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The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the legacy of Howard Carter

Dr Joanna Kyffin
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A photograph of Carter working at Deir el-Bahri (EES)

Ninety years ago, Howard Carter and his patron, George Herbert, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, opened the first and only intact royal burial to ever have been discovered in Egypt. The tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings which was probably originally intended for a non-royal burial. In comparison to the tomb of Amenhotep III, who had been buried only some 20 years earlier in a large, complex and gorgeously decorated tomb, Tutankhamun’s tomb, consisting of just four small rooms, three of which were undecorated, is modest, even humble.

Nonetheless, no other royal mummy has ever been found in the tomb in which it was first laid to rest, with its grave goods almost undisturbed and Carter’s momentous discovery has shaped the field of Egyptology ever since.

Howard Carter was a self-made man, the son of a well-known portrait artist, and his first endeavours in Egyptology were as an artist and draughtsman rather than an excavator. At the tender age of 17 he undertook his first work in Egypt with Percy Newberry at the site of Beni Hasan, working for the Egypt Exploration Fund (now the Egypt Exploration Society).

Carter’s artistic skills were his passport into employment, along with his relatively humble origins – a letter from Francis Llewellyn Griffith, curator at the British Museum and head of the Archaeological Survey branch of the EEF, sets out the criteria for choosing the right man for the job: ‘it matters not whether the artist is a gentleman or not… A gentleman, unless of an economical turn of mind, would run into extra expenses very likely’.

Although the work was gruelling, copying over 2,000 square feet of painting inside three weeks, Carter found the time to indulge in some detailed watercolour studies of the scenes in the tombs – he continued this practice whilst working at the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri, producing some beautiful paintings and showing a sensitivity to his subject matter which is almost unparalleled in Egyptology.

During his work for the EEF, Carter met Flinders Petrie, one of the dominant figures of early Egyptology, and he worked with Petrie at Amarna. Petrie’s opinion of Carter was amiable but rather damning: ‘Mr. Carter is a good natured lad whose interest is entirely in painting and natural history: he only takes on this digging as convenient and on the spot and convenient…it is of no use to me to work him up as an excavator’.

Thirty years later Carter would eclipse his mentor in the memory of the public as possibly the most famous Egyptologist of all time. However, Carter’s career was not without its struggles: the Tutankhamun discovery came just weeks before Carnarvon had decided to stop funding work in the Valley of the Kings, having spent seven years looking in vain for an undisturbed burial.

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A watercolour of Queen Ahmes by Carter (EES)

The story of the discovery has been told countless times. It has been repeated, retold, sensationalised and reimagined to the point where it is almost redundant to repeat the simple chronology of events. Often overlooked is the sheer scale of the work involved – the discovery of the stairs leading down to the tomb, the opening of the first and second doors, the first glimpses, ‘everywhere the glint of gold’, the delay whilst Carter awaited the arrival of Carnarvon before proceeding, even the official ‘opening’ of the tomb on November 29 – these events give little indication of the time needed to photograph, sketch, plan, note, conserve in situ, catalogue and pack the contents of the tomb before removing them.

The tomb was first uncovered on November 4 1922, but it was not until February 17 1923 that Carter and Carnarvon were to enter the burial chamber itself and confirm what they most fervently hoped: that the body of the teenaged king was undisturbed within. What is less often remembered is that it was the importance of the discovery, against the backdrop of rising Egyptian nationalism, which led to a change in antiquities laws. Instead of the western excavators being allowed to take the customary share of the treasure, Egypt retained the entire collection; future excavators would have to belong to recognised institutions in order to be allowed permits to dig. These changes endure today.

Carter made his extraordinary discovery under pressure from his patron to deliver results; he carried out his survey and clearance of the tomb under the gaze of the world’s media, and it was not until eight years after the first discovery that the last objects left the tomb. In his account of the discovery, Carter is frustrated by the media spotlight, saying ‘it is absolutely essential that we be left to carry on the work without interruption’.

Others would have perhaps disagreed – in 1921, the Committee of the Egypt Exploration Society reported that ‘it seems to be becoming more and more difficult, in fact almost impossible, to excite in the general public that interest in… Egyptian archaeology … which we feel our country should take’. Whatever Carter’s feelings, the explosion of interest which reverberated around the world following the discovery continues to make Egyptology into a thriving profession today.

  • Sally

    … except for a ring. Thank you, Michael.


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