British archeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter (1874-1939) is best known for one of the most rich and significant contributions to Egyptology, and perhaps ancient history: the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The remarkable find in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings caused an international sensation, catalysing a craze known as ‘Egyptomania’ and ‘Tutmania’, propelled Carter to global fame and forever altered our understanding of the ancient Egyptians.
However, behind the discovery of the ancient artefact is a man whose life was often unpredictable, and not without controversy. Described as hot-tempered and a loner, Carter sometimes maintained fragile relationships with his patrons, meaning that the discovery of the tomb nearly didn’t come to fruition at all.
So who was Howard Carter?
He was an artistic child
Howard Carter was the youngest of 11 children born to artist and illustrator Samuel John Carter and Martha Joyce. He spent a great deal of his childhood with relatives in Norfolk, where he received a limited education. However, his father nurtured his artistic talents.
His interest in Egyptology was sparked by a collection of antiquaries
A nearby mansion owned by the Amherst family, called Didlington Hall, contained a large collection of Egyptian antiques. Howard would accompany his father to the hall to watch him paint, and while there, he became fascinated with the collection. Lady Amherst was impressed by his artistic skills, so in 1891 had the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF) send Carter to assist her friend, Percy Newberry, in the excavation and recording of tombs at Beni Hasan.
He was initially hired as a draughtsman
Carter joined the British-sponsored archaeological survey of Egypt. Though he was only 17, Carter innovated vastly better methods at copying tomb decorations. In 1892, he worked in Amarna, the capital city founded by pharaoh Akhenaten, then between 1894-99 he recorded wall reliefs in the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari. By 1899, he was in charge of overseeing various excavations.
Funding for the dig nearly fell through
By 1907, Carter’s attention had turned to excavation, and he was working for Lord Carnarvon, who employed him to supervise tomb excavations in Deir el-Bahri. The two had a good working relationship and were said to regard each other highly. In 1914, Lord Carnarvon received the concession to dig in the Valley of the Kings. Carter led the dig, which aimed to uncover any tombs missed by previous searches, including that belonging to pharaoh Tutankhamun.
By 1922, Lord Carnarvon was dissatisfied by the lack of results over many years, and considered withdrawing his funding. Carter persuaded him to fund one more season of work in the Valley of the Kings, which was to prove pivotal.
He worked as a translator and courier during World War One
In 1914, Carter’s work was interrupted by World War One. He spent the war years working for the British government as a diplomatic courier and translator, interpreting clandestine messages between French and British officials and their Arab contacts.
He didn’t directly discover the tomb
In the Valley of the Kings, Carter investigated a line of huts that he had abandoned a few seasons before. The crew cleared the huts of rock and debris. On 4 November 1922, the crew’s young water boy stumbled on a stone that turned out to be top of a flight of steps cut into the bedrock.
Carter had the steps partly dug out until a doorway, stamped with hieroglyphs, was found. He had the staircase refilled, then sent a telegram to Carnarvon, who arrived around two weeks later with his daughter. On 24 November, the stairway was fully cleared and the door removed. Behind was the door of the tomb itself.
He was hot-tempered
Carter was described as being abrasive and having a hot temper, and seemed to have few close personal relationships. At one time, there was an unsubstantiated suggestion that he was having an affair with Lady Evelyn Herbert, daughter of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, but Lady Evelyn rejected this, telling her daughter that she was ‘frightened’ of Carter.
Former associate at the British museum Harold Plenderleith once stated that he knew ‘something about Carter that was not fit to disclose’. It has been suggested that this might refer to Carter being homosexual; however, there is again little evidence to support this. It seems that he had few close relationships with anyone throughout his whole life.
He became a sought-after public speaker
Carter wrote a number of books on Egyptology during his career, including a three-volume account of the discovery and excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb. His discovery meant that he became a popular public speaker, and he delivered a series of illustrated lectures about the excavation, including a 1924 tour of Britain, France, Spain and the US.
His lectures, particularly in the US, helped to spark Egyptomania, and President Coolidge even requested a private lecture.
He secretly took treasures from the tomb
After Carter’s death, his executor identified at least 18 items in Carter’s antiquities collection that had been taken from Tutankhamun’s tomb without permission. Since this was a sensitive matter that could profoundly affect Anglo-Egyptian relations, Burton recommended that the items be discreetly presented or sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Most eventually went to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
In 2022, a letter dating to 1934 to Carter from Egyptologist Alan Gardiner came to light. The letter accused him of stealing from Tutankhamun’s tomb, since Carter had given Gardiner an amulet that he claimed was not from the tomb. However, the Egyptian Museum later confirmed its match with other samples originating in the tomb, confirming long held rumours that Carter had siphoned riches for himself.
His grave features an Egyptian quote
Carter died of Hodgkin’s disease aged 64. Nine people attended his funeral. The epitaph on his gravestone reads, ‘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’, which is a quotation taken from the Wishing Cup of Tutankhamun.
Also inscribed is the quote, ‘O night, spread thy wings over me as the imperishable stars.’