Wonderful Things: King Tut's Tomb

Deborah Savage, Librarian, History & Genealogy Department,
Replica of Boat

The archeaologist Howard Carter toiled in Egypt for three decades with little success. Under the sponsorship of Lord Carnarvon, he spent seven years searching the Valley of the Kings for the tomb of the young pharaoh Tutankhamen. Yet by November of 1922, Carter's luck was running out. Carnarvon made it very clear that this would be their last season. Down to his last chance, on November 4, 1922, Carter finally got a break when an Egyptian water boy found a step in the desert. This step eventually led to the tomb of Tutankhamen. When Carter finally entered the tomb, his nervous employer asked him if he could see anything. Carter replied: "Yes, wonderful things."

This discovery in the Egyptian desert is one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time, the most intact Egyptian tomb ever found. Almost immediately, stories flew around the globe of an ancient curse killing the tomb's discoverers one by one. King Tut spawned a craze for all things Egyptian in the 1920s, an obsession revived in the 1970s as the treasures of Tutankhamen toured the United States. Young Tut has inspired movies and popular songs. The boy pharaoh still makes headlines as scientists continue to debate what might have caused his death. Tutankhamen even has a connection to the popular PBS show "Downton Abbey," which is filmed at Highclere Castle, the ancestral home of Lord Carnarvon.

The History  and Genealogy Department has several resources to help uncover the mysteries of Tutankhamen. An interesting place to start is the Los Angeles Times Historic Archives, available at www.lapl.org under Research and Homework. This database can be accessed from any computer with a Los Angeles Public Library card. Searching for articles over the last 90 years provides a fascinating overview of the world's interest in the Boy King.

Lord Carnarvon's mysterious and sudden death from an infected mosquito bite just two months after the opening of the burial chamber  sparked the legend of the curse of the pharaohs. The L.A. Times reported on September 16, 1923, that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, believed that ancient Egyptian "spirit guards" killed Carnarvon. The curse was blamed every time anyone associated with the opening of the tomb passed away. However, Howard Carter himself lived until 1939, peacefully dying at home. The curse made headlines again in the 1970s. A San Francisco police officer suffered a stroke after guarding Tutankhamen's famous gold funeral mask while it was on display at the De Young Museum. According to the L.A. Times, he sued for compensation claiming he was a victim of the pharaohs' curse and that his stroke was a work-related injury. The judge did not agree.

Over the years, the L.A. Times reported on Tutankhamen's influence on popular culture. As early as Feb. 4, 1923, articles ran with headlines like "Ancient Egypt Lives Again in Hollywood." Movie studios paraded actresses wearing swimsuits with ancient Egyptian designs. Buildings throughout Los Angeles reflected ancient Egyptian architecture. Two prominent examples are Hollywood's Egyptian theater, opened in 1922, and our own Central Library, built in 1926.

When the treasures of Tutankhamen were displayed at the L.A. County Museum of Art in 1978, the L.A. Times reported that 8,000 people a day lined up to see the exhibit. Over the next ten years, the Times reported on everything from an Egyptian-themed store called Tut Uncommon to a coffin company selling satin-lined gold reproductions of King Tut's sarcophagus.

The public's interest in Tutankhamen shows no signs of abating. Once you have finished reading about Tutankhamen in the L.A. Times, check out some of the History Department's books and DVDs on the Boy King. Following are a few suggestions to get you started.

The Tomb of Tutankhamen by Howard Carter. Abridged from the original three volumes, this is Carter's own account of the discovery of the tomb, capturing his sense of amazement. Features maps and black and white photographs.

The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut's Mummy by Jo Marchant. There is no privacy for deceased pharaohs. Marchant's book discusses the various examinations of Tut's remains, from the first autopsy in 1925 to the recent high-tech scans.

Tutankhamun's Tomb: The Thrill of Discovery by Harry Burton. Burton was a photographer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a member of its Egyptian Expedition from 1914 until 1940. This volume collects some of the black and white photographs he took over eight years documenting the opening of Tut's tomb and the removal and cataloging of its objects.

Secrets of the Dead: Ultimate Tut. This recent National Geographic DVD explores the enduring mysteries of Tutankhamen, including what might have killed him, why his corpse appeared to have been burned, and why his tomb was smaller than the tombs of other pharaohs.

Tutankhamen: The Life and Death of a Boy-King by Christine El Mahdy. Offers an up-to-date history of Tutankhamen beyond his tomb. Provides information on his life, his family, and the turbulent events of Egypt during the time of Tutankhamen.

Who Killed King Tut? by Michael King. Combines archaeological evidence with modern forensic science to explore various theories that Tutankhamen might have been murdered.

The Complete Tutankhamen by Nicholas Reeves. The story of the discovery of the tomb and the objects found within. Includes photographs of and information about the treasures of Tutankhamun. Mr. Reeves helped the current Lord Carnarvon catalog and exhibit the Tutankhamen relics displayed at Highclere Castle.

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by Lady Fiona Carnarvon. The current Countess of Carnarvon recalls the remarkable life of Lady Almina, wife of the Earl of Carnarvon who sponsored the Tutankhamen expedition. A fascinating read for fans of Tut as well as for fans of Downtown Abbey.

The Mummy: A Handbook of Egyptian Funerary Archaeology by E.A. Wallis Budge. First published in 1893, this profusely illustrated guide explains everything there is to know about Egyptian tombs, mummies, the Kings of Egypt, the Egyptian religion, and the hieroglyphic alphabet.