If the breathless records from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are to be believed, it was an experience almost too marvelous to be grasped. Having cleared a portal back through the centuries, the dirt-caked explorer stepped through it, and there, amid the coded relics, found himself face-to-face with an eerily recognizable predecessor from distant antiquity—a mute figure, surprising in its completeness, long dead and yet in the immediacy and strangeness of the encounter, somehow very much alive.
Tunneling into ancient tombs was laborious—they had been designed to foil grave robbers, after all, and the intervening millennia had filled them with rocky debris. Arrival in the burial chamber was often disorienting. In the poor light, explorers momentarily mistook exquisitely mummified domestic animals for live ones. They found stacks of hard goods in the sarcophagi, but also dried flowers and the leavings of a last meal, as though only a few weeks or months had passed since the long-distant funerary rites. Arthur Weigall, an Egyptologist of the period who wrote eloquently about such moments, compared them to walking through a tear in the curtain of time.
Even more striking, almost magical, was the quickness with which that curtain repaired itself. Upon discovery, items in the tombs started visibly to decay. The sudden change in temperature and atmosphere made vivid colors fade and carved outlines all but disappear. A scholar assigned to copy hieroglyphs inside King Tut’s tomb when it was discovered in 1922 records that he worked to the sound of ancient wood creaking and snapping as the new air flowed in.
Of course, many items of immeasurable scholarly, artistic, and commercial value did emerge from these once-sacred spaces, and in good condition. That value has made them the objects of all sorts of disputes and passions, and there’s no shortage of either in the story of Theodore Davis, the American tycoon who played a central role in the development of Egyptology.
For more than a decade, beginning with his uncovering of the resting place of Yuya and Thuyu—parents of the glamorous Queen Tiye—in 1905, Davis was the world’s best-known opener of tombs. He made the Valley of the Kings his personal sandlot, uncovering eighteen sarcophagi between 1902 and 1914 and paying for the clearing of a dozen more. He was assumed to have exhausted the valley by the time he died, in 1915. But then Howard Carter and George Herbert, Earl of Carnarvon, unearthed the perfectly intact resting place of King Tut, the likes of which the world had never seen before.
In a single stroke, Davis and his legacy were all but buried.