The boy who really discovered the Boy King
When Howard Carter located the entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb a century ago, he became an instant archaeological hero behind the greatest find in history. Yet the British Egyptologist failed to credit the person actually behind the discovery. As Toby Wilkinson reveals, this was the latest in a long line of omissions that erased the Egyptians working in Egyptology from the narrative
November 1922 marked 100 years since an excavation in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, directed by the British archaeologist Howard Carter, which uncovered a step cut into the valley floor. Over the following two days, clearance revealed a descending staircase, terminating at a rubble wall that blocked further access. This was the moment for which Carter and his aristocratic patron, Lord Carnarvon, had been toiling for 15 long years in the heat and dust. Carter immediately sent a telegram to Carnarvon, who was 2,500 miles away at Highclere Castle, his stately home in the south of England: “At last have made wonderful discovery in valley. A magnificent tomb with seals intact. Re-covered same for your arrival. Congratulations.”
When Carnarvon arrived in Luxor on 23 November, he and Carter looked on anxiously as the rubble wall was cleared, revealing a plastered doorway. Now there could be no doubt what they had found: “On the lower part the seal impressions were much clearer, and we were able without difficulty to make out on several of them the name of Tut.ankh. Amen.”
In due course, the blocked doorway was dismantled, only to reveal a sloping tunnel, filled from floor to ceiling with limestone chippings. As workmen struggled in the confined space to clear the tunnel, they encountered a second doorway, likewise covered with sealings naming Tutankhamun. At four o’clock on the afternoon of 26 November, archaeologist and patron gained access to the royal tomb itself. Peering into the darkness with a lighted candle, Carter could not believe his eyes:
“At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. 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’”.
The discovery of the tomb of the boy-pharaoh Tutankhamun – the greatest archaeological find of all time – has passed into legend. But the story as told by Carter and Carnarvon, and perpetuated in countless retellings since, is not quite the whole truth.
Who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun?
Throughout the excavation and clearance of Tutankhamun’s tomb, Carter kept a detailed digging diary and journal. Preserved in the Griffith Institute at the University of Oxford, these precious documents provide a wealth of first-hand information about the archaeological campaign in the Valley of the Kings.
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But there is one striking omission: nowhere does Carter give credit to the Egyptian labourers who carried out the backbreaking clearance – over six long seasons – of the 200,000 tonnes of rubble and limestone chippings that overlay the entrance to the tomb. Instead, in his account of “years and years of dull and unprofitable work”, the first-person plural is used, without further comment: “We had now dug in the Valley for several seasons, with extremely scanty results.”
In the same vein, Carter recounts the breakthrough that indicated the presence of a previously undiscovered tomb: “Hardly had I arrived on the work next morning (4 November) than the unusual silence, due to the stoppage of the work, made me realise that something out of the ordinary had happened, and I was greeted by the announcement that a step cut in the rock had been discovered.”
On closer reading, this description – with its unselfconscious use of “I” and “me” – reveals an aspect of the dig that is generally overlooked: it was the habit of Carter’s Egyptian workmen, headed by a trusted foreman, to begin work as soon as the sun had risen, before the archaeologist arrived to oversee operations. The discovery of that crucial first step was made by one of the workers, not by Carter. Piecing together the evidence, we can identify that unsung hero.
One of the reasons why the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb created such a stir around the world was the series of stunning black and white photographs taken by Harry Burton, the staff photographer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Burton’s images of the tomb and its contents are striking for their large format, fine detail and dramatic lighting. Among the hundreds of images from the time is one of an Egyptian boy, aged between nine and 12, wearing a plain white linen galabeya (a traditional loose-fitting robe) and headcloth. Suspended around his neck is one of the most lavish and dramatic pieces of jewellery from Tutankhamun’s tomb: a heavy pectoral (a large necklace worn over the chest), chain and counterpoise featuring a series of large scarab beetles carved from lapis lazuli.
Why should such an important object from the tomb have been given to an Egyptian boy to model? The answer, omitted from Carter’s account, may be that the boy in question, Hussein Abdel Rassul, had discovered the tomb.
Hussein Abdel Rassul
The Abdel Rassul family were longstanding and somewhat notorious residents of western Thebes. In the 1870s, one of their number had discovered the cache of royal mummies hidden in the cliffs at Deir el-Bahri, behind the Valley of the Kings, when a stray goat disappeared down a partially concealed tomb shaft. Fifty years later, young Hussein Abdel Rassul was employed by Carter as a water boy, responsible for bringing water by donkey from the Nile to the dig site in the Valley of the Kings. The water jars had pointed bases, so shallow holes had to be dug in the ground to stop them toppling over. It was while he was digging such a hole, on the early morning of 4 November 1922, that the boy revealed a flat stone step in the floor of the valley. And the rest is history.
The story of the water boy who discovered the tomb first came to Egyptologists’ attention in a book published in 1978 by Thomas Hoving, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Hoving quoted an unpublished memoir by Carter’s own agent, Lee Keedick, who claimed that Carter himself had revealed the truth.
The subsequent whitewashing of the water boy’s contribution from the official account of the discovery exemplifies the near invisibility of the Nile Valley’s inhabitants from the annals of Egyptology. As early as the 1820s, in the aftermath of the Napoleon's expedition to Egypt, 44 Egyptian students were sent from Al-Azhar in Cairo to Paris to learn modern skills; they were led by an imam named Rifa’a Rafi el-Tahtawi, who went on to become a major figure in his country’s 19th-century renaissance. In 1868, he published the first account of ancient Egyptian history in Arabic. Today, he is all but forgotten.
In the 1880s, when scientific methods of excavation and recording were first brought to the Nile Valley, the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie was working at the site of Qift in Upper Egypt when he made a discovery that surprised him (with his entrenched colonial attitudes): “Among this rather untoward people we found however, as in every place, a small percentage of excellent men; some half-dozen were of the very best type of native, faithful, friendly and laborious, and from among these workmen we have drawn about 40 to 60 for our work… they have formed the backbone of my Upper Egyptian staff, and I hope that I may keep these good friends so long as I work anywhere within reach of them.”
The men from Qift (“Qiftis”) whom Petrie trained passed their skills to their descendants, some of whom are still employed as professional diggers by archaeologists working in Egypt; “Qifti” is common parlance among Egyptologists for a skilled site foreman. Yet rarely, if ever, were the Qiftis or their compatriots acknowledged in the publications of Egyptian digs.
Following the British invasion and occupation of Egypt in 1882, the colonial authorities allowed an Egyptian called Ahmed Kamal to establish a school of Egyptology for Egyptians, but this pioneering move lasted only three years. Kamal was later promoted to assistant curator at the Egyptian Museum, becoming the first Egyptian to be employed in a substantive position there. His appointment was followed shortly afterwards by that of Ahmed Najib as chief inspector of antiquities, but these were token gestures.
Generation after generation of western archaeologists were happy to take the credit for a succession of great discoveries, while barely acknowledging the indigenous labourers who made it possible. Carter was no exception. Early on in his archaeological career, before he teamed up with Carnarvon, he worked at Thebes for the American philanthropist Theodore Davis. Together, they found the longest and deepest tomb in the Valley of the Kings, created for the female pharaoh Hatshepsut (six generations before Tutankhamun).
The whole tomb, from entrance to burial chamber, was filled with stone chippings, rubbish and bat droppings. Clearing it was hot, dirty and dangerous work, carried out by an army of poorly paid Egyptian workmen, but Davis barely acknowledged them in his publication, other than to reassure readers that “happily the work was so well watched and conducted that no accidents occurred, though many of the men and boys were temporarily overcome by the heat and bad air”.
In the subsequent discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, Carter was thus only the latest in a long line of Egyptologists to downplay the role of his workers in the published account. Furthermore, despite professing a scientific approach, he was not immune to gilding his narrative when it suited him. The famous phrase “wonderful things” was a later embellishment; Carter’s journal from the day of the discovery is more prosaic: “When Lord Carnarvon said to me ‘Can you see anything?’ I replied to him, ‘Yes, it is wonderful.’”
Writing in the year of the water boy’s chance find, another British Egyptologist, Arthur Weigall, epitomised the condescending western attitude towards other peoples alongside a grudging acceptance of their right to self-determination that characterised colonial attitudes towards Egypt in the years that followed the First World War: “In Egypt, where scientific excavations are conducted entirely by Europeans and Americans, one has to consider… one’s duty to the Egyptians, who care not one jot for their history, but who, nevertheless, as the living descendants of the pharaohs should be the nominal stewards of their ancient possessions.”
It is hardly surprising that the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb fed a growing sense of Egyptian nationalism: after 1922, the people of the Nile Valley wished to be masters of their future, as well as of their past. But now more than 100 years since the discovery, it is high time to acknowledge the significant contribution of Egyptians to the story of Egyptology, not least the boy who discovered the boy king.
Eight surprising treasures of Tut's tomb
1. A toolbox for the afterlife
Tutankhamun’s burial equipment contained a range of ritual and practical tools to assist him in the afterlife. One toolbox contained 16 chisels, each of them made from a nugget or nuggets of meteoric iron weighing no more than four grams. The ancient Egyptians exploited their natural resources, but meteoric iron from the Libyan desert was a rare commodity: their word for “iron” was biayt, which also meant “miracle” or “wonder”.
2. A bed inspired by a god
The potency of the cult of Osiris, god of the underworld and fertility, is expressed in one of the oddest grave goods: a nearly 2-metre-long wooden frame shaped to resemble the mummified Osiris with his twin-plumed headdress. Before the king’s burial, the frame was filled with moist Nile silt and scattered with grain. The seeds germinated in the tomb, symbolising the resurrection of god and king alike.
3. A drill for starting fires
As an alternative to a flintstone, the ancient Egyptians used a fire drill. Shaped like a bodkin, the drill was rotated by means of a bow; grooved sides aided traction and the fire stick was detachable. The accompanying fire stock is a rectangular piece of wood, 20cm long, with six circular notches along each side to hold the tinder. Friction from the drill produced the spark.
4. Boxes of preserved meat
Among the first objects to be glimpsed by Carter were 48 two-piece boxes. Most of them were roughly egg-shaped, giving little clue as to their contents. They were found to contain joints of meat – mostly from oxen, but also a goose. The sycamore-wood boxes had been waterproofed and sealed on the inside with hot resin, and the meat showed a remarkable degree of preservation.
5. Loincloths of the finest linen
Ancient Egyptians had a limited range of garments to choose from. Most fundamental was a triangular loincloth, worn by people of every rank. Although the Egyptians used other fibres, including sheep’s wool and palm leaf, linen was the most common. It could be made in a range of grades, from coarse to fine, and Tutankhamun’s loincloths are of the finest type of linen, almost akin to silk.
6. An anti-termite camp bed
Tutankhamun’s tomb contained the only camp bed to survive from ancient Egypt. Made of lightweight wood and 179cm long, it folds twice for ease of transport and storage. The legs are shaped like lions’ feet, and the footboard is panelled. It was originally painted with limewash to deter termites.
7. A toy chest
Tutankhamun was around nine years old when he came to the throne and little more than 18 when he died, so it seems appropriate that one of the artefacts buried with him was his toy chest. It contained a random selection of objects, including a game board and a pair of slings. In his toys, we perhaps come closest to the real-life Tutankhamun. Even a boy king had time for play.
8. A first-aid kit
Faced with a barrage of debilitating and deadly diseases, the ancient Egyptians had recourse to prayers, magic spells and protective amulets, but also practical medicine. Somewhere along this spectrum is Tutankhamun’s first-aid kit. A rounded box of ebony and cedar, it contained different sized bandages, a finger stall (like a thimble), a protective linen gauntlet and a crystalline limestone armlet. This odd assortment of items would have been good for preventing and treating cuts and bruises, but not much more.
- Read more | The glittering treasures of Tutankhamun
Toby Wilkinson is an Egyptologist and author. His latest book, Tutankhamun’s Trumpet: The Story of Ancient Egypt in 100 Objects (Picador, 2022)
This article was first published in the November 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine
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