Mummies and Curses and Tombs—Oh My! Digging Up the Valley of the Kings

In the popular mind, Egyptian archaeology begins and ends with King Tut. The 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, however, was actually the culmination of a century of developments that turned grave robbing into a science. Advances during the late 19th and early 20th centuries transformed the fledgling field of archaeology; the exploration of the Valley of the Kings, where Tut was buried, exemplifies the changes.

For 500 years (from around 1500 to 1000 B.C.E.) pharaohs tunneled their tombs into the limestone hills lining a series of gullies in the desert across the Nile from the ancient capitol of Thebes (modern Luxor, 250 miles south of Cairo). Roman-era tourists added their names and graffiti to the tomb walls, but after the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 642 C.E. the site was forgotten and ignored.

The modern history of the valley begins in 1799 when the scholarly savants that accompanied Napoleon’s invading army visited the site. The French, sometimes braving attacks by unfriendly locals, found tombs with entries wide open, the walls inscribed with paintings unlike anything ever seen, with characters in a strange unknown language. Napoleon was soon chased out of Egypt by the British, but his scholars brought back to Europe drawings and artifacts that were published in a magisterial set of books that fascinated the public and encouraged adventurers to explore Egypt further.

Among the first prominent diggers in what is now called the Valley of the Kings was Giovanni Belzoni, an erstwhile circus strongman and engineer. Having failed to sell the waterwheels he had come to Egypt to peddle, Belzoni began looking for treasures to make his trip profitable and in 1817, after digging in the valley for ten days, discovered three unknown tombs including the magnificent tomb of king Seti I (still considered the most beautiful in Egypt). Belzoni brought back the immense stone sarcophagus of Ramses III (now in the Louvre) and mounted a hugely successful exhibition in England of recreated portions of Seti’s tomb. He published a best-selling memoir in which he described using a battering ram to open ancient doorways and finding tombs filled with “heaps of mummies in all directions.” Stumbling in a tomb, “I sunk altogether among the broken mummies, with a crash of bones, rags and wooden cases.” His work, and Champollion’s decipherment of the hieroglyphs in 1822, increased interest in ancient Egypt and spurred more scholars and tomb robbers to come to the Valley of the Kings.

By 1827, twenty-one tombs were known in the ancient cemetery. The Egyptian government had little interest in the products of the pre-Islamic pagans, and a booming market in Egyptian antiquities began in Europe and America. Egypt had become a fashionable tourist destination by the 1840’s when Cook’s Tours began steamer service to the valley, and the market for souvenirs increased the demand for ancient loot. Enterprising thieves and legitimate scholars explored with renewed energy, even removing sections of tomb walls for sale to museums and rich collectors. In 1857 the Egyptian government belatedly established its Antiquities Service and set up a museum to protect the monuments and artifacts. The profitability of the antiquities trade and the poverty of the Egyptian peasants, however, made preservation efforts an uphill struggle.

In 1882 the British invaded Egypt and took control of the country. Amid Egypt’s financial problems, ancient artifacts were a minor concern; the first Consul General, Lord Cromer, wished there were no antiquities in the country at all because they were “more trouble than anything else.” Writers and scholars continued to come to the valley, however, and following the lead of pioneer archaeologist Matthew Flinders Petrie, scientists developed improvements that replaced the previous treasure hunters’ tools of battering rams and dynamite with trowels and brushes. By 1902, some forty tombs had been found in the valley. That year a young Englishman named Howard Carter, the archaeologist the government had placed in charge of the valley, asked a visiting American millionaire named Theodore M. Davis if he would be interested in paying for some excavations Carter wanted to undertake.

Davis (1838—1915) had been a lawyer in New York City after the Civil War. By means of fraud, perjury and bribery he had made an immense fortune and built a mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, where he lived with his wife, his mistress, and the fine art (including paintings by Rembrandt, Goya and Monet) he collected in Europe. Davis and his mistress came to Egypt every winter, and when they first visited the valley in 1890 they had been appalled by the looted tombs. “I feel in a rage when I think of it,” his mistress wrote in her journal.

Davis agreed to pay for the workmen and equipment, but there were no dramatic discoveries to begin with; he wrote a friend that he was “doing some good in showing where there are no tombs.” Within three years, however, Carter’s efforts discovered four tombs, including those of king Thutmose IV and the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. In 1905, however, Carter became embroiled in a political controversy and resigned from the Antiquities Service. In the administrative confusion Davis (who wanted his explorations to continue) took effective charge of the project – and discovered the astonishing, almost intact tomb of Yuya and his wife Thuyu, the in-laws of the pharaoh called Amenhotep the Magnificent. Their tomb was filled with golden treasures (it is still the second richest find ever made in the valley) and triggered a worldwide craze of “Egyptomania.” It made Davis an international celebrity, and encouraged the American to continue exploring.

Over the next nine years, Davis exemplified new standards for digging up the past. Unlike many of his contemporaries, the American tycoon always hired trained professionals to conduct the work (in 1907 the Earl of Carnarvon, working without an archaeologist, found and seriously damaged an important stone tablet, illustrating “the sin of allowing amateurs to dig,” according to a professional at the time). After Carter, five more archaeologists managed Davis’s digs (while the American and his mistress spent most of their time drinking champagne on their yacht). He built a “dig house” in the valley where the archaeologists lived (and one died).

Davis ordered his employees to “exhaust every foothill and mountain in the Valley;” previously, professionals and thieves alike had simply dug holes where they guessed tombs might be found. Davis was willing to spend the time and money to clear every foot of the pathways that wind through the valley, ensuring all tomb doorways were discovered. He set the all time record for finds in the valley, a total of eighteen tombs (including those of five pharaohs; despite the name, not all those buried in the valley are kings). Using a method, rather than following hunches, became the practice for future archaeologists as did the use of new technologies Davis introduced, such as electric lights and air ventilation pumps.

Another innovation Davis promoted was dedicating all the objects he found to museums where, as he put it, “they could be enjoyed by the greatest number of interested individuals.” Other explorers, including Lord Carnarvon (who paid for Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen in 1922), kept their treasures in their mansions and then left them to their heirs, who sold them to the highest bidder. Most of the objects Davis discovered, however, were given to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo as soon as they were found; his personal collection was left in his will to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Davis also paid to publish the results of his explorations. A total of seven oversized volumes were written by the archeologists and lavishly illustrated with photographs and paintings. Full and prompt publication of archaeological finds was a rarity at the turn of the century, but after Davis it was recognized as a crucial part of the job.

By 1912 Davis’s crews had finished exploring all the gullies in the valley; “I fear the Valley of the Tombs is now exhausted,” he wrote (Belzoni had claimed the same thing ninety years before). During his last dig in 1914 Davis missed finding Tutankhamen by six feet; he feared extending his trench further into the floor of the valley (where he assumed the ancients would never have dug a tomb) would needlessly undermine the path tourists travelled.

In 1922 Howard Carter discovered Tut. In the avalanche of worldwide publicity, a curse on the tomb was famously blamed for the death of Carnarvon shortly after the discovery was made (Carter lived to a ripe old age despite being the first to enter the tomb). In fact there is no curse inscribed anywhere in Tut’s tomb. The popularity of the story was a bother and irritation for Carter for the rest of his life, but his problem held a certain ironic justice. In 1900 Carter had taken Davis to the newly discovered tomb of Amenhotep II where, surprisingly, the mummy was still in its coffin. Carter said the mummy had been probably been protected from ancient looters by “the curse pronounced in the band of hieroglyphs” around the top of the sarcophagus. There is no curse there either, but Carter appreciated the thrill such a myth could cause.

The spectacular find in 1922 has overshadowed all other Valley of the Kings excavations in the popular mind, but the work there has continued. Two more tombs have been discovered since Tut, and in 1989 archaeologist Kent Weeks found that an undecorated single chamber tomb Carter and Davis had passed by in 1902 was really the entry to the largest tomb ever found in Egypt, with over 150 vaults for the burials of the sons of Ramses the Great. Today ground penetrating radar and GPS mapping have been added to the archaeologists’ tools, and CT scans and DNA testing have revealed more of the mummies’ secrets. The techniques and philosophy of modern archaeology, however, have their origins in the technology and attitudes of Theodore Davis and his Steampunk-era colleagues. So will the next discovery made in the Valley of the Kings.


Image by Wikimedia Commons user Schreibkraft, February 2003. GNU-FDL.

John M. Adams, director emeritus of the Orange County Public Library, is author of The Millionaire and the Mummies: Theodore Davis’s Gilded Age in the Valley of Kings, the first biography of the robber baron archaeologist, published by the St. Martin’s Press. Visit his blog at


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