Howard Carter – discoverer of Tutankhamun

Two men became global celebrities off the back of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Who were they and what motivated them? British archaeologist Howard Carter chanced upon the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. His financial backer was the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, a man whose personal history was stereotypically aristocratic.

Who was Lord Carnarvon?

Born in the posh district of Mayfair in London. Carnarvon’s father, the fourth Earl, was a Tory politician. The young Carnarvon went to Eton College and then to Trinity College Cambridge. He married a fabulously wealthy socialite who happened to be the illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild and he obligingly provided a massive dowry clearing his son-in-law’s gambling debts.

With no cash worries, Carnarvon was able to indulge his passion for horse racing and ancient Egypt. The concession for digging in the Valley of the Kings had become available. An American lawyer, Theodore Davis, had bought the concession back in 1902 and opened about thirty tombs. Davis was sure he’d “exhausted” all possibilities at this fascinating ancient necropolis. So, in 1914, Carnarvon stepped in.

Who was Howard Carter – the man who entered the tomb of Tutankhamun?

Carter was chosen to lead the new round of digging. Born in 1873, he had arrived in Egypt in 1890 aged 17 as a junior member of staff at the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF). The EEF had only recently been set up – in 1882 – to explore and excavate ancient sites.

An agreement was reached with the French-run Egyptian Antiquities Department that allowed the EEF to export many of their finds subject to official approval. This led to thousands of Ancient Egyptian treasures making their way to Britain – legally at the time. The ethics of this has been questioned in recent years.

But it should be said that individuals were normally not allowed to keep artefacts. The EEF was supported by museums, universities and libraries who expected to be the beneficiaries.

Carter worked with the legendary Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) who brought some discipline into the cataloguing of finds and preservation of artefacts. It may be controversial to say this but in the late 19th century, sites were being plundered and monuments damaged at an alarming rate. Sadly, items like papyri were discarded as valueless by robbers and dealers preferring those things that glittered.

This was a fantastic apprenticeship for Carter who by 1900 became Inspector of Antiquities in Upper Egypt. This was a man steeped in Ancient Egyptian archaeology, but his lack of a university degree and lower middle-class background meant he was the subject of constant sneering from academia and respectable opinion. It may explain why he never received any honours for his work.

FIND OUT MORE: One hundred years since Tutankhamun’s tomb discovered

Making the discovery of a lifetime

Carter’s detractors must have felt vindicated when Carnarvon took him on and for the first few years, nothing showed up in the Valley of the Kings. Theodore Davis, it seemed, had been right. Everything that could be found – had been found. A restless Carnarvon began to wonder whether he was chucking good money after bad. And indicated to Carter and his team that the money tree would soon stop delivering.

Then, like in a movie with the clock ticking, Carter made his momentous discovery. With Carnarvon’s dire warning still ringing in his ears, Carter could hardly believe his luck when one of the team – a local boy – stumbled across steps in the sand. This was a clear sign that a new burial site had been found.

He wired his benefactor and Carnarvon made his way to the Valley of the Kings. When they opened the tomb, it was rather like a moment in one of those Mummy movies when a dreadful curse is unleashed. In Carter’s own words:

“At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber caused the candle flame to flicker 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.”

Behind him, Carnarvon asked Carter if he could see anything.

“Yes – wonderful things!”

Speaking of curses, Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito while in Egypt and died of malaria shortly afterwards. Journalists piled in with talk of a “Mummy’s Curse”. And it was Carnarvon’s death that inspired a whole slew of trashy Hollywood movies on Ancient Egyptian mummies exacting a terrible revenge for being disturbed.

Entering the tomb had to be done in the presence of an official from the Department of Antiquities. But there’s every suggestion that Carnarvon, his wife, and Carter broke in, had a look around and then sealed it up again. Honestly – I find it hard to blame them!

Howard Carter and the find of a lifetime – the tomb of Tutankhamun

What was astonishing about the discovery of 5,000 items in the tomb including the intact and ornate sarcophagus of the pharaoh was that most royal burial sites were ransacked in ancient times. Often by the tomb builders themselves – who knew how to get in and out. Yet this one had been spared from the looters.

In a speech given the following year back in England, Carter showed kinematogrphic pictures of the dig to gasps from the audience. What intrigued them was the “domestic” nature of many of the artefacts. This led Carter to comment that:

“Tutankhamun’s tastes might have been those of an average young Egyptian nobleman rather than of a royal prince. Domestic affection was suggested, rather than religious austerity that characterised other tombs.”

When Carnarvon and the Antiquities director entered the tomb, Carter had a portable electric light with a cable trailing out behind him. The sight of the pharaoh’s mask was incredibly moving for all present. But what took them by surprise was another inner chamber containing some of the greatest and most exquisite treasures.


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