The Opening of King Tut’s Tomb, Shown in Stunning Colorized Photos (1923–5)

Tut Sarcophagus

Inquir­ing minds want to know, imme­di­ate­ly and with­out any egghead qual­i­fi­ca­tions: Does King Tut’s tomb have hid­den rooms or does it not have hid­den rooms? Answer? Well, it depends who you ask….

That’s unsat­is­fy­ing isn’t it? If real life were direct­ed by Spiel­berg, there would be no ques­tion: of course there are hid­den rooms, and they’re filled with inge­nious, dead­ly boo­by traps and price­less mag­i­cal objects.

CNN reports a “90% chance of hid­den cham­bers,” per­haps con­tain­ing the remains of Queen Nefer­ti­ti. But archae­ol­o­gist and for­mer real­i­ty TV star Zahi Hawass—Egypt’s own Indi­ana Jones, as he’s been called—doubts it, as do sev­er­al oth­er archae­o­log­i­cal experts. Bum­mer.


If you need some Tomb-Raider-style dra­ma, how­ev­er, you could do worse than to read the orig­i­nal accounts of Howard Carter (above, with anony­mous work­er), the Eng­lish Egyp­tol­o­gist who orig­i­nal­ly opened Tut’s tomb in 1922 after five years of fruit­less search­ing.

Slow­ly, des­per­ate­ly slow­ly it seemed to us as we watched, the remains of pas­sage debris that encum­bered the low­er part of the door­way were removed, until at last we had the whole door clear before us. The deci­sive moment had arrived. With trem­bling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left hand cor­ner. Dark­ness and blank space… not filled like the pas­sage we had just cleared.… 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 the sus­pense any longer, inquired anx­ious­ly, ‘Can you see any­thing?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, won­der­ful things.’

Pair this nar­ra­tive with the pho­tographs you see here of the trea­sure horde Carter and his aris­to­crat­ic bene­fac­tors stole, er, dis­cov­ered in the tomb, and you’ve got your­self one heck of a real-life-adven­ture. Tak­en between 1923–25, the pho­tos doc­u­ment many of the 5,298 items that need­ed to be “record­ed, sketched, and in some cas­es doc­u­ment­ed pho­to­graph­i­cal­ly,” the short video below tells us, the first in a 15-part mini video series cre­at­ed for a huge New York exhi­bi­tion, The Dis­cov­ery of King Tut, which just closed on May 15th.

You may have missed the big show—with its life-sized recre­ations of the tomb’s cham­bers— but you can still expe­ri­ence much of the grandeur at its web­site. And Mash­able brings us these pho­tographs, col­orized for the event by a com­pa­ny called Dynamichrome. The pho­tos were tak­en by Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art pho­tog­ra­ph­er Har­ry Bur­ton (aka The Pharao­h’s Pho­tog­a­rpher), the exhi­bi­tion web­site informs us (“Only in Bur­ton’s pho­tographs did the young pharaoh achieve true immor­tal­i­ty”!), and the sto­ry of their cre­ation is inte­gral to the opu­lent tomb’s exca­va­tion.


Act­ing as “Carter’s eyes and mem­o­ry,” Bur­ton “trekked between the dis­cov­ery site, his lab­o­ra­to­ry (which he had set up in the tomb of King Seti II) and impro­vised dark­room in the neigh­bor­ing tomb KV 55.”

The results of Burton’s labors are 2,800 large-for­mat glass neg­a­tives, which doc­u­ment all of the finds, their loca­tion in the tomb and every sin­gle step of the exca­va­tors’ work with the utmost pre­ci­sion. Carter patient­ly and uncon­di­tion­al­ly encour­aged him like no oth­er mem­ber of his team and, thanks to his pho­tos, Bur­ton was the first and only archae­o­log­i­cal pho­tog­ra­ph­er to achieve world­wide fame.

The entire process of remov­ing the ancient trea­sures from Tut’s tomb took ten years, part­ly due to the dif­fi­cul­ty of pre­serv­ing organ­ic arti­facts like tex­tiles, frag­ile wood fur­ni­ture, and footwear.


Thank­ful­ly for us muse­um­go­ers and lovers of ancient his­to­ry, the tomb’s dis­cov­er­ers treat­ed the arti­facts with great care. This has not always been the case. Through­out the nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth cen­turies, actu­al tomb raiders, whose motives were less noble, took what­ev­er they could find from ancient bur­ial sites in order to make a quick sale, with­out regard for the care­ful cat­a­logu­ing and con­ser­va­tion efforts Carter and his team observed. Theft and traf­fick­ing of arti­facts is still ram­pant today.


In an inter­view with U.S. News & World Report, Hawass describes not only how the rav­ages of time and neglect have dam­aged some of Egyp­t’s pre­cious history—including Tut’s bur­ial mask—but also how “near­ly two thirds of Egypt­ian antiq­ui­ties were smug­gled abroad in 2011, 2012, and 2013.” Such traf­fick­ing, he says, “is ongo­ing, but to a less­er degree.” Much of it was the result of “muse­um-loot­ing” dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. Hawass also dis­putes the hid­den cham­bers the­o­ry, con­tend­ing that “Nefer­ti­ti could not have been buried in the Val­ley of the Kings, as she used to wor­ship King Tut. The High Priests of Amun would not have allowed it.”


Unfor­tu­nate­ly, says Hawass, the only way to know for sure is to “dig through the north­ern wall” of the tomb, caus­ing it to col­lapse. But we should not give up hope yet of Tut’s tomb yield­ing more secrets. Archae­ol­o­gist Nicholas Reeves, who pub­lished a paper in 2015 on the exis­tence of hid­den cham­bers, has fur­ther val­i­dat­ed his con­clu­sions with scans that sug­gest met­al and organ­ic mate­ri­als beyond the tomb’s north wall. Maybe Hawass is wrong, and we’ll soon be post­ing pic­tures of the trea­sures gath­ered from Nefer­ti­ti’s tomb. See many more of the col­orized Tut pho­tos at Mash­able.

via Mash­able

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Met Dig­i­tal­ly Restores the Col­ors of an Ancient Egypt­ian Tem­ple, Using Pro­jec­tion Map­ping Tech­nol­o­gy

Try the Old­est Known Recipe For Tooth­paste: From Ancient Egypt, Cir­ca the 4th Cen­tu­ry BC

The Turin Erot­ic Papyrus: The Old­est Known Depic­tion of Human Sex­u­al­i­ty (Cir­ca 1150 B.C.E.)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Petteri says:

    Mes­mer­iz­ing. Snap­shots from 1323 BC. I could frame some of those on my wall (with the num­ber tags shopped out).

  • José kopiler says:

    Very good

  • liuttouktdkut says:

    jyf­fkyt­d­d­kyt­d­d­kud­dytkd­diyt­d­dyt­d­dyrd you mean cropped?

  • Risto Siasanis says:

    OK. This may be a bit of a long shot. After being enclosed (sealed shut) for three thou­sand years did Carter ever men­tion what the air smelled like when he first opened the tomb. Trapped air from 3000 years. The man had to have been beyond com­pre­hen­sion of what he was about to do, see (or hear). Just curi­ous.

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