Eamonn Lynskey recalls the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun and the political aftermath
‘.. and when Lord Carnavon, unable to bear the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously: ‘Can you see anything?’ It was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.’
Thus wrote Howard Carter of the moment when with the aid of a candle he peered through a small hole in the final sealed door of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the young king who reigned in the XVIII Dynasty of Egyptian kings in the fourteenth century BC.
The tomb might not have been discovered at all because the British archaeologist Howard Carter was under heavy pressure to abandon his searches in the Valley of the Kings, which had been ongoing for several years. Lord Carnavon his financial backer had by 1922 spent so much money on the excavations that his family fortune was considerably depleted and he had decided enough was enough. Carter however, acting on a hunch and on finding some minor items in a particular area which bore reference to Tutankhamun, pleaded for one more attempt. The peer reluctantly agreed, and so it was that 100 years ago on 26 November 1922 Howard Carter became the first man in modern times to glimpse the treasures that had been stored in the antechamber of the king’s tomb 3,200 years ago. Tomb robbers had glimpsed them previously in ancient times when they had broken into the tomb on two occasions and had even got as far as the burial chamber itself.
Excavators of other tombs in the Valley of the Kings had always found that thieves had got there first and had stripped out anything of value. The pillaged tomb was always left in a pitiful state, a jumbled mess and empty of its contents with only its wall paintings left to attest the grandeur of its former occupant. Carter however found that although some items had been taken from Tutankhamun’s tomb, it looked for the most part undisturbed. Some boxes were broken open and emptied and some small items lay scattered on the floor. Were the thieves disturbed in their thievery and had to flee? Or had they taken what they could carry and intended to return for more? What or who had intervened to stop them? – There is little hope now of solving these mysteries at this distance of more than three thousand years!
Whatever was that happened, the doors had been resealed in ancient times and the rubble that had closed off the entrance, and which had been removed by the thieves was replaced, as if the authorities of that distant time were keeping an eye on things. As well as that, a later landslide of stone from above, possibly during the creation of another tomb, had further obscured the entrance and had made access even more difficult. It would seem that after these initial minor deprivations the tomb passed out of memory and had remained largely intact for over three millennia.
No matter how often one sees illustrations or reads descriptions of the tomb’s treasures, the initial wonder does not fade. The first items that Carter and Carnavon could discern were three great gilt couches carved in the form of animals, and in the shadows deeper within they could make out two life-sized statues of warriors, gold-kilted and armed with mace and staff, facing each other like sentinels. They could also discern seats, ornamented chests many other beautiful objects. It was to take two more years of careful work before the enormous wealth of this antechamber could be extensively photographed in situ and then carefully removed to be examined and catalogued. Where gold could be used it was used exquisitely and plentifully on jewellery, model boats, chairs, chariots, wall paintings and personal adornments. Everything was of the finest workmanship, from the smallest items such as beaded necklaces and tiny statuettes, to the larger items such as the young king’s throne and disassembled chariot.
When by 17 February 1924 the excavation team was ready to enter the burial chamber more wonders were in store – a magnificent sarcophagus containing an elaborately decorated coffin, inside of which were two more, each fitting exactly into the other. The final coffin contained the mummified body of the king, his face and upper body covered by the splendidly ornamented gold mask which subsequently has achieved such an iconic status in the public mind as to become the unmistakable emblem of the land of Egypt itself.
As well as all these magnificent treasures there was the poignant discovery of two small coffins containing the still-born mummified remains of the King’s two daughters, attesting that their father considered them entitled to accompany him on his journey into the afterlife. The tomb of his wife and half-sister Ankhesenanmun has never been identified with certainty but it is speculated that it may be nearby. Yet another mystery from those far-off times to be solved.
Carter’s achievement is an archaeological event with few parallels and can perhaps only be set beside the discovery in 1974 of the extraordinary mausoleum of the first Qin Emperor near Xian in China with its thousands of life-size terracotta warriors on guard, and which is still under excavation. Both tombs share their ancient civilisation’s conviction that there exists an afterlife for which the deceased must be provided with the wherewithal to make the final journey, a belief mirrored in more humble troves of grave goods found worldwide, including at Tara and at the ancient cairns at Loughcrew in County Meath in Ireland.
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb filled in some of the gaps in what is known of Egypt’s ancient history. His embalmed body and the incredibly beautiful objects of his entombment so long ago in the Valley of the Kings provided a stunning insight into the kind of world over which he presided during his short reign from 1333 to 1323. However, he was destined to reign far longer in the minds of humans everywhere in our modern history than he did in his own time. Certainly, this is because of the opulence of his tomb and its fine treasures, but also because of the Egyptian and British Colonial political situation that pertained at the time he was found.
Turbulent times in Egypt
His discovery coincided with a turbulent time in Egyptian history, a period when the country was moving towards independence and determined to shake off the remaining shackles of the British Empire. There is little doubt that in a previous era the fate of Tutankhamun might have been that of Nigeria’s Benin Bronzes, or Greece’s Parthenon Frieze: whipped away to grace the galleries of the British Museum and the displays of other European capitals. And in fact, various attempts were made to claim the tomb’s treasures on behalf of Britain; it was argued that since it was British money and a British archaeologist that had found them, they really belonged to Britain – a form of the ‘finders keepers’ argument that had great weight in previous eras when the British aristocracy regarded archaeology as a gentleman’s hobby and felt entitled to take home anything they found.
By 1922 the times were out of joint for that kind of thinking and, in what was the beginning of the movement which in recent times has asserted the primacy of the claim of any civilisation to its own artworks, the arguments of the colonial past carried little weight. And most especially little weight with the arrival of a newly assertive United Arab Republic of Egypt conscious of its heritage and of wrongs done to it in the past. Independence had been declared on the 24th February 1922 and the official opening of the tomb in early 1924 coincided with the inauguration of Egypt’s first elected parliament.
There followed a long period of wrangling which resulted finally in Egypt taking ownership of the entire find, with some monetary compensation to Carnavon’s estate in respect of the expenses incurred in the excavation. Except for some well-judged donations to foreign museums by the Egyptian authorities, their king of three millennia ago would remain in his tomb and his treasures would remain in his native land. When later it was found, on Carter’s death, that some items had been illegally taken to Britain from the tomb, the British Foreign Office, afraid of a diplomatic furore, managed to repatriate them secretly back to Egypt.
Tutankhamun’s discovery intensified an interest in Egypt and its ancient art which is of long duration. The Greek historian Herodotus had visited Egypt some 2500 years ago and had marvelled at its wonders. The ancient Romans too were intrigued by it and the cult of its goddess Isis had spread throughout Greece and the Roman Empire. It was even held that Egyptian civilisation traced its origins back to the lost continent of Atlantis.
Our modern fascination with Egypt dates back to Napoleon’s military invasion in 1798. His army included scientists and artists who began the era of systematic excavation and documentation of ancient remains. The monuments and artifacts discovered by these early archaeologists unleashed an enthusiasm throughout Europe for all things to do with ancient Egypt, influencing fashionable attire, furniture design, architecture, urban landscaping and much else. London, New York and Paris had to have their ‘Cleopatra’s Needles’ shipped from Egypt – so-called, even though they had only a tenuous, if any, connection with the famous Egyptian queen. Ireland too had some Egyptian chic when in 1867 The Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin purchased four mass-produced ‘Nubian princesses’ from a foundry in France and which still adorn the building’s façade to the present day. And this all before the discovery a hundred or so years later in 1922 of Tutankhamun’s largely intact royal tomb and its treasures.
As regards Tutankhamun himself, his discovery added significantly to our knowledge of the king and his times. His short reign had been quite scantily known to historians, many of whom had dedicated their lives to disentangling the lineage and succession of ancient Egyptian potentates. This lack of information about the boy-king seems all the more extraordinary given the lavish treasures found in his tomb, evidence of his high status and of the regard and importance attached to his reign. The mystery about how he was so neglected in ancient records still remains. Scholars suggest that he was elided from the historical record by hostile successors because of his reign’s attempt to return to the worship of the old gods against the wishes of those who wanted to supplant them with new ones – a scenario curiously reminiscent of some more recent political-religious manoeuvrings.
Finally, a question is sometimes raised about our right to disturb people’s graves, even in the name of archaeology. Apart from its splendours and its extraordinary history, it must be remembered that Tutankhamun’s tomb is, after all, just that – a tomb. A last resting place. We would be shocked to find the grave one of our relatives – or any one’s grave – opened and items buried with that person taken away by strangers. One of Carter’s collaborators, Thomas Hoving of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, wrote that when they entered the king’s tomb they felt ‘the near embarrassment of being intruders’. And Carter himself, addressing the charge that archaeologists are little better than the tomb robbers they criticise, wrote in his account of the discovery that ‘by removing antiquities to museums we are really assuring their safety: left in situ they would inevitably, sooner or later, become the prey of thieves, and that, for all practical purposes, would be the end of them’. Considering the fate of the tombs of Egyptian Kings far greater than Tutankhamun, it would be hard to argue that his tomb should have been left ‘in peace’.
Such discoveries are an addition to our knowledge of the past and we can, hopefully, learn from them something about ourselves as human beings who have been given such a short sojourn on the planet. For Egypt itself, emerging again as an independent state and anxious to assert its national identity on the world stage, it was a discovery that came at just the right time.