On this day in 1923 Howard Carter opened the sealed doorway into the burial chamber of Tutankhamun. He, Lord Carnarvon his patron, and Lady Herbert, Carnarvon’s daughter went into the tomb. They saw the fabulous mask and the sarcophagus of the one Pharaoh whose grave had not been plundered by earlier generations of grave robbers.
Carter had spent fifteen years searching for the missing tomb. Lord Carnarvon, a keen supporter of archaeology, had been patient, but by 1922 even this most forgiving of patrons told the archaeologist he had only one more season in which to find the elusive Pharaoh.
Carter found the steps to the tomb on 4 November 1922. Lord Carnarvon willingly made the journey to Egypt from his beautiful Highclere estate near Newbury. On 26 November they made a small hole in the doorway and peered through into the antechamber. It was full of artifacts from the Pharaoh’s time. These were catalogued prior to the breathtaking discoveries beyond the sealed door, that awaited the party on that fateful February 16th 85 years ago.
Carter held an excavation permit from the Egyptian authorities, and the main items were delivered into Egyptian ownership. The tomb was not kept intact, and the amazing jewels and mask have travelled the world so many more people can see them. Some to this day believe it was wrong to violate the only tomb left untouched in the hugely impressive Valley of Kings. Some think it would have been better to have opened it to see, but not to have split up the collection and taken it from its intended last resting place.
To contemporary British people in 1923 it seemed natural that it should be a combination of British aristocratic money with a British adventurer who should crack the last secret of the Valley. It was typical of the self confidence of Empire. The willingness to work with the Egyptian authorities was born of a growing understanding that Britain no longer had the right to claim all it could grasp or find. It was a gripping Boy’s own tale of a hard pressed pioneer, up against his luck, who finally found something he had told the world was missing. Later generations have had more misgivings about what happened once they broke through into the tomb. Thoughts about this reflect the move from Empire to a more complex world, with different people and nations having different views of what is the right thing to do to revere and understand the past.