89 years ago today

Remember the Golden Age of Egyptian archaeology?  Before everything came stamped with the face of Zahi Hawass?  If you do, you might be aware that today is the anniversary of the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb.

On Feb. 16, 1923, the burial chamber of King Tutankhamen’s recently unearthed tomb was unsealed in Egypt. The New York Times called it “perhaps, the most extraordinary day in the whole history of Egyptian excavation.”

King Tutankhamen’s tomb is situated in the Valley of the Kings, east of the Nile River in Egypt. In 1907, the English archaeologist Edward Russell Ayrton uncovered a pit in the area containing pots, dishes and other objects belonging to Tutankhamun, then a relatively unknown 14th-century B.C. pharaoh. Mr. Ayrton’s sponsor, the American Theodore M. Davis, proclaimed that he had discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb and donated some of the objects to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. After years of study, Herbert Winlock, a curator at the Met, determined that the objects were left over from the embalming process and funeral, and that the pit was not actually Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Mr. Winlock theorized that Tutankhamun was likely buried nearby. The English archaeologist Howard Carter corresponded with Mr. Winlock and decided to search for the tomb. Funded by Lord Carnarvon, he began excavating the area in 1914 and found nothing for seven years. Lord Carnarvon considered giving up.

On Nov. 4, 1922, Mr. Carter finally uncovered the door of Tutankhamun’s tomb. After three weeks of removing stone and rubble from a corridor behind the door, Mr. Carter reached a second sealed door. With Lord Carnarvon watching, Mr. Carter opened the door slightly and held up a candle that revealed gold statues, beds and hundreds of other objects in the room behind the door.

Mr. Carter and his team spent nearly three months cataloging and removing objects from the tomb before he was able to reach the burial tomb. On Feb. 16, he began taking down the door to the burial tomb. “It finally ended in a wonderful revelation,” The Times wrote, “for before the spectators was the resplendent mausoleum of the king, a spacious and beautifully decorated chamber completely occupied by an immense shrine covered with gold inlaid with brilliant blue faience. This beautiful wooden construction towers nearly to the ceiling and fills the great sepulchral hall within a short span of its four walls. Its sides are adorned with magnificent religious texts and fearful symbols of the dead.”

Tutankhamun’s tomb was and remains the best preserved royal tomb ever discovered. Mr. Carter spent the next eight years removing objects from the tomb, most of which are now held at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo or displayed on tours. He opened Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus in February 1924, revealing the pharaoh’s mummy for the first time. His mummy remained in the tomb until 2007, when it was removed from the sarcophagus, placed in a climate-controlled box and displayed at a museum in Luxor, Egypt. The mummy has since been returned to the tomb, where it is displayed on tours.

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