Victorians and Egyptomania: Enter King Tut, Stage Right – Part Four by Sara Taylor

Interpretive Guide, Sara Taylor

At the turn of the century, the world was changing. The Victorian era had just ended and Edward VII now ruled the British Empire, on which the sun never set. By 1901 Egypt was a de-facto British protectorate under nominal Ottoman control and there was a growing nationalist movement. In 1914 the British government established the Sultanate of Egypt and a growing interest in preserving Egypt’s pharaonic past grew among native Egyptians.

In 1908, American lawyer turned Egyptologist Theodore M. Davis, who had been excavating in the Valley of the Kings for years, announced that he feared “The Valley of the Tombs is completely exhausted.”

Oh, how wrong he was.

Carter with sarcophagus (from Wikicommons)

The Tomb of the Century

While many feared the Valley of the Kings had been exhausted of its tombs and treasures and that nothing more could learned from it, British Egyptologist Howard Carter and his financial backer George Herbert, the 5th Lord of Carnarvon, were not so convinced.

Since 1894 Carter had worked and studied under some of the greats of Egyptology including our friend Flinders Petrie.

Carter started working for Lord Carnarvon in 1907 and in 1922 Lord Carnarvon, who was dissatisfied by the lack of results, agreed to fund one more season of excavation.

In November of that same year, Carter returned and began excavating near some abandoned huts. Not long after that, a water boy named Hussein Abdel Rasoul stumbled upon what later turned out to be part of a stairway. Immediately Carter sent a telegram to Lord Carnarvon and by the time Lord Carnarvon and his daughter arrived two weeks later, the stairway was clear, revealing the still sealed door stamped with the cartouche of the pharaoh Tutankhamun.

Hussein Abdek Rasoul (from Pectorial,

The Young King

Tutankhamen came to the throne circa 1332 BCE at the tender age of nine, and reigned until circa 1323 BCE, after the turbulent reigns of his father Akhenaten and his immediate successors, Smenkhkare and Neferneferaten.

Akhenaten, whom most Egyptologists agree was likely Tut’s father, turned away from the traditional worship of the Egyptian pantheon, attempting to wrest power from the powerful high priests at the temple of Karnak and moving the capital to an isolated region, now known as Amarna, away from Egypt’s traditional religious and economic centers.

While scholars still debate to what extent Akhenaten’s attempt at monotheism really disrupted the lives of every day ancient Egyptians, it was enough that Tut and his advisors had to issue several declarations re-establishing the old traditions, restoring several temples, and re-asserting Egyptian military power.

When Tut died after reigning a mere ten years he was buried in a small tomb that was not meant to be his. His cause of death was likely a combination of malaria and a broken leg. His short reign after years of turmoil, followed by the succession of a new Dynasty, helped ensure his tomb remained relatively undisturbed until 1922.

Face reconstruction of what King Tut may have looked like (with a modern rendition on the right) by @royalty_now_ (Left Image: © reconstruction Elisabeth Daynes, Right Image pieces: iStock Photo &

In the middle of the night before the official opening of the tomb Carter, Carnarvon, and Lady Evelyn sneaked to the tomb and chiseled a small opening in the door and after putting a candle through, Carnarvon asked Carter “Can you see anything?” And Carter replied, “Yes! Wonderful things!”

The tomb was crammed with artifacts that the Ancient Egyptians believed that the pharaoh would need in the afterlife – chariots, bows, jewelry, and offerings of food. His tomb also contained a favorite tunic he had worn as a child, embroidered with ducks, and the small remains of Tutankhamen’s two daughters.

Tut Death Mask (from Wikicommons)

Carter and the Egyptologists he recruited to help catalogue all the artifacts in the tomb were very meticulous even for the standards of the day, but even so it would take them another ten years to fully clear the tomb of all its contents!

If you’d like to read Howard Carter’s notes on the excavation check out the Griffith Institute’s website below.