Howard Carter (1874-1939), the renowned archaeologist who discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun, was a private and stubborn man whose perfectionism frequently got him into trouble. Had he been more diplomatic, he might have avoided much personal misery, but then he might never have discovered the tomb.
Howard Carter was born in London, England, on May 9, 1874, to a lower middle class family. The youngest of 11 children of Samuel John Carter, a painter of animals and an illustrator for the Illustrated London News, and Martha Joyce Sands, he was raised in the small English village of Swaffham by two aunts. Because he was frequently ill as a youth, he was partially tutored at home. His father taught him how to draw. Carter felt his education to be minimal, which frequently frustrated him. His defensiveness and abruptness with people might have stemmed from his insecurity about this lack of a formal education.
Carter's artistic talent was noticed by Egyptologist, Percy Newberry, at 17 years of age. Carter went to Egypt to help Newberry draw tombs from 1892 to 1893. In 1892, Carter also worked at Tell el Amarna with the famous archaeologist, William Flinders Petrie. He next worked as a draftsman for Swiss Egyptologist, Edouard Naville, on the exquisite mortuary temple of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut at Thebes.
Worked for the Egyptian Government
Because of his potential, and probably because of the recommendation of Naville, Gaston Maspero, the head of the Egyptian Antiquities service, appointed Carter to the newly established position of Inspector-General of Monuments of Upper (southern) Egypt. At this time, Carter began to take an active interest in the vast cemeteries on the West Bank of Thebes, known as the Theban necropolis.
As Inspector, he supervised the clearance of several newly discovered tombs, including that of Hatshepsut, one of only four women pharaohs, who reigned from 1478 to 1458 BC, and that of King Tuthmosis IV, who reigned from 1401 to 1390 BC. At this time, Carter was working not only for the Antiquities Service for also for the rich American, Theodore Davis. Carter was so interested in working in the Theban necropolis, that when Maspero wanted to appoint him to the more prestigious position of Inspector-General of Monuments of Lower (northern) Egypt, Carter demurred for a year.
While based in the north at Saqqara, Carter became involved in an incident with some French tourists that was to change his life. Because of his stubbornness and his sense of propriety, he ejected some French tourists who were drunk and had been fighting with the Egyptian guards at the burial vaults of the sacred bulls. When the French tourists complained, Carter was asked to give an apology, which he adamantly refused to do. Maspero was eventually forced to transfer Carter to the Delta, the area where the Nile River empties into the Mediterranean Sea, from where Carter resigned his position with the Egyptian government.
For the next year and a half, Carter made a living as a watercolorist and as an antiquities dealer. He sold scenes of both ancient and modern Egypt to tourists, and sold antiquities predominantly to wealthy English people. While today, such activity would be frowned upon or chastised, at the turn of the twentieth century, such behavior was condoned.
Carter and Carnarvon
When the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, an Englishman who was in Egypt for his health, wanted to dig at Thebes, Maspero recommended Carter. In their first season together in 1907, Carter excavated the tomb of a late 16th century BC mayor and a written tablet dealing with the expulsion from Egypt of the Hyksos, who were foreign invaders. In succeeding years, Carter and Carnarvon made other impressive discoveries. These included two so-called "lost" temples, that of Hatshepsut and of Rameses IV (ca. 1154-1148 BC), as well as a number of significant nobles' tombs dating from 2000-1500 BC. A sumptuous publication in vellum, called Five Years' Explorations at Thebes, a record of work done 1907-1911, appeared in 1912.
In 1912, Carter and Carnarvon decided to extend their digging at Thebes to include sites in the Delta. The results were far less fruitful. Carter discovered nothing more than a large nest of poisonous snakes. In 1913, he did find a hoard of Graeco-Roman jewelry, but the water table was high and the exposed ground was hard, so the excavations were soon abandoned.
In 1914, Carter heard that local Egyptians at Thebes had discovered the cliff tomb of Amenhotep I (ca. 1526-1506 BC) outside of the Valley of the Kings, where most of the New Kingdom pharaohs had been buried. By bribing one of the Egyptians, Carter was led to the tomb, which he subsequently excavated.
Closer to Tutankhamun's Tomb
Also in 1914, old and ailing American businessman, Theodore Davis, finally gave up his rights to excavate in the Valley of the Kings—rights which Carter and Carnarvon had long coveted. According to an excavator working for Davis, the American came within a few feet of discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun, the pharaoh who ruled Egypt from ca. 1333 to 1323 BC, but stopped because he was afraid of undermining a nearby road. Carter and Carnarvon took over Davis' concession, but little work was done for the next few years (1914 -17) because of World War I.
Carter, however, did manage to excavate the already-known tomb of Amenhotep III (ca. 1390-1352 BC), and a cliff tomb of Hatshepsut made before she became pharaoh. From 1917 to 1922, Carter and Carnarvon dug in the Valley of the Kings with limited results. By 1922, Carnarvon thought they had found everything there was to find. Only Carter's offer to pay for more excavation with his own money shamed Carnarvon into financing one last season.
Time was running out for Carter. He had only about a month to locate the tomb of Tutankhamun. He had already spent almost ten years searching. During that time, his workers had moved over 200,000 tons of rubble by hand. Although he had explored almost every inch of the Valley of the Kings, a 30-foot mound of rubble still stood within his own camp. Carter wanted to see what was under that mound before giving up.
In November 1922, Carter and his workers uncovered 12 steps that led to a tomb entrance, still sealed after 30 centuries. The seal impressions did not tell whose tomb it was. Carter desperately wanted to keep digging, because as he wrote in his book The Tomb of Tutankhamen, "Anything, literally anything might lie beyond that passage, and it needed all my self-control to keep from breaking down the doorway and investigating then and there." Instead, he refilled the stairway with rubble, sailed across the Nile River, and telegraphed the news to Carnarvon.
Carter, waiting an agonizing 20 days for Carnarvon and his daughter Evelyn to arrive from England, wondered the whole time if he had not just dreamt of finding the tomb. Finally, Carter excavated the entire stairway of 16 steps, revealing the seal of Tutankhamun. He noted with disappointment that someone had broken into the tomb. The first seals he had seen were re-sealings. Tomb robbers had gotten in thousands of years ago.
The next day the sealed door was removed, revealing a passageway filled with rubble. This too showed signs of robbers. Carter excavated the tunnel into the night, but still could not locate a door to a chamber.
In the middle of the next afternoon, 30 feet down from the outer door, Carter found a second doorway. Finally, as he wrote in The Tomb of Tutankhamen, "The decisive moment arrived. With trembling hands I made a tiny breach… . At first I could see nothing … but 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… . I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, 'Can you see anything?' it was all I could do to get out the words, 'Yes, wonderful things."'
As Carter and the others looked through the hole, the flashlight revealed gold covered couches in the shape of monstrous animals. The excavators also saw statues of the king, caskets, vases, black shrines, one with a golden snake peeking out, bouquets of flowers, beds, chairs, a golden throne, boxes, chariots—everything except a mummy. But Carter noticed another sealed doorway.
The next day, on entering the room called the Antechamber, Carter's first thought was of the sealed door. Looking closely, he discovered that a small breach had been made, filled, and re-sealed in ancient times. Carter's natural impulse was to break down the door and see what was inside, but the archaeologist in him knew this might damage the objects in the Antechamber. Carter noticed another hole under one of the couches in yet another sealed doorway. Crawling under the couch and peering in, he saw a chamber, smaller than the one he was in, but crammed with objects. This room, called the Annex, was in total confusion, just as thieves had left it millennia ago. Carter had no idea how he would clear out this room. In the Annex the excavators saw beautiful objects—a painted box, a gold and ivory chair, vases, an ivory game board, and much more, but still no mummy.
Until Carter could get a thick steel gate from Cairo, the tomb had to be hidden. One month after the discovery of the steps, the tomb was filled in to the surface. Two weeks later the gate was in place, and the experts set to work photographing, drawing plans, and experimenting with preservatives. It took two and a half months to remove everything from the Antechamber.
Finally, the day had come to enter the next room. In February 1923, as 20 guests watched, Carter slowly began removing the sealed doorway. He had to work carefully so as not to damage whatever lay beyond it. When he shown a lamp in, Carter saw a solid wall of gold. This was a huge gold-covered shrine built to protect Tutankhamun's sarcophagus. Carter opened the doors of the shrine and within it found a second shrine, with seal intact. The tomb robbers had not reached the mummy, but Carter could not reach it either. There were four shrines, each within the other, that had to be taken apart first. The huge stone lid of the sarcophagus had to be lifted with special equipment, and the three coffins, nesting inside each other, had to be opened and carefully removed.
Finally, on October 28, 1925, almost three years after the discovery of the stairway, Carter gazed with awe and pity upon the mummy of Tutankhamun. "The beaten gold mask, a beautiful and unique specimen of ancient portraiture, bears a sad but calm expression suggestive of youth overtaken prematurely by death," Carter wrote in The Tomb of Tutankhamen.
Carnarvon, already in very frail health, died of an infected mosquito bite and pneumonia shortly after the opening of the tomb in 1923. Without his powerful patron, and due to his stubbornness, Carter soon got into trouble with the Egyptian authorities who temporarily took his concession away from him. He finally completed his work on the clearing and the conservation of the tomb objects in 1932. A three-volume work on the discovery of the tomb and its contents, called The Tomb of Tutankhamen, much of it ghost written by Carter's friend Percy White, appeared between 1923 and 1933. Carter was preparing a definitive report on the tomb in six volumes, when he died in London on March 2, 1939. Although Carter died both famous and wealthy, he was given no public honors by either the British or other governments.
Further Reading on Howard Carter
Carter, Howard, The Tomb of Tutankhamen, 1972.
James, T. G. H., Howard Carter: The Path to Tutankhamun, Kegan Paul, 1992.
Reeves, Nicholas, The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, The Tomb, The Royal Treasure, Thames and Hudson, 1990.
Reeves, Nicholas and John H. Taylor, Howard Carter before Tutankhamun, Harry N. Abrams, 1993.
Winstone, H. V. F., Howard Carter and the Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, Constable, 1991.