Milestones in Egyptology: the discovery and clearance of KV62, the tomb of Tutankhamun

Howard Carter’s long search in the Valley of the Kings is rewarded.

J Peter Phillips

When tomb KV54 was first discovered in 1907, it was initially thought to be the burial place of Tutankhamun, since items bearing his name were discovered there. But by 1915, English archaeologist Howard Carter had realised that this was in fact a so-called ‘cache’ tomb containing items used in the young king’s funeral. He was convinced that the actual tomb must be nearby and gained sponsorship from the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon to commence a systematic search of the parts of the Valley of the Kings that had not already been excavated. The Earl’s money – and patience – was almost exhausted when, on 4th November 1922, a young Egyptian boy working for Carter uncovered the first step of a descending staircase leading to a tomb. When the entrance stairway was cleared, Carter was confronted by a sealed doorway, which to his dismay showed that the tomb had been robbed twice in antiquity and then resealed by the ancient necropolis officials. The descending corridor beyond the first doorway had been filled with rubble, but robbers had dug a tunnel through this to a second doorway, which again showed evidence that it had been resealed in antiquity. The moment when Carter first looked through the small hole he had made in the second doorway, and saw his candlelight reflected off golden artefacts in every direction, has passed into history as the most famous event in archaeology.

One of the statues from KV62 being packed by Howard Carter ready for transport. Visible through the opened doorway to the Burial Chamber behind the statue is the outer one of the four nested gilded wooden shrines that contained the sarcophagus and coffins of the pharaoh. Image: Burton photograph P0497 © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford

Despite the pillaging of the robbers, who had ransacked the contents of all the rooms of the tomb, more than 5,000 items remained, including the undisturbed mummy of the pharaoh himself, enclosed in a solid gold coffin nested within two further gilded coffins, a sarcophagus and four gilded shrines. It would take Carter many years to clear the tomb, as many of the objects were very fragile and needed to be conserved before they could be transferred to their destination in the Cairo Museum; the work was not completed until 1932.

To mark the centenary of this important discovery, we have chosen as our archive image a photograph taken by Harry Burton that highlights the meticulous care taken by Carter and his team – here shown carefully packing one of the two life-sized black and gilt statues found in front of the sealed entrance to the Burial Chamber.