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Opening Tutankhamun Tomb
Egypt's monuments that are with us today are the result of the presence of stone to build them and a desert climate that has preserved them. The Phoenicians were almost as great of civilization but little remains of their civilization because it was largely built from wood.

The climate is so dry and rain is so rare in Egypt that millennia-old perishable items like papyrus scrolls have been preserved.

Egypt's sands have preserved many monuments. The Sphinx would be in much worse condition were it not buried for a long time.

Egypt’s leading archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, estimates that only a third of treasures that lie buried in Egypt have been found.

Herodotus devoted nearly all of Book 2 of History to describing the achievements and the curiosities of the Egyptians. On the Egyptian customs Herodotus reported "In any home where a cat dies" the residents "shave off their eyebrows" and “sons never take care of their parents if they don’t want to, but daughters must whether they like it or not." He also noted “Women urinate standing up, men sitting down.” More on Herodotus, See Greeks

Egyptology and the French

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Mummy in the Louvre
The science of Egyptology began with Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798-1801. The invasion force included 150 scientists, artists geographers, and linguists, and included some of the greatest minds of Europe. They produced 24 volumes of material (published mostly between 1809 and 1824), made some of the first and greatest discoveries of ancient Egypt and orchestrated the massive carrying off of booty and treasure to France.

Egyptian didn't care much for archaeological treasures. They were amendable to get rid of "ancient debris" such as the Rosetta Stone and the obelisk of Luxor. Frenchmen headed the Egyptian antiquities department until 1952.

When the French were ousted by the British, British scientist arrived on the scene. The Rosseta Stone, but little else, was turned over to the British.

Great early French Egyptologist included Jean Francois Champollion (1790-1852), who broke the code on the Rosetta Stone; Vivian Denon, who accompanied Napoleon in 1798 and made many sketches of the great monuments; and Aguste Mariett, who helped assemble the Louvre collection and worked as a curator for the Ottoman Turks.

Giovanni Battista Belzoni

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Ramses II at the Louvre
Perhaps the greatest rediscover of ancient Egypt was a flamboyant son of a barber named Giovanni Battista Belzoni. Born in Padua, Italy and named after John the Baptist, this six-foot-six former circus giant, who used to carry twelve people around on a stage with a special harness, uncovered many of Egypt's most famous monuments including Abu Simbel, the tomb of Seti I and giant statues of Ramses the Great. [Source: Dora Jane Hamblin, Smithsonian magazine]

After living in Paris and Holland, Belzoni ended up in England where he married an English woman and made a living making fountains with different colored water and playing musical glasses filled with water. While on tour with a traveling circus, which employed his as the "Patagonian Sampson," Belzoni met the an Albanian soldier of fortune named Mohammed Ali, who later would become the leader of Egypt. Ali invited Belzoni to Egypt where the Italian introduced a waterwheel "constructed on the principal of a crane with a walking wheel, in which a single ox by its own weight alone could affect as much as four oxen employed in the machines of the country."

While in Egypt Belzoni was hired by a British general counsel named Henry Salt who urged the former circus strongman to collect antiquities "whatever the expense" for "an enlightened nation.” In Luxor Belzoni met another Italian, Bernardino Drovetti, who had been hired by the French to do pretty much the same thing. Drovetti had established himself at Luxor (his discoveries form the cornerstone of the Louvre Egyptian collection) so Belzoni moved on to the Valley of the Kings where he made two great discoveries---the tomb of Ramses the Great and the tomb of his father Seti I.

Belzoni's Discovers Memnon's Head

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Colossi of Memnon
Describing his 1816 discovery of the nine-foot-high head of "Young Memnon," now in the British Museum, Belzoni wrote: "I found it near the remains of its body and chair, with its face upwards, and apparently smiling on me, at the thought of being taken to expectations were exceeded by its beauty, but not by its size." Using "fourteen plows...four ropes of palm leaves and four rollers" he managed to move the head only a "few yards" the first day and 50 yards the next day. "To make room for it pass we had to break the bases of two columns." When the Rosetta stone was deciphered it was revealed that the head of "Young Memnon" actually belonged to Ramses the Great.

When a local official told the Egyptian labors not to report to work Belzoni used his bare hands to disarm the bureaucrat of two pistols and a sword, and afterwards "gave him a good shaking." The laborers returned to finish their tasks of carrying "Young Memnon" to the Nile where it was transported by ship to London.

On falling on a heap of mummies Belzoni wrote, "Fortunately, I am destitute of the sense of smelling,” but "I could taste that mummies were rather unpleasant to swallow...I sought a resting place, found one, and contrived to sit; but when my weight bore on the body of an Egyptian, it crushed it like a that I sunk altogether among the broken mummies with a crash of bones, rags, and wooden cases, which raised such a dust as kept me motionless for a quarter of an hour."

Belzoni's Discoveries at Aswan and the Pyramids

A similar episode occurred while removing an obelisk from the island of Philae near Aswan. "The pier [we had built] appeared quite strong enough...but alas, when the obelisk came gradually on from the sloping bank...the pier...and some of the men, took a slow movement, and majestically descended into the river...For some minutes, I must confess, I remained as stiff as a post." in the end the obelisk was rescued and nobody was seriously hurt." Abu Simbel was covered in sand when Belzoni arrived at the site. He enlisted the help of some British tourist to remove several tons of sand.

To find the burial chamber in the second great pyramid of Giza Belzoni looked for "the spots where the stony matter is not so compact as the surrounding mass; and...the concavity of the pyramid over the place where the entrance might have been expected to be found." Upon locating the right passageway he found his progress blocked by a granite stone. "After thirty days of exertion I had the pleasure of finding myself in the way to the central chamber of one of the two great pyramids of torch, formed of a few candles, gave but faint light." Inside was the sarcophagus of the pharaoh, which had been looted centuries before.

The book Belzoni wrote to describe his adventures was entitled Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations, in Egypt and Nubia; and of a Journey to the Coast of the Red Sea, in Search of the Ancient Berenice; and Another to the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon . Belzoni died of dysentery while on an expedition on the Benin River in Africa in 1823 at the age of 45.

Tomb of King Tut

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Tutankhamen's tomb map
The discovery of King Tutankhamun's Tomb is one the greatest archaeological finds of all time. Tutankhamun was by no means one of the great pharaohs---he didn't build a pyramid and he died when he was 18---but it just so happens that his tomb was one of the few in the Valley of the Kings unmolested by looters. The tomb of Ramses II, the greatest pharaoh of all, probably contained a greater horde of treasures but we will probably never know what those treasures were---his tomb was looted only 150 years after his death.

See King Tutankhamun, Tombs and Funerals

The tomb can be visited and the treasures found in it are on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

How did the tomb escape the looting that occurred to every other major tomb. For one it was relatively small and may not have attracted the attention of looters. A grander room with long corridors was being prepared for him but it was never used, perhaps because he died so young, and he was buried in a tomb prepared for someone else. In addition, 200 years after his death, the tomb was covered over by huts of laborers digging the crypt for Ramses , for all intents and purposes hiding it from potential plunderers.

Discovery of Tomb of King Tut

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Tutankhamun's tomb
The tomb of King Tutankhamun---regarded as perhaps the most spectacular archaeological find ever--- was discovered on November 6, 1922 in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor by British explorer Howard Carter. An opening to the tomb was reportedly discovered by a water boy who dug a hole on a barren hillside for his water jar under three feet of debris under a workman's hut set up centuries before. The water-carrier stumbled on the corner of a door that was almost completely buried in sand. It opened up to a steep flight of stairs that led to what became known as KV62 (Valley of the Kings 62). A total of 61 royal tombs had been found up until that time, all of them looted.

The son of a British painter, Carter was born in Norfolk, England. The Washington Post described him as ---a low-born, little-educated, lonely and slightly-crazed British artist who became one of the greatest Egyptologists of his day.” He had been searching for eight years for something significant---five of them looking for Tutankhamun’s tomb---under his sponsor Lord Carnarvon, who was preparing to cut off his funding.

Altogther Carter had has been combing the Valley of the Kings for more than 30 years. In 1922 Carnavon told him that he would fund just one more season. After Carter made the discovery, he showed incredible restraint and patience. Instead of entering the tomb, he sent a famous cable to his sponsor Lord Carnarvon: "AT LAST HAVE MADE A WONDERFUL DISCOVERY IN VALLEY: A MAGNIFICENT TOMB WITH SEALS INTACT; RECOVERED SAME FOR YOUR ARRIVAL; CONGRATULATIONS.

After the water boy made his find it took about two days for workers to dig down to the sealed door but then Carter waited for three weeks for Carnavon to arrive from his castle in Hampshire England. Recalling the member who first laid eyes on the sealed door Carter wrote in his diary, “With excitement growing to a fever he searched the seal impression on the door for evidence of the identity of its owner but could see no name...I needed all my self-control to keep from breaking down the doorway and investigating then and there.” Later when the pit was dug deeper, Tutankhamun’s name appeared, raising the excitement level another notch.

Book: In the Valley of the Kings by Daniel Myerson (2009) recants the story of King Tutankhamun and describes Carter’s hunt for his tomb in fairly compelling terms.

Opening of the Tomb of King Tut

When Carnarvon arrived, he and Carter descended down an entrance gallery to the sealed door. When they pulled it down and saw nothing but broken jars and vessels, their hearts sank at the sight of “clear evidence of plundering. But then they walked through a 30-foot-long passageway and found a second sealed door. When this door was taken down and the tomb was entered Carter said he heard "strange rustling, murmuring, whispering sounds" as humidity and new air moved in and began destroying the art and objects.

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Inside the underground tomb of King Tut

Inside they found a great treasure, which included gold couches, four gold chariots, a golden throne, alabaster vases and scores of personal items of the king.. But this was only the anteroom. Against one end of the chamber stood two life-size statues made of dark wood and gold. Each held a gilded mace and a long gilded staff. Between them was a plastered over door with royal seals. It took two months to clear the treasures out of the tomb and make preparations to open the plastered door.

Opening of the Burial Chamber of King Tut

On February 17, 1923, Carter’s team broke through sealed, plastered-over door and found the burial chamber itself, almost entirely filled by a golden shrine---9 feet high, 10¾ feet wide and 16½ feet long---inlaid with panels of brilliant blue faience depicting special symbols that protected the dead. The shrine was actually four shrines, one inside the other. Inside the forth shrine was the sarcophagus made of yellow quartzite with a sculpted goddess spreading protecting arms and wings over its foot.

Inside the sarcophagus was a coffin with a golden effigy of the king in low relief on the lid. On top of that was a wreath of withered flowers that had been placed there almost 3300 years before. Inside the coffin was an undefiled mummy wrapped with 143 pieces of jewelry and the famous blue and gold funerary mask. Inside the tomb were more than 30 golden statuettes of Tutankhamun and various deities. Other treasures included a mirror case in the shape of an ankh and gold pectoral inlaid with semiprecious stones.

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Moment Carter opens Tutankhamun's tomb
Carter later wrote: “It was a sight surpassing all precedent, and one we never dreamed of seeing. We were astonished by the beauty and refinement of art displayed by objects surpassing all we could have imagined---the impression was overwhelming...Three thousand, four thousand years maybe, have passed and gone since human feet last trod the floor on which you stand, and yet, as you note the signs of recent life around you---the blackened lamp, the finger-mark upon the freshly painted surface---you feel as if it might have been but yesterday...Time is annihilated by little intimate details such as these, and you feel an intruder.”

“That is perhaps the first and dominant sensation, but others follow thick and fast---the exhilaration of discovery, the fever of suspense, the almost overmastering impulse, born of curiosity, to break down seals and lift lid of boxes, the thought---pure joy to the investigator---that you are about to add a page to history, the strained expectancy---why not confess it?---of the treasure seeker.”

It turns out that looters had broken into the tomb at least twice in ancient times and made off with jewelry and other small objects from the antechamber and had penetrated the burial chamber and treasure room but made off with very little of value. After each occasion the tomb was sealed off by necropolis guards. Comparing what was found with what was listed on inventories, looters made off with about 60 percent of the jewelry. Many of the pieces that were recovered were found in Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus, inserted into his mummy wrappings. Most of the furniture, food and drinks jars, games and other artefacts were left untouched.

Prying King Tut’s Mummy From Its Coffin

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Tutankhamun's tomb
Carter carefully recorded and catalogued everything he found. He didn’t open the third and final coffin, the one containing the mummy and the famous funerary mask, until two years and eight months after the tomb had been discovered. A total of three weeks was spent just cutting away the resin-encrusted wrapping from around the mask. In February 1932, nearly a decade after opening the tomb, Carter finished photographing and cataloguing all the treasures and artifacts he found in Tutankhamun tomb: 5,398 items.

Despite the slow, careful effort, King Tutankhamun’s mummy was badly damaged by Carter when he tried to pry off the golden mask and remove the mummy from the coffin. Carter found that the mummy’s hardened resins glued it to the bottom of its coffin. Determined to remove it Carter tried prying it out and leaving it in the hot sun. Finally he wrote “the consolidated material had to be chiseled away beneath the limbs and trunk.” The head and all the major joints were severed and reassembled on a layer of sand inside a wooden box, where they continue to lie today.”

The removal process broke the mummy into 18 pieces. Between 2005 and 2007 the mummy was restored and with great fanfare the face of Tutankhamun was revealed to the public for the first time in November 2007 as he was carefully lifted from a quartz sarcophagus and placed in climate-controlled glass case with his unwrapped head on display for all the world to see.

See Death of King Tut

Tomb of King Tut and the Curse of the Mummy

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Tutankhamun shrines and sarcophagos
Carnarvon and Carter became instantly famous after they discovered the tomb in 1922. Stories about "Curse of King Tut" materialized short afterwards when Carnarvon and several members of the expedition mysteriously died.

Carnarvon---Carter's patron---was bitten by a mosquito soon after entering the tomb. While shaving, he cut open the bite, which became infected. He died of pneumonia six weeks later. Some scientists have suggest that a long dormant disease might have been released when the tomb was opened. At the moment of Carnarvon’s death, it is said, the lights went out in Cairo, and Carnarvon’s canary in Egypt and his dog in England died, giving birth to curse of the mummy stories.

The curse was invented by journalist Arthur Weigalll who was angry that Carnarvon gave the exclusive right of his story to a rival paper. The curse increased the pharaoh's fame and inspired the Boris Karfloff film The Mummy .

Of the ten major diggers two were alive 40 years later and another five lived an average of 20 years after the opening. Despite this the story of the curse lives when on. Egyptologist Zahal Hawass said that on the day his team did a CT scan of King Tut’s mummy he almost had a car accident, a powerful wind suddenly blew up in the Valley of the Kings and the CT machine stopped working for two hours after extraordinary precautions had been made to make sure it was set up properly.

Rosetta Stone

The Rosetta Stone is a black basalt slab 45 inches long and 29 inches wide. Inscribed in three languages: 53 lines of Greek, 32 lines of a cursive script now called demotic script and 16 lines of hieroglyphics. Both the demotic script and hieroglyphics were initially indecipherable. It was written by a group of priest assembled in Memphis to mark the ascension to the throne of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes in 190 B.C. and carried a Memphis decree concerning the cult of the king.

The Rosetta Stone was unearthed in August 1799 by French soldiers, excavating ruined Fort Rachid near the town of Rosetta at the mouth of the Nile. Around the time the stone was found France went to war with Britain. When the French were forced out Egypt the stone fell into the hands of the British and was taken to the British Museum in 1802, were it remains today. Egypt wants the Rosetta Stone back.

Deciphering the Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone
Hieroglyphics in their developed form were phonetic symbols not merely pictures. The first man in modern history to realize this was a German mathematician named Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) who discovered that hieroglyphics were an early form of the Coptic language. Up until his discovery it was thought that the hieroglyphics were symbols of ideas and objects not the phonetic symbols that they really were.

The Frenchmen Jean-Françious Champollion (1790-1832) is given credit with the deciphering the hieroglyphics using the Greek on the Rosetta Stone. Champollion became aware of the Rosetta Stone when he was 12 and, the story goes, he became obsessed with deciphering it. Before he reached the age of 20 he had mastered Arabic, Syriac, Hebrew, Latin and Coptic (a language related to ancient Egyptian).

Champollion was given clues by Dr. Thomas Young, a British scholar who theorized the hieroglyphics were phonetic and had an alphabetical base using a bilingual-Greek-hieroglyphic text on an obelisk in Philae, Egypt. He found that seven elongated ovals or cartouches spelled something phonetically---the name of Ptolemy and also found the name of Cleopatra.

The proper names of Ptolemy, Cleopatra and Ramses gave Champollion the necessary clues to crack the ancient Egyptian written language. Using his knowledge of Coptic, Champollion went much further than Young and devised a complete system of decipherment rules and basic grammar. He realized that hieroglyphic language was alphabetic in principal but included pictorial signs representing complete words and other signs, when attached to words, represented the word’s category (e.g. "an animal name").

The stress of the intensive work is believed to have contributed to Champollion's death from a stroke at the age of 42. The genius of his work wasn't fully appreciated until 30 years later. After his death German scholars figured the full complexity of the hieroglyphics and gave accurate translations for texts misunderstood by Champollion. Today hieroglyphics can be read about as well as the writing for most languages.

Other Famous Ancient Egyptian Archaeologists

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Stuff in King Tut's tomb
British archaeologists W.M. Flinders Petrie, who did some important work in the 1880s, lived in a tomb in Giza and sometimes emerged at night in his pink long underwear to the horror of tourists that sometimes saw him.

Bernardino Drovetti was the French consul general of Egypt. H e was a notorious tomb raider and "sold mummies by the pound."

Many works of art were snapped up European and American collectors. A 19th century writer wrote of the art market in Thebes: “As workmen, the Copts are perhaps the more artistic. As salesmen, the Arabs are perhaps the least dishonest. Both sell more forgeries than genuine antiquities.” Mummies were unwrapped to look for jewels. Diplomats used their immunity to work as middlemen between looters and collectors.

Tomb of Ramses Sons

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boomerang in King Tut's tomb
On February 2, 1995, American archaeologist Ken Weeks discovered a huge tomb with at least 108 chambers in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor. Archaeologists considered it the most significant discovery in Egyptology since the discovery of King Tut's tomb.

Known officially as KV5 (the 5th tomb discovered in the Valley of the Kings) and located about 100 feet from the tomb of Ramses the Great, the tomb is believed to have been a burial place for many of Ramses the Great' sons.

KV5 is the largest and most complex Egyptian tomb every discovered and the only multiple tomb for pharaoh's children. Inscriptions on the walls mentions two of Ramses' sons, which is what led archaeologists to believed it may be a tomb for his sons.

Book: The Lost Tomb by Kent R. Weeks (William Morrow & Co.) is the story of the tomb of the children of Ramses II.

Discovery Tomb of Ramses Sons

The tomb was found under an area that had been earmarked for a parking lot and discovered by digging a series of tunnels. The entrance was beside an asphalt road about ten feet below the grade and behind a boot that sold T-shirts and souvenir scarabs. In 1825, an Englishman named James Burton crawled partway inside but was turned by debris and rubble.

Most of the chamber had been looted it gave scientist new insights into a side of Egyptian culture that had appeared before.

Tomb 5 won't be open to tourists until around 2005. Many have of the chambers have been damaged by looters and water from flash flood. Few pieces of jewelry, gold or silver or other valuables were found.

Inside the Tomb of Ramses Sons

Ramses III mummy
Describing the sensation of being in the tomb, Douglas Preston wrote in the New Yorker, "Nothing in twenty years of archaeology has prepared me for this great wrecked corridor chiseled out of the living rock, with rows of shattered doorways opening into darkness, and ending in the faceless mummy of Osiris...As I stare at the walls ghostly figures and faint hieroglyphics; animal-headed gods performing mysterious rites. Through doorways I catch a glimpse of more rooms and doorways beyond."

After being the first person to enter one chamber, "I sit up and look around....There is three feet of space between the top of the debris and the ceiling, just enough for me to crawl around...The room is about nine feet square, the walls finely chiseled from the bedrock...In run my fingers along the ancient chisel marks...Their only source of light would have been the dim illumination from wicks burning in a bowl of oil salted to reduce smoke.

Details about the Tomb of Ramses Sons

KV5 has a T-floor plan and is made up of a series of boxcar-like chambers connected by corridors, and ending with a burial vault. There are a number of descending passageways and side chambers and suites and false doors. One of the largest chambers is sixty square feet. It is supported by four huge pillars arranged in four rows.

There are reliefs that show Ramses presenting various sons to the gods, with the names and tools recorded in hieroglyphics. Objects found include faince jewelry, fragments of furniture, pieces of coffin, humans and animal bones, mummified body parts, chunks of sarcophagi, remains of jars used for mummified organs---all debris left behind by looters.

The purpose of the tomb is a mysterious. Its design is radically different from other ancient Egyptian tombs. The rooms are not believed to have been burial chambers because the doorways are too narrow to admit sarcophagi. Instead they are believed to have been chapels where priest made offerings to the dead sons.

One corridors heads in the direction of the Tomb of Ramses and some scholars speculate that they might be connected. No two tombs are known to be connected. Some scholars believe Ramses's daughters might be buried in the tombs, others say that is unlikely. Archaeologists have found no evidence of Moses or the Exodus.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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