The ancient Egyptian pharaoh, King Tutankhamun, is a household name. Yet, the man who made the startling discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb remains an obscure figure outside of archaeology. Howard Carter is regarded as one of the leading figures in the history of archaeology.
Howard Carter was a British born Londoner. He was born the youngest son of eight, in 1874, and at age 17, set sail for Alexandria, where he began his service as archaeologist with the eminent Archaeological Survey of Egypt (ASE) expedition. His first commission was to see him living with cave bats as he diligently copied scenes from the 4000-year-old tomb walls of Egypt’s ancient royalty. Carter assisted Sir Flinders Petrie, a notable British Egyptologist, working on the site at Tel el-Amarna, an ancient capital of Egypt.
He spent at least eight years excavating with the ASE. Carter’s most noteworthy discoveries include numerous important tombs such as that of pharaoh Thutmose IV, Queen Hatshepsut, and in 1922, after almost a lifetime of digging in Egypt, he co-discovered with George Herbert, the greatest archaeological treasure of the last century. In a valley in Luxor, Upper Nile, the two men uncovered the totally untouched tomb of the 14th century BC pharaoh, King Tutankhamun.
The stunning condition of the site’s preservation was heralded as the most triumphant find in Egyptology since the Great Pyramids. The sheer volume of well-preserved artefacts caused a flamboyant renaissance in all things Egypt. Whilst the artefacts were of spectacular display value their archaeological worth lay in their ability to position more pieces in Egyptology’s puzzle and to brighten the dim picture of the mysteries of the pharaohs.
Painting to Survive
Carter was an accomplished artist. His ability to draw and sketch artefacts and archaeological features with accurate perspective and clear detail held him in high regard. However, this artistic talent was all that sustained him when, in 1905, after rightly holding his ground before a diplomatic enquiry, the frivolous allegations of a drunken party of French tourists resulted in his posting to the remote Nile Delta settlement of Tanta. With little archaeological interest in the area he brushed aside his situation and painted commercial watercolours.
Dreaming of Gold
Such hardships he endured well and coupled with seeing, first hand, Lord Carnarvon’s greatest private collection of Egyptian artefacts in the world, Carter was inspired by ambitious aspirations. Season after digging season, Carter relentlessly pursued the dream of finding the tomb of a rather unknown ancient pharaoh that a few recovered relics seem to indicate had once lived.
His passion produced only a few insignificant artefacts from under the scorching heat of the inhospitable Valley of the Kings. In November of 1922, Lord Carnarvon, who was funding the expedition, gave Carter one more season to find his legendary tomb.
Determined to succeed Howard Carter struck pay dirt when, on just day three, his team hit what appeared to be the top of a significant stairway. Less than three weeks later, Carter’s team had opened the plaster block that led to the discovery of the century. So much was recovered from inside this remarkable well-preserved site that it took ten years to catalogue it all.
Carter Had Realised His Goal
This was the pinnacle of Carter’s endeavours. He knew that no continuation of his archaeological work could ever match such a find. From this time Howard Carter never returned to field archaeology. Instead he made the collecting of Egyptian artefacts his new passion and hobby. He eased away into obscurity and could often be discovered alone at his hotel in Luxor contemplating ancient Egyptian life. He returned to England and died in London on 2nd March 1939.
Because of his long and dedicated efforts in the furtherance of scientific Egyptology, archaeologists regard him as a leading figure and like many of his own sketches, he is worthy of being copied himself in archaeology’s Hall of Fame.