Late in the afternoon of 26 November 1922, an English archaeologist named Howard Carter broke through the second of two ancient doors he had discovered at the foot of a staircase leading deep beneath the surface of the Valley of the Kings, the burial place of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs near Luxor, formerly known as Thebes, in southern Egypt. Those with him waited in excitement as he drilled the hole that would let him see into a room sealed for over three thousand years. He passed a candle through to test for unhealthy air, and then put his eye to the hole.

"Can you see anything?" asked George Herbert, fifth Lord Carnarvon, whose money had financed Carter's excavations. Almost too stunned to speak, Carter eventually replied: "Yes, wonderful things." As he began to enlarge the opening to let himself and others through, he knew he had achieved his long-held ambition to find the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun.

Carter and Carnarvon were men from very different backgrounds, united by their passion for Egyptology. The discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb came from the combination of Carter's determination and scholarly work, and Carnarvon's money. Howard Carter came from Kensington in London, and had been trained in drawing and painting by his artist father. He used his skills to follow his interest in ancient Egypt, travelling to Alexandria at the age of seventeen to work for the Egyptian Exploration Fund as a tracer - someone who made drawings of discoveries as part of their official record, usually of tomb inscriptions.

Howard Carter

He soon gained a reputation for hard work, and took the chance to work with famous archaeologists of the time such as William Flinders Petrie and Gaston Maspero, who afterwards became the director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service. At twenty-five, Howard Carter became the first Inspector General of Monuments for Upper Egypt, overseeing all the archaeological work being carried out in the Nile Valley. He worked on the site of 'female Pharaoh' Hatshepsut's temple at Deir-el-Bahri, and was the first person to illuminate the temple of Abu Simbel, and some of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, with electric light.

But for all Carter's archaeological skills, he was no diplomat. He was constructively dismissed from the Egyptian Antiquities Service in 1905 by the British colonial authorities in Egypt, after refusing to apologise for an incident when drunken French tourists at the Saqquara archaeological site were roughly treated by guards under his direction. Now he had to support his archaeological activities by painting watercolours and dealing privately in artefacts. At this point the British Consul General, Lord Cromer, and Gaston Maspero, introduced Lord Carnarvon to Carter.

Lord Carnarvon

Originally, Carnarvon had no interest in Egypt. Instead he was passionate about racehorses and fast cars, pastimes that his aristocratic background gave him plenty of money to enjoy. But in 1901, while in Germany, he had a serious automobile accident which left him physically frail for the rest of his life. He began to spend the winter months in Egypt to keep himself out of the damp, cold English climate, and his interest in Egyptology developed as a way of keeping himself occupied during this time. Carter was the "learned man" Carnarvon needed to help him as Supervisor of Excavations, and Carnarvon in his turn provided the finance Carter had lacked since losing his job with the Antiquities Service.

By 1914, when the war brought a temporary halt to their excavations, Carter had made Carnarvon the owner of one of the most valuable private collections of Egyptian antiquities. The tomb of Tutankhamun was only one of six that Carter found in the Valley of the Kings; he also discovered lost temples of Hatshepsut, and Rameses IV. The American archaeologist Theodore Davis had held the official permission to excavate in the Valley of the Kings until late 1914, some months before he died. He gave it up when he was sure there was nothing more to be found there; however, he had come closer than he realised to discovering Tutankhamun's tomb, because he had been the first person to discover items that gave Carter the clue that it might exist.

Theodore Davis

Carter began his work in the Valley in February 1915, and grew increasingly obsessed with finding the tomb of Tutankhamun, despite all the other discoveries he made there. His 1922 search of what he believed to be the right area had begun with an ultimatum from Carnarvon, who felt enough time and money had been spent on looking for that one tomb. He had threatened to withdraw funding from Carter, but, in response to a personal appeal by the archaeologist, agreed to pay for just one more season of excavation.

When Carter found the staircase leading to the tomb on 4 November 1926, three days after he began digging, his first act was to send a telegram to Lord Carnarvon at his family home of Highclere Castle near Newbury, England, so that he could travel to Egypt and be present when the tomb was opened. Carter then sealed the tomb, and did not continue with the excavation process until Carnarvon arrived in Luxor with his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, on 24 November. Both Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn climbed into the antechamber of the tomb with Carter on 26 November, and in time they would also enter the adjacent burial chamber of Tutankhamun, before it was officially opened.

Howard Carter with Lord Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn Herbert, in Egypt at the time of the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb

Tutankhamun's reign over Egypt was short-lived. He was only nine years old when he succeeded his father, the controversial Pharaoh Akhenaten, who had tried to remodel the traditional Egyptian religious practices by introducing the worship of a new sun god named Aten. As a boy king, with no immediate family left apart from his wife - a half-sister not much older than himself - he was controlled by two more powerful men: his Grand Vizier, Ay, and the commander of his armed forces, Horemheb.

These men, one a politician and the other a soldier, both knew that the priests of the traditional Egyptian god, Amun-Ra, had enough power to overthrow the child Pharaoh if he did not put an end to his father's reforms. Under their guidance he restored Egypt's old religion, changing his original name of Tutankhaten, 'living image of the god Aten' to Tutankhamun 'living image of the god Amun'. He was succeeded as Pharaoh by Ay after his sudden death at the age of nineteen, and Ay was in his turn succeeded by Horemheb: both of their tombs are also to be found in the Valley of the Kings. But the best-known tomb there remains the one officially known as KV 62 - Kings' Valley, site 62 - the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Up to Howard Carter's discovery, archaeologists usually found that robbers, either ancient or modern, had reached the tombs of the Valley of the Kings before them. The treasures left for dead Pharaohs to use in the next world were too great a temptation for ordinary people who knew where the tombs were and needed an extra source of income. Tombs were broken into and ransacked, leaving few opportunities to learn about the burial customs of ancient Egyptian rulers.

At first Carter thought he would find Tutankhamun's tomb in the same state when he saw that the two doors leading to Tutankhamun's burial chamber had been broken through before and then resealed. But if there had been robberies, it seemed they had taken place quite soon after the king's burial, perhaps even carried out by some of the tomb builders. There was not much evidence that anything had been taken. The king's chariots, left in the antechamber to serve him in the afterlife, seemed to have been dismantled, which could be evidence of tomb robbers searching for gold - but also of a hurried funeral, with no space to reassemble the chariots after they had been taken down the narrow passage into the tomb.

The dismantled chariots within the tomb

Tutankhamun's tomb turned out to be the most intact of all those discovered in the Valley of the Kings. Writing of the moment when he looked through the ancient door, Carter described how even the antechamber seemed to have been crammed with treasures, all the more so because of its small size: " . . . presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold - everywhere the glint of gold."

The view into Tutankhamun's tomb, crammed with treasures

Gold was a metal that did not decay; to those who had interred Tutankhamun it represented the eternity they hoped would await the young Pharaoh, who had been one of the few to be worshipped as a god in his own lifetime. The process of building a Pharaoh's tomb began as soon as he came to the throne: it was a life's work, because the tomb was to be the place from which the king entered eternal life.

Most tombs in the Valley of the Kings therefore show evidence of many years of building, containing several chambers and long passages. Tutankhamun's tomb is comparatively small, consisting only of the staircase and burial chamber with a few small antechambers. This reflects the shortness of his life; it also suggests that this tomb was being built for someone else. When a death occurred, the elaborate funerary processes of mummification and burial had to be over within seventy days - which could indicate that the tomb where Tutankhamun now rests was pressed into unexpected service for the boy king. Meanwhile, the much larger tomb eventually set aside for Ay could have been the one begun for Tutankhamun.

The outside of Tutankhamun's tomb today

Despite its small size, it took Carter ten years to fully excavate the tomb. This was because he knew he had to be careful and methodical, making sure that everything inside was carefully preserved, photographed and recorded so that people could learn as much as possible from it. He even set up a field laboratory and photographic studio in the neighbouring tomb of Seti II, and used other tombs nearby as storage areas for the smaller finds. His careful work continued even as thousands of fascinated tourists visited the tomb.

Hundreds of treasures were recovered from the tomb of Tutankhamun. They ranged from the beautiful and exquisite, like the golden death mask worn by the king's mummy, the shrines and sarcophagi that housed it and the sentinel statues intended to protect him, to such everyday objects as a camp bed probably used by Tutankhamun on hunting trips during his lifetime.

Tutankhamun's golden death mask

Outside the tourist season, Carter made sure the tomb was sealed and guarded by the local police. "It had been our privilege to find the most important collection of Egyptian antiquities that had ever seen the light," he would say later, "and it was for us to show that we were worthy of the trust".

The rough handling of the king's mummy, gradually dismembered as the golden death mask was pulled from its head and its wrappings stripped of all amulets and jewellery, gives a less dignified picture of Carter's intentness on "the glint of gold". But the tomb inscription that supposedly threatened death "on swift wings" for anyone who disturbed the king's peace, which gave rise to the subsequent stories of the curse of Tutankhamun, seems now to have been invented by newspaper reporters descending on Luxor in search of new angles on the story, rather than actually discovered in any area of KV 62.

Lord Carnarvon's death, from an infected mosquito bite which turned to pneumonia, occurred on 5 April 1923 in Cairo, shortly after the official opening of Tutankhamun's tomb. It has often been connected with the stories of the curse, but the ill health that brought him to Egypt in the first place is the likelier cause. He is buried within an ancient hill fort overlooking his family seat at Beacon Hill, Burghclere, Hampshire, England.

After the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, Howard Carter retired from archaeology and began to collect and deal in Egyptian antiquities. His 1924 lecture tour of the United States of America sparked great interest in Egyptology there. He eventually returned to England, and died of cancer in Kensington, London, at the age of sixty-four. His gravestone in the Putney Vale Cemetery includes the inscription 'May your spirit live, / May you spend millions of years, / You who love Thebes . . . O night, spread thy wings over me as the imperishable stars'.

The treasures of Tutankhamun's tomb, of which the golden death mask is the most recognisable, are mostly displayed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. They are among the most travelled artefacts in the world, notably during the 1972 – 79 Treasures of Tutankhamun tour. Tutankhamun still rests in KV 62, where, eighty-five years to the day of the tomb's discovery, on 4 November 2007, his fragile mummy was moved from its original sarcophagus to a climate-controlled glass casket.

Tutankhamun's burial chamber today

KV 62 will soon be closed to the public to protect the king's mummy and the wall paintings of the burial chamber, since the condition of both is deteriorating from the added humidity created by all those who visit this ancient space. Although his tomb now contains far fewer "wonderful things" than the one prepared for him thousands of years ago, it seems that Tutankhamun himself is destined never to leave the Valley of the Kings.