A. C. Mace's account
of the opening of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun on February 16, 1923

© David Orr

All enquiries to Griffith Institute, Oxford OX1 2LG

Concept and HTML editing: Jaromir Malek

This text is based on a typescript which is on loan to the Archive of the Griffith Institute in Oxford. The original account and its copyright belong to Mr David Orr.

Cataract Hotel.
March 3rd, 1923.

It seems a long while since the day of the opening, but it might be as well to get my impressions on paper to keep as a record.

In the first place, we scored a great triumph over the newspaper men. They, for some reason, had got it into their heads that we were going to make a secret opening without any representative of the Government being present, so for three or four days they hardly left the tomb. On the Friday they had no idea anything was up. We fixed it for the afternoon so that the tourists would be out of the way. Sir William Garstin and two or three others came to join our lunch party but they came straight, so were not seen arriving. After lunch we met by appointment, Lacau, Engelbach, Lythgoe, Winlock and two or three native officials and then we all went in a party to the tomb. The correspondents keeping their vigil above the tomb saw all of a sudden the procession arrive from nowhere, and of course realized what it meant, but too late to make any special arrangements for sending messages off. At about 2.15 we all took off our coats and filed silently down the stairway into the tomb - Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn, Breasted, Gardiner, Carter, Lucas, Callender and the others already mentioned - about twenty in all. The tomb looked as though set for a stage scene. We had put up boarding to protect the statues which stood on either side of the sealed doorway, and made a small stage to enable us to attack the upper part of the sealing thinking it was safest to work from the top downwards. A little way back was a barrier, and behind that chairs for the visitors as it was likely to be a long job. Inside the barrier were, Carter, Callender and myself. Carter made a little speech first and then Carnarvon said a few words and then the exciting moment arrived and Carter mounted the stage, stripped to trousers and vest and struck the first blow with hammer and chisel. He first located the wooden lintel over the door and then very carefully cleared below it; fortunately the stones at the top were small. After about a quarter of an hour he had made a hole big enough to put an electric torch in, and we could all see a huge wooden erection covered with gold leaf, evidently the tabernacle which covered the sarcophagus.

At this point he asked me to come up and help him, and the rest of the clearing we did together. It was an odd sensation standing on the stage and gradually widening the hole, you could feel the spectators behind the barrier just tingling with excitement. It was no light job. Many of the stones were very heavy and we could see that the wooden tabernacle was so close that a single stone falling inwards might do serious damage, so we had to go very carefully. I don't seem to have shown much excitement myself for I heard Lacau say to someone 'Mr. Mace est toujours calme". The order of proceedings was this - Carter with chisel and crowbar eased the stones loose one by one; I held them as he did so to prevent their falling in and then lifted them out and passed them back to Callender who passed them on to a native and then up a chain of men in the passage to get them clear of the tomb. It took nearly two hours altogether and we must have been sights by the time it was over, dusty, dishevelled and perspiring. As the hole widened we could see clearly within, and found that the chamber was taken up almost entirely by this huge wooden erection over the coffin, there being only a space of about eighteen inches all round it. At one point we had to stop work to collect the scattered beads from a necklace dropped by plunderers.

When the hole was wide enough Carter had a good look in and found we could just get round the right side of the tabernacle and walk along. He reported the outer door of the tabernacle was open, but that there was a second smaller one inside with the door still sealed and that there was another chamber opening off to the right. We then passed in our big travelling electric light, and Carnarvon and Lacau went in to see. Then Lady Evelyn - the only woman present, with Sir William Garstin, and then the others two by two. It was curious to watch them come out. With hardly an exception each person threw up his hands and gasped. Lucas and I went in together when it came to our turn. There was just room to squeeze round the corner of the tabernacle and walk along the side of it. In the middle were the great swing doors with open bars. Within you could see the second structure with sealed door and above it, on a frame, a pall dropping over it, of linen, spangled with gold stars. Between the first and second tabernacles there were two wonderful alabasters, one in the form of a cat or lioncub. Passing along, you came on the right to a low open doorway, and looking into this you saw facing you against the far wall, the most impressive monument I've ever seen - a huge wooden shrine covered with gold to contain the canopic jars, and full standing guarding it one on each side there were four goddesses, the mosty lovely female figures, absolutely natural and lifelike in their poise, one with back turned and two looking sideways over their shoulders. For modelling I really think they beat anything I have ever seen from any country. For the rest, the chamber was full, boxes mostly. One we looked into and it contained a most lovely gold and ostrich feather fan, apparently in perfect condition. There were also a number of boats, two more chariots and a number of other things. My mind was too confused and excited to take them in. The whole thing was really almost painfully impressive. With one exception of the hurried visit of the thieves some ten years after the King's death, none had set foot in the chamber since the King was laid to rest more than three thousand years before. One didn't dare let one's imagination get too vividly to work. The figures of the goddesses alone were so beautiful that they made a lump come in one's throat. It was a quarter past two when we went down into the tomb, and it was after five when we came out, and I think we were all fairly dazed, too dazed even to realize what we had found. Now it is all buried deep underground again waiting for next season's work.

Carter came back to dinner with us that night, and we were all more or less like crazy people. The excitement had been too much for us, and I'm sure anyone coming in would have said we all had been taking too much to drink.

An unforgetable experience and impossible to get onto paper.

© David Orr

(January 13, 2002)


How the same occasion was described by A. H. Gardiner.
Back to Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation