Howard Carter has been disappointed hundreds of times over the more than fifteen years that he has been digging in the Valley of the Kings. However, this time again, like the others, his heart beats faster as he approaches the place of discovery. He leans over it. Yes, a stone, but cut like the step of a staircase. Carter has the edges gently unearthed. On one side, lower down, another identical slab appears. The beginning of a staircase, without a doubt. Carter later recounts:
“I remained motionless for a long time looking at this step, without saying a word. And the men who were around me weren’t speaking either. They were simple fellahs, but because of all the time that they had been working on digs, they had acquired that sort of sixth sense which tells searchers, even before having material proof of it, that they have just put their hands on a remarkable piece…”
Until evening, with infinite precautions, the fellahs dig. At nightfall, they have unearthed four steps. The next day, they continue. Twelve steps, fifteen steps. Will they ever see the end of this staircase? Does it even lead somewhere? Carter becomes feverish. Another step, the sixteenth, but it’s the last one: before them, the workers have no more earth and stones, but a vertical slab, made from something that resembles cement. A door… surmounted by a marble lintel, in the middle of which is encrusted a seal like those found at the entrance to all of the tombs of the pharaohs.
It is eleven o’clock in the morning. Even in November, no-one continues working in the desert when the sun is at its zenith. While the fellahs rest in the shade, Carter, to keep himself occupied, gets a bucket of soapy water and carefully cleans the lintel. Deception: the seal isn’t a royal seal, he has never seen one like it. Carter goes to lie down in the shade.
When coolness returns, the removal of earth and stones continues. Another seal appears, and Carter recognizes this one without hesitation; it is a royal seal, and it bears a name, the complete name of the unknown pharaoh whose shadow Carter has been chasing since 1908: Nebkheperura-Tutankhamun.
The archaeologist’s joy is short-lived. A terrible doubt invades him. The first seal is doubtless a fake, engraved on the door by pillagers, probably a long time ago, to hide the violation of the tomb. Carter asks himself if he isn’t going to find an empty tomb. Trifles, once more… And then, he reflects. Strange, all the same, if it were thieves, that they had respected the second seal… Those who had penetrated inside the tomb – for it had been violated, that’s certain – weren’t they priests who had wanted, on the contrary, to verify that nothing had been disturbed? Priests frequently “inspected” tombs. The archaeologists had discovered that, while exploring other necropolises.
While delivering himself up to these reflections, Carter has a hole pierced in the door’s cement. When the last little piece falls, a breath of warm air escapes, vaguely nauseating. Carter knows that smell, he has already given it a name: “tomb stuffiness”. After having waited a few minutes for the odour to evaporate, Carter slips an electric lamp inside the hole. He sees a long corridor partly obstructed by small stones, ruins from the partly collapsed vault. At the end, seven or eight metres away from Carter, there is another door, and it is marked with Tutankhamun’s seal.
Carter now knows that he has just made a great discovery. In spite of his emotion and his passionate desire to immediately continue the dig, he will wait for Lord Carnavon before opening Tutankhamun’s tomb. Carter has the hole in the first door patched up, places sentinels at the top of the staircase and goes to Luqsor to telegraph Lord Carnavon.
Forty-eight hours later, he receives a first telegramme:
And the next day, another:
“Will be at Alexandria on 20th.”
Carnavon doesn’t lose a minute in organizing his trip to Egypt. On 23 November, he debarks at Thebes, flanked by his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, and another famous egyptologist, Callender.
During the two weeks which separate his discovery from the arrival of Lord Carnavon, Carter does not remain inactive. His principal worry is to stop thieves from penetrating the tomb. He therefore goes to Cairo – a promenade of seven hundred and fifty kilometres – where he has a heavy iron door made to measure. While waiting, he has the site completely filled in. He writes:
“The trace of the tomb has completely disappeared. It’s safer…”
Carter also visits the Director of the Cairo museum, Professor Gaston Maspero, to inform him of the state of the dig. He hesitates a lot about doing this, for Lord Carnavon will want to keep the secret for as long as possible. He knows his sponsor’s intentions and disapproves of them. Carnavon has never hidden the fact that he hopes to import to Europe almost all of the artistic treasures discovered by Carter. These treasures would be given into the keeping of big European museums and private collections. Carter loves the Egyptian civilization too deeply, is too exclusively an egyptologist, to envisage with a light heart the dispersal of the marvels which he hopes to find in Tutankhamun’s tomb. In his eyes, the pharaoh’s treasure must remain whole, and the only appropriate solution is to transport all of it to the Cairo museum. It is in this state of mind that he goes to see Professor Maspero, who, naturally, entirely shares his point of view. Maspero also gives him a few pieces of advice: the objects locked in Tutankhamun’s tomb must have been there for over thirty centuries, they should be handled with maximum precautions.
Carter orders a cargo of medicines and diverse products from Europe, including two tonnes of cotton wool.
To be continued.