May 9 – Happy Birthday, Howard Carter

Posted on May 9, 2014

Howard Carter made one of the most famous archeological discoveries, anywhere, ever:

He discovered the only intact tomb of an Ancient Egyptian pharaoh that has ever been discovered, before or since.

Of course, I'm talking about the tomb of King Tutankhamun.

 And he found it in the Valley of the Kings, even though all the experts said that there were no more tombs to be found there.

Here's a brief version of Carter's story:

Howard Carter was born on this date in 1874 in London, England. His dad was an artist, and Carter learned about drawing and painting from him. As a matter of fact, Carter ended up getting into archeology through art!

He had no desire to stay in his little English town and paint portraits of families and pets. Instead, he got a job working for the Egyptian Exploration Fund as a tracer—one who carefully copies drawings and inscriptions from tomb walls, sarcophagi, and other ancient sources. These careful copies are used by scholars in their studies of Ancient Egyptian history and culture.

And so, at age 17, he left England for the first time and sailed to Alexandria, Egypt.

It turned out that he was willing to work hard. He was enthusiastic. He was even brave! Get this – sometimes, after working all day copying the scenes of the walls of a tomb, he would spend the night in the tomb. I'm talking all alone, by himself. Except for the bats.

Soon Carter began to work for a skilled archeologist named Flinders Petrie. He learned excavation skills while keeping up his artistic skills.

Up and up he climbed in responsibility and knowledge. Illustration, excavation, restoration. When he was just 25 years old, Carter was offered the job of First Chief Inspector General of Monuments for Upper Egypt. At this point, he supervised and controlled all of archeology along the Nile Valley!

Unfortunately, Carter lost his position when a bunch of drunken French tourists were violent toward the guards who protected the archeological sites. Carter allowed the guards to defend themselves—which seems like a pretty normal thing to me! But the French tourists were really mad and called on their important connections to demand an apology from Carter.

Carter stood his ground and refused to apologize for what he thought was the right thing to do.

Out of a job, Carter made a bit of a living by selling watercolor paintings and by giving people tours in Egypt. I'm sure this seemed like a very bleak time in his life. I bet a lot of people would've thought that Carter should have caved in and apologized.

But if he had, he probably wouldn't have met Lord Carnarvon.

Lord Carnarvon was a rich English nobleman who was staying in warm, dry Egypt while he recovered from an automobile accident. He was bored and restless, and he became very interested in what Carter told him about the Ancient civilization that had built the sphinx and the pyramids.

The two became partners. Soon, thanks to Carter's hard work and knowledge, Carnarvon owned one of the most valuable private collections of Egyptian artifacts in the world. But Carter had seen a name of a little-known pharaoh several times—here on a cup, there on a piece of gold foil, over here on a few funerary items. The name was Tutankhamun, and Carter knew that no tomb for a pharaoh of that name had ever been found.

And that meant that there was an as-yet undiscovered tomb somewhere.

Carter used his smarts to look for a tomb of a King Tutankhamun. He searched for about six years with no results. Lord Carnarvon was getting a bit dissatisfied—after all, he was paying the bills, and there was little more than a few artifacts turned up in those six years. Carnarvon informed Carter that the 1922-23 season would be the last that he would fund.

And in November, 1922, the top of a staircase was discovered.

It took ten years for Carter and others
to catalog the tomb's 2000+ artifacts.
In three weeks, the entire staircase was excavated. Of course, at that point Carter and Carnarvon didn't know for sure that they had found what Carter had so long searched for. Not until November 26, 1922, when Carter broke through a plaster wall and made the find of the century!

Curse? What curse?

Lord Carnarvon died from an infected mosquito bite in Egypt in 1923, just about half a year after the discovery of the tomb.

After Carnarvon's death, a rumor began that the mummy of King Tutankhamun had put a curse on all who dared enter the tomb. As conspiracy theorists always do, the people who whispered about this so-called curse seized on the deaths of several visitors to the tomb, a radiologist who x-rayed Tutankhamun's mummy, and Carter's personal secretary—even though they all died in different ways (one was killed by his wife, for example, and several died of various diseases)—
and most died years later.

Of course, a lot of people who had visited the tomb had nice long lives. Of the 58 people who were present when the tomb and, later, sarcophagus were opened, only 8 died within the next dozen years.

And Howard Carter himself died of lymphoma at 1939, many years after his discovery. There was no mummy's curse!

Find out more...

...about Carter and King Tut in this earlier post.

And here is a very short video about Carter's amazing discovery. 

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