Archaeological Discoveries that Changed the World: The tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History blog!
Archaeology is a crucial companion discipline to art history because it helps to uncover past civilizations and their works. So, I thought that it would be important to highlight discoveries in a new series here on the blog! For this first installment, I’ll be discussing one of the most famous discoveries in the past 100 years: Pharaoh Tutankhamun and his tomb! Hidden for over 3000 years, the treasures and art within have taught us so much about the New Kingdom! So, to learn more about this magnificent discovery, keep on reading!
Who was Tutankhamun?
Before I dive into the discovery of his tomb, I think that it's important to set up the historical background of Tutankhamun. He is also known as “The Boy King” as he was only 9 years old when he ascended the Egyptian throne. Tutankhamun was the son of the “Heretic Pharaoh” Akhenaten and the woman known only as the “Younger Lady”. Her iden
tity is unknown, but DNA analysis shows that she was the sister of Akhenaten. (Some historians believe that this genetic relationship could have also occurred from several, consecutive generations of first cousin marriages.) Akhenaten was known as the Heretic Pharaoh because he broke away from centuries of polytheistic tradition and pivoted towards the monotheistic worship of Aten, the sun disk.
Tutankhamun ruled over Egypt for about ten years, from 1334 – 1325 BCE. His reign was a relatively minor blip in the history of Egypt and is most remembered for breaking away from the Aten worship of his father and back to the traditional polytheistic worship of the Egyptian pantheon. Tutankhamun had a variety of health issues including bone disease that required the use of a cane, a club foot, scoliosis, and several encounters with malaria. Despite this, he was expected to marry and produce an heir. In accordance with Egyptian traditions, he married his half-sister Ankhesenamun, the daughter of Akhenaten and the famous Nefertiti. Together, they had two daughters that died either right before or right after birth. They were buried along with Tutankhamun in his tomb. The young Pharaoh died at the age of 18, likely from an infection.
For nearly 3500 years, Tutankhamun’s final resting place remained hidden in the sands of the Egyptian desert. But, with the rise of archaeology, it would only be a matter of time before he was found. In 1907, George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, hired Egyptologist Howard Carter to excavate in the Valley of the Kings. For 15 long seasons, Carter worked but found little of note. The 1922 season was to be his last because Carnarvon was frustrated by the fact that he was spending a lot of money without anything to show for it! But, as it turns out, one more season was all he needed!
By 1922, it was thought that the Valley of the Kings had been fully explored. Evidence of Tutankhamun’s existence had been found in other 18th dynasty tombs (such as small items that bore his cartouche), so Egyptologists assumed that his tomb had already been discovered and robbed in antiquity, as was the case with many burial places. On November
4 1922, Carter and his team were digging in an area that had already been explored. But suddenly, one of the workers uncovered a stair. Excited, they started to dig and soon uncovered an entire staircase! After a few weeks, they were able to enter into an antechamber and clear it out. On November 26, Howard Carter broke open the seal. He said: 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.
When the group was able to enter the tomb, they were astounded by how many objects inside. It was absolutely jam packed with nearly 5400 items! They ranged from royal regalia, everyday objects that would be needed in the afterlife, food, and religious artifacts. There was some evidence that the tomb was robbed in antiquity, but it is unknown why they didn’t return. It took Howard Carter nearly eight years to catalog and pack up the objects in Tutankhamun’s tomb! When he was finished, the world had a much clearer understanding of Ancient Egyptian culture.
In the 100 years since the discovery of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb, art historians, archaeologists, and Egyptologists have been able to expand their knowledge on the New Kingdom exponentially! It also helped to capture the public’s imagination, boosting tourism and study around the world!
Gardner’s Art through the Ages, 12th edition by Fred S. Kleiner
Cover Image: Mask of Tutankhamun
CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
CC 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
Tutankhamun and his sister-queen, Ankhesenamun
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Howard Carter examining Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons