British historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes is filming a television show on location in Egypt. She stands poised before an elegant chest with Egyptian antiquities expert Dr. Essa Zidan. But this is no ordinary box: it has come from the 3,300-year-old tomb of Tutankhamun – and has never been opened in front of a film crew. Turning to Zidan, Hughes then asks if she can remove the lid, and, astonishingly, the doctor agrees to let her. But what the curious pair find inside is entirely unexpected.
There is no doubt about the provenance of this chest; it can be seen quite clearly in Howard Carter’s photographs of the interior of Tutankhamun’s tomb. And it was Carter who had actually discovered the pharaoh’s last resting place in 1922. Yet although the chest was found inside Tutankhamun’s burial chamber, it seems that the box hadn’t really belonged to the ancient Egyptian.
In fact, researchers believe that the chest had been the property of Tutankhamun’s wife, Ankhesenamun. The evidence for this is the inscribed cartouche – or plaque – on one end of the box that identifies it as belonging to Tutankhamun’s queen. The pharaoh had married her not long after he’d ascended to the throne at the age of nine in 1332 B.C.
We know that Ankhesenamun outlived Tutankhamun, too. The latter in fact died when he was only 19 years old. So why would a chest belonging to Ankhesenamun be placed in her husband’s tomb? Perhaps it was as a keepsake of her memory for her husband to cherish in the afterlife? Yet whatever the reason, it’s the only thing belonging to her that experts have found. Also equally intriguing is this question: what does the chest contain?
Well, the content of the chest is exactly what Bettany Hughes was about to reveal in her TV show Egypt’s Greatest Treasures. This was broadcast by Britain’s Channel 5 in August 2019. And in the episode, just before the box is opened, Hughes says, “I think it looks like a linen chest.” So were there 3,300-year-old royal garments inside?
After all, Tutankhamen – whose tomb the mysterious chest was found in – was Egypt’s ruler towards the end of what is known as the 18th Dynasty. This ran from around 1550 B.C. until 1292 B.C., and it is regarded as a period when ancient Egyptian power and culture were at a pinnacle. Tutankhamen came to power after his father, Amenhotep IV, died.
Amenhotep IV was something of a revolutionary, too, since he turned his back on the contemporarily accepted Egyptian gods, who were supposedly led by the deity Amun. The pharaoh even changed his name to Akhenaten and instead revered only one god: Aten. You’ll notice that the four letters of Aten’s name form the final part of Amenhotep’s new moniker – a custom we’ll see repeated in his son’s name.
And when the newly named Akhenaten overturned accepted Egyptian religious dogma, he also transferred the seat of Egyptian power from Thebes, now known as Luxor, to a location some 180 miles to the north called Amarna. Then Tutankhamun was born and was given the name Tutankhaten – in tribute to the deity Aten.
According to recent DNA studies of one of the female mummies found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, the young pharaoh’s mother was most probably Akhenaten’s sister. Yet although incest is much less common today – and certainly not accepted – ancient Egyptian royalty often wed close relatives. And as we’ll see, Tutankhamun did too.
Tutankhamun did not succeed to the pharaonic throne directly after Akhenaten’s death, though. Instead, there was a murky period when two others may have ruled for short periods, one of whom may have been a woman: Nefertiti, one of Akhenaten’s wives. The difficulties of unravelling history from more than 333 centuries ago are naturally quite formidable.
However, we do know that Tutankhamun came to the throne around 1334 B.C., as only a child of nine. And not long after his accession to the throne he married Ankhesenamun, the owner of the ancient chest that we started our story with. Like her husband, Ankhesenamun was also given a different name as an infant: Ankhesenpaaten.
Notice the last four letters of Ankhesenamun’s original name, Ankhesenpaaten. They recognize the god Aten, who was worshipped by Tutankhamun’s father, Akhenaten. And Akhenaten was also Ankhesenamun’s father, while her mother was Nefertiti. So she and her husband shared the same father but had different mothers.
In other words, Tutankhamun continued the highly inadvisable pharaonic habit of incest by marrying his half-sister. After they were married, though, the two apparently decided to backtrack on their father’s drastic reformation of ancient Egyptian religion. Rejecting Aten, they reverted to Amun as their principal god and left Amarna – relocating their dynastic center back to Luxor.
The pharaoh and his new queen also lost the “aten” from the ends of their names, substituting it with “amun” instead. And after their return to the old religion, Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun had another very important task to accomplish. Like any royal dynasty, they needed to produce heirs. Yet it seems that Ankhesenamun may have had two unsuccessful pregnancies, because two mummified fetuses were discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Mind you, for many years after the discovery of the pharaoh’s burial chambers, the identity of those two fetuses was a matter for conjecture. But the results of modern DNA testing of samples from the mummified fetuses give a strong indication that at least one of them was the child of Ankhesenamun. In all probability, too, that means the father was Tutankhamun.
Of course, the incestuous relationships that produced Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun – plus their incestuous relationship – may well have been a factor in those one or two unsuccessful pregnancies. The incest factor may also have been an important contributor to the ill-health and disability that seem to have blighted the pharaoh’s life.
Modern analysis of Tutankhamun’s mummy has, for instance, shown that he had a left club foot. And during Tutankhamun’s life, this foot had also apparently suffered from necrosis – a condition where tissue dies. This means he would likely have had trouble walking. In fact, the pharaoh was buried with many walking sticks, and, unusually, a portrayal of him firing an arrow from a bow showed him seated.
Modern science also proves that Tutankhamun had suffered from malaria and that he may have had a cleft palate. And at some point during his life, the pharaoh had apparently suffered a severely broken leg that had never properly healed. It’s also believed that Tutankhamun had been around five feet six inches tall and slim, with large front teeth along with a pronounced overbite.
Despite all we know from analysis of Tutankhamun’s mummified remains, though, the actual cause of his premature death at 19 remains a mystery. Probably the best theory is that a combination of his disabilities, his malaria and that fractured leg may have combined together to finish off this young man. After all, the pharaoh had apparently lived with poor health for most of his life.
In any case, after Tutankhamun died without an heir, another confused period of ancient Egyptian history ensued. Eventually, though, a new pharaoh – Ramses I – took power and was determined to eradicate memories of his predecessor. And that, according to the renowned Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass writing in National Geographic in 2010, may be the reason why Tutankhamun’s tomb remained so spectacularly intact.
Hawass wrote, “Ironically, this attempt to erase his memory preserved Tutankhamun for all time. Less than a century after his death, the location of his tomb had been forgotten. Hidden from robbers by structures built directly above, it remained virtually untouched until its discovery in 1922.” And that brings us to the story of Howard Carter’s uncovering of the young pharaoh’s tomb.
Howard Carter was born the last of 11 children in the Kensington district of London, England, in 1874. His father, Samuel, was an artist who painted animals and drew magazine illustrations. The young Carter suffered from poor health, however, and consequently had to spend time in the country town of Swaffham in Norfolk. Yet his countryside stays actually gave Carter the chance to see Egyptian antiquities firsthand.
Not far from Swaffham was, you see, the Amherst family’s grand country house of Didlington Hall. And at the mansion was a collection of Egyptian antiquities that Carter was lucky enough to have the opportunity to see. That was enough, it seems, for him to dedicate his life to Egyptology. In fact, Carter’s first chance to do this professionally came when he was only 17.
It seems that Carter’s father had passed on some of his artistic skills to his son, teaching him the ability to draw. And the young man apparently became a talented draughtsman. Coincidentally, an archaeologist called Percy Newberry was about to travel to Egypt to undertake an excavation for the Egypt Exploration Fund – and needed somebody to record his work. The upshot was that Newberry employed Carter to illustrate tombs and ancient artifacts.
This opportunity gave Carter the start he needed in the world of Egyptology, and in the following years he worked at a variety of different ancient Egyptian sites. Apparently, he prospered in his new career, too, rising to the position of Inspector-General of Monuments of Upper Egypt for the Egyptian Antiquities Service. And in this role, Carter discovered and recorded several important ancient tombs.
In 1905, however, Carter became involved in a peculiar incident that was to end his Antiquities Service employment. It seems that a group of French tourists, the worse for drink, got involved in a brawl with Egyptian staff at the archaeological site of Saqqara. The French then complained, and Carter was reportedly told to give them an apology. But believing that his staff had been in the right, Carter apparently refused and resigned his post.
There followed a difficult couple of years when Carter eked out a living as an artist and seller of antiquities to tourists. But salvation came in 1907 when Carter found himself an aristocratic British patron with deep pockets and an abiding interest in Egyptology. His savior was the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, the lengthily named George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert.
Carter worked for Carnarvon for the next few years, excavating various tombs using the earl’s patronage and money. His work was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I in 1914, though, and Carter subsequently took employment as a British government translator and diplomatic attaché. Then, three years later, he was able to return to his archaeological work.
It turned out that Carnarvon had, in 1914, obtained the rights to excavate in the Valley of the Kings – the location of many of the most spectacular ancient Egyptian archaeological finds. So, now released from his war duties, Carter could make a start on exploring this tempting area. But after five years of toil, involving the hand-digging of some 200,000 tons of rock, Carter failed to find anything of significance.
Carnarvon’s patience was reportedly running out by 1922, too, so the earl gave Carter an ultimatum. Now, then, unless Carter found something of consequence in the next digging season, it would be the last that the earl would fund. Carter returned to the Valley of the Kings with this threat hanging over him – but he was saved by a lucky stumble.
Yes, a young water carrier for Carter’s excavation team tripped over a rock and noticed the top of a stairway cut into the stone. The archaeologist’s men subsequently dug down revealing a stone staircase leading to a doorway with ancient Egyptian cartouches attached to it. Hiding the staircase under rubble for fear of looters, an excited Carter then summoned Carnarvon to the site.
Carnarvon arrived over two weeks weeks later with his retinue, which included his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert. And as an expectant audience gathered to witness the moment with bated breath, Carter stood before the doorway at the foot of those steps that the waterboy had stumbled upon. In a diary entry on November 26, 1922, the archaeologist recorded what happened next.
Carter wrote, “With trembling hands, I made a tiny breach in the upper left hand corner… Widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle and peered in… At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle to flicker. Presently, details of the room emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.”
Carter continued in his diary, “For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand in suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’… All I could do [was] get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.’”
The following year, Carter and Carnarvon entered the last chamber of the tomb that contained Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus. This consisted of a nest of three coffins with the pharaoh’s mummified remains within. In fact, excavation and cataloguing of the site and all its fabulous riches was not completed until 1932.
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb – combined with the sheer opulence of the burial chambers – caused a worldwide sensation. It also created an enduring myth: the curse of Tutankhamun. For instance, in his 1975 book, The Curse of the Pharaohs, Philipp Vandenberg claimed that Carter had found a tablet inscribed with the words, “Death will slay with his wings whoever disturbs the peace of the pharaoh.” It’s a good yarn – but one entirely unsupported by evidence.
Vandenberg also asserted that no fewer than 22 people involved in the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb met untimely deaths. However, in his 1995 publication – The Book of Spells, Hexes, and Curses – author Stuart Gordon debunked the curse myth. According to Gordon, of the 58 souls who were there when the tomb was opened, only eight perished in the next 12 years.
But now it’s about time that we got back to broadcasting historian Bettany Hughes and the mysterious chest that had belonged to Tutankhamun’s queen, Ankhesenamun. You’ll recall, Hughes was filming the chest with Dr. Essa Zidan in attendance. And out of the blue, she asked Zidan if she could open the box.
This chest had allegedly never been opened before – and certainly not with cameras rolling. In the clip, Hughes says to Dr. Zidan, “Can you open it?” Zidan seems not to have heard her question, or perhaps he just couldn’t believe she’d asked it. Hughes repeats, “Can you open it?” For a moment, Zidan looks rather stunned and hesitates before replying with apparent reluctance, “Hmm, okay, okay.”
Hughes can scarcely believe her luck at getting this scoop. Shocked, she says, “It’s a box that’s never been filmed before being opened, and the doctor has just offered to open it for us.” The chest lid is not hinged, so Zidan and an assistant carefully lift the top completely off. Hughes peers inside, and then says, “Sadly, the box is empty.” It would be a dreadful cynic indeed who might surmise that the Egyptian professor had pranked the British television historian.
Yes, Tutankhamun’s tomb and the artifacts within it undeniably remain one of the most fascinating Egyptian discoveries to this day. But it isn’t the only spectacular historical treasure that’s been found in the Valley of the Kings. In fact, the site is currently in the midst of its biggest excavation since Carter discovered King Tut. And what archaeologists have unearthed there may even rewrite history.
Incredible archaeological finds already surround the experts who are toiling away in the Valley of the Kings in October 2019. As the team scour their selected dig site, though, one of the workers notices something strange. The sand seems to have shifted, in fact – just enough to reveal what looks to be a face. And when the archaeologists investigate further, they come across yet another truly astonishing discovery that may yet change what we know about Ancient Egypt.
Said discovery came on the heels of yet another successful dig in the Valley of the Kings. You see, the country’s Antiquities Ministry had announced the week before that its archaeological team had found 30 industrial workshops, with these spaces appearing to date all the way back to 1539 B.C. Inside, experts theorized, the ancient Egyptians had built furniture to place inside tombs alongside their fallen kings.
That find gave experts a frame of reference for how the ancient locals pieced together their coffins and tomb decor. And the uncovering of such substantial artifacts may very well have felt like an accomplishment for the area’s archaeologists. Little did the researchers know, though, that something completely different – and perhaps yet more stunning – would also be revealed in just a week’s time.
But before we look at what was found in the Valley of the Kings, let’s focus in on the area itself. Between the 16th and 11th centuries B.C., ancient Egyptians chipped into rock there in order to create tombs for the pharaohs and other leaders of their New Kingdom. And the fruit of their labor sits on the Nile’s west bank just across from Luxor – although that city was once known as Thebes.
What’s more, new facets of the Valley of the Kings have emerged even in recent years. In 2008, for example, two additional tomb entrances were uncovered at the location, with those pathways adding to the area’s tally of 63 tombs and chambers. And although many had been cracked open and emptied of their expensive offerings long ago by raiders, the tombs still contained clues as to how and why Egyptians buried the powerful in such a manner.
But, of course, one tomb in the Valley of the Kings stands as its most famous find. In November 1922 Howard Carter pinpointed the final resting spot of Tutankhamun, and the teenager’s undisturbed tomb has helped transform the archaeological site into a world-famous tourist draw. Experts certainly didn’t stop there, though. To this day, they continue excavating and conserving the Valley of the Kings.
In fact, Egypt is seeing the largest dig in the Valley of the Kings since Carter found King Tut’s tomb. And the massive effort has a particular aim: specifically, the country’s team of archaeologists hope to reveal yet-to-be-uncovered royal crypts. The tomb of Tutankhamun’s widow, Queen Nefertiti, hasn’t as yet been unearthed, for example, and it’s hoped that workers in the area will eventually find it.
Yet archaeologists haven’t restricted their search to just the Valley of the Kings. They’ve also moved outward to Asasif – an ancient cemetery near the more famous Thebian burial place. And digs in Asasif have actually already yielded tombs from the 18th Dynasty – of which King Tut was the final pharaoh from his family to reign.
In fact, this renewed focus has already yielded some incredible finds. For example, during an investigation into the Valley of the Kings – which is sometimes referred to as the East Valley – experts discovered a new tomb. This final resting place was then given the moniker KV 65.
Archaeologist Zahi Hawass led a team into KV 65, within which they found some of the ancient apparatus used to build out the tomb. The crew also tapped into the area surrounding King Tut’s famous resting place, and there they uncovered a series of small huts in which the ancient Egyptians are once thought to have stored their tools.
The 42 huts also contained hieroglyphic artwork, pieces of tomb carvings and some rings – the latter of which specialists dated back to the Ramesside period. This epoch began following the death of Tutankhamun and marked the start of the 19th Dynasty, which ultimately lasted from 1292 to 1189 B.C.
Hawass and company similarly dug into the area’s West Valley, which some refer to as the Valley of the Monkeys. And there they made yet another astonishing find, unearthing an entire “industrial zone” in which the Ancient Egyptians had churned out their funerary ornaments and tomb furniture. The discovery was momentous, too, as archaeologists had never seen anything like this before in the vicinity.
The sprawling ancient factory area encompassed 30 workrooms as well as a kiln in which the workers could bake ceramics. And speaking about the relic, Hawass told CNN in October 2019, “Each workshop had a different purpose. Some were used to make pottery, others to produce gold artefacts and others still to manufacture furniture.”
Also in the workrooms, Hawass and his team uncovered silver rings, inlay beads and golden foil. All of these elements would have been used to adorn ancient Egyptian coffins – more specifically, those that belonged to the era’s royals. A number of the decorations even came etched with the wings of Horus – an ancient god who was typically linked with both death and resurrection.
And Hawass went on to explain why the workrooms were so important a find. He said “Up until now, everything we knew about the Luxor region came from the tombs themselves, but this new discovery will allow us to shed a light on the tools and techniques used to produce the royal coffins and the furniture placed in the tombs.”
Hawass revealed, too, that an industrial workplace that had been designed to produce decorative funerary elements had never been found in Egypt before. And the area could yet hold further significance. You see, it may very well give clues as to how the laborers lived their lives, as some of the spaces seemed to be dedicated to their needs while on the job.
Hawass explained to CNN, “We found storage rooms used to hold water and food as well as a water tank from which the workers would drink.” With all the researcher and his team uncovered, then, the huge amount of effort put in to get inside the ancient worksite had proved worthwhile.
Yes, actually infiltrating the space had been no easy task. According to Hawass, more than 3,000 stones had blocked any entry into the ancient industrial center, and these had all needed to be removed before any further investigations could be made. Once the archaeologists had finally stepped into the interior of the West Valley site, however, they were able to make estimations of its age. The artifacts, for example, looked to have been created during the 18th Dynasty, which lasted from 1539 to 1292 B.C.
Still, Hawass and the rest of his team had a bigger goal in mind. Namely, they hoped that their Valley of the Kings-centric dig would reveal further royal tombs. And the archaeologist claimed at the time of the industrial discovery that such a breakthrough would likely occur sooner rather than later. Hawass told CNN, “I believe we are very close to finding an intact royal tomb.”
Furthermore, the industrial workplace – or, specifically, its foundation deposits – made such a possibility even more real. The Daily Mirror quoted Hawass as saying, “An important discovery that we made was a discovery of the four foundation deposits. Near the four foundation deposits, we found graffiti and found working man’s huts, [and this] means there is a royal tomb in this area.”
Indeed, foundation deposits have apparently long been an indication that a royal tomb hides somewhere nearby. Hawass went on, “We know, according to some scholars, that when the Egyptians construct a royal tomb they make four or five foundation deposits.” In addition, some of the tools within the worksite could have been used to either build tombs or in the process of mummification.
So, in early October 2019, Hawass had high hopes that he and his team would shortly uncover a tomb – perhaps even the final resting place of one of Ancient Egypt’s more well-known leaders. And those aspirations were well-founded, too, as within a week, archaeologists in the area did indeed stumble upon something spectacular.
This time, though, the dig took place just behind the Asasif necropolis. And, as it happens, the archaeologists who coordinated the excavation effort had had no intentions of sifting through the sands in that spot; instead, they had trekked to the Asasif area to oversee a separate, unrelated dig. Ultimately, though, someone noticed something intriguing.
To begin with, the mound looming over the back of the Asasif necropolis seemed to be just that – a pile of earth and sand. Yet one detail made it clear that the unusual feature had so much more to offer the archaeological team. It appeared, you see, that a face was sticking out from the bank of dirt.
On closer examination, the face belonged to a coffin that had been hidden within the mound. Archaeologists therefore diverted their attention to the strange discovery and began to excavate it. And as the group did so, they realized that they hadn’t just found one sarcophagus – but a whole two-layer stack of them.
In total, the team found 30 coffins – all hidden just feet below the sand that they had been walking on. Even more surprisingly, the sarcophagi appeared to have remained in good condition during the centuries that they had spent beneath the surface. And as a result of this preservation, archaeologists could instantly see the intricate paintings that brightened the coffins’ exteriors.
Strokes of red, white, black and green brought color to the wooden boxes, which also featured inscriptions on their exteriors. Yet it seemed that these intricate designs hadn’t brought undue attention to the coffins, as all 30 had remained untouched after their burial.
In fact, the discovery of the coffins was itself cause for celebration, as more than a century had passed since such a major find had come out of Egypt. That was just the beginning, too. After all, experts would have to unseal the coffins to see what each contained, and perhaps there was even more information about the people buried inside.
So, the archaeologists started slowly, all slipping on gloves before they opened the first two of the 30 coffins. Then, after prying the sarcophagi open, they found a mummy within each one. And owing to their hand positions, the well-wrapped bodies could be gendered. It seemed that one set of remains had once belonged to a man, while the other had belonged to a woman.
How did the researchers know this so quickly? Well, it’s been determined that while male mummies were typically interred with their hands closed, women reposed for eternal rest with their hands open. According to the BBC, some of the discovered coffins contained the bodies of children, too. And all of the boxes seemed to come from a time long ago – an era that actually predated the Asasif necropolis itself.
Yes, while most of the tombs contained within the Asasif necropolis housed bodies from the Late Period – which concluded in 332 B.C. – the stack of 30 coffins were even older in origin. Experts estimated them to be remnants of the 22nd Dynasty, which took place from 945 B.C. to 715 B.C.
What’s more, the coffins’ random placement in the sand seemed to be the main reason why they had stayed in such good shape over the centuries. At the very least, their position had left them relatively safe from marauders who may have otherwise chosen to empty the sarcophagi and their surrounds of all their valuables.
Tomb burials also exposed wooden coffins to termites that may have irreparably damaged the artifacts. Owing to their concealment in the sand, then, the sarcophagi were seemingly kept safe from both insects and criminals – leaving them in prime condition for excavation nearly 3,000 years later. And as it happens, the coffins’ intricate inscriptions were also likely to have been connected to their strange burial.
Experts hypothesized, for instance, that each sarcophagus boasted a gorgeous, complex design as a form of recompense for the deceased’s burial in relatively insalubrious surroundings. In addition, as the coffins boasted such similar markings, it was thought that they had all been produced by the same artisans.
And, of course, such special boxes indicated that the people encased within had lived privileged lives. One theory posits that all of the men, women and children buried behind the Asasif necropolis had once been relatives of the ancient Egyptian high priests. From 1080 B.C. to 943 B.C. high priests had exerted an enormous amount of power over Thebes and Upper Egypt, so it would make sense that their families would receive such treatment.
But what of the strange placement of the coffins in two underground layers? Well, there’s yet another potential explanation. It’s been said that a priest may have gathered up the ornate boxes and hidden them beneath the ground in the fear that they would otherwise be looted at some point.
And while not every question about the Asasif necropolis coffins can be answered, one thing wss for sure: the team responsible for the discovery were ecstatic with the results of the dig. The country’s Supreme Council of Antiquities secretary-general, Mostafa Waziri, also made plain his sense of pride at the find.
Waziri told NBC News, “I’m very happy we found this discovery with Egyptian hands.” A statement from the Antiquities Ministry echoed Waziri’s delight, too, referring to the fruit of the excavation as “one of the largest and most important” discoveries that the country has had as of late. And given the apparent glee that surrounds the unearthing of the artifacts, it’s perhaps no surprise that the coffins will be shown off in public. In time, the sarcophagi will go on display in Giza’s Grand Egyptian Museum, which is slated to open in 2020.
In the meantime, archaeologists continue their hunt for more historic treasures in the Valley of the Kings, hoping that they may yet find tombs of some of Ancient Egypt’s greatest rulers. And if the results of the recent string of digs are any indication, then there’s every chance of more success in the near future.