The news of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb is beginning to spread and Professor Gaston Maspero, Director of the Cairo museum, fears that some religious sects and political movements hostile to the British domination might try to use it. The politicians accuse the British of pillaging Egypt’s national heritage. The priests cry sacrilege, tomb violation, recall the existence of old spells, of antique curses, with which the fellahs, who are helping the archaeologists in their impious task, could be threatened… and the British would not escape the vengeance of the pharaohs, either.
This is certainly not the first time that the priests have tried to incite an uprising of the population, or at least of its more primitive elements, against the British. For reasons which are doubtless more political than religious. But Maspero is afraid that they might use the discovery of a new, almost unviolated tomb – which has never happened before – to stir up demonstrations and provoke violence. He therefore recommends that Carter envisage security measures, as well. In any case, this is another reason for opposing the transfer of Tutankhamun’s treasures to Europe.
Such is the situation when, on the morning of 25 November, Carter, Lord Carnavon, Lady Evelyn and Callender descend, together, for the first time, the sixteen steps which lead to the entrance of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
The first door, in cement, having been broken down, the archaeologists enter the corridor that Carter had already rapidly inspected by the light of an electric torch, two weeks before. Two metres high, slightly sloping, this corridor is, as we have already seen, encumbered by all sorts of debris fallen from the vault. But not only of that. Carter and his team notice that the ground is also covered in pottery, vases and albaster bowls. Most of these objects are in pieces. The presence of these debris momentarily removes their illusions: there is no doubt that the tomb has been pillaged, and even more than they had feared. If the thieves have abandoned so many objects in the entrance corridor, what must they have taken with them?
It takes no less than one whole day to clear the terrain and list the few debris of any interest. On 26 November, at last, they arrive before the second door. Carter speaks of this historic day in his Memoires:
“This was the day of days, the most marvellous that I have ever lived and certainly one of those that I can never hope to live again…”
Carter’s hands tremble as he takes an iron rod to again pierce a hole in a door. Just a tiny hole, in front of which he lights a candle to find out if the air is toxic. The candle flickers in a slight draught of warm air, but doesn’t go out. Carter enlarges the breach, passes through his electric lamp and, taking a deep breath, places his eye against the hole. First of all, he sees nothing, everything seems to be covered in dust. And then, forms emerge from the shadows, gold reflects shine here and there. His companions hear him mumble unintelligible words. He remains there, stuck against the wall, without moving, with the air of a man struck by lightning.
Lord Carnavon starts getting impatient. He demands to know if Carter can see anything. Carter turns to him. He is pale. His voice is raucous.
“Yes. Fantastic things!”
In turn, Carnavon, Lady Evelyn and Callender peep through the orifice. Then the four archaeologists look at each other, incapable of speech. This silence lasts several seconds – Carnavon, who is the first to come to his senses, will later say, an eternity. He takes Carter’s pick and attacks the wall.
When the breach is sufficiently large, the searchers are better able to understand the amplitude of their discovery. In the vast room, eight metres by three metres sixty, that they have just opened, they are firstly struck by the presence of three big gold seats, entirely sculpted, whose arms are in the form of monstrous animals, marked with the name of Tutankhamun. The Pharaoh’s throne, in particular, sparkling with gold and silver, enhanced with blue, red and yellow glass, representing scenes from the life of Tutankhamun and his wife: as fresh, as bright as illuminations.
Against the right-hand wall, placed there like sentinels, two life-size statues of the king, face to face.
Once over the first astonishment, the archaeologists see that great disorder reigns in the room. Strewn amongst building debris, there are chests encrusted with stones, albaster vases, balm bowls, pots encrusted with glass, crockery, gold, lapis-lazuli, turquoise, candle-holders, fly-swatters, torch-holders in painted wood, sceptres, trumpets, pieces of cloth, step-ladders, folding stools, jewellery, bouquets of leaves and flowers, beds, altars, a great wooden chest, also painted with panels depicting hunting and war scenes. A whole fabulous mass of Arabian Nights that Carter and Carnavon embrace in one sweeping glance before exchanging their impressions.
Carter says that it is impossible that it had all been thrown together in such disorder at the time of the burial. Carnavon thinks that it must have been thieves who put everything in such a mess. But why did they leave so many things behind?
This mystery is partly cleared up after the first investigations. Near the door, Carter finds, on the ground, a bag of jewellery, pearls, which are certainly not in their right place. Farther in, but still on the way to the door, skin sacks lie empty. The ancient Egyptians transported balms and creams in these sacks. Continuing his search, Carter notices that part of the wall, near the entrance, has been roughly patched up. No doubt: an opening had been made at this place, to allow the passage of a small man, a child perhaps. He must have come several times, for the balms of Libya, Syria or Phoenicia, reputed for healing illness and effacing fatigue, have disappeared from the albaster vases where they should have been; for several jewellery boxes are broken and empty.
To be continued.