Excavating the Tomb of Tutankhaman

Excavating the Tomb of Tutankahmun

by Jimmy Dunn

Principal members of the Tutankhamun team included, from left to right, Breasted, Burton, Lucas, Callender (at the head of the table, Mace, Carter and Gardiner

The tomb of Tutankhamun, which is today designated as KV 62, was number 4.33 in Howard Carter's sequence of discoveries since 1915. It did not take Lord Carnarvon and Carter long to appreciate the enormity of the discovery and its implications. While Arthur Callender, a close friend of Carter, had been helping him, more assistance in clearing the tomb would certainly be needed. When, soon after the discovery, Albert Lythgoe, then Curator of the Metropolitan Museum's Egyptian Department, cabled his congratulations and offered help, Carter took him at his word, responding:

"Thanks message [of congratulations]. Discovery colossal and need every assistance. Could you consider load of Burton in recording in time being? Costs to us. Immediately reply would oblige. Every regard, Carter, Continental, Cairo."

Close ties had already existed between Carter, Carnarvon and the Metropolitan Museum, and so Carter was granted his request. In due course, the Metropolitan Museum's generosity would be rewarded when Carter helped them acquire the Carnarvon collection.

However, within a matter of days, Carter received other offers of help. On December 9th Alfred Lucas, a chemist with the Egyptian Government, came forward. With him aboard, the clearance of Tutankhamun's tomb seems to have been the first ever archaeological expedition to have its own resident chemist.

Then on December 12th Arthur Mace, an Egyptologist with the Metropolitan Expedition, was also put at Carter's disposal. Six days later, James Breasted, Director of the Oriental Institute in Chicago arrived to begin work on the seal impressions which covered the plastered blockings. The Metropolitan team also provided him with Hauser and Hall, two architects who began work on drawing a plan of the objects in situ. Then, on January 3rd, Alan Gardiner, a British philologist, arrived to start work on the inscriptions.

Others would eventually join the team, including Percy Newberry, another of Carter's old friends. It became a showpiece of academic cooperation that would in time also draw in Douglas Derry of the Cairo Anatomy School, and Seleh Bey Hamdi of Alexandria to conduct the postmortem examination of the mummy, Battiscombe Gunn to work on the ostraca for the final publication, L. A. Boodle, a botanist from Kew Gardens, James R. Ogden, a Harrogate jeweler to report on aspects of the gold work, Alexander Scott and H. J. Plenderleith of the British Museum for analytical assistance, G. F. Hulme of the Geological Survey of Egypt, and others.

Carter and Callender wrap and pad a life size "guardian figure" in a large wooden stretcher

Part of the reason that there was so much politics surrounding the discovery and excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun was that Howard Carter was a very advanced excavator for his time. It is said that anyone else would have had the tomb cleared and the objects it contained on display within a month of the tomb's discovery, but it took Carter almost a decade to carefully preserve and remove the treasures to Cairo. The difference shows the caution with which Carter approached this undertaking, which more resembles the efforts of modern excavators.

Of course, most of the political challenges came in the first two seasons of work, creating distractions and difficulties, but afterwards, Carter and his team settled into a thorough and methodical routine, maintaining complete records for each discovery and working to preserve each antiquity as they were brought out of the tomb. The excavation used the tomb of Ramesses XI (KV4) as a storeroom for supplies and for minor finds from the stairwell and corridor, and later the tomb of Seti II (KV15) was turned into a secure field conservation laboratory and photographic studio. Also, KV55, just across the path from the Tut's tomb, was made into a darkroom for Harry Burton.

Transporting objects  to the laboratory for photographs, recording and conservation

Howard Carter established a routine for processing what must have seemed like an endless flow of treasures from the tomb. Each object or group of objects was given a reference number. The main reference numbers ranged from 1 to 620, though there were subdivisions for objects within a numbered group denoted by the use of single or multiple letters (a, b, c, etc). Additional subdivisions were noted by bracketed Arabic numerals. Group no. 620 is anomalous in that it was given subdivisions numbered from 1 to 123. (i.e. 620:1 to 620:123).

The distribution of object numbers throughout the tomb was as follows:











Entrance staircase

first sealed doorway


second sealed doorway


sealed doorway into the Burial Chamber

Burial Chamber


partially dismantled Annex blocking


After objects in the tomb were provided with reference numbers, photographs were taken of the items in situ with and without the reference number cards. The camera was repositioned several times in order to show every object at least once in one of the shots. A brief description was also provided, as well as a sketch if appropriate, on a numbered record card (by Carter or Mace), and the place of the objects discovery was located on a ground plan of the tomb (prepared by Hall and Hauser). Afterwards, the piece was removed to the laboratory for treatment by Lucas and Mace, where more photographs were made. After the conservation of the object was completed, a further photograph was made. This routine was carried out for many thousands of objects, over several seasons, sometimes in sweltering heat, and under pressure from the press, who were soon complaining about the excessive time the clearance was taking. There was also a constant flow of visitors to the tomb, including some 12,000 at the height of the King Tut hysteria between January 1 and March 15th, 1926.

The narrow guage  train used to transport items from the tomb to the river for shipment to  Cairo

Clearance of the Antechamber was begun on December 27th 1922. It took seven weeks to finish, and used up more than a mile of cotton wadding and 32 bales of calico to secure the objects. Afterwards, and at the end of each successive season, the objects were crated up with extreme care using hundreds of feet of timber, and transported to the Nile river using the human powered Decauville (narrow gauge) railway. Though only a relatively short distance, the train track was not permanent and Carter was given only a meager number of rail-lengths that had to be constantly "leapfrogged", so it took some 15 hours to move the train to the river during the heat of the summer months.

A guard at the door  of the tomb of Tutankhamun during the off season

Only the gold coffin and mask were not transported by river. They were conveyed by a train in a special "Service Car" with an armed guard from the Egyptian army. At the end of each season, for security against not only theft but also floods, the tomb entrance was covered over with a watertight wooden blocking erected over a wooden portcullis, and guarded by a local policeman. Carter would later tell us that: "It had been our privilege to find the most important collection of Egyptian antiquities that had ever seen the light, and it was for us to show that we were worthy of the trust."






Reference Number

Complete Tutankhamun, The

Nicholas Reeves


Thames & Hudson, LTD

ISBN 0-500-27810-5

Masterpieces of Tutankhamun

Silverman, David P.


Abbeville Press, Inc.

ISBN 0-89659-022-4

Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amen, The

Howard Carter


Cassell & Company, Ltd

ISBN 0 7156 3075 X

Treasures of Tutankhamun

Metropolitan Museum of Art


Metropolitan Museum of Art

ISBN 0-87099-156-6

Treasures of Tutankhamun

British Museum


Thames & Hudson Ltd

ISBN 0 7230 0070 0

Tutankhamun (His Tomb and Its Treasures)

Edwards, I. E. S.


Metropolitan Museum of Art; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

ISBN 0-394-41170-6

Tutankhamun's Jewelry

Edwards, I.E.S


Metropolitan Museum of Art

ISBN 0-87099-155-8


Last Updated: August 14th, 2011