1874 - 1939
"…One of the greatest figures in the history of archaeology," wrote C.W. Ceram in the book, Gods, Graves, and Scholars, about Howard Carter. Those that recognize the name, Howard Carter, usually associate it with the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The amount of preserved artifacts provided information to piece together key pieces of an archaeological puzzle, whilst the richness of the treasures caused the media to make King Tutankhamun a household name. As excavator and discoverer of the famous tomb of King Tut, Howard Carter has won a place in the archaeologist’s hall of fame. However, few people know anything more about Howard Carter than his exploits involving the tomb.
Howard Carter was born on March 9th, 1874 in Kensington, London, the youngest son of eight. He grew up in the county of Swaffam, North Norfolk, England with no formal education although his father, Samuel Carter, an artist, trained him in the fundamentals of drawing and painting. Although Howard Carter developed a well above average skill, he had no ambition to continue the family business of painting portraits of pets and families for the local Norfolk landowners. Instead, Howard Carter sought the opportunity to go to Egypt and work for the Egyptian Exploration Fund as a tracer, a person who copies drawings and inscriptions on paper for further studying. In October of 1891 at the age of 17, Howard Carter set sail for Alexandria, Egypt, which was his first journey outside of Britain.
Howard Carter’s first project was at Bani Hassan, the gravesite of the Sovereign Princes of Middle Egypt during 2000 B.C. Carter’s task was to record and copy the scenes from the walls of the tomb. At this early age, Howard Carter was a diligent worker with much enthusiasm. He would work the day through and then sleep with the bats in the tomb.
In 1892, Carter joined Flinders Petrie, at El-Amarna. Flinders was a strong field director and one of the most credible archaeologists of his time. Petrie believed Carter would never become a good excavator, but Carter proved him wrong when he unearthed several important finds at the site of el Amarna, the Capital of Egypt during the sovereignty of Akhenaten. Under Petrie’s demanding tutorage, Carter became an archaeologist, while keeping up with his artistic skills. He sketched many of the unusual artifacts found at el Amarna.
Carter was appointed Principle Artist to the Egyptian Exploration Fund for the excavations of Deir el Babri, the burial place of Queen Hatshepsut. This experience allowed him to perfect his drawing skills and strengthen his excavation and restoration technique. In 1899, at the age of 25, Carter’s hard work paid off, when he was offered the job of First Chief Inspector General of Monuments for Upper Egypt by the Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, Gaston Maspero. Carter’s responsibilities included supervising and controlling archaeology along the Nile Valley.
Carter’s employment at the Egyptian Antiquities Service came to an end in an unfortunate incident between the Egyptian site guards and a number of drunken French tourists. When the tourists became violently abusive to the guards, Carter allowed the guards to defend themselves. The French tourists, enraged, went through some high officials including the Egyptian Consul General Lord Cromer and called for Carter to make a formal apology. Carter refused, standing by his belief that he made the right decision. The incident gave Carter a bad name and caused him to be posted to the Nile Delta town of Tanta, a place with very little archaeological involvement. This forced Carter to resign from the Antiquities Service in 1905.
From 1905-1907, Carter sustained a hard existence after resigning from the Antiquities Service. He had to make a living by working as a commercial watercolorist or sometimes a guide for tourists. In 1908 Carter was introduced to the fifth Earl of Carnarvon by Gaston Maspero. The partnership proceeded happily, as each partner’s personality seemed to compliment the others.
Carter became the Supervisor of the Excavations funded by Carnarvon in Thebes and by 1914 Carnarvon owned one of the most valuable collections of Egyptian artifacts held in private hands. However, Howard Carter had still more ambitious aspirations. He had his eye on finding the tomb of a fairly unknown pharaoh at the time, King Tutankhamun, after various clues to its existence had been found, Carter tore up the Valley of the Kings looking for Tutankhamun’s burial place, but season after season produced little more than a few artifacts. He worked in the field with Lord Carnarvon in the west valley at the tomb of Amenophis III in 1915 and in the main valley from 1917-1922. Carnarvon was becoming dissatisfied with the lack of return from his investment and, in 1922, he gave Carter one more season of funding to find the tomb.
Carter was confident and the challenge went on as work began on November 4, 1922. It took only three days before the top of a staircase was unearthed. Almost three weeks later the staircase was entirely excavated and the full side of the plaster block was visible. By November 26, the first plaster block was removed, the chip filling the corridor was emptied, and the second plaster was ready to be taken apart. At about 4 P.M. that day, Carter broke through the second plaster block and made one of the discoveries of the century, the tomb of King Tutankhamun.
The tomb’s artifacts took a decade to catalogue. During this time, Lord Carvarvon died in Cairo of pneumonia. After the media got wind of the treasures of King Tutankhamun and the death of Lord Carnarvon, the hype about a mummy’s curse set the media on fire. Much to Carter’s displeasure, letters poured in from spiritualist from around the world, selling advice and warnings from "beyond the grave."
Finally, the artifacts were sent to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the corpse of the young king was studied and laid back to rest. After his work was done with King Tutankhamun, Carter no longer worked in the field. He retired from the archaeology business. He took up the pursuit of collecting Egyptian antiquities and, indeed, became a very successful collector. Often, toward the end of his life, he could be found at the Winter Palace Hotel at Luxor, sitting by himself in willful isolation. He died in Albert Court, Kensington, London on March 2, 1939.
Ceram, C.W. Gods, Graves & Scholars. New York: Random House, 1986. 203.
Clayton, Peter, A. "A Chronicle of the Pharaohs." Thames and Hudson 1994.
Hobson, Christine. "Exploring the World of the Pharaohs." Thames and Hudson 1991.
Lancaster, Pat. "Howard Carter: 70 Years After Tutankhamun." The Middle East Feb. 30-32.
Reeves, Nicholas & Richard H. Wilkinson. "The Complete Valley of the Kings." Thames and Hudson 1996.
Written by Rachel Frisk