Lord Carnarvon and his daughter before proceeding to clear the entrance passageway. On 26 November, following their arrival, the full height of a second sealed doorway was revealed, and the rest is history. Carter made a tiny hole with an iron rod, peered inside, and saw "wonderful things".

There is no doubt that both Carter and Carnarvon, who had funded excavations in the royal valley for some 15 years, expected the law to hold good and to take possession of half the treasure. With this in mind they made a series of errors of judgment, as a result of which the tomb was officially closed. Few know that for years after the discovery Carter was banned from the necropolis and that access to the tomb was prohibited.

News of the discovery naturally spread like wildfire, and to halt what Carter described as "fanciful reports" (some even suggested that he had entered the tomb before the arrival of Carnarvon and taken some objects) he was anxious to set down an authoritative account of the discovery. Also, unbeknown to anyone outside his inner circle, he signed a contract with The Times of London in which he agreed to give them exclusive media coverage. This action was to have serious repercussions.

Carter's second mistake was even more serious. He took it upon himself to set the date for an official opening of the tomb at 29 November 1922, and invitations went out to the British high commissioner in Egypt, Lord Allenby, the provincial governor Abdel-Aziz Yehia, the chief of police Mohamed Fahmi, and some other Egyptian notables and officials. Significant by his absence was Pierre Lacau, director-general of the Antiquities Service, then under the auspices of the Ministry of Works.

According to Carter's account, Lacau was unable to attend but said he would make an official inspection of the tomb on the following day. Such a curt response, if indeed it was made, was laden with doubtful nuance in view of the moot relationship between France and Britain.

In fact, as soon as Lacau heard of the discovery, he insisted that a member of the staff of the still French-run service should be on site during the entire excavation. His choice was Egyptologist and linguist Reginald Engelbach, who was chief inspector in Luxor. However, Engelbach was on an inspection tour, so the passageway was cleared without the presence of a representative of the Antiquities Service. This gave Carter and Carnarvon the impression that the tomb was theirs, and they went ahead with the arrangements for the opening.

Lacau was, understandably, deeply offended when the official opening of the tomb was announced before he had even been to Luxor to see it for himself. He followed a long line of French directors-general of the Antiquities Service -- including such illustrious scholars as Auguste Mariette, who spearheaded the service, and Gaston Maspero, who opened the first museum of antiquities, both of whom worked tirelessly to safeguard Egypt's heritage by tabling an antiquities law to prevent foreign archaeologists from taking the cream of their discoveries abroad.

Before the full wealth of the tomb of Tutankhamun was known, discussions took place between the Antiquities Service and the Ministry of Works on the legality of the treasures of the first royal tomb ever discovered intact being considered as a unit and, as such, remaining in Egypt.

When the 1923 elections swept Wafd Party- founder Saad Zaghloul into office as prime minister of the first people-based cabinet of the constitutional monarchy under King Fouad, it was only to be expected that the tomb's treasure would be drawn into the political arena. Even as the king presided over the ground- breaking ceremony of a proposed new university campus at Giza, and Carter and his team entered the burial chamber of the tomb, news began to circulate that the government planned to place restrictions on foreign archaeological missions in Egypt.

In an effort to stall any such restrictions by the government, Carter and Carnarvon -- busy separating the huge gilded shrines that fitted one within the other, as well as a quartzite sarcophagus within which lay three anthropoid coffins - decided to change their tune. They communicated with, and gained the support of the British Museum, the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts -- all in the hope of embarrassing the government into dividing the treasures according to the existing law by stressing that they did not claim a half share of the objects in the tomb for themselves personally, but for exhibition in museums abroad.

The drama climaxed on 12 February 1924, the date scheduled for the official lifting of the sarcophagus lid in the tomb chamber. This time the invitation went out to a more carefully selected delegation. The event would be attended by British aristocracy, French and American archaeologists and politicians, Egyptian nobility, representatives of every nation, and Pierre Lacau of the Antiquities Service. The official photograph of the occasion shows Lacau wearing a dire expression. Members of the national and international press were gathered in Luxor when they learnt of the exclusive rights granted to The Times, and they were outraged.

As the celebrated occasion approached, with excitement at fever pitch, Howard Carter made another grave mistake. He had already alienated the Antiquities Department and the Egyptian press, and should have known better than to ask for permission for the wives of the expedition members to visit the tomb before the arrival of the official delegation. The suggestion that foreign women be allowed into the tomb before Egyptian officials was an affront of the first order. Morcos Hanna, the newly- appointed minister of public works (with the Antiquities Service under his supervision) immediately sent Carter a letter forbidding him from showing the tomb to the women and threatening that the government would close and seal the tomb unless permission were given for a special preview by Egyptians.

Carter was not ready to listen. Stubborn by nature, he insulted Hanna and refused to apologise or listen to the advice of his colleagues. The government took action. Pierre Lacau applied the existing antiquities law - many clauses of which had never been seriously adhered to - on behalf of the government, as was his right. He requested the names of all of Carter's "assistants", and declared that no one could visit the tomb without prior permission from the Antiquities Service. Since Carter had already entrusted a small group of scholars to open the outer sandstone sarcophagus and record the tomb's contents without prior permission, he had already violated the law.

Morcos Hanna himself went to Luxor, stood over the sealing of the tomb, and posted a guard. The Times correspondent, witness to the events, sent briefs that made headlines: "Tomb locked against Mr Carter", "Government guard posted", and "The tomb isn't yours".

Needless to say, The Times lost its monopoly, and Carnarvon was obliged to abandon his formal claim to the treasure. The tomb was officially closed for several years after the discovery, and Howard Carter banned from the Valley of the Kings. He decided to go on a lecture tour to the United States, and launched two court cases against the government -- one for a half share of the antiquities, the other for the right to study and restore the treasures. Only in 1925, three years after the discovery, was he allowed to resume work in the tomb of Tutankhamun, but then only under strict control.

Meanwhile, responding to government sentiments, Lacau started to table a revised antiquities law. This gave the government total authority to supervise and safeguard all excavations, rather than cede rights to the excavator, and declared its right to approve the direction of all field projects, including all members of the staff. Infringement would lead to cancellation of the concession. The distinguished and learned French scholar must have been delighted to clip the wings of his long-time British rivals.

In 1929, a revised antiquities law to control wealthy foreigners working in Egypt from taking the cream of their discoveries abroad was ratified. It stipulated that no concessions would henceforward be given to individuals, only to recognised institutions. What it amounted to was that neither Carter nor Carnarvon had the right to take a single object from Tutankhamun's tomb out of the country.

World attention was riveted on Luxor as the spectacular objects from the tomb came to light. The beautiful objects represented the golden age of the Ancient Egyptian empire and the greatest find in the history of Egyptology, and as a consequence tourists flocked to Egypt. The hotels in Luxor set up tents in their gardens to accommodate guests from all parts of the world. Shops sold out of goods. A fake antiquities trade flourished, and the demand for genuine antiquities was such that there arose an irresistible temptation to supply them.

Carter, with the help of such scholars as Sir Alan Gardiner, James Breasted, and Percy Newberry, completed documentation of the 5,000-odd treasures. All were transported by train to the Egyptian Museum in 1932, except for the king's mummy, which was left in the inner coffin in his tomb in the royal valley.

The recent studies of the mummy and the scan on 5 January revealed that it was, as at the time of discovery, in poor condition. It was divided into pieces and the chest destroyed, probably during the extraction of amulets and other sacred objects. Modern scientists confirmed that Tutankhamun died at the age of 19, possibly as a result of an infection to a knee injury; that he was approximately 170cm tall, slight of build, and that he had a fracture of the left thighbone (which could have occurred during embalming), and, for those interested in such details, that he seems to have had an overbite, a common characteristic of the kings of his family.

Recommended reading:

Zahi Hawass, The Golden Age of Tutankhamun: Divine Might and Splendor in the New Kingdom, The American University in Cairo Press, 2004.

Nicholas Reeves, The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, the Tomb, the Royal Treasures , Thames and Hudson London, and The American University in Cairo Press, 1990.

33% Off -- Al-Ahram Weekly Annual Subscription: $50 Arab Countries, $100 Other. Subscribe Now!
--- Subscribe to Al-Ahram Weekly ---

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 748 Front Page
Front Page | Egypt | Focus | Region | Economy | International | Supplement | Opinion | Reader's corner | Culture | Features | Heritage | Living | Sports | Chronicles | Cartoons | Profile | People | Listings | TRAVEL
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map