On This Day 1923: King Tutankhamen’s Tomb Is Opened By Egyptologist Howard Carter

On this day, February 16, in 1923, history was made when the sealed and undisturbed burial chamber of one of Egypt’s most famous Pharaohs was finally opened. King Tutankhamen — famously referred to as “The Boy King” — died around 1323 BCE, and the fact that his tomb was finally discovered, and his burial chamber opened 3,000 after his death, made headlines around the world in 1923.

Beginning in 1914, English Egyptologist Howard Carter, financed by the wealthy Lord Carnarvon, began work excavating the tomb of Amenhotep III in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. In 1917, Carter and Carnarvon shifted their focus to finding the elusive tomb of the Boy King, Tutankhamen. By the time 1922 rolled around, Carter had found nothing to suggest he was on the right path to discovering Tutankhamen’s tomb, and Lord Carnarvon’s interest in the subject was quickly waning — as were his finances. The belief was that the site had been fully excavated by previous archaeologists and grave robbers. Some people believed there was nothing left to be found.

During what Carter expected to be his last season digging in the Valley of the Kings, he made a discovery that would renew his focus and Carnarvon’s interest. According to Tour Egypt, on November 4, 1922, the top of a sunken staircase was found and, by the end of the day’s digging, would reveal 12 steps. They also unearthed the upper part of a plaster blocking that had been stamped with cartouches, an oval frame surrounding Egyptian hieroglyphs that spell the name of a God or royal person. By November 24, the stairway had been cleared completely, and the entirety of the doorway was revealed. More cartouches proved that this was, in fact, the lost tomb of King Tutankhamen.

Two days later, Carter, accompanied by Lord Carnarvon and his daughter Evelyn, made his way to the sealed doors of Tutankhamen’s tomb and found that it had been opened re-sealed — likely by grave robbers — at some point. Carter made a small hole in the doorway leading to Tutankhamen’s tomb and held a candle to it to test for dangerous gases. By the light of the candle, he was then able to peer into the tomb, and what he saw astonished him.

“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.”

Finally, on February 16, 1923, Carter famously opened the last of the tomb’s chambers, Tutankhamen’s burial chamber, reports the South Coast Herald. Although Lord Carnarvon wouldn’t live to see the day of Tutankhamen’s discovery, Carter opened that final tomb door, with many important Egyptian dignitaries by his side. Inside the tomb’s final chamber, they found a sarcophagus that held three coffins nesting inside one another. The last — and smallest — coffin was made solid gold and contained the fully preserved, mummified body of the Boy King, Tutankhamen himself. Tutankhamen’s mummified body was the first perfectly preserved mummy ever to be found in Egypt.

Among the riches buried with the young Pharaoh were gold shrines, jewellery, weapons, statues, clothing, and a full chariot.

To prove that the body did belong to Tutankhamen, in 1925, a makeshift laboratory was set up in the tomb Sethos II, a Pharaoh who ruled over the nineteenth dynasty of Egypt in c. 1200 BCE. An anatomist by the name of Douglass Derry performed the autopsy, with Carter assisting.

It has been 93 years since King Tutankhamen’s tomb was finally opened on this day in 1923, and much mystery still surrounds him and his tomb. In November of 2015, it was revealed that infrared scans showed a possible hidden chamber within the tomb of Tutankhamen, but that chamber has yet to be discovered. It seems we’ll just have to wait to see what other secrets Tutankhamen and his tomb hold.

[Photo by Amr Nabil/AP]