Born in London in 1788, Burton worked in Egypt between 1822-1825, and made a sketch plan of the first five chambers of KV 5. Born to James Haliburton (who changed his name to Burton) and Elizabeth Westly, James Burton was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he received his B.A. in 1810 and M.A. in 1815.
Between 1815 and 1822 Burton worked for the architect Sir John Soane and traveled in Italy, where he met Egyptologists Sir John Gardner Wilkinson, Edward William Lane, and Sir William Gell. In 1822 Burton accepted an invitation from Mohammed Ali to work as a mineralogist in a search for coal with the Geological Survey of Egypt. Burton had absolutely no mineralogical knowledge, however, and left the Geological Survey in 1824 and turned his attention to the ancient monuments of Egypt. In 1825, he traveled south on the Nile, making his way from Cairo to Abu Simbel. En route, Burton spent several months in Thebes.
He excavated at Madinat Habu and Karnak and in several of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. It was during these months that he first entered KV 5 and sketched a plan of its initial chambers before concluding that the tomb held nothing of interest. Between 1825 and 1828, Burton published a volume of hieroglyphic inscriptions. Little is known of Burton's whereabouts between 1825 and 1834, but on Christmas Day in 1835 he returned home to England with animals, servants and slaves, including his wife, Andreana, a Greek slave girl who had been purchased for him in his earlier years in Egypt. Shortly thereafter, his family disowned him.
Burton is perhaps best known for his drawings and plans of ancient Egyptian monuments, which are valuable because they can be used to compare the condition of the archaeological sites in the early nineteenth century and today. Additionally, throughout his years in Egypt, Burton collected Egyptian antiquities, most of which were auctioned off at Sotheby's in 1836 to repay his debts. The only item of his collection that was not auctioned was a mummy and coffin, now in the Liverpool Museum. James Burton died in Edinburgh in 1862, and was buried with the epitaph "a zealous investigator in Egypt of its language and antiquities."