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Howard Carter - 70 years after Tutankhamun.

THE VALLEY OF THE KINGS is a place of stark and arid splendour situated to the west of modern day Luxor, ancient Thebes, on the opposite side of the River Nile. Almost every king of the New Kingdom, which included the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth dynasties, was to be buried there. It was the lure of the immense riches with which those ancient pharaohs were laid to rest that served to attract the attentions of all those who have dug at this site, those with and those without official permission. To date excavation work has brought to light 80 or so tombs or pits in the Valley of the Kings but few of these had remained undisturbed by tomb robbers at the time of their "rediscovery".

Howard Carter first set sail for Egypt in October 1891 at the age of 17. Extensive work had been undertaken at Egyptian sites since the turn of the century and Egyptology was considered to be a smart and fashionable thing to be involved in. The son of an artist who divided his time between working for the Illustrated London News and painting prize farm animals and family groups for the landed gentry around the family's country home in Swaffam in Norfolk, young Howard often accompanied his father on visits to local Norfolk landowners who had commissioned him for work. It may have been considered part of his training for the future since Carter himself recorded that "the necessity to earn my living from the age of 15, made me follow up the study of drawing and painting". In any event it was to his father he attributed his training as a draughtsman, a skill which was to be responsible for his journey to Egypt.

Trained by his father Samuel in the basic skills of drawing and painting Carter revealed more than an ordinary skill but he had no desire to take up on a permanent basis the lifestyle of a jobbing artist, he wanted more from life than to sit out his days in the English countryside producing paintings to order. In later life he was to recall: "For a living I began drawing in water colours and coloured chalks portraits of pet parrots, cats and snappy, smelly lap dogs. Although I was always a great lover of birds and animals -- in fact I was brought up with them -- how I hated that particular species known as lap dog." Thus, when the opportunity to travel to Egypt presented itself, Carter leapt at the chance. The Egyptian Exploration Fund was looking for a tracer. Epigraphy, the study of inscriptions, was beginning to be recognised as a valuable tool in understanding the ancient Egyptians and Carter's task would be to use his skills of draughtsmanship to copy drawings and inscriptions completed many centuries before onto paper, so that further research could be undertaken.

After completing a short introductory term at the British Museum, Carter sailed for Alexandria. It was the beginning of an adventure right out of the Boy's Own Story Book for the 17-year-old youth who had never ventured beyond Britain and a humble beginning to what would later become one of the most illustrious archaeological careers of the era.

Carter's first project was to copy scenes from the walls at Bani Hassan, the burial place of princes who had governed this stretch of the Nile in Middle Egypt around 2000 BC. During the day he painstakingly recorded the faded inscriptions made by men whose grandson's, grandson's were long since dead and at night he slept in a bat-infested tomb. If Carter had a trace of home sickness or a shadow of regret that he had turned his back on the soft life, painting sunsets and lap dogs in rural Norfolk, he gave no inkling of it in letters, diaries or conversations. On the contrary, he threw himself into his work with enthusiasm.

During those early years Carter was privileged to work with Flinders Petrie, the most scientific archaeologist of his time. Petrie was a demanding field director and initially felt that the artistic Carter would never make an excavator, a view he was forced to modify as Carter, working at the site of el Amarna, once the capital of Egypt in the reign of Akhenaten, diligently uncovered a glass factory, Mycenaean potsherds, valuable for comparative chronology, and a sculptor's workshop.

It was Petrie's rigorous training that completed Carter's transformation from artist to archaeologist. The excavations at el Amarna produced some fascinating objects including a limestone torso of Akhenaten and fragments of a relief depicting his wife, Queen Nefertiti. The drawings Carter did to accompany a feature on the project which appeared in the Daily Graphic are the first of his archaeological ones to appear in print and are clearly superior to those of Bouriant which appear in the official publication.

By 1893 Carter was appointed principle artist to the Egyptian Exploration Fund's excavations at Deir el Bahri, the site of Queen Hatshepsut's funerary temple. This began a period of perfecting his skills as a copyist and consolidating his excavation and restoration technique. His hard work paid dividends by 1899, when at the age of 25, Carter took up the prestigious position of Inspector General of Monuments for Upper Egypt, offered to him by the Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, Gaston Maspero. Carter lived at Luxor on the west bank of the Nile overseeing and controlling archaeology in the Nile Valley.

An ugly incident involving a fight between a number of drunken French tourists and Egyptian site guards in Carter's employ led to his downfall with the Antiquities Service. It seems the tourists were behaving in a violently abusive way towards the guards when Carter instructed his men to defend themselves, an affray ensued. Later, the French pursued the matter through diplomatic channels, Carter was urged to make an official apology but, since he believed he had taken the right course of action, he refused. Many believe that Carter's obdurate refusal to apologise, even after the intervention of Egyptian Consul General Lord Cromer, who felt the incident had stirred up grave ill feeling on the part of the French cost Carter dearly. Had he not had this black mark against him there is a strong likelihood that he would have been awarded public honours in later life. But, at the time, his principles meant more to him than entente cordiale. He was posted to the Nile Delta town of Tanta, an archaeological backwater, which forced him to resign from the Antiquities Service in 1905.

Possessed of tremendous energy, determination and personal courage, Carter was throughout his life a unique mix of principle and pragmatism, with a solitary and rather peppery personality. His flexibility of approach did not always make him popular among his contemporaries -- indeed some of his exploits raise the hackles of more than one conventional archaeologist even today. He was a man of varied abilities: a watercolourist and draughtsman of considerable skill, a talented photographer, a resolute and painstaking excavator. It was with these skills and with his anger at a system that had attempted to humiliate him for his sense of justice and humanity, Howard Carter embarked upon the path to Tutankhamun.

Egyptology was a fashionable pastime of the British aristocracy. Among their ranks was the fifth Lord Carnarvon who had dabbled in amateur excavations since first travelling to Egypt, for health reasons, in 1903. By 1908 Lord Carnarvon felt he needed an expert to supervise the projects he would finance. Gaston Maspero, who had recruited Carter into the Antiquities Service initially, effected an introduction between the two. Since his resignation from the Service Carter had lived a hand to mouth existence accepting commissions as a commercial watercolourist or doing occasional tourist guiding. They were difficult days.

The partnership between Carnarvon and Carter was to be a spectacularly successful one. A miscellany of jewellery, statues and funerary equipment emerged from the sands of Thebes and by 1914 Carnarvon could be justly proud of owning one of the most valuable collections of Egyptian antiquities in private hands, thanks to the skill and diligence of Carter.

Many archaeologists of the time felt the Valley of Kings had given up all of its riches but Carter was convinced there was a pharaoh's tomb in the Royal Valley still to be discovered. During his years of exploratory work and excavations Carter had discovered important clues bearing the name of a pharaoh who remained largely unknown to Egyptologists of the time, Tutankhamun. This was the king whose tomb, Carter was convinced, lay somewhere beneath the vast rock and burning sand necropolis.

For season after season Carter hunted almost manically in the Valley for the royal tomb but it eluded him. He turned up a few artefacts during the course of his search but these did not justify the funds Carnarvon was putting into the search and the aristocrat's patience with Carter's quest was clearly wearing thin. He summoned Carter to Highclere, his English country home, to tell him the bad news. In response Carter presented him with a proposition he felt would appeal to his sporting instincts. Carter said he would personally finance, from his own pocket, one further season of excavation -- and if a find were made on the last area of ground he felt might yet yield results, Carnarvon, as the concession holder, would take the spoils. The strength of Carter's commitment impressed Carnarvon who, in the summer of 1922, agreed to finance one more season, on the clear understanding it would be his last.

Carter's race against time was on. It is impossible to know whether Carter truly believed there was a chance he would unearth the tomb in the short time available, more likely his quest had come to dominate his life and he could not imagine throwing in the towel. Work began on 1 November 1922 and only three days later the top of a sunken staircase had been brought to light. By late afternoon 12 steps had been cleared and the upper part of a plastered block was revealed. Its entire surface was covered with large oval seals. Carter examined the seals for a name without success. It was a discovery as puzzling as it was exciting. Showing an enormous strength of loyalty and willpower, he ordered his men to refill the staircase and he sent a telegram to Carnarvon informing him of his find.

Two and a half weeks later Lord Carnarvon and his daughter, Evelyn, arrived in Luxor, work could now begin in earnest. The stairwell was entirely dug out allowing the full expanse of the plaster block to be seen. "On the lower part the seal impressions were much clearer, and we were able without any difficulty to make out on several of them the name Tutankhamun," Carter's diary reveals. Elation was, however, tempered with the knowledge that the tomb had been tampered with. The corner of the block showed definite signs of reclosing and as the blocking was removed and a corridor filled from floor to ceiling with limestone chips dug out, debris on the steps of the tomb served to reinforce this conclusion.

By about 4pm on the afternoon of 26 November the chip filled corridor was empty and a second block door, again covered in oval seals stood before the excavators. Not knowing what to expect, Carter, accompanied by Lord Carnarvon and his daughter made a small hole in the doorway and inserted a candle to test for noxious gases. Carter then put his eye to the illuminated space beyond:

"At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold everywhere the glint of gold." It was, Carter later wrote: "The day of days ... The most wonderful that I have ever lived through, and certainly one whose like I can never hope to see again." Moving slowly and carefully through antechambers and chambers he witnessed a spectacular array of treasures unseen for millennia.

The discovery was hailed around the world. It took Howard Carter over 10 years to dear the tomb and catalogue its contents. The world was hungry for knowledge of Tutankhamun and as I research progressed devoured all information which came to light on the previously unknown pharaoh. To judge from his mummy he died at around only 17 or 18 years old. It seems likely he was the son of Akhenaton, who moved the Egyptian capital from Thebes to el Amarna, although who his mother was is not recorded. Hard facts relating to Tutankhamun's reign are few. He came to the throne in 1333 BC as a young child and was to rule Egypt for about nine years. During his reign the capital was moved back to Thebes. The romanticism of a child monarch whose life ended just as he was approaching manhood fanned the flames of international interest as did false rumours of an ancient curse.

In 1923, Lord Carnarvon cut an infected mosquito bite while shaving with a cut throat razor. Fever set in, then pneumonia from which he died in Cairo. Letters from spiritualists from around the world had warned of disturbing the burial place of a pharaoh and fuelled popular, irrational superstition, and thus the myth of the "curse" of Tutankhamun was borne. However, no curse exists in the hieroglyphs in his tomb and all of those involved in the discovery died natural deaths, some many years later.

As for Howard Carter, the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb was the zenith of his career. Finally, the treasures were sent to the Cairo Museum, the body of the young king subjected to autopsy and then returned to the outer coffin to rest in the tomb where it had been found. In the 1970s a selection of the treasures were exhibited in splendour in various cities across the world, when tens of thousands of people queued for hours to see them. Today, they continue to draw the attentions of the tourist hoards to the upper floor of the Cairo museum where they are displayed in rather dusty, ill-lit glass cases.

After the discovery Carter no longer excavated. Perhaps a decade of clearing Tutankhamun's tomb had exhausted him and how, in any case, could he top the find of the century? Much of his time was taken up with collecting Egyptian artefacts at which he was extremely successful. He was often to be seen sitting alone in the Winter Palace Hotel at Luxor a rather isolated and melancholy figure. He died in England in 1939.

An exhibition to mark the 70th anniversary of Howard Carter's discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb and his life is on show at the British Museum in London until May 1993. Also, see Book Reviews, p.41.
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Title Annotation:Special Feature; British Egyptologist
Author:Lancaster, Pat
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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