Thursday, November 24, 2011

"Yes, wonderful things . . ."

November 25 is the date upon which, in 1922, the first breathless look into the Antechamber of the Tomb of Tutankhamun revealed treasures which had lain beneath the sand in the Valley of the Kings for 3,245 years.

British archaeologist Howard Carter (1874 - 1939), under the financial support of the Earl of Carnavon, George Herbert (1866 - 1923), had cleared the twenty-six foot passageway whose entrance had been discovered on November 5 and arrived at a sealed door.

They had no idea what they would find on the other side.

Carter relates the events that followed in his own words in his book, The Tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amen, Discovered by the Late Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter (1933):
With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left-hand corner. Darkness and blank space, as far as an iron testing-rod could reach, showed that whatever lay beyond was empty, and not filled like the passage we had just cleared. Candle tests were applied as a precaution against possible foul gases, and then, widening the hold a little, I inserted the candle and peered in, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn and Callender standing anxiously beside me to hear the verdict. At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold - everywhere the glint of gold. 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."
With that statement, the excitement over the discovery of this first intact tomb of an ancient pharaoh began to spread around the world. I have already related in a previous post the effect the artifacts from Tutankhamun's tomb had on me when they toured the world between 1972 and 1979.

The importance of this world-shaking discovery cannot be overstated. Not only did it spark intense interest in ancient Egypt that began almost immediately after the first press conference on November 30, 1922, but it revealed a wealth of information about Egyptian burial practices and beliefs from the period (Tutankhamun reigned in the 18th dynasty, and died in 1323 BC).

Carter carefully recorded the position of the wealth of artifacts in the tomb before removing and preserving them. Some of his photographs can be seen in his multi-volume description of the discovery and excavation of the tomb. In February of 1923, he and his team had cleared the Antechamber enough to reach the wall of the Burial Chamber and look inside. This wall was dismantled in order to enable them to begin removing the nested burial shrines which nearly filled the room and which contained the nested sarcophagi that held the king's mummy with its magnificent golden mask.

Today, the mummy has been returned to the burial chamber and rests (in a climate-controlled environment) in the same room where it slept for over 3,000 years.

On one page of his work describing the effect of his monumental discovery, Carter writes: "Thus we learn not to overvalue the present, and our modern perspective becomes less complacent and more philosophical" (20).