November 4 – Wonderful Things

Today’s factismal: The tomb of the “boy king” Tutankhamen was discovered by accident in 1922.

Ask any scientist if they believe in luck and she’ll probably tell you “no” and then regale you with stories of discoveries that happened by chance. (The scientist isn’t being inconsistent; most discoveries are the result of decades of hard, painstaking work. The accidents are remembered because they are so rare.) Becquerel and radioactivity. Fleming and penicillin. Nobel and dynamite. And Carter and Tutankhamen.

A boat from an Egyptian tomb (My camera)

A boat from an Egyptian tomb
(My camera)

Howard Carter was already a famous Egyptologist when the accident happened. At the time of the accident, he had been looking for antiquities in Egypt for thirty-one years and had already discovered two important tombs (Thutmose I and Thutmose III). But he knew that there was more out there to be discovered and so, with the patronage of Lord Carnarvon, he had spent five fruitless years looking for an intact tomb. (Because they were filled with gold and other treasures, most tombs in the region had been broken into and plundered, making it very hard to understand how the Egyptians treated their dead.) However, his methodical searching and lack of results had begun to wear on the patience of his patron, who threatened to cut off funds at the end of the year.

The lid of a sarcophagus (My camera)

The lid of a sarcophagus
(My camera)

And that’s where chance smiled on Carter. On November 4, 1922, one of his workers stumbled on a stone while clearing out the dirt from yet another failed excavation. Carter looked at the stone and recognized it as a step. He and his workers eagerly cleared out the stairwell and twenty-two days later ceremoniously opened the tomb while his patron looked on and smiled. They had discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen, who we would later learn ruled Egypt from the time he was nine until his early death at 19. The tomb was in pristine condition, with so many artifacts that it took ten years to unearth them all. Today, “King Tut” is perhaps the best known of all Egypt’s rulers thanks in no small part to Carter’s lucky step.

A gilded coffin from within a sarcophagus (My camera)

A gilded coffin from within a sarcophagus
(My camera)

Right now, an effort even more titanic than Carter’s five year search for tombs is underway. Egyptologists are trying to decipher a treasure trove of papyri (ancient scrolls) that were unearthed in an Egyptian trash heap nearly a century ago. These 500,000 fragments need citizen scientists like you to help decipher their hidden messages. By playing a video game, you’ll help scholars transcribe and translate papyri that cover everything from the Bible to the comedies of Menander to bills and loan documents. To play the game, head over to the Ancient lives web site:

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