In this short Q&A, we ask Aidan Dodson about the discovery of the intact tomb of the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Tutankhamun, by the British archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter, on November 4, 1922, in the Valley of the Kings.
Professor Dodson, a renowned Egyptologist, historian, and author of more than 25 books, will be giving talks in Egypt over the coming weeks about his forthcoming book, Tutankhamun, King of Egypt: His Life And Afterlife (AUC Press, December 2022), at a time when the world celebrates the centennial of the discovery of King Tut’s mummy and tomb.
How moving do you think it must have been for Howard Carter and his team to discover the chamber and the tomb of King Tutankhamun?
It must have felt amazing! The sight of an all-but-intact royal tomb was something that no-one had ever believed would be seen. To see such a sight, and to realize that deeper in the tomb must lie the undisturbed mummy of a pharaoh, must have been overwhelming.
What would be different today, now with all the technology available, if a find of such magnitude were ever to come to light? How would the artifacts be handled and treated?
The only area where new technology would have a real impact would have been on the conservation side. In those days they had little more than water, acetone, and paraffin wax, but nowadays we have a whole armory of chemicals available. Also, recording of material in situ would have been made easier by modern imaging and scanning techniques. But the basic clearance of the tomb would be little different, as it would have relied on the organizational and mechanical skills of the members of the excavation team.
Were objects damaged or stolen during the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb?
Very little was damaged during the excavation (other than the mummy because of the problems with extracting it from the solidified resins in the coffin), and nothing is known to have been stolen, as such. However, some incomplete parts of some jewellery were illegally taken to London by Carter and, unrecognized among his possessions after his death (his Egyptological executor having died soon after him), these items ended up in museums and private collections. One suspects they were taken for restoration of the missing pieces by a London jeweller, for ultimate return to Cairo, but because of Carter’s illness this never happened. Some years ago it was alleged that other items once in Carter’s possession, and which ended up in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, had come from the tomb, and were returned to Egypt. However, the latest research has shown that the pieces had nothing to do with Tutankhamun. Another piece returned to Cairo much earlier, from Carter’s flat in London, is a glass headrest – but this has now been shown to have been a modern pastiche.
The major theft and damage was done at some point between 1933 (when clearance of the tomb was completed) and 1968 (when Tutankhamun’s mummy was re-examined for the first time since 1926). Then, the mummy’s chest was cut away, to remove the parts of a collar that Carter had not been able to safely remove from the resin covering the body (the bits he did manage to remove are those he took to London), and the scalp removed in an attempt to take a beaded skull-cap, likewise left in place by Carter, as impossible to remove without destroying it. The eyes and ears of the mummy were damaged as well. The strong suspicion is that the theft took place during the Second World War, when a lot of theft took place on the west bank at Luxor (mainly paintings from private tombs). A report was compiled on the whole issue of theft during 1939-45, but although announced was never published.
Why do you think this young pharaoh has captivated so much attention and generated such fascination worldwide?
Egypt, treasure and death are always popular! The fact that Tutankhamun died so young and was part of the whole Akhenaten/Nefertiti story has helped. There is also the idea of archaeology as a ‘search for buried treasure’—which is (or should not!) be the case, although still perpetuated by people who ought to know better.
Would you like to have been there on that November 4, 1922? What would you have done first?
I think almost any Egyptologist would have liked to have been—provided they were not in charge! I would have done everything Carter did that day—he was way ahead of his time as a field archaeologist, and I don’t think anyone else alive at the time would have been as successful in carrying out the clearance. Indeed, when he had a falling-out with the Egyptian authorities, and others were approached over replacing him, all refused.