In 1922, Howard Carter made the most exciting archaeological discovery of the 20th century. Working with backing from George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, the Egyptologist uncovered a tomb just west of Luxor and the Nile River, in the Valley of the Kings. It was the most intact tomb of its kind ever found, relatively untouched by the grave robbers who’d looted nearby crypts in the intervening millennia. Because the ancient Egyptians had buried their dead with everything they’d need for the afterlife, there was plenty to steal.
The tomb, Carter discovered, belonged to pharaoh Tutankhamun (ruled 1334–25 B.C.E.) and housed more than 5,000 objects that ranged
from the magnificent to the prosaic: Tut’s solid gold inner-coffin, sandals, statues, jewelry, textiles, oars for navigating the underworld, and even linen loincloths. The find was exciting on its own; a canny media ploy gave the excavation additional publicity. The Times
paid £5,000 for exclusive access to the tomb, one of
the first paid scoops in history. The public frenzied.
“From the discovery in 1922, this vision of magnificence of pharaonic culture captured the imagination of just about every school child the world over,” said Adam Lowe, the founder of digital conservation lab Factum Arte, which completed a three-dimensional recreation of the tomb in 2014. King Tut, a chronically ill child ruler who died at just 19 years old, was an overnight celebrity whose star has yet to fade.
Carter’s discovery was just the beginning of King Tut mania. Herbert died in 1923, shortly after entering the tomb—most likely from an infected mosquito bite—and a series of people connected with him and Carter suffered mysterious traumas. Rumors of King Tut’s curse circulated.
Beginning in the 1960s, travelling exhibitions of antiquities from the tomb created a new global sensation. An ongoing show, which started at the California Science Center in 2018, moved on to Paris’s Grande Halle de La Villette in Paris, where it broke attendance records for a French art show—the previous record-holder was also a King Tut exhibition—
and sold around 1.3 million tickets. The show will open at London’s Saatchi Gallery
in November; the Australian Museum in Sydney will be its final stop. The general public’s embrace of the Boy Pharaoh shows no signs of relenting, but issues of ownership and repatriation surrounding Tut-related objects still rage.