Comparing the initial discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 and the current discovery of two hidden chambers behind its walls reveals how far we’ve come in the practice of Egyptology, and points to hope for a field that’s so far been marred by a problematic past.
In the 19th century, archaeology in Egypt consisted of explorers, antiquities collectors and art dealers plundering monuments big and small to stock nascent European and American museums, private collections and even public spaces — hence massive obelisks in certain world capitals. Now archaeology is viewed as a professional field and an academic discipline where excavations are driven by research questions and controlled and monitored by Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities. While Egyptology’s colonial past still impacts archaeology, the process of this new discovery marks a refreshing change toward open access to data, the use of technology and cooperation between the Ministry of Antiquities and international scholars.
Moves toward reform started with the formation of the Antiquities Service, the government branch responsible for archaeology, in the mid-19th century. This was the initiative of Said Pasha, the Ottoman-era viceroy, in response to the wholesale looting of Egyptian artifacts. The service was to monitor the excavation and export of artifacts, and enforce some of the first antiquities laws.
By the late 1800s there were several stipulations for foreign archaeological missions, three of which are important to our story: (1) All foreign missions had to obtain a concession to excavate. (2) The foreign excavation and the Antiquities Service would divide artifacts, with the portion staying in Egypt going to the Egyptian Museum. (3) In the event that an intact tomb was excavated, its entire contents must stay in Egypt. With the promise of obtaining beautiful artifacts and the excitement of discovery, many wealthy non-Egyptian individuals funded excavations in Egypt.
Despite the formation of the Antiquities Service, the climate of excavations in the late 1800s and early 1900s was one of almost complete independence for foreign archaeologists. Essentially, archaeology consisted of a European or North American archaeologist (and patron) leading scores of rural Egyptian workmen to excavate vast tracts of land and removing many of the objects found to their home countries, all without serious oversight. Even the Antiquities Service was run by French archaeologists until 1952. For the most part, the Egyptian media and thus the Egyptian public were disengaged from the archaeological process and exciting new discoveries.
Howard Carter was a British archaeologist who spent many years excavating in the Valley of the Kings — the site of New Kingdom (c 1550-1069 BCE) royal burials on the west bank of Luxor — with minimal success. Carter’s luck changed when George Herbert, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, became his patron. Eventually Carter and Carnarvon struck gold, so to speak, and found the intact tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.
Carter and Carnarvon exercised complete control over the tomb and its contents, which was how archaeology was done in Egypt then. This status quo, however, was about to change. From the outset, the tomb and the activities of its excavators were the subject of intense media attention and public interest in Egypt and rest of the word. The timing of this discovery — by a British archaeologist and aristocrat — could not have been more fateful. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, Egypt was experiencing a growing national desire to overthrow British colonial rule, leading to the 1922 Universal Declaration that gave the country nominal independence. For the first time, archaeology came face to face with an Egyptian government, media and public who found broader meaning in a national heritage.
As discussed in Eliott Colla’s excellent book, Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity (2007), and Donald Malcolm Reid’s recent volume, Contesting Antiquity in Egypt: Archaeologies, Museum, and the Struggle for Identities from World War I to Nasser (2015), Carnarvon had spent a significant amount funding Carter’s excavations and saw an opportunity to recuperate some financial losses. In a singular move, he sold exclusive rights to the Tut’s tomb story to the Times of London. This meant every other media outlet had to either pay the Times for the story or wait for day-old news. This greatly upset them, in particular Egyptian outlets. The main newspapers in Egypt, including the state-owned Al-Ahram and Al-Akhbar, banded together and made a formal complaint to the government, stating that news of discoveries made in Egypt should be under the auspices of the Egyptian state, not a foreign archaeologist. After Carnarvon died suddenly in 1923, the Antiquities Service and the Department of Public Works requested Carter reconsider the arrangement, but he flatly refused.
A second major controversy was over who owned the burial goods in Tut’s tomb and where should they be kept and displayed. As it was essentially an intact discovery, all objects were supposed to stay in Egypt on display in the Egyptian Museum as per the concession agreement. Carter fought this tooth and nail, however, arguing the tomb was not intact so that he could take half the artifacts back to England.
Carter also completely controlled access to the tomb, which caused major strife. Given the sensational nature of the find, everyone from high-government leaders and foreign heads of state to tourists were clamoring to visit. Amid the hoards of press and tourists waiting eagerly outside for a glimpse of the treasure, Carter and his team had to carefully record the precise spot of every object and conserve the delicate artifacts. He made the legitimate argument that visitors coming in and out of the tomb would hamper work. It should be recognized that Carter and his team, most notably the chemist Alfred Lucas, did an excellent job recording and preserving the artifacts, and history should look favorably on their efforts.
Yet Carter and Carnarvon invited whomever they saw fit from their inner circle to visit the tomb. This came to a head when, in February 1924, Carter planned to open the king’s sarcophagus and invited an elite list of people and the wives of his associates. The Department of Public Works sent guards to block the entrance of the wives. Carter, who was famous for his lack of personal restraint, declared that he was going to stop working at the tomb in protest.
Carter’s protest was widely reported in the Egyptian papers and seen as final proof that he sought to exercise complete control of the rights to the tomb and all objects in it. Prime Minister Saad Zaghloul publicly denounced Carter’s actions and supported the Antiquities Service’s move to cancel his concession. All the objects from the tomb stayed in Egypt and were transferred to the Egyptian Museum. The fact that a nominally independent Parliament was exerting authority over a British excavation made King Tutankhamun, in Colla’s words, “an icon of national independence.”
The impact of the events surrounding the discovery was vast. It was the first time the antiquities laws were fully enforced in full view of an interested public. The media interest and popular connection with Tutankhamun had a strong impact on developing a sense of national heritage in Egypt.
Fast forward almost a century, and the recent discovery of two hidden chambers in Tutankhamun’s tomb reflects a different archaeology in Egypt. The tale of this discovery is one of technology, open access, combined international and Egyptian efforts, and cooperation with the Ministry of Antiquities.
The story begins with the ministry’s initiative to protect Tutankhamun’s tomb from the damaging effects of high numbers of tourists by making a facsimile, so the real tomb could periodically close. The ministry brought in Factum Arte, a Spanish digital conservation company, who took detailed high-resolution photos and 3D scans of the entire tomb between 2009 and 2010. Thanks to an agreement with the ministry, Factum Arte put these images online so that anyone with a computer and internet access could examine minute details of the tomb’s structure and paintings.
Nicholas Reeves of the University of Arizona, whose research focuses on Nefertiti and Tutankhamun, made a remarkable observation when he examined them. He noticed faint outlines of two possible doorways in the north and west walls of the burial chamber. He published this find in a 2015 article posted on his open academia.edu page, allowing anyone to read his thesis (it should be noted this paper is not peer reviewed, so must be taken with some caution).
Reeve’s paper began to generate media interest, and the ministry, under the direction of Mamdouh al-Damaty, responded by initiating a series of tests in the tomb to check the hypothesis. These were widely reported. In early November 2015, a joint team from Cairo University’s Faculty of Engineering and a French company called Heritage, Innovation, and Preservation conducted infrared thermography. This scan revealed temperature changes in different parts of the north and east walls, suggesting open spaces hidden behind the walls of the burial chamber. In late November 2015, a Japanese team conducted radar scans of the burial chamber that last week were revealed to indicate the presence of two hidden chambers with potential organic and metallic materials.
This new discovery reflects a century of gradual changes in the role of the state in Egypt’s heritage, access to data and the presence of the media. The ministry, as per official policy, made all the media announcements. In a move toward cooperation with international archaeologists, it organized joint press conferences with Reeves and Damaty. Egyptian and foreign reporters were invited by the ministry to the tomb en mass to watch the radar scans and cover the entire process (it should be noted, however, that National Geographic funded part of this work and is filming a TV special about it). The ministry called on Egyptian, French, Spanish and Japanese teams to use an array of technological advancements to confirm the discovery, a discovery that would never have taken place if the ministry and Factum Arte had not allowed for open access — which underscores the importance of open-source information for the future of scientific and archaeological research.
Contrasted with the aftermath of Carter and Carnarvon’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the recent find highlights the shifts that are taking place in the field. It shows that international cooperation, up-to-date technology and open-source data in archaeology can only mean progress in unlocking historical mysteries, such as those discussed in part one of this article, and better care of the incredible objects they produced.