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The Man Who Found Tut "TutWatch"
April 19, 2005


Howard Carter can rightly be called an unsung hero of Egyptology, a man forever outshone by his discovery. That he didn't go on to greater glory after Tut is entirely understandable--who could have? Yet some focus on that fact rather than on his character, abilities, and achievements. For the full story, see T.G.H. James' Howard Carter: The Path to Tutankhamun (Kegan Paul 1992, and various later editions), which was reviewed in the November/December 1992 issue of ARCHAEOLOGY by Donald P. Ryan, of the Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Washington. Ryan directed several seasons of fieldwork in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, documenting tombs first investigated by Howard Carter. His assessment of James's biography, which gives a nice overview of Carter's life and career, follows:

In November 1922, the world was stunned at the news that a virtually intact royal tomb had been discovered in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. Seventy years after its discovery, the tomb of Tutankhamun is still widely acknowledged as one of the most spectacular archaeological discoveries of all times. The gold-encased mummy of "King Tut," interred around the year 1333 B.C., lay undisturbed, surrounded by gilded shrines in a small tomb packed with magnificently preserved objects.

The press and its audience eagerly awaited the news as the tomb was systematically examined, recorded, and cleared. The hero of the day was the tomb's discoverer, Howard Carter, until then a relatively obscure English archaeologist working under the sponsorship of Lord Carnarvon. Though his name continues to be remembered decades after the great discovery, forever linked with the name of Tutankhamun, it would be difficult to find many who could say anything about Howard Carter except that he was associated with the tomb. Yet, it is hard to view the spectacular and oft-published photos of the tomb and not be curious about Carter, the man who appears diligently at work in many of the images. Who was this enigmatic gentleman, and whatever became of him?

One no longer need wonder. An excellent Carter biography has just been published, authored by one of the world's foremost Egyptologists, T.G.H. James, former Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum. James tracked information about Carter across several continents to produce a volume that is scholarly, authoritative, and highly readable. It should be noted that James had access to materials hitherto unexamined, which have added much texture to his thorough research.


Howard Carter was born on May 9, 1874, in London, though his boyhood was spent primarily in Swaffham, Norfolk. His father, Samuel, was a successful animal portrait painter and it seems that young Howard inherited his father's artistic talent. Inspired by the immense collection of Egyptian antiquities owned by Lord Amherst, one of his father's clients, Howard's curiosity about ancient Egypt seems to have begun in his early years. In 1891, in association with Amherst and Egyptologist Perky Newberry, Carter worked in Egypt for the first time. During this apprenticeship young Howard served as an artist recording the decorated walls of tombs in Middle Egypt. On this same visit, Carter was able to work with William Matthew Flinders Petrie (whom many consider to be the father of modern archaeology) at the site of Akhenaten's ancient city at Tell el-Amarna. From then on, Carter's life became intimately entwined with Egypt, and the next several seasons found him primarily engaged as an artist and photographer at the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri near Luxor. His drawings there and earlier at El Bersheh remain some of the most skillfully executed examples of epigraphic recording ever. It is astounding that, as James reveals, Carter used neither a grid nor any other sort of device but produced his exacting copies freehand. In 1900, he was appointed chief inspector of antiquities in Upper Egypt where he engaged in a variety of tasks including excavation (among them his first digs in the Valley of the Kings) and conservation. In 1905, after a transfer to the north, Carter was involved in an ugly incident in which violence took place between a group of rowdy French tourists and some of the Egyptian monument sentries at Saqqara. Loyal to his men and forever obstinate, Carter defended their action and refused to apologize. He resigned from the antiquities service not long thereafter and spent the next few years working as an artist.

Carter's archaeological association with Lord Carnarvon began in 1909. Carnarvon's status and influence as a wealthy aristocrat allowed him to secure a concession to dig in the Theban necropolis. Carter was to serve as his "learned man" and skilled colleague. Permission for Carnarvon to dig in the Valley of the Kings was finally granted in 1914 after the death of the previous concession holder. World War I slowed things down for the pair, and their first season in the Valley of the Kings proper began in late 1917. James has done his best to track Carter's activities during the war; though the details are sketchy, it is still rumored that Carter was responsible for the demolition of the German dig house at Luxor.

After several relatively fruitless field seasons, Carnarvon was ready to suspend his efforts in the Valley of the Kings. Were it not for the insistence of Carter for one last effort, the tomb might never have been found. The story of the tomb's discovery and clearance has been told innumerable times, but thanks to James's impeccable research, one is left with the impression that the true story has finally been told. The personal and political soap opera that pervaded matters dealing with the tomb are described in captivating detail. Readers will be intrigued by discussions of such affairs as an alleged surreptitious sneak-peek at the contents of the tomb by Carter and company and the possibility that a few of the objects from the tomb made their way into foreign collections. Though the facts are unclear as to whether or not the tomb's "antechamber" was explored when its sealed doorway was first breached, it is apparent that the "burial chamber" was toured well before its official opening. It is also evident that Carter may have distributed a few trinkets from the tomb as gifts now and then but there is no indication that he did so for financial gain.

The discovery of a tomb such as Tutankhamun's would be the highlight of anyone's life, and James's book depicts a somewhat lonely and despondent Carter in the aftermath of this success. At one point Carter is pictured, after work in the tomb had finished, pathetically seeking recognition in the lobby of Luxor's Winter Palace Hotel, "waiting like the Ancient Mariner to trap some visitor to whom he might talk." His last years were marked by poor health and he died on March 2, 1939. His burial was attended by few.

James's biography paints a picture of a man with a complex personality; a moody, brooding, stubborn, undiplomatic man, with few close friends. Despite these qualities, which often served to block his success, there is much to admire about Carter: his dogged persistence on the track of a lost tomb, his artistic genius, his love of nature, and his gift for organization. He was often quite bold. On more than one occasion he tracked and confronted tomb robbers, and he was known to operate in environments that were less than comfortable or outright dangerous.

Many may not be aware that Howard Carter was long involved in the business of obtaining and selling Egyptian antiquities. As an expert in this area of endeavor, Carter was involved with a number of major museums and private collectors, and James clues a wonderful job of revealing some of the intimate details of this aspect of Carter's career. This book by T.G.H. James cannot be more highly recommended to those who love archaeology, Egyptology, or maintain a fascination with Tutankhamun and his tomb. As a biography, it is first-rate. Not only is the reader left with a substantial understanding of Carter's life, but in the process, one learns a great deal about the archaeological milieu of the time and gains insight into some of Carter's prominent colleagues.--Donald P. Ryan

The Saqqara affair to which Ryan refers was an international incident and took place in late 1904. As Ryan notes, Carter stood by his Egyptian co-workers and by his principles, which led to his downfall as Chief Inspector for Lower Egypt in Egypt's Antiquities Service. T.G.H. James in Howard Carter: The Path to Tutankhamun devotes an entire chapter to the fracas, giving Carter's own account and that of the French tourists. Sir William Flinders Petrie recorded the event and its aftermath in his memoir, Seventy Years in Archaeology (Kegan Paul 2003), p. 192:

For the first six weeks my wife excavated at Saqqareh, copying mastabas, and had the Misses Hansard, Eckenstein and Kingsford there. One Sunday, some drunken Frenchmen tried to force their way into her huts, and were stoutly resisted by the cook boy. They went on to the official house and began to smash furniture and fight the native guards. Carter, then inspector, was fetched, and he very rightly allowed the guards to defend themselves till the police could come The indignity of letting a native resist a Frenchman weighed more than the indignity of being drunk and disorderly, in the eyes of the French Consul, who demanded an apology from Carter. With proper self-respect, Carter refused to apologize for doing his obvious duty. For this he was, on demand of the French, dismissed from the Service. This was perhaps the dirtiest act of the subservience to French arrogance.

While James notes that Carter could have been less obstinate, Petrie's summary comes from someone who knew Carter personally and had a direct connection with the events.

Along with Donald Ryan's review, our November/December 1992 issue included the following brief note, "Honoring Howard Carter," by contributing editor Paul Bahn:

To mark the 70th anniversary of the discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun, the British Museum is opening an exhibition about the tomb's finder, Howard Carter. Instead of focusing on Tutankamun's tomb, the exhibition "Howard Carter: Before Tutankhamun" will examine Carter's early career, when he was Inspector General of Antiquities for Egypt. Visitors will see that he was not only a fine archaeologist but also an excellent artist. Lenders for the exhibit include the present Earl of Carnarvon, descendant of Carter's famous patron, as well as the Louvre, New York's Metropolitan Museum, and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Two books are also being published to mark the anniversary: a new biography by T.G.H. James, Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum until 1988, and Carter's own diary.

If Howard Carter had not found the tomb of Tutankhamun, he would have remained just another Egyptologist, his name unknown except to specialists; but having found it, he became the most famous of all Egyptologists, his name synonymous in the eves of the public with the romance of archaeology. Yet he was a difficult, irascible, and proud man of such minimal personality that biographers ignored him until 1991, when H.V.F. Winstone's Howard Carter appeared.

In life, Carter was in constant need of the financial support of patron. Unfortunately the same remains true in death. He is buried in Putney Vale Cemetery in southwest London, a burial ground that also houses such personalities as the Russian revolutionary leader Alexander Kerensky, the sculptor Jacob Epstein, and Bruce Ismay, owner of the Titanic. Carter has a nondescript grave. Its stone surround is now broken in places and, worse, the simple inscription on the headstone--Howard Carter, Archaeologist and Egyptologist, 1874-1939--is barely legible.

[image] Howard Carter's neglected London gravesite in 1992 (Courtesy Paul G. Bahn) [LARGER IMAGE]

Lord Carnarvon, Carter's wealthy patron, has a fine tomb in a fenced-off corner of the Iron Age hillfort of Beacon Hill, Hampshire, near his home, Highclere Castle. But Carter--one of the greatest names in the history of archaeology--lies in crumbling and fading obscurity. He died a sad and broken man after years of sickness, ignored by the British establishment. Perhaps that was the young pharaoh's curse! It would surely be a fitting gesture if, on the anniversary this November of the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, Garter's own simple grave could be restored and improved through the generosity of some patron or institution.--Paul G. Bahn

This story of the forlorn Carter gravesite had a happy ending. Thanks to Bahn, Ryan, and others, the British Museum became involved and the memorial site of Egypt's unsung hero was refurbished.

Carter's refurbished grave today (Courtesy Paul G. Bahn)

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  • For more on Tutankhamun and the exhibition, see TutWatch.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America