On February 16, 1923, a British archaeologist named Howard Carter stepped into the long-sealed tomb of King Tutankhamen for the first time. Tut, rearing from his sarcophagus, plunged his mummified hand into Carter’s chest and removed his still-beating heart.
Not really. But there is perhaps no other act in science as veiled in superstitious fear than opening a mummy’s tomb. And King Tut was the most famous mummy of all.
Carter came to Egypt in 1891 and was convinced that he could find King Tutankhamen’s tomb. At the time, King Tut had been largely forgotten by history. He lived around 1400 B.C. and died in his teens before he could establish a legacy. Carter, funded by a British patron named Lord Carnarvon, spent five years searching for Tut’s tomb. By 1922, Carnarvon was ready to pull his money out of the expedition. But Carter persuaded him to fund another year, and it turned out to be a wise decision.
Undiscovered tombs were significant both for their archaeological significance and potential for making their discoverers very rich. The 1800’s saw a fever of professional and amateur Egyptologists raiding tombs across the region. Many of the tombs they found had already been looted of all their treasures.
Carter found Tut’s tomb in November of 1922. Someone in Carter’s coterie discovered debris-strewn steps hidden close to another tomb’s entrance. The steps led to a sealed door that bore Tutankhamen’s name. Carter and Carnarvon opened the tomb on November 26 and found it untouched for over 3,000 years, replete with treasure. They investigated the tomb’s first four rooms but left Tut’s actual burial chamber unopened.
They entered it on February 16, 1923, attended by an entourage of officials and hoi polloi. Inside the chamber were three sarcophagi nested in each other. The smallest coffin contained Tut’s mummified remains. It was the first perfectly preserved mummy ever discovered, and surpassed the rest of the loot in value. Along with the mummy, they found jewelry, a chariot, weapons, golden shrines, statues and clothing.
The treasures were displayed in a traveling exhibition called “The Treasures of Tutankhamen.” The relics eventually ended up permanently housed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
After the tomb was opened, myths circulated that the investigating parties who opened it were victims of “King Tut’s Curse.” Lord Carnarvon died shortly after opening the tomb, but it was due to health conditions that preceded his visit to Egypt. Other members of the party also died, but it was at a proportion that would be reasonably expected of any group of people.