Monday, August 23, 2010

"Wonderful things"

Let's revisit the moment on November 26, 1922, when British Egyptologist Howard Carter (1874-1939) discovered the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun (c. 1341-c. 1323). Bear in mind that royal tombs in Egypt's Valley of the Kings had been plundered ever since they were filled, and that most of this one was sealed and intact. Also note that Carter had searched unsuccessfully for the tomb for 7 seasons, and that his patron George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon (1866-1923) was going to withdraw his funding. With thanks to Eyewitness to History, here's how Carter describes what most consider to be the world's greatest archaeological discovery:
Slowly, desperately slowly it seemed to us as we watched, the remains of passage debris that encumbered the lower part of the doorway were removed, until at last we had the whole door clear before us. The decisive moment had arrived. With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left hand corner. Darkness and blank space, as far as an iron testing-rod could reach, showed that whatever lay beyond was empty, and not filled like the passage we had just cleared. Candle tests were applied as a precaution against possible foul gases, and then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle and peered in, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn [his daughter] and Callender [an assistant] standing anxiously beside me to hear the verdict. At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold - everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment - an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by - I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, 'Can you see anything?' it was all I could do to get out the words, "Yes, wonderful things." Then widening the hole a little further, so that we both could see, we inserted an electric torch.
And that was just in the antechamber (1st, 2nd, and 3rd images). More than 2 months later, after the team had cleared and cataloged the precious objects from that room and the annex behind it, Carter was able to peer into the burial chamber:
My first care was to locate the wooden lintel above the door: then very carefully I chipped away the plaster and picked out the small stones which formed the uppermost layer of the filling. The temptation to stop and peer inside at every moment was irresistible, and when, after about ten minutes' work, I had made a hole large enough to enable me to do so, I inserted an electric torch. An astonishing sight its light revealed, for there, within a yard of the doorway, stretching as far as one could see and blocking the entrance to the chamber, stood what to all appearances was a solid wall of gold. For the moment there was no clue as to its meaning, so as quickly as I dared I set to work to widen the hole....With the removal of a very few stones the mystery of the golden wall was solved. We were at the entrance of the actual burial-chamber of the king, and that which barred our way was the side of an immense gilt shrine built to coverand protect the sarcophagus. It was visible now from the Antechamber by the light of the standard lamps, and as stone after stone was removed, and its gilded surface came gradually into view, we could, as though by electric current, feel the tingle of excitement which thrilled the spectators behind the barrier.
And beyond that lay a 4th chamber filled with golden treasure (4th and 5th images). For me, these original black and white photographs by Harry Burton (1879-1940) are just as rich as the shining gold in the later full-color images. Magical.


  1. Another great post. Thank you for enriching our lives with such interesting things.

  2. It must have been wonderful to behold, not only for the gold, but that it was one of the few intact tombs. These are beautiful photos!


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