How fortunate was it for Tutankhamun’s tomb to survive nearly intact for three millennia? The untold story is that the gold riches Pharaohs took in their tombs ensured that they would be looted, denying them the eternal life they had hoped to enjoy. Today we look at Tut’s tomb and the gold treasures it contained with astonishment. But in Antiquity, Egypt’s gold was already legendary. Few people ever got to see the royal tomb’s contents with their own eyes. The wealth accumulated inside the pyramids and even the temples was out of sight. Still, people got a glimpse when the gods’ statue was carried on a gilded ship during great festivals.
Tomb Looting in Ancient Egypt
But being buried with lavish treasures, hoping it would help provide eternal life, therefore, turned out to have the opposite effect. During three millennia, over 300 Kings ruled Egypt, but however tall their pyramid or deeply carved their tomb was, the thieves always found a way to get in. What is often untold about ancient Egypt is that nearly all the many hundreds of tombs built for royals and nobles were looted in antiquity.
The prime role of the ‘house of eternity,’ the tomb, was to shelter the body of Pharaoh for his eternal life. Wrapped in fine linen, gold jewelry, and amulets, the mummies were protected inside stone sarcophagi weighing dozens of tons. But thieves, only interested in treasure and quick fortune, at best shredded to pieces the mummy, at worst simply burnt it, for quicker access to its gold riches.
Thieves First On The Scene: 19th Century Tomb Plunder
With the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 and twenty years later the successful decipherment of hieroglyphs by Champollion, the entire Egyptian civilization could be resurrected from 1400 years of oblivion. Egypt could return to what it already was during the ancient Greek and Roman era: a desirable destination for the well off tourists. With a new market for antiques and mummies, there was a renewed incentive to loot burial sites.
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The first intact Royal tomb, of Pharaoh Intef, was found in 1827 by thieves. The report stated “they forthwith proceeded to satisfy their curiosity by opening it, when they discovered, placed around the head of the mummy, but over the linen, a diadem, composed of silver and beautiful mosaic work, its center being formed of gold, representing an asp, the emblem of royalty”. So “on discovering their rich prize, they immediately proceeded to break up the mummy, as was their usual custom, for the treasures it might contain”.
Two years later Champollion wrote to the Vice-King of Egypt to convey the worry of those “who bitterly deplore the entire destruction of many antique monuments in the last few years” and went on to list them, about thirteen temples and sites destroyed in the previous thirty years. Champollion invited him to ensure that “excavators should follow rules to ensure the conservation of tombs discovered now, and in the future they would be protected against the assaults of ignorance or blind greed”.
Egypt adopted in 1835 its first law for the protection of heritage so “it would be forbidden to destroy in the future the antique monuments of Egypt”.
Then in 1859, Auguste Mariette, director of the newly created Department of Antiquities of the Egyptian government, was told of the discovery of “a sarcophagus with an inscription indicating it was the mummy of a Queen named Aah-Hotep”. But a local governor took it upon himself to open the coffin, throw the Queen’s body away, and help himself to the jewelry, despite the clear orders of Mariette to leave everything in place. An incensed Mariette had to threaten to shoot people to secure the treasure, over 2 kg of fine gold jewelry.
But from the point of view of the Kings of Egypt, the most important thing remained the preservation of their own bodies.
Archaeologists Found Pharaohs Without Their Treasure
While fragments of royal mummies have been found in pyramids, only one of Pharaoh’s mummy has ever been found inside his pyramid, unwrapped. Discovered in 1881, it is thought to be Pharaoh Merenra, who reigned circa 2250 BC.
Eager to bring the King back to the museum, the archaeologists carried the mummy with them, until “the dead Pharaoh seemed to become heavier from minute to minute. In order to lighten the load, we left the coffin behind and held His dead Majesty at the head end and at the feet. Then the Pharaoh broke through in the middle and each of us took his half under his arm”. Stopped by a customs officer, they got away by pretending the strange load was “salted meat”. An unceremonious return for the very first King of Egypt to be saved from darkness.
At the same time, in the Valley of the Kings, archaeologists finally got hold of a group of royal mummies found ten years earlier by thieves. Three millennia previously, the priests realized how much greed was a threat to the eternal survival of the Kings, so they decided to save and hide them, after having stripped them of the gold that might cause their demise.
Eventually, the thieves revealed were the royal mummies were hidden, but with rumors of an attack by brigands dreaming of gold, the archaeologists had to rush and empty everything in 48 hours. Those fortunate Pharaohs surveyed their land a last time, sailing down the Nile with the riverbanks covered with women wailing and men firing guns, as is done at funerals.
Then in 1898 a second cache was discovered, the tomb that Amenhotep II shared with other royals. It was opened to the public, but the very same thieves who had found the first hoard came back, ransacked it and roughed up the King’s mummy hoping to find gold treasure.
With these two discoveries nearly sixty mummies, Ramses II and other important Kings, Queens, and royals succeeded at reaching eternal life.
Foretaste: The Tomb of Yuya and Tjuyu, Tut’s Great-Grandparents
Then in 1905, Theodore Davis got somewhat closer to Tutankhamun with the discovery of the tomb of his great-grandparents, Yuya and Tjuyu. They were not royal, but their daughter Tiye was Queen of Egypt, having married Amenhotep III. The tomb had already been looted, but “the robber had taken the inner coffins out and then had taken off their lids, though he did not take the bodies out of their coffins, but contented himself with stripping off the mummy-cloth in which they were wrapped. The stripping was done by scratching off the cloth with his nails, seeking only the gold ornaments or jewels”.
Signs were the robbery that happened not long after the burial by people who had insider knowledge. Not only the mummies of Yuya and Tjuyu somehow survived greed, but a lot of their amazing tomb treasure, so far the best preserved of ancient Egypt.
A Forgotten Pharaoh Named Tutankhamun
The ancient Egyptian civilization hinged on stability between order and chaos, and the many gods who made that system possible. But a Pharaoh, Amenhotep IV, challenged all that when he abandoned the old system, where the god Amun was supreme, towards the worship of a single god, the sun Aten. He changed his name to Akhenaten, and his son was named Tut-Ankh-Aten, Living Image of Aten. Soon he would return to the old ways of Amun and amend his name to Tut-Ankh-Amun.
Not long after his accidental death, aged 18 or 19, succeeding Pharaohs went into an all-out campaign to erase all memory of this chaotic Aten episode. Nearly all formulas dedicated to Kings wish them “life, for eternity”, and are carved deeply into the stone, to make sure “his name shall not be erased from the earth”.
So chiseling off both their names was worse than oblivion, it was death. If no one was able to read out loud their names, none of the magic formulas for renewed life would work. Father and son had been erased from the King’s list, and while thieves plundered nearby tombs, rubble and time hid the entrance to the forgotten Pharaoh’s tomb.
Can You See Anything? – Yes, Wonderful Things!
By 1912 Theodore Davis had found objects inscribed with Tutankhamun’s name, yet believed that the Valley of the Kings had already been searched with a fine comb by thieves and then archaeologists, so concluded: “I fear that the Valley of the Tombs is now exhausted”. Davis was digging only two meters from Tut’s tomb…
But Howard Carter remained convinced there still was a tomb unaccounted for. A few statues with a name for which there was otherwise no trace, Tutankhamun, had survived the destruction campaign. Maybe the tomb did too.
So he persuaded Lord Carnarvon to sponsor a final campaign for this last unchecked spot on the valley’s map, the debris of ancient worker’s huts. When steps appeared Carter wondered “was it the tomb of the king for whom I had spent so many years in search?”. The excitement at seeing intact seals was mixed with anguish at the signs indicating the tomb had already been looted in Antiquity.
But then “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. I was struck dumb with amazement”. Further wonder at “the farewell garland dropped upon the threshold, you feel it might have been yesterday. The very air you breathe, unchanged throughout the centuries, you share with those who laid the mummy to its rest”.
Trying to make sense of what he saw, Carter described “the effect was bewildering, overwhelming. I suppose we had never formulated exactly in our minds just what we had expected or hoped to see”. Asked to describe what he hoped to find inside the sarcophagus, he described “a coffin of thin wood, richly gilt. Then we shall find the mummy”.
Yet, after having to go through four gilded wood shrines protecting the sarcophagus, and three nested gilded coffins, the last one wasn’t “richly gilt thin wood”, but solid gold, weighing 110 kg (240 lb), and inside the mummy was covered by a 10 kg (22 lb) gold mask. The small space contained over 5,000 objects, and it took eight years to empty and study it.
Tutankhamun’s Tomb Was A Rushed Job And Was Looted Twice
Tutankhamun died at an unexpectedly young age, and because it took seventy days to prepare a mummy for its eternal journey, there was little time to complete Tut’s tomb. It is likely that his tomb and some of the objects were meant for someone else. The tomb contains the earthly possessions of a teenage King, while the funerary equipment was in part made specifically for him, or adapted from another royal tomb.
Robbers had in fact found the way to Tutankhamun’s tomb, at least twice. Carter described that one of the looters “had done his job as thoroughly as an earthquake”. Then he described what must have happened “in the semi-darkness began a mad scramble for loot. Gold was their natural quarry, but it had to be in portable form, and it must have maddened them to see it glinting all around them, on plated objects which they could not move, and had not time to strip. Nor, in the dim light in which they were working, could they always distinguish between the real and the false, and many an object which they took for solid gold was found on closer examination to be but gilded wood, and was contemptuously thrown aside. The boxes were treated in very drastic fashion. Without exception they were dragged out into the center of the room and ransacked, their contents being strewn all over the floor. What valuables they found in them and made away with we may never know, but their search can have been but hurried and superficial, for many objects of solid gold were overlooked”.
Howard Carter Quantified The Lost Gold Jewelry
Not all of them were overlooked, as “one very valuable thing we know they did secure. Within the small gold shrine there was a pedestal of gilded wood, made for a statuette, with the imprint of the statuette’s feet still marked upon it. The statuette itself was gone, and there can be very little doubt that is was a solid gold one, probably very similar to the gold statuette of Amen in the Carnarvon collection”.
Half a dozen caskets were emptied or partially emptied of their contents. Some had labels mentioning “jewels of gold” but “the thieves had taken the pieces of greater value and left the rest in disorder”. One with sixteen empty spaces “evidently made to receive a similar number of gold or silver vessels for cosmetics. These were all missing, pilfered”.
Another casket labeled “jewels of gold, gold rings” but “our investigations establish the fact that the material missing from these boxes was at least sixty percent of the original contents”. Further “the exact amount of jewelry taken is impossible to tell, although the remaining parts of some of the stolen ornaments enable us to conjecture that it must have been considerable”.
The thief’s fingerprints are preserved for eternity, in a broken unguent vase retaining the “finger marks of the hand that extracted the unguents”. No need to be fluent in ancient Egyptian to understand the meaning of the hieroglyph for the punishment of those caught robbing royal tombs: a man on a spike.
Fortunately, the thieves never managed to break into the ‘House of Gold’, protecting the sarcophagus and mummy. Still, Tut’s tomb was the smallest royal tomb of the Valley, so one can only imagine what the largest one, Ramses II’s, needing twelve years of construction -longer than Tut’s entire reign- would have contained. But of course, thieves ensured that only small fragments of Ramses’ tomb contents survive.
After the guards resealed the tomb’s door for a second time, it remained undisturbed for 3,200 years.
Sharing The Contents of Tut’s Tomb Was Expected, But Denied
Although not obligatory, the sharing of finds with those who financed the excavation was customary. The permit granted to Carnarvon mentions that if a tomb is discovered intact, all objects would be handed to the Museum. If the tomb is not, “all objects of capital importance” go to the Museum, but the excavator can still expect that a “share will sufficiently recompense him for the pains and labor of the undertaking”. Lord Carnarvon, therefore, expected a share of Tut’s tomb.
But a near intact Royal tomb was, to say the least, of “capital importance”. And the political situation had vastly evolved since Carter started to dig the Valley. In the very year, Egypt gained independence from Britain, giving away Royal treasures to foreign nations was politically untenable. Further, Director of Antiquities Pierre Lacau would not have allowed the dispersion of such an important find.
As a result, the costs of the excavation were reimbursed to Carnarvon’s daughter and the contents of Tut’s tomb kept together in Cairo’s museum. The discovery of Tut’s tomb marked the end of the era of sharing finds and the era where the many foreign teams excavating in Egypt work to reveal memories of the past and preserve mankind’s cultural heritage.
The Fate Of Tutankhamun’s Mummy
o get a sense of the rarity of a royal mummy, of over 300 Pharaohs in three millennia, less than 30 had made it reasonably intact. The rest succumbed to the assaults of time and thieves. Only one, Tutankhamun’s, remained inside his coffin with the implements needed for the afterlife. What happened when it was time to open the gold coffin?
Contrary to expectations, the body of Tutankhamun was in a very poor state of conservation. Before closing the coffin, oils had been poured on the mummy. Carter explained “the oils decomposed into fatty acids which acted destructively on both the fabric of wrappings, the tissues and even the bones of the mummy. Moreover, their consolidated residue formed a hard black pitch-like mass, which firmly cemented the mummy to the bottom of the coffin”.
Carter then described the process of removing the gold mask from the mummy: “it was found that like the body of the king the back of the head was stuck to the mask – so firmly that it would require a hammer chisel to free it. Eventually, we used hot knives for the purpose with success. It was possible after applying of hot knives, to withdraw the head from its mask”.
The mummy ended beheaded and broken into over 15 pieces. Parts of Tutankhamun’s body are missing. He was placed back into his tomb, where eventually the thieves returned. Having been spared the attention of robbers for 3,200 years, Tutankhamun’s mummy, already cut to pieces, was roughed up by thieves. Face to face with the King of Egypt, one of them broke off his eyelids as if gouging the mummy.
Tutankhamun’s Eternal Life
How fortunate it was then for Tut’s tomb to survive nearly intact for three millennia. For archaeology, the benefit is a glimpse of ancient Egypt during one of its artistic and political pinnacles. For Tutankhamun, the advantages are beyond expectation. He might have been a King, but his reign was short and without a successor. Even had it not been erased, between his formidable grandfather Amenhotep III, his revolutionary father Akhenaten, and not long afterward, the great Ramses II, the tale of this King who died young would only ever have been a historical footnote.
But worse than being an obscure ruler, the memory of his very existence was removed, so during those three millennia of solitude, no one pronounced his name. For the ancient Egyptians, “the renewal of life for the dead is leaving his name on earth behind him”, so even if nothing but one’s name had survived, it alone would suffice at providing eternal life, as long it was spoken. Thanks to the fortuitous survival of his tomb and its stunning artistic quality, Tutankhamun not only succeeded at reaching eternal life but in ways far beyond anything he could have ever imagined.
Since Tut’s tomb was found already looted, it wasn’t the first intact Royal tomb discovered in Egypt. So how can it be that the discovery of not one, but three intact tombs of Pharaohs with their treasure of gold and silver went unnoticed? ‘The only intact Royal tombs of ancient Egypt – the Tanis Treasure’ describes this story.
– More Royal discoveries prior to Tut’s Tomb – Two Pharaohs coffins from the 17th dynasty were found by thieves in the 1840’s, and their bodies destroyed. Late 19th century the discovery of Royal tombs, fortunately, began to be done by archaeologists. In 1894 Jacques de Morgan found the partially intact tomb of Pharaoh Hor, as well as the intact tombs of the children of Pharaoh Amenemhat II, including the magnificent princesses’ jewelry. In 1916 the ‘Treasure of Three Princesses’, the tomb of the three foreign wives of Tuthmosis III was found by thieves.
– Amarna letter EA 27 – Tushratta, King of Mitanni, in repeated letter exchanges with his son in law Amenhotep III asking for gold statues, complained not having received what he had hoped for, stating that “may my brother send me much gold … … In my brother’s country, gold is as plentiful as dirt”
– The visitor of the Valley of the Kings was Diodorus Siculus, in Library of History I-46.7
– Pharaoh Nubkheperra Intef VII – D’Athanasi, Giovanni ; Salt, Henry – A brief account of the researches and discoveries in Upper Egypt: To which is added a detailed catalogue of Mr. Salts collection of Egyptian antiquities — London, 1836 – P XI-XII. The diadem somehow survived, and is today in Leyden Museum, No. AO. 11a Rijksmuseum van Oudheden. The coffin is in the British Museum.
– Lettre Champollion – Jean-François Champollion, Lettres écrites d’Égypte et de Nubie en 1828 et 1829, Firmin Didot, 1833 (p. 454-461), Mémoire relatif à la conservation des monuments de l’Égypte et de la Nubie, remis au vice-roi, N° II Note remise au Vice-Roi pour la conservation des monuments de l’Égypte.
– Ahhotep – Notice biographique XVII – le 22 mars 1859; In Mémoires et fragments I, Gaston Maspéro 1896 – Guide du visiteur au musée de Boulaq, Gaston Maspero, 1883, p 413-414
– Pharaoh Merenre Nemtyemsaf I transported to Cairo’s Museum – Heinrich Brugsch, My Life and My Travels, Chapter VII, 1894, Berlin
– Yuya and Tjuyu – The tomb of Iouyia and Touiyou, the finding of the tomb by Theodore M David, London 1907 p XXIX
– The Complete Valley of the Kings, Nicholas Reeves & Richard H Wilkinson p 80
– The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, The Tomb, The Royal Treasure, Nicholas Reeves, p 51, p 95, p 97, p 98
– Howard Carter, The tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amen discovered by the late earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter & A.C. Mace, Volume 1, 1923, p 95-98, p 104, p 133 to 140 – the gold statuette mentioned by Carter is today in the Met
– Howard Carter, The tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amen discovered by the late earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carte, Volume 3, 1933, p 66 to 70
– report card Carter No.: 435 – Handlist description: Unguent vase (calcite) with flanking ornament; Card/Transcription No.: 435-2. REMARKS: Contents robbed. Finger marks on inner walls of the hand that extracted the unguents. The slight residue adhering to the inner walls shows that the contents were of a soft pasty substance of the consistency of a material like cold-cream. The vase was broken into seven pieces scattered among the objects; end of chamber.
– Tutankhamun’s unwrapping – Excavation journals and diaries made by Howard Carter and Arthur Mace, Howard Carter’s excavation diaries; October 28, 1925; November 16, 1925; An incomplete draft of the lecture on La tumba de Tut.ankh.Amen. La sepultura del rey y la cripta interior, Madrid, May, 1928. The Griffith Institute – University of Oxford
– Context of legalities surrounding the discovery of Tut’s tomb – Conflicted Antiquities, Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian modernity, Elliott Colla, 2007, p 206-210; 1915 permit p 208 – The 1915 excavation permit :
– Mummies of the Kings, of Princes, and of High Priests, together with their coffins and sarcophagi, shall remain the property of the Antiquities Service.
– Tombs which are discovered intact, together with all objects they may contain, shall be handed over to the Museum whole and without division.
– In the case of tombs which have already been searched, the Antiquities Service shall reserve for themselves all objects of capital importance from the point of view of history and archaeology and shall share the remainder with the Permittee.
As it is probable that the majority of such tombs as may be discovered will fall within the category of the present article, it is agreed that the Permittee’s share will sufficiently recompense him for the pains and labor of the undertaking.
– “The renewal of life for the dead is leaving his name on earth behind him” comes from the Insinger Papyrus, dating from the Greco-Roman era, but most likely based on ancient wisdom.