Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of the Kings, Luxor

The modern-day entrance to the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings

Over ninety years ago, on 26 November 1922 to be exact, Howard Carter got the first glimpse of what was to become in the days to follow what is arguably one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries. It is certainly one of the most well known and more celebrated – still to this day. The discovery is of course the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, on the West Bank at Luxor.

Having started excavations on the first of November by the fourth Carter had found the first steps of a tomb about four metres below the entrance to the tomb of Ramses VI. Assured of something exciting, the following day he sent the following telegram to Lord Carnarvon, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, for whom Howard Carter worked:

“At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley a magnificent tomb with seals intact recovered same for your arrival congratulations “

By 25 November, Lord Carnarvon had come to Luxor – with his daughter Evelyn, and Carter and his team opened what was the first doorway of the tomb. This revealed a passage filled with rubble. The following is the entry in Howard Carter’s diary for Sunday, 26 November:

After clearing 9 metres of the descending passage, in about the middle of the afternoon, we came upon a second sealed doorway, which was almost the exact replica of the first. It bore similar seal impressions and had similar traces of successive reopenings and reclosings in the plastering. The seal impressions were of Tut.ankh.Amen and of the Royal Necropolis, but not in any way so clear as those on the first doorway. The entrance and passage both in plan and in style resembled almost to measurement the tomb containing the cache of Akhenaten discovered by Davis in the very near vicinity; which seemed to substantiate our first conjecture that we had found a cache.

Howard Carter's journal, 26 November 1922

One of two pages from Howard Carter’s journal for 26 November 1922 © Griffith Institute

Feverishly we cleared away the remaining last scraps of rubbish on the floor of the passage before the doorway, until we had only the clean sealed doorway before us. In which, after making preliminary notes, we made a tiny breach in the top left hand corner to see what was beyond. Darkness and the iron testing rod told us that there was empty space. Perhaps another descending staircase, in accordance to the ordinary royal Theban tomb plan? Or may be a chamber? Candles were procured – the all important tell-tale for foul gases when opening an ancient subterranean excavation – I widened the breach and by means of the candle looked in, while Ld. C., Lady E, and Callender with the Reises waited in anxious expectation.

It was sometime before one could see, the hot air escaping caused the candle to flicker, but as soon as one’s eyes became accustomed to the glimmer of light the interior of the chamber gradually loomed before one, with its strange and wonderful medley of extraordinary and beautiful objects heaped upon one another.

There was naturally short suspense for those present who could not see, when Lord Carnarvon said to me `Can you see anything’. I replied to him Yes, it is wonderful. I then with precaution made the hole sufficiently large for both of us to see. With the light of an electric torch as well as an additional candle we looked in. Our sensations and astonishment are difficult to describe as the better light revealed to us the marvellous collection of treasures: two strange ebony-black effigies of a King, gold sandalled, bearing staff and mace, loomed out from the cloak of darkness; gilded couches in strange forms, lion-headed, Hathor-headed, and beast infernal; exquisitely painted, inlaid, and ornamental caskets; flowers; alabaster vases, some beautifully executed of lotus and papyrus device; strange black shrines with a gilded monster snake appearing from within; quite ordinary looking white chests; finely carved chairs; a golden inlaid throne; a heap of large curious white oviform boxes; beneath our very eyes, on the threshold, a lovely lotiform wishing-cup in translucent alabaster; stools of all shapes and design, of both common and rare materials; and, lastly a confusion of overturned parts of chariots glinting with gold, peering from amongst which was a mannikin. The first impression of which suggested the property-room of an opera of a vanished civilization. Our sensations were bewildering and full of strange emotion. We questioned one another as to the meaning of it all. Was it a tomb or merely a cache? A sealed doorway between the two sentinel statues proved there was more beyond, and with the numerous cartouches bearing the name of Tut.ankh.Amen on most of the objects before us, there was little doubt that there behind was the grave of that Pharaoh.

We closed the hole, locked the wooden-grill which had been placed upon the first doorway, we mounted our donkeys and return home contemplating what we had seen.

Advised the Chief Inspector of the Antiquities Department, who was with us at the commencement of the opening of the first doorway, and asked him to come as soon as possible, preferably the following afternoon to enable us to prepare an electrical installation for careful inspection of this extraordinary and pleasing discovery.

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. Tutankhamun is probably the most well known figure from the past, exhibitions of his funerary objects shatter attendance records worldwide.

Visiting Tutankhamun’s Tomb Today
Although it is still possible to visit Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, there have been murmurings and rumours about the tomb being closed to the public. In 2011 Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities indicated that for conservation reasons the tomb will be closed to the public, but no date has been given.

Tutankhamun's tomb interior artwork

The painted walls inside the tomb.

During the busiest periods of the tourist season it is thought that about 6,000 people visit the tomb everyday. The structure was obviously not built for any visitors, and this flow of visitors is starting to take its toll.

So, perhaps it is best to get your visit in sooner rather than later, while you still can. There are numerous organised tours of the sites of ancient Egypt, many of which include a stop at the Valley of the Kings. For independent travellers, visiting the Valley of the kings is fairly straightforward. You need to get yourself to Luxor (there is an international airport there, but it is also possible to get a train or bus from Cairo). Much of modern-day Luxor is on the eastern side of the Nile River, but there are also hotels and hostels on the west bank, which is where the Valley of the Kings and other major sites (including the Valley of the Queens, Deir el-Bahari, Deir el-Medina, the Ramesseum) are located.

If you are looking for a good guide book to the archaeology of the area, I thoroughly recommend The Treasures of Luxor and the Valley of the Kings by Kent R Weeks, available on Amazon.co.uk. This is not a guidebook that will tell tell you the prices and opening times of the various sites in and around Luxor, rather it is an excellent introduction to the archaeology of these sites, by a highly respected Egyptologist who knows this area better than most. the format makes it suitable to take with you to the sites.

Practical information about visiting the Valley of the Kings, and all other sites and museums open to the public, can be found on the Supreme Council of Antiquities’s Website (currently under construction).

A Replica is Now in Egypt
To celebrate the 90th anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, an exact replica has been given to the Arab Republic of Egypt as a gift from The Factum Foundation (Madrid), the Society of Friends of the Royal Tombs of Egypt (Zurich) and the University of Basel. This near perfect facsimile was unveiled in Cairo on the occasion of an EU conference dealing with tourism issues, 13 November 2012.

The Supreme Council of Antiquities have identified a site at the entrance of the Valley of the Kings, not far from the house Carter lived in when working in the Valley, where the replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb will be permanently installed. One of the key aims of this project is to protect the original tomb but at the same time promote sustainable tourism with the view to encourage and support further conservation projects.

The replica is due to move to its final location at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings sometime before April 2013. The production of replica was carried out by a Spanish workshop in Madrid, Factum Arte. It has taken then over three years to produce, involving techniques of recording and reproduction that have had to be developed specifically for the completion of this project.

Post Script: Since this post was written (26 November 2012), the facsimile tomb has been opened to the public, on 30 April 2014 (Read More Here).

Egyptian Museum, Cairo

The Cairo home of the artefacts recovered Tutankhamun’s tomb.

The Egyptian Museum, Cairo
The many thousands of artefacts recovered by Carter and his team from the tomb of Tutankhamun are stored and displayed in the Egyptian Museum on Tahrir Square, downtown Cairo. Not all the objects are on display there at any one time, but what I saw was very impressive.

Practical information about visiting the Egyptian Museum, as well as other sites and museums open to the public in Egypt, can be found on the Supreme Council of Antiquities’s Website (currently under construction).

Highclere, Carnarvon and Egyptology
When Lord Carnarvon died in April of 1923 many of the antiquities he had at Highclere Castle were sold to the Metropolitan Museum (New York) to pay the death taxes. A small number of objects were retained by the family, and these together with other artefacts that have been loaned back from the British Museum and the Newbury Museum now form the basis of an Egyptian Exhibition in the cellars of Highclere celebrating the contribution both the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter made to Egyptology.

  • Egyptian Exhibition at Highclere Castle
  • Carnarvon & Carter: The Story of the Two Englishmen who Discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun by 8th Countess of Carnarvon (2007) is available on Amazon.co.uk.

Howard Carter’s diaries and journals are now in The Griffith Institute, University of Oxford. The Institute has many of the principal resources relating to the history of archaeology and ancient cultures of ancient Egypt and the Near East, which may be accessed directly or online. Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation is the definitive archaeological record for Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, with many of these resources available online.