It was one hundred years ago on November 4, 1922, that British archaeologist Howard Carter and an Egyptian team discovered an ancient stairway hidden for more than 3,000 years beneath the sands of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Twenty-two days later, Carter descended those stairs, lit a candle, poked it through a hole in a blocked doorway and waited as his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light.
“[D]etails of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold, everywhere the glint of gold,” wrote Carter. “I was struck dumb with amazement.” When Carter’s patron, Lord Carnarvon, anxiously asked if Carter could see anything, the stunned archeologist replied, “Yes, wonderful things.”
Carter and the Egyptian team had found the lost tomb of Tutankhamun, the boy king of Egypt, who was buried in a small and overlooked tomb in 1323 B.C. King Tut may not have been a mighty ruler like Ramesses the Great, whose tomb complex covers more than 8,000 square feet of underground chambers, but unlike Ramesses and other pharaohs, King Tut’s treasures hadn’t been looted or damaged by floods. They were nearly intact.
A century later, the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, which contained more than 5,000 priceless artifacts, remains the greatest archeological find of all time.
“I don’t think there’s anything that can hold a candle to it in terms of outright richness, and in terms of the cultural and archeological information that it contains,” says Tom Mueller, a journalist who wrote a National Geographic article about Carter’s historic discovery and the opening of Cairo’s Grand Egyptian Museum, the new home for King Tut’s treasures.
Most people would recognize the iconic objects from the collection, like King Tut’s solid gold coffin and funerary mask, but even the smallest items—alabaster unguent bowls, King Tut’s walking stick or his sandals—are “works of supreme artistry,” says Mueller, who spent days with museum staff as they restored King Tut’s artifacts for display. “It’s no wonder that these treasures have branded themselves in the international consciousness since 1922.”
Here are nine fascinating artifacts recovered from King Tut’s tomb, from the biggest finds to some hidden treasures.
1. An Iron Dagger
On the surface, this iron-bladed dagger doesn’t look like a spectacular find, but King Tut died several centuries before the start of the Iron Age, when advances in technology allowed for the forging of iron and steel from mineral deposits.
During King Tut’s time, the few iron objects on record were made from metals that literally fell from the heavens in the form of meteorites.
“There were theories that the iron dagger was a gift from a foreign king who would have presented it as a ‘gift from the gods,’” says Mueller, “as an omen of something powerful. That really got my attention.”
A solid-gold dagger with an ornately decorated sheath was also found in the folds of King Tut’s mummy placed ceremoniously on his right thigh.
2. A Scarf with a Surprise
Inside a small wooden chest made from ebony and cedar, Carter and his team found a gold-plated leopard head, and a gorgeous pair of ceremonial objects known as the pharaoh’s crook and flail, always depicted as held across his chest. But alongside these priceless items was something conspicuously commonplace—a knotted up linen scarf.
When the archeologists untangled the scarf, they found several gold rings inside. But how did they get in there?
From other clues, it became clear to Carter that King Tut’s tomb hadn’t remained completely untouched. Thieves must have broken in soon after the tomb was sealed and made off with the smallest and most valuable items they could carry, like gold jewelry. Unlike other pharaonic tombs, which had been fully ransacked over the centuries, King Tut’s tomb “had only been lightly looted,” says Mueller.
The scarf packed with gold rings was evidence that the thieves may have even been caught in the act or scared off by guards and left their loot behind. It was hastily packed into a box when the tomb was resealed, not to be opened for another 3,200 years.
3. A Game of Chance and Fate
Egyptians played board games and one of King Tut’s favorites (judging from the fact that there were four sets in his tomb) was a game called senet. Historians don’t agree on the exact rules of the checkers-like game, but it involved moving your game piece through a series of 30 squares by throwing knucklebones or casting sticks.
The Egyptian Book of the Dead, which details the journey of the soul through the afterlife, says that playing senet is a popular pastime for the deceased. Eternal life may even have been at stake.
“There’s evidence that it was a game played against the god of death,” says Mueller, “so it’s also a game of fate.”
4. King Tut's Lost Daughters
One of the reasons why King Tut fell through the cracks of Egyptian history was that his reign was so short (around a decade) and he didn’t leave behind any heirs or offspring. But thanks to Carter’s discovery, we know that King Tut’s wife Ankhesenamun—whom he married at age 12—bore two stillborn daughters who were buried in their father’s tomb.
Inside an unmarked box, Carter’s team found two tiny wooden coffins, each bearing a gilded inner coffin that contained the mummified remains of King Tut’s daughters. The fetuses appeared to be 25 and 37 weeks old and died from unknown causes.
Mueller says that there’s a tendency to paint King Tut’s tomb as macabre, given the fascination with things like King Tut’s curse.
“Yes, this is a tomb with several dead people in it,” says Mueller, “but in a way, the Egyptian view of the afterlife—their obsession with it—softens all of that. It becomes death as a work of art. King Tut’s preparation for the afterlife becomes a museum.”
Archeologists also found a lock of King Tut’s grandmother’s hair in the tomb, which may have been a family keepsake.
5. Gold Sandals
In one of the crowded antechambers, Carter found a painted wooden chest that he described as “one of the greatest artistic treasures of the tomb… we found it hard to tear ourselves away from it.” Inside were sequin-lined linens, an alabaster headrest and a very special pair of sandals.
These were King Tut’s golden court sandals, ornately decorated footwear that he’s seen wearing in some of the statuettes found in the tomb. Made from wood and overlaid with bark, leather and gold, the eye-catching parts are the soles of the sandals, which depict the nine traditional enemies of Egypt. That wasn’t an accident.
“He’d be symbolically walking on their faces all day,” says Mueller.
6. A Small Army of Servants
Thousands of years before King Tut, at the dawn of Egyptian civilization, powerful rulers were buried with their royal servants, who sacrificed their lives to serve their master in the eternities. By the late Middle Kingdom, human servants were replaced by small figurines called ushabti, who were inscribed with a magical spell to forever do the deceased’s bidding in the afterlife.
For the average Egyptian burial, one or two ushabti were placed in the deceased’s tomb. In King Tut’s tomb, there were 413 ushabti, a small army of foot-tall figurines made from various materials including faience, a glass-like pottery with striking colors. Some of King Tut’s ushabti held copper tools like yokes, hoes and picks to do manual labor for the pharaoh in the afterlife.
7. King Tut's Undergarments
Not every treasure in King Tut’s tomb was made of gold. The young pharaoh, who died at 19 after just nine or 10 years on the throne, was also buried with some of his clothing. Among the ancient textiles found in the tomb were 100 sandals, 12 tunics, 28 gloves, 25 head coverings, four socks (with a separate pocket for the big toe, so they could be worn with sandals) and 145 loincloths, triangular-shaped pieces of woven linen that both men and women wore as underwear.
“I really like his underwear,” says Mueller. “King Tut was kitted out for the afterlife, right down to the undergarments. They’re quite spectacular, little loincloth-like things. They’re incredible.”
King Tut’s undergarments were a step above non-royal underwear. According to textile historians, the weave of an ordinary Egyptian linen loincloth had 37 to 60 threads per inch, but King Tut’s underwear had 200 threads per inch, giving the cloth a silk-like softness.
8. A Dazzling Resting Place for the King's Organs
During the mummification process, Egyptian embalmers carefully removed the lungs, liver, intestines and stomach from the body, embalmed the organs, and placed them in vessels called Canopic jars. The final resting place for King Tut’s organs was one of the most exquisite objects in the entire tomb.
Carter found Tut’s Canopic jars stored inside an alabaster chest, itself housed within a magnificent wooden funerary shrine covered in gold leaf. “Facing the doorway stood the most beautiful monument that I have ever seen,” wrote Carter, “so lovely that it made one gasp with wonder and admiration.”
What really struck Mueller when he saw the golden shrine in person were the four Egyptian goddesses of death guarding the young pharaoh’s embalmed organs on all sides. The goddesses Isis, Nephthys, Neith and Selket are depicted in naturalistic poses with form-fitting dresses that inspired flapper fashion in the 1920s.
“Here are these gorgeous goddesses looking over his innards for all eternity,” says Mueller.
9. The Iconic Golden Mask
For Carter, the greatest prize among the 5,000 objects in the tomb was the mummy of King Tut himself. But to get to the mummy, Carter and his team had to slowly and painstakingly work through a series of nesting shrines and coffins that were never meant to be opened by human hands.
First there were four box-like golden shrines, each slightly smaller than the last. Inside the last shrine was the heavy stone sarcophagus. Once the stone lid was removed, it revealed the first of three coffins.
The first coffin, as well the second one nested inside of it, were wooden coffins overlaid with gold foil and designed to look like the god Osiris lying in repose. The third and final coffin was a jaw-dropper: a solid gold casket weighing 296 pounds also depicting Osiris with the ceremonial crook and flail across his chest.
With trembling hands, Carter opened the golden coffin and found himself face to face with the iconic funerary mask of Tutankhamun. The 22-pound, solid-gold mask rested directly on the head and shoulders of King Tut’s mummy, and portrayed the handsome young king as Osiris, complete with the pharaonic false beard.
“The golden mask of King Tut is probably the best-known and most widely recognized archeological treasure ever,” says Mueller.
King Tut’s mummy, when carefully removed and unwrapped, contained 143 different amulets, bracelets, necklaces and other priceless artifacts among its ancient bandages.