The Enigma of The Pharaohs: Unearthing The Boy King Tutankhamen’s Tomb 96 Years Ago

The Egyptian dynasty which stretches as far back as 5000 years ago, has always been shrouded in mystery and lore. The little that has been gleaned from archaeologists portrays a glittering cornucopia of culture, wealth and grandeur. Howard Carter unearthed one of the rare intact tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs left, one of King Tutankhamen in 1923 today, kick starting speculation around the enigmatic dynasty with plenty of sensationalism thrown in. But for everything we’ve tried to learn about the Egyptian pharaohs, much of their history lies still buried in blanketed darkness and silence underneath intricate tombs which were sealed to keep out outsiders.

Egyptian Street
Armed with modern technology, we’re using mummies to answer questions on how they looked like, with historians arguing among themselves as to the accuracy of their findings. Recently, a 3D model of a prominent Egyptian queen Nefertiti was created to have a better idea of what she looked like based on her mummy which is preserved well to a large extent. The queen was said to be beautiful as well as powerful and controversy has stepped in with regards to her complexion; which some say should be darker in keeping with her origin while some historians doubt that she’s even the same queen.[ CITATION Mad18 \l 1033 ] The Search for Tutankhamen’s Tomb
Egypt’s Valley of Kings near the historical river Nile across Thebes is a bare and unforgiving place. The sun beats down mercilessly on the desolate landscape which does not allow for any shelter or vegetation, with a temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit in winter to 120 degrees in summer. Here is where the ancient priests interred the pharaohs in an attempt to safeguard them from robbers but to no success; most of the tombs of the pharaohs were pillaged with the exception of the boy king Tutankhamen’s tomb.

Tutankhamun Tomb
Tutankhamen is estimated to have died around 1346BC at the early age of 19 and though available archaeological knowledge deemed all pharaoh tombs as discovered, Howard Carter, an English Egyptologist arrived at the arid valley with a hunch that the boy king’s tomb remained untouched and sealed below the heated, sandy landscape. In 1914 Carter backed financially by Lord Carnarvon, started looking for the tomb in true earnest. After seven fruitless years, Carter knew he was getting closer to the tomb and convinced Lord Carnarvon to support him for a while longer when they stumbled upon steps hidden amidst debris leading to a tomb in November 1922.
Unearthing the Pharaoh’s Tomb
Clearing the debris they reached a sealed door with Tutankhamen’s royal seal engraved on the door. While Carter was sure he had found Tutankhamen’s tomb he was scared that it had already been violated and pillaged as evidenced by the large amounts of debris leading up to a second sealed door. On November 26th, with Lord Carnarvon and a few more members, they began breaking open the second sealed door. The results they had awaited for seven long years was about to be revealed and as Carter reveals it was, “the day of days, the most wonderful that I have ever lived through.”

Howard Carter at King Tuts Tomb
Making a small breach on the upper left hand corner, Carter peered in to the darkness holding a candle to test for foul gases emitting from the opening, the candle flickering from the hot air oozing out of the chamber. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see figurines of strange animals, a great wealth of objects and the glint of gold. In Carter’s words, “For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.’ Then widening the hole a little further, so that we both could see, we inserted an electric torch.” [ CITATION Car78 \l 1033 ]

The wonderful things that Carter had espied were a great wealth of hitherto unseen Egyptian antiques and artifacts. The tomb consisted of four chambers, they set to work discovering all four chambers full of a profusion of precious objects. After cataloging the objects in two rooms they were ready to break the fourth sealed doors which contained what they had been seeking, Tutankhamen encased in gold, darkness and heavy silence.

Tutankhamen encased in gold

“With the removal of a very few stones the mystery of the golden wall was solved. We were at the entrance of the actual burial-chamber of the king, and that which barred our way was the side of an immense gilt shrine built to cover and protect the sarcophagus… So enormous was this structure (17 feet by 11 feet, and 9 feet high, we found afterwards) that it filled within a little the entire area of the chamber, a space of some two feet only separating it from the walls on all four sides, while its roof, with cornice top and torus moulding, reached almost to the ceiling. From top to bottom it was overlaid with gold, and upon its sides there were inlaid panels of brilliant blue faience, in which were represented, repeated over and over, the magic symbols which would ensure its strength and safety. Around the shrine, resting upon the ground, there were a number of funerary emblems, and, at the north end, the seven magic oars the king would need to ferry himself across the waters of the underworld. The walls of the chamber, unlike those of the Antechamber, were decorated with brightly painted scenes and inscriptions, brilliant in their colours, but evidently somewhat hastily executed.”[ CITATION Car78 \l 1033 ]

There was a plethora of objects inside the tomb, everything the pharaoh king might need in his afterlife. Golden chariots glinting in the flickering light, Tutankhamen’s throne of gold, a fleet of miniature ships to transport him to the netherworld, statues of gold and ebony of the king hunting and standing sentry at his tomb, bottles of perfume, precious jewelry and cannisters of preserved goose flesh, beef, honey, bread, wine and beer. A total of 5398 items were found inside his tomb which took a total of 10 years to catalog. Objects like chalices, a golden mask and coffin as well as an iron dagger was found which is suggested to have been made from meteorite.

The Curse of the Pharaohs
The mummified body had amulets nestled in the tomb with curses written for anyone desecrating the tomb. The media furore gave fuel to the rumours of a curse befalling those who violated the sanctity of the tomb and were further fanned by mysterious events which took place after the tomb was opened. Though Carter himself was wary of such rumours, he records an instance in May 1926 when he saw jackals which looked like Anubis, the Egyptian guardian of the dead for the first time in thirty five years of working in the desert.[ CITATION Cur \l 1033 ] Though most of the tombs of the Old Kingdom had curses inscribed in the tomb, one example of such a curse is the one in Khentika Ikheki’s (9 -10th dynasty) tomb which declared, “As for all men who shall enter this tomb… impure… there will be judgement…an end shall be made for him…I shall seize his neck like a bird…I shall cast the fear of myself into him.”[ CITATION Cur \l 1033 ]

Curse of the Pharaohs
Out of the 58 men who accompanied Carter when the sarcophagus was opened, eight died in the next 12 years. Lord Carnarvon who funded the expedition died of a mosquito bite which got infected four months and seven days after the opening of the tomb. The rumours of the curses gave way to works of literature dabbling in the mysterious circumstances of the deaths of the eight individuals.

Lord Carnarvon
The Egyptian Civilisation’s Perception of Death
As evidenced by the elaborate care and provisions made for the deceased pharaohs, it is certain that the Egyptians held the concept of death and afterlife with gravity. The civilisation accepted death and believed in an afterlife that transcended death and made sure the deceased were adequately prepared. The gravity which they attached to death is seen in the legend of Osiris, said to be the first mummy. Though reports also suggest that some mummies were formed thank to the elements of nature, the harshness of the desert heat and sand dehydrated the corpses and maintained their bodies somewhat. The legend of Osiris has many myths converging to a form a series of stories and by stories merging into a plot. Osiris, a God and a primeval king of Egypt is betrayed and murdered by his brother Set. His body is cut into pieces and scattered by his brother but Osiris’ mourning widow puts him back and bounds him in the likeness of a mummy and posthumously has a child by him. According to the mythological story his body is restored by Thoth, a God with magical healing powers, and Anubis the god of embalming and funeral rites. The story is the basis of the tradition of embalming and reversing decay of the body which is the ground stone of the mummification process. The body must be preserved to go on to have a pleasant afterlife.

Egyptian Civilisation’s Perception of Death
The Mummification Ritual
The process of embalming and preserving the body took 70 days to finish. However, for poor people it took less than a week. Special priests with detailed knowledge of the human anatomy, often wearing Anubis masks would take out the organs which would rot inside the body. The brain was taken out through the nasal cavity by means of a hooked instrument. It was a delicate procedure, with risk of disfiguring the face. Next an incision was made on the left side of the abdomen and the organs of the chest and abdomen were removed and put into jars called Canopic jars. The jars had lids shaped into the form of the four sons of Horus. The liver was placed in a jar with the human head of Imset. The lungs were associated to Hapi, with a baboon’s head and was placed in the jar with Hapi’s head. The stomach was placed in a jar with the lid whose head was Duamutef, with a jackal’s head. The intestines and viscera were associated Kebechsenef, with a falcon head.

National Museum of Natural History
The heart was left within the body as it symbolized the person’s intelligence and life force. In later years, the organs were dried and wrapped in linen and placed inside the body but the canopic jars continued to be placed with the mummy. The body was washed from within with fragrant date wine and spices.
The embalmers used natron, a drying salt to rid the body of all moisture. The body was covered with the crystalline salt and packets of natron were placed within the body. The result was a dried out body which retained human form. The body was then plumped out with linen and aromatic spices such as myrrh and cassia to make it even more life-like. Jewelry, wigs, false eyes and make up were used to make the body look alive.

Wrapping the body was the next step. Hundreds of yards of linen were required and spells were cast with each step of the mummification. Fingers were wrapped separately, magical words were written on the linen and amulets added between the strips to protect the body. A mask in the person’s likeness was placed on the face in between the folds of linen. The body was sometimes coated with warm resin to retain form and then the wrapping was renewed. After placing a final shroud on the body, it was bound by strips of linen and the mummy was complete. A final ceremony took place called the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ in which the priest touched the senses of the mummy with a special instrument believed to open the senses for the afterlife. By touching the instrument to the mouth, the mummy could speak and eat and so on. The mummy was then placed in several coffins, surrounded by all provisions it would need for the afterlife and the tomb was sealed.

landscape painting
The Soul of the Body: ‘Ka’, ‘Ba’ and ‘Akh’
All this trouble was taken as Egyptians believed that the body needed to be preserved as it was home to the soul. The soul was believed to consist of three parts, the ‘ka’, ‘ba’ and ‘akh’. The ‘ka’ was the double of the deceased person which would reside in the tomb and need the provisions in the tomb. The ‘ba’ was the soul which could wander out from the tomb and return to it. The ‘akh’ was the spirit which would pass into the Underworld for divine judgment and then go on into the afterlife. Small models of workers or ‘shabtis’ were placed in the tomb to serve the pharaoh in the afterlife.
For such an ancient civilization, the process of embalming was remarkably progressive. Clearly the people loved life and did not believe that death was the end all. They fully intend to continue their lives beyond the bleak realm of death. Their final embalming spell reveals their calm belief, “You will live again. You will live forever. Behold, you are young again forever.”[ CITATION Anc17 \l 1033 ]


(2017). Ancient Egyptians – The Origins of Mummification.
Carter, H. H. (1923. 1978). The Tomb of Tutankhamen. Tutankhamun – The Untold Story.
(n.d.). Curse of the Pharaohs. Wikipedia.
Dapcevich, M. (2018). Artist Recreates Egyptian Queen In Controversial 3D Modelling, Scientists Aren’t Convinced.