Tutankhamun before Tutankhamun

Barbara Gai recounts the discovery of the Embalming Cache KV54 and its astonishing contents.


An embalming cache, improperly called a ‘tomb’, is a repository that contains material used for the embalming procedures. Such materials primarily consist of natron salt used in the mummification process, soiled linen strips, rags, and rarely, embalmers instruments; some caches have also included beds or mats on which the body was laid during the embalming process. Caches of embalming material could be placed directly inside a tomb, rather than in a separate area, and we have evidence of this in two tombs belonging to the second half of the Eighteenth Dynasty: the tomb of Maiherpri (KV36), (for more on this tomb see AE132); and the tomb of Yuya and Thuya (KV46), the parents of Queen Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III, and mother of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten).

The kind of materials found in the embalming caches, especially in KV54, KV36, and KV46, is rather homogeneous and generally consists of material that was in very close contact with the body of the deceased. The ancient Egyptians never discarded the materials left over from the embalming process, but kept them in jars, pottery containers, or coffins and buried them near the body of the deceased or in a place not far from the burial, in the belief that even traces of physical remains contain something of the person’s identity.

A gilded mummy mask, one of the treasures found in the cache tomb, KV54. The mask most likely belongs to one of Tutankhamun’s children buried in KV62 with the king.
Photo: RBP

The Discovery of KV54

KV54 is the most famous cache, now known as ‘Tutankhamun’s Embalming cache’, and was discovered in the Valley of the Kings on 21st December 1907 by Edward R. Ayrton, a young British archaeologist member of the expedition team led by the American amateur archaeologist Theodore M. Davis. The team was excavating an area situated above the tombs of Sety I and Ramesses X, when Ayrton’s men found the shaft of KV54 close to the latter tomb. It was an unfinished and abandoned tomb consisting of a single, shallow squarecut pit, 1. 17m by 1. 17m by 1. 69m deep, located about 110m southeast of where Tutankhamun’s tomb (KV62) was later found. The pit had been covered with chippings from the ancient excavation of the tomb of Rameses VI.

The location of KV54 in the Valley of the Kings.
Map: Peter Robinson

Inside the pit Ayrton’s team discovered a huge variety of objects with evidence they were linked to a king called Tutankhamun, who was at that time known only from a small faience cup bearing his name (discovered by Ayrton in 1905/6). The lid of a large broken jar in KV54 had been wrapped with a piece of linen bearing the name of this king, and several seal impressions included the cartouches bearing Tutankhamun’s name and his throne name: Nebkheperura, “Lord of manifestation is Ra”. Also, on a corner of a piece of fringed linen sheet there was a short inscription written in hieratic: “The Good God, Lord of the Two Lands, Nebkheperura beloved of Min; linen of Year 6” with other pieces dated to Year 8. This led Davis to announce he had discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, publishing his findings in 1912. However, although the finds were connected to the king’s burial, it was not the tomb of Tutankhamun that Davis and Ayrton had found, but his embalming cache.

The faience cup found by Ayrton, inscribed with the cartouche of Tutankhamun – one of the clues that eventually led to the discovery of his tomb. Photo: Davis (1912) Bibân el Molûk. The Tombs of Harmhabi and Toutânkhanou pl. xcii

Cache Contents

The KV54 cache is unique and extraordinary for the variety of objects found there and almost all the objects of this cache were in an excellent state of preservation. Unlike other caches, it contained a dozen large sealed storage jars. Besides some broken pottery, the jars contained 50 bags of powdery white natron (the combination of soda and salt so essential for the embalmers), and some other objects probably used in the offering and purification ceremonies performed at the burial of Tutankhamun. There were also numerous kinds of very interesting and astonishing finds: about two dozen pieces cloth; three linen sheets bearing hieratic dockets; more than 180 linen bandages; three collars of dried flowers plus many fragments; two fibre brooms; dishes; 19 papyrus-fibre jar lids and three fibre jar stoppers; water bottles; 72 offerings cups; bowls; 185 pottery vessels; about 20 sticks; a little basin of unfired clay; funeral and domestic equipment; mummy wrappings; scarabs; and small broken mud seal impressions bearing the name of Tutankhamun that had once been attached to string closing boxes and bundles.

A mud seal attached to a papyrus fibre tie that may have joined a lid to a box or jar. PHOTO: Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA)

Among the textiles, the kerchiefs are of particular interest: two of white and one of blue linen of double thickness, they are made of very light and fine linen and were probably worn to protect the head from dust. One small gilded mummy mask – very finely chiselled – was probably meant for one of the royal couple’s children who sadly died prematurely. The two infants were found buried in KV62 – one wearing a golden mask, but there was no mask on the second child, so it is logical to think that the small gilded plaster mask found in KV54 was precisely this missing mask. It was too small to fit over the head of the infant, so was stored in the entrance corridor of KV62 and later moved to KV54 after Tutankhamun’s tomb was looted.

A bandage with selvedged edges showing it was specially woven for the mummification of Tutankhamun. PHOTO: Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA)
One of 50 bags of natron found in the KV54 cache, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. PHOTO: Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA)

Clues and Conclusions

In the early 1900s, archaeologists were not familiar with the existence of embalming caches, so none of Davis’s team realised the significance of such a variety of materials. When Davis accidentally opened one of these jars and found the magnificent little gold mask, the other jars immediately became objects of interest. However, after opening them one by one and finding less spectacular contents, the materials were judged to be of little importance and were placed in the storeroom of the expedition house.

Some of the exceptionally well-preserved items found in the Tutankhamun Cache in KV54. PHOTO: Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA)
A model dish in unbaked clay. PHOTO: Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA)

The following year, Davis was persuaded to donate all the jars and their contents to the expedition of the Metropolitan Museum of New York working at the Deir el-Bahri site and the surrounding area. Herbert Winlock, a young archaeologist who was part of the American expedition, had witnessed Davis opening the jars, and although thinking that they contained nothing of intrinsic artistic value, he needed some artefacts to take back to America after a fruitless excavation season. At the museum, the jars were emptied and their contents examined and catalogued.

A floral collar made of flowers, olive and persea leaves, berries and faience beads sewn onto a papyrus backing. PHOTO: Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA)

It was only in the early 1920s that Winlock, having found similar, smaller deposits elsewhere, realised the importance of Davis’ discovery. Re-examining the KV54 material, Winlock recognised that some rolls and fragments of bandages were the materials left over from the wrapping of the king’s body, and that a number of the rags had been used to clean the body of the king. As the Metropolitan Museum began to reconstruct the pottery fragments, Winlock observed that they included an elegant wine carafe, vessels used for the fermentation and storage of wine and beer, and a large number of saucers that the ancient Egyptians used to contain the food they ate with their fingers. The jar contents also included the bones of ducks, geese, cows, and sheep or goats. This led Winlock to conclude that these were the remains of the funerary feast – the first such remains to be found in the Valley of the Kings. There were also some splendid ornaments, such as the three magnificent floral necklaces (probably worn by the guests at the funerary feast) made of olive twigs, cornflowers, and the berries of the woody nightshade – these last strung in groups of four in five rows, bead-like, on thin strips of date palm-leaves with blue beads, all carefully edged with red fabric. Reed brooms were also found which might have been used to sweep away the guest’s footprints after they had finished their meal.

Howard Carter Solves the Mystery

Howard Carter also recognised that KV54 was not the tomb of Tutankhamun, discussing the issue with Winlock in 1915. But he realised that the existence of such a cache suggested that the king’s tomb was still waiting to be found in the Valley of the Kings. Of course he was proved right when in November 2022 he discovered the entrance to KV62. But how did some of the king’s artefacts end up in KV54?

Howard Carter in Chicago in 1924. PHOTO: Public domain.

Tutankhamun’s tomb was small and densely furnished, so the entrance corridor would be the only suitable area for use as a deposit for the embalming materials, funerary goods, and other objects left over from the funerary meal if they were to be buried in the tomb but away from the body of the king. Carter was able to make a connection between the fragments he found at the foot of the stairs into the access corridor of KV62, with the contents found in KV54. He was also able to show that Tutankhamun’s tomb had been breached at least twice in antiquity. He deduced that following the first robbery, the entrance corridor was emptied of funerary goods and filled up to the roof with rubble to deter further robberies. The materials originally placed in the corridor of KV62 had to be moved and were reburied by necropolis officials in KV54. And the finding of this wonderful cache in 1907 paved the way to the one of the worlds’ most important archaeological discoveries – thanks to the tenacity – and detective skill s – of Howard Carter.

A diagram of the layout of KV62 showing the original location of the embalming cache in the main corridor. Following the first robbery, necropolis officials moved the contents to KV54 and filled the corridor with rubble to prevent further robberies. Diagram: Courtesy of Susan Allen
Barbara Gai is a graduate student from the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy at the University of Firenze (Italy), specialising in Egyptology. You can read her article on the Pomegranate in ancient Egypt in AE 132. 
Further Reading 
Allen, J. S. (2002) “Tutankhamun’s Embalming Cache Reconsidered”, in Z. Hawass (ed.) Egyptology at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century: Proceedings of the Eighth International Congress of Egyptologists, Cairo, Egypt, 2000, Vol 1 Archaeology, pp.23-29: www.academia.edu/2347064/ _Tutankhamun_s_Embalming_Cache_ Reconsidered_
Eaton-Krauss, M. (2008) “Embalming Caches”, in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol.94, 2008, brief Communication, p. 288: www.gizapyramids.org/pdf_library/ eaton-krauss_jea_94_2008.pdf
Reeves, N. (1990) The Complete Tutankhamun. Thames & Hudson Ltd, London. [Revised edition due October 2022]
Winlock, H.E. (1941) Materials used at the embalming of Tutankhamun. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.