Finding Tutankhamun

On 4th November 1922, Howard Carter arrived on site at the Valley of the Kings for another day of excavation. However, shortly after he arrived the atmosphere changed. The Egyptian workmen were all hushed and stood gathered around a certain spot. They had found a step. As the workmen dug further they found another step and another until a sealed door was revealed. While it would take Carter a further two weeks of waiting to know for certain, this was what he had been searching for for years: the tomb of Tutankhamun.


Forgotten Pharaoh

It is difficult to imagine now, but 100 years ago very few people would have heard of Tutankhamun. While most kings were recorded in ancient lists of kings’ names and were well known from inscribed monuments and statues, Tutankhamun was an exception to the rule. This was no accident, as in the aftermath of his reign, Tutankhamun was intentionally forgotten and erased from history by the Ancient Egyptians. This step was taken not because of anything bad that he had done personally, but because he ruled at the end of a controversial chapter of Ancient Egyptian history that the Ancient Egyptians wanted to pretend had never happened. Considering the Ancient Egyptian belief that a person’s name being remembered and spoken was key to their existence after death, the erasure of Tutankhamun seems quite a harsh punishment for being born at the wrong time. However, this action ironically led to Tutankhamun being the most famous and talked about pharaoh of them all.

From Tell el-Amarna…

Howard Carter first encountered Tutankhamun on his first excavation in Egypt when he was just 17 years old. In January 1892, he joined the excavation at Tell el-Amarna which was being excavated by the famous archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie. Tell el-Amarna was an Ancient Egyptian city founded by the 18th dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten who ruled c.1353-1336 B.C.E. Akhenaten is now believed to be the father of Tutankhamun but is best remembered as a heretic king who changed ancient Egyptian religion to worship the Aten, the sun disk. Akhenaten also moved the capital to Akhetaten (Tell el-Amarna) which was occupied until the end of the reign of Tutankhamun. Because of this, the city is almost a time capsule preserving a time period that was later edited out of Ancient Egyptian history.
While excavating the ancient city, several small objects, such as fragments, scarabs and rings were found bearing the name of Tutankhamun. In the collection in Macclesfield we have a blue faience ring which we believe came from this excavation. Many similar rings were found at Tell el-Amarna and the excavators even found the moulds which were used to produce them.
However, even with all of this evidence very little was known about Tutankhamun as a person. It was clear that he was a king that ruled after Akhenaten, that he returned the country to the worship of Amun (the main god before the Amarna Period) and that he was named Tutankhaten before changing his name to Tutankhamun. Beyond this he was a mystery.

… To the Valley of the Kings

After the excavation at Tell el-Amarna Howard Carter continued working in Egypt, leading excavations and becoming the Chief Inspector of Monuments of Upper Egypt for the Egyptian Antiquities Service. However, he never forgot about Tutankhamun. Theodore Davis, an American who excavated in the Valley of the Kings 1902-1914, found in the course of his excavations a small pit containing jars labelled with the name of Tutankhamun, a faience cup bearing his name and a pit tomb which contained fragments of gold with the names of Tutankhamun and his wife. Davis thought that what he had discovered was the tomb of Tutankhamun and proclaimed that the Valley of the Kings was exhausted. Carter, however, wasn’t so sure and became determined to find the tomb of the forgotten pharaoh. With funding from Lord Carnarvon, Carter and his workmen set about systematically excavating the Valley of the Kings in order to find Tutankhamun.

Six years of excavation went by and still there was no sign of Tutankhamun. Carnarvon told Carter that he would no longer fund the excavation but Carter begged to have one last season, even offering to fund it himself. Carnarvon, knowing that Carter could not afford it, decided to fund one final season.


That final season would change everything.

The discovery of his tomb catapulted Tutankhamun into the spotlight after millennia of obscurity. Crowds gathered around the tomb daily to see what would be brought out of the tomb next and reporters were anxious to get the latest news. Many tombs had been found in the valley over the years but none had attracted this level of attention from the media and wider public. The reason for this was that the other tombs had been emptied long ago. The Valley of the Kings was subjected to ancient tomb robberies and even the kings that had not suffered from looting directly were moved to group burials for safety. However, when Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922 it still contained most of the burial goods that he had been buried with thousands of years ago.

Today Tutankhamun’s name is spoken more than any other pharaoh which, according to Ancient Egyptian religion, helps him to continue living in the afterlife. The treasures in Tutankhamun’s tomb made him the most famous pharaoh in history yet the only reason they survived was because he had been intentionally forgotten by the Ancient Egyptians.