The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 was a monumental event for archaeology. It was the first largely intact ancient Egyptian royal tomb to be found and hence provided major insights into the burial practices of royalty. It also gave a glimpse of what other undiscovered, lost or robbed tombs of pharaohs might have been like.
Tutankhamun was a relatively minor pharaoh. He died young and did not get the chance to leave a larger legacy, so such a lavish funerary provision for him implied even greater treasures in other tombs of more accomplished pharaohs.
Interest in the burial practices of the ancient Egyptians was well-established, with the deciphering of hieroglyphs in 1822 creating a watershed moment for Egyptology, but the discovery of the tomb built on this and brought ancient Egypt to the masses through media reports.
The discovery came just after the first world war, in a period of deep mourning for the losses in conflict. The story of a young man with a family who had died before his time resonated with many. Tutankhamun was a burst of glorious colour in a dark time, which came with the extra draw of the mysteries of the tomb and eternal life. It was also found in a last-ditch attempt to locate it; Howard Carter had been searching for it for years, and his success made a compelling story of hope, persistence and reward.
It was also a discovery full of mystery and intrigue. An ancient king in a long searched-for tomb full of fascinating objects laden with mystical and primeval meaning. The story captured the public’s imagination and papers at the time capitalised on that interest with a tale of a curse.
The famous fake curse
The oft-quoted curse “Death will come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the king” does not actually appear anywhere in the tomb. There are real ancient Egyptian curses but this was not one. Tutankhamun’s curse stemmed from a media battle for readership.
The Times had the exclusive rights for reporting on the excavation, so speculative stories were published by other newspapers, including the rumours of a curse. This again played on post-Victorian familiarity with spiritualism, an interest in the gothic in literature and the trend for travellers’ souvenirs, which often included mummified remains or other objects from tombs.
Readers bought into the idea of a curse with relish. There were also a series of illnesses, accidents and other events the papers attributed to the opening of the tomb. The most notable was the death of Lord Carnarvon, who funded the excavation, on April 5 1923. The cause of death was an infected cut, but the opportunity to connect this with the curse was irresistible.
Students of Egyptian mysticism … attribute sickness and death to curse laid by Ancient Egyptians on any who dare disturb the rest of a Pharaoh". (Allentown Morning Call, April 5 1923).
Research since, has, however, thoroughly debunked the idea that those present at the opening met an untimely end. Only a handful of people who were there at the opening died within the next decade and Howard Carter, who would have been a primary target for a curse, died in 1939, aged 64.
Despite us all knowing that curse was fabricated, it has had a long-term effect on the discovery of ancient relics and the perpetuation of such myths. The idea that human remains must be dealt with carefully has been present since the early days of excavation. However, archaeology today is concerned more than ever with the ethics of working with human remains, their interpretation and how they are kept.
The discovery of the tomb, the boy king and the myths that surround it still fascinate us today. We now know more about ancient Egyptian culture than a century ago, but a lot of answers still elude us.
The objects in the tomb are beautifully crafted and full of symbolism and meaning, painted or inscribed with hieroglyphs that in their mystery inspire wonder and intrigue. However, much of the tomb’s contents have never been fully published and there is still ongoing work to catalogue the objects and research the excavation itself. Discoveries continue to be made, including new evidence that suggests Carter stole some artefacts.
Tutankhamun and the dig remain in the cultural consciousness. The golden funerary mask is often the first, or the most memorable, image of ancient Egypt that the public encounters. Many people have become archaeologists or Egyptologists because the striped gold and blue mask captured their imagination so firmly.
The dig also remains the benchmark of excavation, discovery and exhibition. The British Museum’s display in 1972 of selected treasures from the tomb, including the gold funerary mask, is still the Museum’s highest-attended exhibition (1.6m visitors) and arguably the one against all others are compared.
This centenary year has seen hundreds of events associated with the discovery, Tutankhamun himself and his times. With the heritage sector’s increasing focus on the ethics of past and present collectors and excavators, the story of the tomb is in the public eye once more, as a focal point for revisiting histories as well as reaffirming Tutankhamun as the most famous face in antiquity.
Claire Gilmour does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.