A stubborn perfectionist, Howard Carter was not the easiest man to get along with. He was abrupt and often irascible. But if it weren’t for his stubbornness, doggedness and boldness, he would not have made his monumental discovery on 26 November 1922.
Carter was born on 9 May 1874 in Kensington, London, although he lived much of his childhood with two aunts in Norfolk. The son of artist Samuel Carter, Howard was trained in illustration and exhibited a skill for art to match his father’s. He also developed a deep interest for the history of Egypt.
At the age of 17, Carter was given an opportunity that would change his life. He travelled to Egypt with archaeologist Percy Newberry to work as a tracer, sketching the findings of an excavation carried out by the Egypt Exploration Fund. Over the next few years, he worked on many other sites and developed innovative methods of drawing the findings, which were praised by colleagues.
In 1899, he was appointed chief inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, where he supervised excavations and was eventually given funding to head up his own. During this time, he discovered the tombs of Thutmose I and Thutmose III, (Thutmose II had already been found.)
It was in 1907 when Carter was first introduced to amateur Egyptologist Lord Carnarvon. They began working together excavating tombs – Carter doing all the work, Carnarvon supplying the funds. In 1914, they gained the licence for a site in the Valley of the Kings, categorised KV62, where it was believed the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun was situated.
The outbreak of World War I halted Carter’s work in Egypt until 1917. Progress was slow and Carnarvon became more frustrated. In 1922, he threatened to withdraw funding after the season if Carter didn’t find anything. In early November, Carter found something: the staircase to Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Following a decade of excavating, he would have a frustrating wait until 26 November before he could enter the tomb, as he waited for Carnarvon and his daughter to arrive from England. It would be worth the wait: it turned out to be one of the most extraordinary finds in archaeological history.
The tomb was well preserved and its contents had miraculously not been looted. It was full of priceless artefacts including art and statues. There were so many treasures that it took ten years to catalogue them all.
Carter was finally able to open a second doorway in the tomb on 16 February 1923, letting him enter the burial chamber of Tutankhamun. After ten minutes of hard work, he had made a small hole in the doorway. When he shone his torch through, he saw a wall of solid gold. The sarcophagus of the pharaoh was in tact.
The find was met with huge interest and fame, and Carter was hurled into the life of a celebrity. He toured America in 1924, giving lectures about his finds. The work at the tomb would continue until 1932, but Carter had by then retired from archaeology and become a collector of antiquities.
Carter died of lymphoma on 2 March 1939. Aged 64, he finally succumbed to the ‘curse of the mummy’ that allegedly claimed the life of Carnarvon in April 1923 and other members of the excavation party.
There is more about Howard Carter and the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in issue one of History Revealed. On sale from Thursday 27 February for just £1!
What would King Tut have made of Howard Carter? Would he have been glad to be discovered after so many years, or would he view Carter’s actions a desecration of his tomb? Why don’t you ask him?
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