Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Mystery of the Bermuda Triangle Solved?

Stories of strange happenings and mysterious disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle have entertained the superstitious for many decades. Everything from disappearing airplanes and boats to reports of deadly whirlpools and malfunctioning mechanical equipment have helped to perpetuate the idea that something “otherworldly” has made its home in the western Atlantic Ocean. But recent scientific investigations may have finally cleared up these so-called “mysteries” once and for all.

The Bermuda Triangle is not really a triangle at all, but simply an angular area of the Atlantic Ocean running roughly from Bermuda southwest to Florida and southeast to Puerto Rico. Even the name is a misnomer: most of the reported incidents have occurred near the Bahamas, not Bermuda.

While the earliest reports of strange occurrences in the area may go back as far as Columbus (he reported strange lights and unusual compass readings in the area), the event that really ignited stories of the Bermuda Triangle occurred in the 1940’s with the now famous Flight 19.

Flight 19 took off from a U.S. Navy training base in Fort Lauderdale at roughly 2:10 on the afternoon of December 5, 1945, heading out for a routine training run. The weather was reported to be clear and sunny – a perfect day for flying. The flight consisted of five TBM Avengers – 3-man torpedo bombers used widely in World War II.

TBM Avengers like the ones flown by Flight 19

The flight was led by a veteran pilot named Charles Taylor, who had over 2500 flying hours under his belt. The training flight was a navigational one, teaching new pilots how to get their bearings in the air and how to navigate through a set pattern. The pilots were set to fly about a hundred miles due east, into the Atlantic Ocean, make a practice bombing run, turn north and pass directly over Grand Bahama Island, and then turn southwest and return to Fort Lauderdale.

A map showing a rough diagram of Flight 19's flight plan

The training run started off normal. Ground operations in Fort Lauderdale were able to monitor radio conversations between the planes, and it is known that Flight 19 completed its practice bombing run at about 3 pm, or roughly an hour after take-off.

At about 3:40 in the afternoon, another training squadron flying in the same area received a transmission from Flight 19. Among other things, Flight 19 reported that they were lost, their compasses were acting up, and they believed they were over the Florida Keys. Lt. Taylor, the leader of Flight 19, commented that he believed they had gotten lost after making their turn toward Grand Bahama Island. He asked for help in navigating back to Fort Lauderdale.

Anyone familiar with the geography of this area of the ocean will see an immediate problem – the Florida Keys are nowhere near Grand Bahama Island and were not within the navigating pattern of Flight 19. In fact, since it is known that their bombing run ended successfully at roughly 3 pm, even with a dramatic mistake in navigating (which would have required a turn in the exact opposite direction), the Avengers could not possibly have already been over the Florida Keys by 3:40.

For roughly the next two hours, ground control in Fort Lauderdale listened to the various radio transmissions being received from Flight 19, and attempted to bring Taylor and his flight back in safely. However, most of their transmissions to Taylor were not acknowledged. With the exception of a few exchanges, it appeared that ground control could hear what the Avenger pilots were saying to one another, but the pilots could not hear what ground control was saying to them. Ground control attempted to triangulate the squadron’s position using transponders, but they were not initially successful in this endeavor, and requests to Taylor to change his frequency went unacknowledged.

Several radio transmissions between the Avengers indicated that Taylor was hopelessly lost. At one point, he discussed the possibility that the flight was already west of Florida, out in the Gulf of Mexico, meaning that to head north would simply take them farther from land, and to head west would take them toward Texas. After apparently flying slightly northeast for some time, Taylor instructed his flight to turn due east, convinced now that the squadron was indeed already west of Florida, and therefore needed to fly eastward to get back to land. At this point, several of the students under Taylor’s command argued with him, suggesting that there was no way they were in the Gulf of Mexico (the Gulf was, after all, hundreds of miles from their original flight pattern), and insisting instead that they must be over the Atlantic. As such, they tried to encourage Taylor to turn west, believing this would take them straight to the Florida coast and Fort Lauderdale. Taylor, however, was convinced that the flight was in the Gulf of Mexico, and apparently because of military discipline, his students stuck with him as he continued to search for land.

As the afternoon melted into evening, the weather began to worsen and storms began to roll in. Transmissions from the lost flight grew more indistinct. By 5:30, Taylor had apparently been won over by his students, and he was heard to transmit a heading of due west, suggesting that they would fly west until they either spotted land, or ran out of fuel. Some thirty minutes later, several land-based stations were finally able to triangulate Flight 19’s position, and it showed them to be roughly 150 miles north of Grand Bahama Island, about 100 miles off the coast of Cape Canaveral.

The weather continued to worsen as sunset neared, and at about 6:05 pm, Taylor was heard to say that he thought the flight should turn back eastward again. About 15 minutes later, Taylor told his students to fly close together, and if they ran out of fuel, they would all go in together. This was the last transmission received from Flight 19. At about the same time, a ship in the area radioed to say that they were in heavy winds and high seas, meaning the Avengers would be going down in bad weather.

Search and rescue craft were sent out almost immediately to search for the airplanes, but no wreckage and no survivors were ever found – not even an oil slick. Furthermore, adding yet another creepy aspect to the story, a 13-man PBY Catalina, which was part of the search and rescue team, went down at about 8 pm, following a midair explosion that was seen by a nearby ship. All 13 men on board were killed, and the explosion has never been explained.

Investigations into the loss of Flight 19 concluded that Taylor got confused in the air and believed that he was over the Gulf of Mexico, when in fact he was exactly where he should have been – over the Bahamas. The report suggested that Taylor mistook the small islands of the Bahamas for the small islands of the Florida Keys. By taking his flight north and east (which he thought was taking him back toward Florida from the Gulf of Mexico), he was actually taking his flight out into the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. By the time he gave in to his students’ suggestions and turned west, he was already too far out to make it back to land before running out of fuel.

It was not until the early 1960’s that discussions of the “mystery” of Flight 19 began to seep into the public consciousness. However, within 2 years of the first appearance of a major story about Flight 19, writers were already connecting various “strange” stories together, and referring to the area in question as “the deadly Bermuda Triangle.”

In regards to Flight 19, skeptics of the investigational findings noted that Taylor was an excellent and experienced pilot, and he could not possibly have mistaken the Bahamas for the Florida Keys, or the Atlantic Ocean for the Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, they pointed to the reports of compasses going out, the general confused and panicky sounds of the pilots’ voices, and several unusual statements made in the various radio transmissions. Among these statements was a comment by Taylor that he couldn’t “be sure of any direction,” and that “everything looks strange, even the ocean.”

The mystery of Flight 19’s disappearance was deepened in the early 1990’s when the wreckage of five TBM Avengers was found on the ocean floor just a few miles off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. Scattered throughout a small region of about 1 mile, these five aircraft were identical to the type used by Flight 19. As no wreckage had ever been found, it was immediately assumed that these planes, so close together on the ocean floor, must be the planes of Flight 19. The mystery, however, was in their closeness to the coast. How could Flight 19 have gone down just a few miles from the coast – with land in site – and yet none of the wreckage or crewmen were ever seen by the many boats and planes scouring the area for survivors? Furthermore, why did the triangulation figures suggest the flight was 100 miles out into the ocean, and 150 miles north, if in fact they were just a few miles from Fort Lauderdale when they went down? Finally, why were radio transmissions fading out near the end, if in fact the planes were nearing the naval base?

A crew of oceanographers and historians decided to find out. Using cutting edge submersible technology, and even bringing along a pilot who had personally flown TBM Avengers out of Fort Lauderdale during the 1940’s, the crew inspected the aircraft and determined conclusively that they were, in fact, not from Flight 19. This was confirmed by the simple reading of serial numbers. However, in confirming that these five Avengers were not from Flight 19, the team uncovered what was potentially an even greater mystery – all five aircraft had gone down in the same area (within 1 mile of each other), on different days, at different times, and under different circumstances. It was not simply another lost flight of five planes, but five separate plane crashes, all in practically the same spot. One of the scientists noted that such a thing would be akin to hitting a hole in one, being struck by lightning, and holding a winning lottery ticket in your pocket – all at the same time. While this may be a bit of overstated hyperbole, the point is clear: in the wide expanse of ocean over which Avengers from Fort Lauderdale flew during the 1940’s, to have five different aircraft go down within a 1-mile radius of one another, on different days and under different conditions, is extremely unlikely.

These researchers, however, came up with a plausible and testable theory, one that not only clears up the mystery of Flight 19, but may well also explain the other phenomena that occur in the area of the Bermuda Triangle.

First, it is clear that Lt. Taylor of Flight 19 got lost. Why this happened is anybody’s guess, but it is a known fact (and was even included in the original investigation) that Taylor was known for “flying by the seat of his pants,” and had twice, during the war, had to ditch planes in the ocean because of becoming lost and running out of fuel. Either way, the researchers believed Taylor reported that things looked strange, and that he thought he was above the Florida keys, because he had made a bad turn, possibly resulting from a malfunctioning compass.

His initial target had been a spot some 20 or 30 miles due south of Grand Bahama Island. At that spot, he was supposed to turn north and fly across this east-west lying island. However, the researchers suggested that he actually turned somewhat northeast, missed Grand Bahama Island, and came upon Abaco Island instead.

Grand Bahama Island and Abaco Island are in the upper part of this map

This island lies north-south off the southeastern coast of Grand Bahama Island. Since he believed he had turned north toward Grand Bahama Island, he became disoriented (thus everything looked “strange”) when he reached the north-south lying Abaco Island. He had expected to see a large island running perpendicular before him; instead he found a large island running parallel with him beyond his right wing.

Confusion would have begun immediately. One can almost imagine the internal dialogue he might have had with himself. “Grand Bahama should be in front of me, to the north. Yet it’s lying there off my right wing, to the east. If that’s Grand Bahama, then I’m not heading north as my compass is telling me – I’m actually heading west. If I turn and head across Grand Bahama like I’m supposed to, I’ll be heading north, but my compass will say east. Or maybe that’s not Grand Bahama at all. Maybe I’m somewhere else completely.”

It is little wonder that Taylor very quickly got disoriented and reported that he could not “be sure of any direction.”

When he began to cross over a string of atolls surrounding Abaco Island, he came to believe that he was above the Florida Keys – which have a similar appearance from the air. At this point, he turned north, believing Florida to be in that direction. As he entered the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean north of the Bahamas, he became convinced that he was in the Gulf of Mexico and so turned east – thinking this would get him back to Florida. In reality, it was simply taken him farther out to sea.

Secondly, Taylor’s confused and panicky demeanor is easily explained by the psychological phenomenon that we might call “tunnel thinking.” When in the air, and away from normal ground perspective, it is easy – even for seasoned pilots – to lose their bearings. This is especially true above a hypnotizing expanse of water. When this happens, adrenalin begins to pump, and the brain becomes very focused – this is an evolutionary design to help out during periods of high stress. However, when it happens inside the cockpit of an airplane, it can cause a pilot to make poor decisions, and not consider more reasonable courses of action. The pilot can become convinced of a particular idea (in this case, Taylor’s belief that he was over the Gulf of Mexico), and no amount of reasoning can sway him from his belief.

When being attacked by a lion, this sort of thing can be helpful; but it can be deadly inside an airplane.

Finally, the initial cause of the problem – a malfunctioning compass – may well be explained by the existence of methane gas in the atmosphere.

Methane is a naturally-occurring gas that is vented up from the bottom of the ocean. When holes exist in the ocean floor to release methane gas, it generally bubbles up without much of an effect on the atmosphere or the surface of the water. However, if those vents become clogged with debris, or if methane begins to build in an area where no natural vents exist, it can create enormous pressure beneath the ocean floor. When the floor finally gives way, an enormous bubble of methane is released toward the surface, where it explodes with tremendous force. Methane bubbles are known to be powerful enough to create enormous tidal waves on the ocean’s surface. Such a large concentration of methane, being released all at once into the air, can alter the natural chemical composition of the air. If an aircraft happens to fly through such a gas bubble after it has risen from the ocean, the change in air pressure can wreak havoc on the aircraft. Studies conducted by the scientists in question indicated that if a high enough concentration of methane exists, it can actually cause a loss of air pressure over the wings of the aircraft, thereby causing it to stall and crash. However, even low concentrations of methane in the air – as low as 2% – can cause engines to go out, and dashboard instruments to give false readings.

This, then, may be the explanation for the initial problem experienced by Flight 19, and reported as a problem with the compass and other dashboard instruments. Taylor may have flown through one of these methane gas bubbles, experienced false compass readings, subsequently made a bad turn, and then became disoriented when he did not end up where he had expected.

In addition to providing a logical explanation for the problems experienced by Flight 19, the methane gas theory also solves a lot of other “mysterious” occurrences in the Bermuda Triangle. As mentioned above, even low concentrations of methane gas can cause engines to go out and instruments to fail. Many of the Bermuda Triangle stories include mysteriously failing instruments and aircraft engines that suddenly quit. In fact, dead engines were the primary reasons behind the crashes of the five separate Avengers that were discovered off the coast of Florida in the early 90’s. It is possible that this particular area has a high concentration of methane in the air due to gas released from the ocean floor, and with hundreds of Navy planes flying low through the area during the 1940’s, it may be little wonder that several of them crashed at various times in roughly the same spot.

Furthermore, the release of enormous methane gas bubbles can greatly disturb the surface of the ocean as well. Experiments conducted by the Australian Navy have shown that large upsurges in the ocean are powerful enough to sink a full sized battleship in a matter of minutes. If one of these enormous methane releases happened to occur right beneath a passing ship, it could easily break the ship up and sink it, and do it so quickly that it would never have time to even radio a mayday. Moreover, it would not necessarily take an enormous methane bubble with colossal force to sink a ship. Methane is less dense than water, so when it bubbles up to the surface, if the bubbling is spread out over a wide enough area, it can impact the surface density of the water. If a boat – particularly a small boat – is passing through such an area, it could suddenly lose buoyancy and sink without warning. Many of the inexplicable phenomena in the Bermuda Triangle include reports of bubbling oceans, whirlpools, “holes” in the ocean, and sudden tidal waves on calm seas. Methane gas eruptions can explain all of these things.

In the end, I believe that these scientists and historians – whose report I watched on the History Channel – have given an extremely well-researched, well-demonstrated, and plausible explanation for many of the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle. For a very long time, the unusual phenomena in this area were not understood, and thus they were chalked up by many to supernatural or otherworldly interference. This, I believe, is human nature – when we cannot explain something, we assume it must be supernatural. However, it appears – for the time being at least – that the mystery of the Bermuda Triangle has been reasonably put to bed.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Parity in Baseball: Which League Has Better Balance?

Parity: par–i–ty; noun; equality, as in amount, status, or character.

There are many ways to evaluate the National League versus the American League in Major League Baseball. One can look to individual and/or team statistics, league nuances and styles of play, World Series victories, All-Star game victories, interleague victories, and so on. In terms of specifically evaluating balance among teams in each league, one can look toward statistics, payrolls, and team prominence. It is this last portion – team prominence – that I believe makes a strong argument toward parity, and I believe a good way to evaluate prominence is by looking at post-season appearances. When one evaluates playoff teams over the last decade or so, one discovers that the American League has a tendency to send the same handful of teams to the playoffs each year, whereas the National League has a wider variation of representation in the playoffs. This, I believe, indicates a better general parity – and therefore level of competition – in the National League as opposed to the American League.

Everyone who follows baseball knows of the prominence of the Yankees and Red Sox. Together, these two American League teams (which are both not only in the AL, but also in the same division within the AL) have had 20 post-season appearances in the last 13 seasons (since Major League Baseball went to an 8-team playoff format). Additionally, they have had 11 AL championship appearances, and 8 World Series appearances. That means that the American League pennant has been won 8 out of the last 13 years by either the Yankees or the Red Sox. Add in the Indians, and 10 of the last 13 pennants have been won by only 3 American League teams.

By way of comparison, the two most playoff-bound teams in the National League – the Braves and Cardinals – have had only 18 playoff appearances between them in the last 13 seasons. And while these two teams have had more NL championship appearances between them (12) than the Red Sox and Yankees, they have only 5 World Series appearances combined. To reach 10 pennants (equal with the AL’s Yankees, Red Sox, and Indians), one would have to add together the totals of no less than 6 separate NL teams – twice as many as the AL.

But do parity arguments end with merely the most prominent AL and NL teams?

Not in the least. Consider the following:

In the last 13 seasons, there have been a total of 52 American League playoff berths (4 each year). A total of 11 AL teams (71%) have made it to the playoffs at least once during that stretch. However, nearly 60% of the berths have been filled by just 3 teams. Add appearances by a few additional teams, and only 7 AL teams (exactly half of the total league) have accounted for 85% of playoff appearances in the last 13 years. The Yankees, of course, have been in the playoffs every year during that stretch, accounting for fully one-quarter of all AL playoff appearances.

The NL, on the other hand, has had a total of 13 different teams (81%) in the playoffs over the last 13 seasons. Additionally, the NL’s top three teams have totaled only 46% of all playoff berths (compared to the 60% of the AL’s top three teams). If we add in appearances by a few more NL teams, 7 teams have accounted for only 77% of NL playoff appearances in the last 13 seasons (compared to 85% in for the AL’s top 7). The Braves have appeared 11 times, for a total of 21% of all playoff berths (but none in the last two seasons, and they are under .500 this year).

Appearances in the championship series’ have been slightly closer in parity, with 6 AL teams making up 85% of all ALCS appearances, and 6 NL teams making up 81% of all NLCS appearances. In the AL, the Yankees and Red Sox (and also the Yankees and Indians) have accounted for 11 total appearances (42%), while the Braves and Cardinals have combined for 12 total appearances, or 46%.

In regards to World Series appearances, only 6 American League teams (43%) have made it to the World Series in the last 13 seasons, whereas 9 National League teams (56%) have made it. Only 3 AL teams account for 77% of American League World Series appearances, and nearly half are by the Yankees alone. In the NL, the top 3 teams account for only 54% of NL World Series appearances, and every other NL World Series team has appeared only once. The top NL World Series team – the Braves – has appeared only 3 times, and not at all since 1999.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly in a discussion of baseball parity, there are a number of trends evident when looking at the teams who have appeared in the playoffs in the last 13 seasons. From 1995 to 1999, there were only 6 different AL teams represented in the playoffs, accounting for a total of 20 playoff berths. During the same span, the NL fielded twice as many – 12 different teams. From 2002 to 2005, again the AL only fielded 6 total teams, while the NL fielded 9. From 2002 to 2007, the AL fielded only 8 different teams, while the NL fielded 13 – more than 80% of the total National League.

In 1998 and 1999, the AL fielded the exact same 4 teams in consecutive years. The National League has never done that during this 13-year span. The AL has fielded 3 or more of the same 4 teams in consecutive years 6 different times; by comparison, the NL has done the same thing only twice. Furthermore, the AL has never fielded 4 different teams in consecutive years. The NL accomplished this in 2006 and 2007. Finally, the AL has given us identical championship series’ in consecutive years two different times – Yankees-Mariners in 2000 and 2001, and Yankees-Red Sox in 2003 and 2004 (the Yankees and Red Sox also met in 1999). The NL, however, has done this only once, with the Cardinals and Astros in 2004 and 2005.

All in all, I believe it is clear that an evaluation of playoff appearances indicates a much better parity and competitive balance in the National League than in the American League. Having shown this, I would also suggest that better competitive balance means better competition and better game-by-game enjoyment by the casual fan. For this reason, I prefer to watch the National League, and generally feel the urge to change the channel when yet another Yankees-Red Sox match-up is being shown nationally.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Life, Death, and Modern Discovery of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, Part IV


Tutankhamun died while still a teenager, was buried with all the regal pomp befitting a king of ancient Egypt, and was later written out of history by subsequent kings because of his association with Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh who had preceded him. The Orwellian efforts of these kings, combined with Tutankhamun’s short and relatively insignificant reign, succeeded in removing knowledge of Tut’s existence from the population-at-large during later eras of ancient Egypt. Within two hundred years, the location of his tomb was no longer remembered, and another king built his own tomb right over the top of Tut’s, burying any possible sign of its entrance with construction rubble and builders’ huts.

As a result, Pharaoh Tutankhamun rested, undisturbed and forgotten, inside his crypt in the Valley of the Kings for the next 3,200 years. Knowledge of his existence would not come to light until the 20th century.


From my research, the earliest clue to the existence of a New Kingdom pharaoh called Tutankhamun occurred with the discovery of the so-called Restoration Stela in 1905.

The Restoration Stela

This stela, discovered near the temple complex at Karnak by French Egyptologist Georges Legrain, described Egypt’s religious downfall during the time of Akhenaten and the subsequent restoration of the traditional gods by Tutankhamun. The name of Tutankhamun, however, had been erased and covered over with the name of Horemheb. We will recall from the previous installment that Horemheb, while attempting to erase the memory of Akhenaten and Ay, does not appear to have included Tut in his revenge. Horemheb’s own rise to the throne had been made possible by Tut, who had named him as his successor. For this reason, many historians believe the replacement of Tut’s name with Horemheb’s occurred during the time of Seti I and Ramesses II, as they continued, on a much larger scale, the rewriting of Amarna period history begun under Horemheb.

Whatever the case, this stela gave modern Egyptology its first clue to the existence of a previously unknown 18th dynasty pharaoh named Tutankhamun, who had somehow been caught up in the Amarna period heresy. Another clue corroborating Tut’s existence would come less than two years later, in the Valley of the Kings.


In January of 1907, American Egyptologist Theodore M. Davis, who financed excavations in the Valley of the Kings for most of the 1910’s, uncovered a royal tomb which came to be designated KV55. As discussed in the second installment of this series, KV55 contained a male mummy which may have belonged to either Akhenaten or Smenkhkara – Tut’s predecessors. Most historians believe the tomb originally belonged to Akhenaten’s mother, Queen Tiye.

The entrance to tomb KV55

The layout of tomb KV55 ("A" represents the entry staircase)

Regardless of who the tomb was originally built for, the seals on the door belonged to Tutankhamun, causing Davis to initially suspect he had found the tomb of this little-known king. However, because of the objects found inside, it quickly became apparent that the tomb had not belonged to Tut. In addition to the male mummy, the tomb included magical bricks with the name of Akhenaten, funerary equipment of Queen Tiye, canopic jars of Akhenaten’s secondary wife Queen Kiya, and other items bearing the names of Amenhotep III and one of his secondary wives, Queen Sitamun. It became clear very early on that the tomb’s history was convoluted.

Modern analysis suggests that KV55 originally belonged to Queen Tiye and that Tutankhamun, in attempting to protect his relatives’ tombs from desecration in Amarna (Akhetaten), moved a quantity of funeral equipment and mummies to this location, creating a veritable Amarna period cache inside Queen Tiye’s tomb. This, then, explains the existence of Tut’s name on the sealed doors – they were sealed under his supervision. His attempts, however, failed. The tomb was ransacked and robbed many times, and by the time Davis discovered it in 1907, it was largely in shambles.

An interior view of KV55, showing its ruinous state

As with the Restoration Stela, the primary thing of importance for this study is that KV55 gave Egyptologists yet another clue to the existence of an 18th dynasty king named Tutankhamun.


Though numbered sequentially before KV55, the “tomb” known as KV54 was discovered by Theodore Davis some eleven months after KV55, in December of 1907. KV54 is not really a tomb at all, but a shallow pit about three feet deep.

Inside lay a jumble of jars and pottery, many containing dishes, desiccated foodstuffs, discarded embalming products, and a strip of linen with Tutankhamun’s name on it.

Items discovered in KV54

A funerary wreath discovered in KV54

KV54 linen containing Tutankhamun's name

This proved to be clue number three in the rediscovery of Tut’s existence.


This is yet another tomb discovered by Theodore Davis. Excavated in 1909, it was a small, 1-room tomb that contained very little of significance.

However, gold chariot foil was found among the rubble, containing the names of both Tutankhamun and his wife. Once again, evidence of Tut’s existence was falling into the historical record, and Davis believed that this small tomb had actually belonged to Tut.

Furniture knobs discovered in KV58

In 1912, Davis published an account of his findings during his period of excavation in the Valley of the Kings, and in this book he claimed to have found the tomb of Tutankhamun. However, he made a number of factual errors in making this claim. Primarily, he indicated that the items found in KV54 (the embalming refuse and pottery) were found together with the gold chariot foil in KV58. He seems not to have realized that there were two locations (a pit and a small tomb), and that they were excavated separately, in separate years, by different archaeologists working for Davis.

Others did, however, recognize Davis’ error, and among them was a prominent Egyptologist who had supervised on Davis’ own excavations from 1902 to 1904. His name was Howard Carter, and he would eventually become obsessed with proving Davis wrong, and finding the real tomb of the newly discovered 18th dynasty king named Tutankhamun.


Howard Carter was a self-taught archaeologist who first came to Egypt in the late 19th century as a painter and draftsman.

Howard Carter

He worked on various excavations, including excavations in Amarna (Akhetaten) for most of the 1890’s, before being appointed the Chief Inspector of Antiquities for southern Egypt in 1899. It was in this role that he first worked with Theodore M. Davis. Carter held this post until 1905, at which time he resigned to return to painting. He met his future benefactor and patron George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, in 1907.

Lord Carnarvon was a collector of ancient relics and owned one of the largest private collections of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the world.

A famous image of George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, taken in Egypt

He was eager to find a good archaeologist to do work for him in Egypt, and Carter needed a financier for his own efforts. As such, the two began a business association almost immediately. They spent most of the years between 1907 and 1914 working in various spots throughout Egypt, from the northern delta to the southern cataracts. Both, however, were primarily interested in obtaining Theodore M. Davis’ concession in the Valley of the Kings.

Carter and Carnarvon together

Their patience paid off. In mid-1914, after infamously declaring his belief that the Valley of the Kings was “exhausted,” Davis abandoned his concession there. Lord Carnarvon, shrewd and financially powerful, immediately moved on the Egyptian government to take over the work, and by the beginning of 1915, Carter – under the financial guidance of Carnarvon – was at work in the Valley of the Kings.


From the time of the aforementioned book by Davis, declaring that he had uncovered King Tut’s tomb, Howard Carter recognized that Davis’ conclusions were inaccurate. Not only had Davis erred in suggesting that Tut’s artifacts all came from the same place, but the two excavations in question were both far too small for either to have been a legitimate royal tomb. KV54, as noted above, was nothing more than a shallow pit, and KV58 was not only missing the wall paintings and texts integral to a pharonic tomb, but it was also comprised of only one room accessible by a vertical shaft.

Tutankhamun’s tomb, Carter reasoned, must surely have been larger and better decorated. In a book he wrote about the discovery of Tut’s tomb, Carter stated: “[Davis’] theory was quite untenable, for [tomb KV58] was small and insignificant, of a type that might very well belong to a member of the royal household in the Ramesside period, but ludicrously inadequate for a king’s burial in the Eighteenth Dynasty.” The items found inside, Carter reasoned, had simply been placed there at a later time.

As for the funeral objects found by Davis in the pit KV54, Carter stated: “[the cache represented] the materials which had been used during the funeral ceremonies of Tutankhamun, and afterwards gathered together and stacked away within the jars.”

And finally, in regards to tomb KV55 – the one with the unknown mummy and the cache of Amarna period artifacts – Carter said: “…it was Tutankhamun himself who was responsible for [the artifacts’] removal and reburial, [and] we can be reasonably sure [of this] from the fact that a number of his clay seals were found.”

Putting these conclusions together, Carter not only determined that Tut’s tomb had not yet been found, but that if it did exist, it must be somewhere near the center of the Valley of the Kings. His reason for believing this was because all three excavations – KV54, 55, and 58 – had been found near the valley’s center, with less than 350 feet separating any one from the other. Additionally, a cup with Tutankhamun’s name on it had also been found by Davis in the 1910’s, located “under a rock” in the same area as KV58.


Carter’s work for Carnarvon in the Valley of the Kings began in 1915, but did not initially last long. Demands from World War I, which was by then raging in Europe, took Carnarvon and Carter away to more important duties, and it was not until 1917 that they were able to return to the valley to commence the search for Tutankhamun.

As mentioned previously, Carter believed Tut’s tomb, if it existed, lay somewhere beneath the unexcavated rubble scattered about the center of the Valley of the Kings. As such, he began working there from the beginning, clearing out rocks and debris and searching for any sign of a hidden tomb. One of the first places he began was near the tomb of Ramesses VI. A large amount of debris from the tomb’s construction layered the ground below and in front of it, and Carter put his men to work there. In time, they reached the ruins of the huts that had belonged to the builders of Ramesses’ tomb. Fearing he had reached a dead-end, Carter moved his efforts elsewhere.

Ruins of a Ramesside workman's hut

For six seasons Carter and his workers toiled, moving from region to region throughout the center of the valley, and always coming up empty-handed. Of course, Carter made a number of significant finds during these years, but never found any trace of Tutankhamun.

By the end of 1921, both Carter and Carnarvon were becoming disillusioned. Carter writes: “Six full seasons we had excavated there…we had worked for months at a stretch and found nothing, and only an excavator knows how desperately depressing that can be.”

Carnarvon approached Carter around this time and made it clear that he felt their time in the valley was over. He did not want to fund any further excavations. However, Carter pressed him for one more season, promising to finance the enterprise on his own if Carnarvon backed out. Carnarvon was either impressed with Carter’s tenacity, or feared that Carter would succeed without him, leaving Carnarvon in the shadow of obscurity. Whatever the reason, Carnarvon agreed to finance one more season’s excavation in the valley, making it clear that he was through with the enterprise if nothing turned up.


Howard Carter arrived for his seventh and final season in the Valley of the Kings on October 28, 1922. After a few days of preparation, excavating commenced on the following Wednesday. Of that day, he wrote: “I began by continuing the former excavation where it had stopped [near] the entrance to the tomb of Ramesses VI, trenching southwards. At this point there were some ancient stone huts…” He goes on to say: “These ancient huts were soon cleared of the rubbish covering them,” and he points out that the undertaking of moving the debris took three days.

On the fourth day of excavations – Saturday, November 4, 1922 – Carter and his team made a startling discovery. In his diary from that day, Carter wrote the simple, yet provocative phrase: “First steps of tomb found.”

While digging in the foundations of the first ancient hut, about twelve feet below the entrance to Ramesses VI’s tomb, Carter discovered what appeared to be a carved block sunken into the ground. He quickly cleared away the dust and pebbles and found that it had a 90-degree edge, like the top of a step. After a bit more digging, Carter realized that he had discovered the top step of a staircase descending down into the bedrock.

The still-covered entrance of King Tut's tomb

For the rest of that day, and all of the following day, Carter and his workmen dug out the staircase. By the time they had reached the twelfth step, their excavation had removed enough debris to uncover the top portion of an intact, plastered doorway at the bottom of the stairs.

The top portion of the sealed door, revealed by a partial excavation of the staircase

This doorway bore the ancient seal of the Royal Necropolis (a seal which depicted the underworld god Anubis in victory over nine enemies). In his diary, Carter wrote: “Found tomb under tomb of Ramesses VI. Investigated same and found seals intact.”

At this point, Carter did not know whose tomb he was excavating. It could have been a king or a royal family member, or it could simply have been a cache or the tomb of a noble. What Carter did know, however, was that the intact doorway, and the presence of the undisturbed Ramesside workmen’s huts right over the top of the entrance, indicated that the tomb had not been touched since the era of Ramesses VI in the 1100’s B.C.E. This belief was further solidified when he cut a small hole in the top of the sealed door and looked into the area beyond. There, he saw a passageway filled to the top with rock and debris – a backfill used to secure the tomb, and yet another indication that the tomb had not been touched since it was last sealed, sometime prior to the era of Ramesses VI.

Carter later wrote: “It was a thrilling moment for an excavator…suddenly [to] find himself, after so many years of toilsome work, on the verge of what looked like a magnificent discovery – an untouched tomb.”

The tomb entrance, with rubble completely removed

Not wanting to leave his patron out of the thrill of discovery, he refilled the excavated stairs with rubble and sent a telegram to Carnarvon in England that stated: “At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley [stop] a magnificent tomb with seals intact [stop] recovered same for your arrival [stop] congratulations.”

What Carter did not know at the time was that if he had simply dug a few more feet into the ground before filling the excavation back up, he would have seen the seal of Tutankhamun, positioned low on the plaster doorway.


In the 1920’s, traveling from England to Egypt was no small task, and Carnarvon did not arrive on site until November 24, nearly three weeks later. During the interim, word of Carter’s discovery began to spread, and “treasure fever” was already beginning to seep through the world of Egyptology. Once Carnarvon arrived, Carter immediately recommenced the excavation, once again digging out the stairwell, and going this time all the way down to the bottom.

There proved to be sixteen stairs in all, and with the entire door free of debris, Tutankhamun’s name was clear.

A portion of the first sealed door, showing the seal of the Royal Necropolis, and Tutankhamun's name

However, this still did not prove that Tutankhamun’s tomb had been discovered. It should be recalled that tomb KV55, discovered by Theodore Davis, was an Amarna period cache, evidently secreted away during the reign of Tutankhamun. And that tomb, like the one Carter had discovered, bore sealed doors with the name of Tutankhamun. Was this yet another cache of Amarna period artifacts, stored under the orders of King Tut?

The evidence, at the time, pointed in that direction. Among the debris in front of the sealed door was an array of strewn artifacts – potsherds, shattered boxes, jewelry. Throughout these fragments the names of Akhenaten, Smenkhkara, Tutankhamun, Amenhotep III, and Thutmosis III all appeared. Except for the latter, all these kings were Amarna period pharaohs, and all four had also been associated with the cache in tomb KV55. About these speculations, Carter wrote: “These conflicting data led us for a time to believe that we were about to open a royal cache of the El-Amarna branch of the 18th dynasty monarchs.”

On the following day, November 25, Carter and his team took down the first door and began excavating the rubble-filled passageway beyond. It proved to be an undecorated corridor roughly 25 feet in length and descending at a 17-degree angle. More random artifacts were discovered amongst this rubble, and the team began to fear that whatever lay inside had been plundered many times.

At the end of the corridor, they found another sealed door. This door also bore the name of Tutankhamun.

One can only imagine the feeling of suspense and excitement that must have pervaded the gathered adventurers as a small hole was made in the upper left corner of the second door. Carter obtained a candle and lit it. Not only would its illumination help him to see into the area beyond, but the flame would help test the viability of the air. With the candle in hand, Carter reached up to the tiny opening, put the candle next to it, and peered inside.


What Carter saw in the dim illumination of the candle was a trove of ancient Egyptian treasures, some stacked neatly, others cast wildly along the ground. As Carter stared, speechless, Lord Carnarvon – who was standing with his wife and several others behind Carter – said, “Can you see anything?” Although Carter’s famous reply is said to have been, “Yes, wonderful things,” he later wrote that what he actually said was, “Yes, it is wonderful.”

About that famous moment, Carter later said: “With trembling hands, I made a tiny breach in the upper left hand corner. Widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle and peered in. At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle to flicker. Presently, details of the room emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.”

Carter later gave a more detailed description of what he saw:

Two strange ebony-black effigies of a King, gold sandaled, bearing staff and mace, loomed out from the cloak of darkness; gilded couches in strange forms, lion-headed, Hathor-headed, and beast infernal; exquisitely painted, inlaid, and ornamental caskets; flowers; alabaster vases, some beautifully executed of lotus and papyrus device; strange black shrines with a gilded monster snake appearing from within…

The first chamber, looking right.

After investigating the first chamber, it became clear to Carter that, in fact, they had discovered the unmolested tomb of Tutankhamun, and not a mere cache.

The tomb proved to have four rooms.

The layout of Tut's tomb, KV62

Carter dubbed the first room the “antechamber.”

The antechamber, looking left. Dismantled chariots lay at the left side of the picture.

The antechamber, center rear wall. The round, white containers beneath the cow-shaped bed contained food.

A small hole in the rear wall of this room led into another chamber that Carter called the “annex.”

Entrance to the annex, rear left of the antechamber

A closer shot of the annex entrance, after some of the artifacts had been removed

A sealed door on the right of the antechamber led into the burial chamber, and an open doorway off the right wall of the burial chamber led to what Carter dubbed the “treasury.”

Inside the antechamber, looking right, toward the sealed door leading to the burial chamber

Inside the treasury

Each room was filled with artifacts, including furniture, clothes, jewelry, games, chariots, food, models, weapons, and statues.

One of three beds taken from the tomb

A model boat

The canopic shrine, containing the remains of Tut's mummified internal organs

One of Tut's four chariots

Tut's throne, depicting the king with his wife

Furthermore, the burial chamber contained – in addition to the paintings detailed in previous installments – a large golden shrine.

The shrine inside the burial chamber, as seen from the antechamber

Close-up of the shrine, seen through the open doorway from the antechamber

The top of the shrine. Note the wall paintings.

A famous image taken as Carter first opened the shrine

Color photograph of the shrine today

Inside the shrine was Tut’s sarcophagus, and inside the sarcophagus were Tut’s three coffins, each stacked inside the previous one like a Marushka doll.

Carter used a pulley system to remove each successive coffin

Tut's mummy inside the third coffin, covered with a linen cloth

Interestingly, the lid of the sarcophagus showed obvious evidence of having been broken in half and then resealed. Apparently the lid was dropped during the burial.

The broken sarcophagus lid, most likely repaired by the priests who presided over Tut's funeral

Within the last coffin, with a magnificent golden death mask covering the head, was Tutankhamun’s mummy, lying where it had been placed more than 3,000 years earlier.

In addition to the death mask, the mummy had a funeral wreath around its neck, similar to the one found in KV54 (pictured above)

Of first seeing Tut’s mummy, Carter wrote: “The penultimate scene was disclosed – a very neatly wrapped mummy of the young king, with golden mask of sad but tranquil expression, symbolizing Osiris. The similitude of the youthful Tutankhamun until now known only by name, amid that sepulchral silence, made us realize the past.”

A pictured taken just as the sarcophagus lid was raised for the first time. Inside are Tut's three coffins, covered by a linen cloth.

Carter removing the linen cloth

Tut's coffins revealed to human eyes for the first time in more than 3,000 years

The lower portion of Tut's mummy, unwrapped. Note the shoes on the feet.

The mummified face of Tutankhamun

In all, Carter spent nearly ten years excavating Tut’s tomb. He was so methodical, in fact, that he did not even open the sarcophagus to take a first peek at the mummy until 1925. Though he never published a scholarly account of his findings, he did write a book together with one of his co-workers, entitled “The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun.”


Despite finding literally thousands of artifacts in the tomb of Tutankhamun, and despite the popular idea that Tut’s tomb was found intact, Carter realized almost from the beginning that the tomb had been robbed at least twice in antiquity.

His first clue came from the very first sealed doorway – the one found at the bottom of the entrance stairs. It had the undeniable marks of two separate repairs, one along the middle left side of the door, and the other above, in the top left corner. The second sealed door – the one leading into the first chamber – showed identical repairs. Furthermore, the corridor in between, which was backfilled with rocks, also showed evidence of a breech. In the upper left corner of the wall of debris, the backfill was of a different substance – instead of chipped, white stones, it consisted of large, dark rocks.

The entrance corridor after the removal of the first sealed door. Note the different rock types filling the upper left corner.

This area of different stone corresponded to the resealing in the upper left corner of the two doors. Also, there were broken artifacts both on the bottom of this backfill, and scattered throughout it at the level of the refilled backfill. Finally, evidence of plundering was apparent inside the tomb. Many of the treasures had been rifled through, and a number of items were broken, lying where the ancient tomb robbers had cast them.

Evidence of the presence of tomb robbers

Carter brought in a criminal investigator to look at the tomb and determine if, in fact, it had been robbed, or if it had simply been carelessly assembled to start with. This investigator concluded that the tomb had, without a doubt, been robbed. In his report, the investigator stated: “…objects were overturned (i.e. the carved wood chair and various boxes); objects were carefully thrust out of the way; objects had been deliberately broken; boxes had been opened and their contents roughly turned over, or more probably turned out, and carelessly replaced, since sometimes part of an object was found in one box and part in another…; an alabaster box was found near one end of the antechamber and the lid at the other end…”

Evidence suggested that every room had been entered by looters, and they appear to have been especially interested in oils and unguents, which could have been sold for a high price on the black market, and which are otherwise absent from the tomb.

The modern theory about the robberies suggests that the first robbery took place a very short time – perhaps only months – after Tut was buried, during the reign of Ay. Following this robbery (which the thieves appear to have gotten away with), the tomb was hastily put back in order by the priests, the breached doors were resealed (including the sealed door between the antechamber and the burial chamber), and the entry corridor – which had been empty before – was completely backfilled with chipped, white rock. Broken artifacts dropped by the thieves inside the corridor were simply covered over by the backfill.

Sometime later, in the reign of Horemheb, the tomb was breached again. These thieves cut through the top left portion of the outer door, tunneled through the top left portion of the chipped rock, broke through the top left portion of the second door, and entered the chamber. These looters appear to have been looking for anything of value they could take. In addition to ransacking the antechamber, they broke through the sealed door at the bottom of the rear wall and entered the annex.

It appears that these second robbers were caught in the act, because a number of objects had been dropped right in front of the antechamber doorway, including a cup that was still lying there when Howard Carter first entered. Additionally, items from the tomb, including jewelry, were found broken and scattered amongst the rubble covering the outside stairs, and in the refilled backfill inside the corridor. These discoveries indicated that whoever had dropped the items had been attempting to leave in a hurry.

After this robbery, the priests again resealed the doorways, but they left the breech between the antechamber and the annex open. The tumbled plaster blocks were still lying scattered inside the annex when Howard Carter entered it, and several jars had been moved and placed on top of the fallen blocks, probably by the looters. The priests also refilled the tunnel the second group of looters had made through the backfilled entry corridor, but used larger, darker rocks to refill it. After that, the tomb was apparently never breached again.

As stated earlier, the first robbery is believed to have occurred within months of Tut’s death. Oils and unguents were conspicuously absent from the tomb, and for these to have been of importance to thieves, the thieves would have needed to obtain them very quickly, before they spoiled. The second robbery, however, is believed to have occurred some years later, during Horemheb’s reign. The primary reason for this is because the name of one of his priests was found on a jar inside Tut’s tomb. This same person is known from the historical record to have been in charge of repairing Thutmosis IV’s tomb, which was robbed during Horemheb’s reign. The evidence, then, suggests that this same priest was in charge of resealing Tut’s tomb, and left his mark by signing his name on one of the jars inside the tomb.


The ancient Egyptians believed that their mummified kings, if deemed worthy in the afterlife, would become gods and live forever, ruling from the divine realm. They also believed that the king, in his divine afterlife, would need all the trappings of his earthly life. For this reason, kings were buried with furniture, clothes, food, dishes, chariots, weapons – all the things the king used on a daily basis during life. Ancient Egyptians did not kill and bury servants or slaves with their kings as some ancient cultures did; instead, the Egyptians built small statues – called ushabtis – which represented the king’s servants, and who would subsequently accompany him on his journey through the underworld.

One of Tut's ushabtis, situated inside a niche in the burial chamber

The tomb of every New Kingdom pharaoh, other than King Tut, was looted and cleaned out in antiquity. Ancient priests even removed many of the kings’ mummies from their tombs and stored them in caches, hoping to save the precious body (which was necessary for survival in the afterlife) from destruction by thieves. These kings’ mummies exist in museums today because the protective caches were found. Only Tutankhamun’s tomb was never emptied out; only Tutankhamun’s mummy was never stolen from its coffin and either moved or destroyed; and only Tutankhamun continues to lie in his own tomb in the Valley of the Kings, even to this very day.

In that sense, one of the least significant kings of the New Kingdom era has become, for us, the most enduring and best remembered.

“Three thousand, four thousand years maybe, have passed and gone since human feet last trod the floor on which you stand, and yet, as you notice the signs of recent life around you – the half-filled bowl of mortar for the door, the blackened lamp, the finger mark upon the freshly painted surface, the farewell garland dropped upon the threshold – you feel it might have been but yesterday. The very air you breathe, unchanged throughout the centuries, you share with those who laid the mummy to its rest. Time is annihilated by little intimate details such as these…”

~ Howard Carter

* In writing this series of essays, I have used a number of online and print resources. Among the most prominent online resources were,,, and Print resources included Howard Carter's book "The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun," and "Ancient Egypt: An Illustrated Reference to the Myths, Religions, Pyramids, and Temples of the Land of the Pharaohs," by Lorna Oakes and Lucia Gahlin. Perhaps the best resource I found was the Theban Mapping Project's website at The Theban Mapping Project is a foundation dedicated to electronically mapping all the tombs and temples of Thebes, including the Valley of the Kings. This website has fully interactive 3D images of all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, complete with descriptions, dimensions, and color images. It is an absolutely wonderful resource.

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