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The resting place of the legendary Pharaoh Tutankhamun is without a doubt the most famous tomb in Egypt. Built thousands of years ago and researched by Western archaeologists for more than a century, it immediately sparked public opinion, unleashing Pandora’s box stories of curses and curses. ‘poisoning. Let’s retrace together the story of his discovery and the events that followed.
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Transcription du podcast :
Egypt, 1922. All is light, dust and sweat in the sound of shovels hitting the white rubble. Nestled in the arid bosom of the Theban necropolis, the excavation site of the Valley of the Kings reflects its blinding glow to the sun. Under the burning gaze of Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon and his daughter Evelyn, the sweaty workers clear a large stone staircase. They have been exploring this ungrateful expanse for years with vacillating conviction, determined not to give up any treasure. But today is not a day like any other. Today they are opening a grave. Above the stairs plunging into the ground, the young water carrier stamps his feet as a cartridge appears under the chalky gravel. All eyes are fixed on the inscription engraved in stone, and cries of joy mingle with sighs of relief as a voice utters in a whisper: “Tutankhamun”.
Howard Carter was born on May 9, 1874 in Kensington, London. He is the youngest of eleven siblings, sons of illustrator Samuel John Carter and Martha Joyce. During his childhood, his father taught him to draw, and although young Howard received only a limited education in school, his artistic talents were not slow to be noticed. They particularly attract the attention of Lady Margaret Amherst, a wealthy family friend whose home in Didlington Hall houses a small museum of Egyptian antiquities built by her father. This collection of exotic and mysterious objects captivates Howard’s imagination. Statuettes, masks, jewelry and even a mummy adorn the windows in front of which he stands with his father, pencil in hand. His technique and his curiosity make a strong impression on Lady Amherst who decides to use his influence to allow the young man to satisfy his passion.
After a letter of recommendation sent by the wealthy patroness to the Egypt Exploration Fund, Howard left as an apprentice to the Beni Hassan excavation site, at the age of only 17. Along with Percy Newberry, a friend of the Amhersts, he was tasked with reproducing designs and inscriptions found in tombs thousands of years old. A mission which he carried out successfully, improving in passing the transcription methods used in his time. The following year, he worked in Amarna, former capital of the pharaoh Akhenaton, then he joined Édouard Naville in Deir el-Bahari, where he reproduced this time the bas-reliefs of the temple of Hatshepsut.
It only took him eight years to be appointed inspector of monuments by the Egyptian Antiquities Service, then in 1906, he joined the team of the American Theodore Davis in the Valley of the Kings. Davis is not a poor archaeologist, far from it. During his excavations between 1902 and 1913, he and his staff discovered no less than 24 graves, including those of Ramses IV and Thutmose IV. But he makes a critical error: while excavating tomb KV57, he discovers several objects bearing the name of Tutankhamun, leading him to conclude that he has unearthed the last home of the young pharaoh, a chimera that escapes the greatest archaeologists for 100 years. This is actually that of another regent, baptized Horemheb, but Davis realizes his mistake too late. While Tutankhamun’s tomb is only a few shovels under his feet, he interrupts his research after a few years by declaring that the Valley of the Kings has probably revealed all its secrets, and passes the concession to a certain Lord Carnarvon. .
After a car accident that left him irreparably weak in 1903, Carnarvon was urged by his doctors to spend his winters outside England. With his wife, they choose Egypt as a secondary redisence and fall in love with the country and its history. An avid collector of antiques, the English earl began to finance excavation sites in 1907, where he employed the services of the much appreciated Howard Carter. A choice he will not regret because Carter knows the Valley of the Kings like the back of his hand, and when work resumes under Carnarvon’s supervision in 1914, he fully intends to lead him to Tutankhamun’s tomb. Victory is not far away, he is sure, but it will be long overdue. A long time.
In fact, in 1922, demoralized by their meager results, the Lord announced that this would be their last year of excavations. Howard is bitter but not yet defeated. With his team, they explore every corner, and finally turn to a row of visibly unpromising huts that had been abandoned a few years earlier. It is their young water carrier, Hussein Abdel-Rassoul, who is the first to spot the stone that marks the entrance to the tomb. A simple step hidden under the rubble.
On November 4, 1922, Lord Carnarvon, then in England, received Carter’s triumphant telegram:
“Finally we made a wonderful discovery in the valley; a magnificent tomb with intact seals; covered until your arrival; congratulations “.
Almost three weeks later, Carter, Carnarvon, his daughter Lady Evelyn, and the rest of the anonymous laborers working at the site elatedly discover the cartouche bearing the Pharaoh’s name. A breach in the first door reveals a corridor filled with rubble that will take two days to clear. At the end of it, a new sealed door marks the entrance to the anteroom. Carter, at the height of enthusiasm, made a breakthrough large enough in the stone to be able to stick his head through. Heart pounding, he advances a lit candle through the opening to ensure that no harmful gas reigns on the other side. And for a moment, the group really wonders if Carter, now motionless and wide-eyed, hasn’t been the victim of some poisoning. But as this one says:
“At first, I couldn’t see anything, because the hot air escaping from the room made the flame flicker; but a moment later, as my eyes accustomed to its light, the details of the room slowly emerged from the haze: strange animals, statues, and gold – all over the glitter of gold. “
After a silence, Carnarvon, worried, leans towards his friend and asks him if he can see anything.
“Yes,” Carter replies, “wonderful things. Over 5,000 objects that will take nearly 8 years to extract from the tomb using Carter’s meticulous archival method. A triumph for the archaeologist and the entire expedition which remains to this day one of the greatest discoveries ever made in Egypt. But the story does not end there, because as you know, today impossible to pronounce the name of Tutankhamun without speaking of the alleged curse which would be attached to him.
Two months after the opening of the burial chamber, at the age of 56, Lord Carnarvon died of a terrible infection and immediately public opinion was carried away. Some claim that this is a fair conclusion for one who desecrated a king’s tomb, while others get lost in speculation about the spells and poisons that may have caused the Lord’s death. After all, it is said that his canary would have been devoured by a cobra, then that his servant would have contracted appendicitis the day before the opening of the tomb! Then it seems that an epidemic of boils appeared in several parts of Europe on the day of the opening, you imagine, and that his wife fell ill on the plane which brought her to her dying husband’s side. In short, everyone has their own opinion and every element that could serve to corroborate the more than wavering hypothesis of a curse is put to contribution. Arthur Conan Doyle himself, admittedly a famous author of Sherlock Holmes but also a fervent defender of spiritualism, immediately exposed his opinion to the newspapers: Tutankhamun’s tomb was guarded by elementals, spirits created by the priests of the Pharaoh to protect his remains. The case is circulating all over the world, and it is said that Mussolini, a great superstitious man, got rid of the mummy he kept in the Chigi palace at the last minute for fear of being the victim of a spell. It didn’t take long for history to turn into legend, and during the years and decades that followed, the most influential individuals continued to look for evidence in the events following the discovery of the tomb. Carter’s illness in 1924, the death of a wealthy American visiting the Valley of the Kings, and then that of several members of the team that discovered the tomb are all arguments advanced by the gullible. But science quickly takes charge of denying these assertions.
According to medical reports, Carnarvon died of a general infection coupled with pneumonia, the consequences of a badly treated mosquito bite during his trip. Skeptics are also quick to demonstrate that most of the people who visited the tomb lived without a hitch, since of the 58 individuals present at the time of the opening of the tomb and then of the sarcophagus, only 8 died in the twelve years. that followed, none of them at an age below the life expectancy of the time. The archaeologists also assured that no curse had been discovered engraved on the walls of the room, contrary to what some claimed. And Howard Carter himself claimed that these curses stories were nonsense and that the mind of an Egyptologist should not be defined by a feeling of silly fear, but by a deep respect and admiration for what he explores. And yet, even today the legend of Tutankhamun is talked about, like many other hard-skinned myths and certain beliefs, more dangerous.
Howard Carter died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma in his London apartment on March 2, 1939. Only nine people will be present at the funeral of this eternal loner who leaves behind neither companion nor child, but a formidable legacy for the world of archeology.
In 2015, researcher Nicholas Reeves, with a determination worthy of his predecessor, suggested that Tutankhamun’s tomb would house the doors of two still unexplored chambers. After bitter debate, data collected in 2019 seems to confirm that rooms probably still filled with rubble remain to be explored behind these walls erected several thousand years ago.
Thanks for listening to Science Hunters. To text and narration: Emma Hollen. If you appreciate our work, please do not hesitate to leave us a comment and five stars on the distribution platforms to support us and improve our visibility. You can also subscribe to Spotify, Deezer, Apple Podcast and many others to never miss a single episode. As for me, I will meet you soon for a future temporal expedition, in Hunters of science. Goodbye !
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