In 1922, archaeologist Howard Carter made the discovery of a lifetime, but it was also the decades he spent excavating in Egypt that changed the field — and the world — forever.
The glorious golden treasures found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb changed our understanding on ancient Egyptian history. But before the iconic tomb was uncovered, the expedition hell-bent on discovering it was almost disbanded after years of unsuccessful searches. It would be thanks to the resilience and persistence of one archaeologist, Howard Carter, that these ancient secrets could be fully unveiled for likely the first time since they were sealed.
Howard Carter Before Tut
Born in London on May 9, 1874, Howard Carter expressed an avid interest in Egyptian culture, history, and art from an early age. His father was an artist who encouraged creative expression in his son and though the family lived by modest means and education, Carter’s passion for the ancient arts was rich.
The Carter family lived up the street from the mansion of the Amherst family, known as Didlington Hall. Also passionate about antiquities, Lord Amherst was a client of Howard’s father, Samuel. He kept an extensive collection of Egyptian artifacts in Didlington Hall and allowed young Howard Carter to visit frequently. Eventually, the Amherst family noticed the young man’s great interest in their collection and offered to help him further his career.
When Carter was just 17, he accompanied an Amherst family friend to Beni Hasan, an Egyptian burial site.
There, he recorded the intricate paintings present on tomb walls, impressing the excavation team with his innovative ideas and attention to detail. His work was especially baffling as it was all done freehand with no stencils, graphs, or tools.
Howard Carter’s Rise to Superstardom
Before long, influential scholars invited Carter to work as an artist at major ancient sites, and as a result, was becoming an entirely self-taught Egyptologist through experience.
At Amarna, the short-lived capital of the pharaoh Akhenaten, Carter worked with pioneering archaeologist William Flinders Petrie. He took pictures and made sketches at the temple of Pharaoh Hatshepsut, also known as Deir el-Bahri.
Respected archaeologists like Petrie and Édouard Naville grew ever more impressed with Carter. By the time he was 30, Howard Carter became a chief inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Service in particular for Lower Egypt. During his tenure, he worked diligently to enforce the protections of excavation sites.
His contributions to the world of archaeology were prolific. Carter later discovered the already-robbed tombs of several 18th-Dynasty monarchs and developed a grid system to map out the lands of as-yet-discovered tombs — a map that is still used in excavation sites today. But a violent incident in 1905 had Carter in the middle of a spat between a group of French tourists and the Egyptian site guards. He took the Egyptian guards’ side in the so-called “Saqqara Affair” and as a result, Carter was forced to resign from his post.
He took his resignation hard, believing that the best days of his life had been spent. Little did he know that in just three short years, his entire life would change.
In 1907, Howard Carter received an invitation from Lord Carnarvon, a British aristocrat who was backing an excavation of noble tombs near Deir el-Bahri. As far as Carter was concerned, the invitation couldn’t have come soon enough.
A former colleague of Carter’s recommended him to Carnarvon, believing that Carter’s methods of grid blocking and identification could be helpful to the efforts. Carnarvon had a vision and when he was given permission in 1914 to explore the Valley of the Kings, he expected to uncover the burial sites of famous pharaohs of lore.
The excavation was delayed, however, by World War I in which Carter served as a translator for British intelligence. Though little is known about Carter’s activities in war, there is a persistent rumor in which he was in part responsible for the destruction of a German fort at Luxor.
It would not be until 1917 that Carter could, at last, begin his fated mission digging in the Valley of the Kings.
To Lord Carnarvon’s dismay, the excavations in the Valley of the Kings did not soon produce quite as much as he had expected. In 1922, Lord Carnarvon had finally had enough and gave Carter an ultimatum: find something in the next few months or the project was over.
Not willing to go back to the low point he had been after resigning from the Antiquities Service, Carter doubled down. Instead of beginning on a new section, he circled back to previously searched areas, looking for something that may have been missed.
Carter’s Boy King
A few months earlier, archaeologists had erected a line of huts on an unfruitful patch of ground. Howard Carter, however, believed that the area deserved another look. Dismantling the huts, he ordered the bedrock beneath them cleared and the area cordoned off. Then on November 4, 1922, as workers heaved stone a water boy stumbled into a rock crevasse. After inspecting the area, Carter discovered that the rock was actually the top step of a flight of stairs that descended into the earth and ended at a mud-sealed doorway.
Lord Carnarvon rushed to the site to oversee the opening of the doorway on Nov. 26. Carefully, under Carnarvon’s watchful eye, Carter eased the doorway open with a chisel his grandmother had given him for his 17th birthday. After opening it enough to ease a candle inside, he peered through the doorway.
“Can you see anything?” Lord Carnarvon asked. Indeed, Howard Carter could. Even in the dim candlelight, he could spy gold fixtures inside the tomb.
“Yes, wonderful things!” the archaeologist exclaimed. Howard Carter was gazing upon the intact tomb of the young King Tutankhamun.
The Discovery Of A Lifetime
Inside the tomb, Howard Carter was able to find the sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun who died in his late teens. This was the most intact and well-preserved pharaonic tomb ever found.
No one had opened the tomb for centuries, though someone had cracked it open at least twice since the death of the boy king. Two interior chambers of the tomb remained sealed, with the two outer chambers open and probably having been looted.
Despite the ancient grave robberies, the tomb was an exquisite find. Over the next 10 years, Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon brought forth the wonders of ancient Egypt from its doors and sent them off to be cataloged and displayed to the public.
Carter experienced professional setbacks, mostly stemming from his opinions over who should be allowed to control the excavation site. In the end, the site remained in Carter’s hands until his final days, and the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb skyrocketed him to fame.
Retirement And Final Years
Eventually, Carter retired from archaeology and began to travel to museums and teach seminars. Credited with kicking off American Egyptomania, he notably spent time at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts in America. When he wasn’t teaching and traveling, he wrote books on Egyptology in the hopes of passing on his knowledge to a new generation.
In 1939, when he was just 64, Howard Carter died from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma — and not from a rumored curse that allegedly killed 9 others upon entering the young King’s tomb.
His gravestone bears an inscription from an item found in the boy king’s tomb, found on a chalice dubbed the “Wishing Cup”:
“May your spirit live, may you spend millions of years, you who love Thebes, sitting with your face to the north wind, your eyes beholding happiness,” it reads. “O night, spread thy wings over me as the imperishable stars.”
Enjoyed learning about Howard Carter? Next up, check out how King Tut’s tomb was restored just this past year. After that, read up on the life and times of the King Tut’s wife, who also his half-sister, Ankhesenamun.