On his last visit to Tutankhamun’s tomb, the thief had probably been surprised by the inspectors whom the priests and the pharaohs regularly “appointed” to watch the tombs. Like modern night watchmen, these inspectors were constantly making rounds. When they discovered a theft, they “marked” it by placing a seal on the masonry which they, themselves, had applied to hermetically seal the tomb.
It therefore appears that Tutankhamun’s tomb, if it hadn’t totally escaped pillagers, had probably not been violated more than two or three times, no doubt a very long time ago; the inspectors must have afterwards succeeded in sufficiently masking its entrance, to render it completely invisible. The construction, above it, of the huts of Ramses VI’s workmen, would have finally plunged Tutankhamun’s tomb into oblivion, at the same time, protecting it from thieves for three thousand years.
So, Carter and Carnavon are reassured on the subject of thieves. But something else worries them. In the room, there is neither a sarcophage, nor a mummy. Should it be concluded that they have only found a hiding-place of precious objects? Is the real tomb of Tutankhamun somewhere else, or must it be admitted that the thieves were able to destroy the sarcophage and its mummy, or remove it? Once more, an attentive examination tranquillizes them: at the end of the antechamber, on the right, between the two statues of the king, they discern a new door, also sealed. There are therefore other rooms, other treasures to exhume. But Carter soon realises that this door has also been pierced, then resealed. Another cold shower!
As can be imagined, Carter and Carnavon burn with desire to continue the dig. To know if they are going to find the mummified body of the little unknown pharaoh of whom they have dreamed for more than fifteen years. But their scientific minds win against their curiosity. Before going any further, they decide to do a complete inventory of the antechamber’s riches. This is the only way to definitively shield them from theft and assure their conservation.
For three months, Carter launches himself into laboratory work. He decides to do everything on site, for fear of damaging the precious objects by transporting them to Cairo. He buys photographic material, cartons and wrapping paper, planks on which to fix the most fragile pieces – enrobed in cotton wool. Each object will be cleaned and manipulated with antisepticised instruments. Carter installs his photographic workshop inside one of the ancient tombs discovered years before, that of Pharaoh Seti I, then a laboratory. He hires some collaborators: a chemist, an expert in Egyptian writing, a doctor specialised in anatomy, an Ancient Egypt historian, photographers and craftsmen used to the manipulation and cleaning of delicate objects. Until mid-February, this team lists, numbers, photographs and classes the one hundred and sixty pieces found in the antechamber, from the biggest piece of furniture to the smallest piece of jewellery. Under three a day, on average. This seems very slow. But so many precautions have to be taken. The pearls, for example, fall into dust at the slightest knock… And then, in December, administrative and diplomatic complications interfere with Carter’s efforts, obliging him to interrupt his work.
The dig permit accorded to Lord Carnavon expires on 31 December 1922. And the Egyptian Government, which fears – correctly – that Tutankhamun’s treasure will leave the country, does not hide its intention of taking over the tomb’s exploration.
So, Lord Carnavon leaves for London, at the beginning of December, to solicit the support of the British Government. To his great disappointment, the public servants of the Foreign Office are extremely circumspect: the Egyptian Protectorate is already giving enough worries to His Gracious Majesty, who does not wish to provoke a nasty quarrel with the Egyptian Government… over some old mummy!
Carnavon has more luck in Brussels where, on the recommendation of the Belgian archaeologist Jean Capart, he is received by the wife of Albert I, Queen Elisabeth. The Queen, who will not cease until her death, in 1966, to protect the Arts, Sciences and Letters, promises him her support. She intervenes with the Cairo authorities. Action crowned with success: Carnavon obtains the authorisation to continue the inventory of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Just one condition: a delegate from the Antiques Service will be permanently present at Carter’s side, to see that no piece leaves the territory.
In January, the work begins again at an accelerated pace. The whole world is passionately following it now. At the end of January, Carter accepts, to calm the impatience of international public opinion, to let journalists visit “his” antechamber. He states that it will be the first and last time.
So, on 25 January 1923, thirty British, American, French and Egyptian reporters descend the famous sixteen steps behind Carter. He tells them that a new little room, which he has baptised “the annexe”, has been discovered at the end of the antechamber, on the left, opposite the staircase. It contains dozens of other objects, similar for the most part to those found in the first room. As for the door which masks the entrance to the room where it is hoped that Tutankhamun’s sarcophage and mummy rest, Carter announces that it will be opened in a few days, at a date to be fixed by Lord Carnavon, whose return from England is imminent.
A disagreeable surprise awaits Carter and the journalists as they leave the tomb. Behind a police cordon, about a hundred Arabs – not all of them fellahs – are gathered, and appear very excited. Seeing the group formed by Carter and his guests, they start to hurl. Small stones bombard the journalists who retreat hastily. The policemen then decide to push back the demonstrators. One of them cries out:
“In your country, tomb violators are condemned. And when you do it here, it’s a feat which gives you rewards, that makes you rich… You are just sacrilegious vandals who dig up bones to amuse the visitors to your museums. Sorrow upon you!”
To be continued.