Howard Carter’s journey to Tutankhamun

Howard Carter is well known for his discovery of the treasure-filled tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. But by then, Carter had already dedicated 30 years to the study of Egyptology, acquiring the skills he was to put to such good use in his clearance and documentation of the tomb.

Born in 1874, Carter learned draughtsmanship from his artist father, and developed a love of nature at an early age. Through his father’s work for Lord Amherst, who had an extensive Egyptological collection, Carter met Percy Newberry, then working for the Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society, EEF/EES). When the Fund required an additional artist for its ‘Archaeological Survey of Egypt’, Newberry invited Carter to join the team. In 1891, aged just 17, Carter left for Egypt, where he was to copy scenes from the Middle Kingdom tombs at Beni Hasan and Deir el Bersha. He quickly recommended changes to the way the scenes were published, better recording the details of the ancient decoration for scholarly study, and also made watercolours of some of the finer details.

Cat In The Marshes

Cat in the marshes from the tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hasan. (Courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society)

With Newberry, Carter discovered calcite quarries at Hatnub, though their colleagues Willoughby Fraser and Marcus Blackden were the first to copy the inscriptions there. Blackden’s “ungentlemanly” behaviour resulted in Carter replacing him as Flinders Petrie’s apprentice at Amarna, capital city of Tutankhamun’s likely father, Akhenaten. Thus, somewhat fortuitously, Carter learned the discipline of careful excavation and recording from one of the great archaeologists of the time.

After a second season with Newberry, Carter was appointed to work with Edouard Naville at Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el Bahri. Again, he developed new techniques to best capture the reliefs. One of his watercolours, of Thutmose I and his mother Seniseneb, still keeps a watchful eye on staff in the EES office.

Carter Tuth I and Seniseneb

Thutmose I and Seniseneb, Deir el Bahri. (Courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society)

In 1899, Carter was appointed Chief Inspector for Upper Egypt for the Service des Antiquités. His work included overseeing work in the Valley of the Kings, installing electric lights in the tombs and even solving a modern tomb robbery! He resigned from the Service in 1905, making a living selling his watercolours and trading in antiquities.

In 1908, he was recommended to assist Lord Carnarvon with his excavations. In 1915, Carnarvon obtained the longed-for concession to dig in the Valley of the Kings, and so began Carter’s methodical, even obstinate, search for Tutankhamun’s tomb. Although hist account of the discovery – The Tomb of Tutankhamun – met with wide acclaim, he never published a complete catalogue of the tomb’s 5000 artefacts as he had hoped. His notes, however, held in the Griffith Institute in Oxford, have proved an invaluable source for those Egyptologists who have followed in his footsteps.

Hazel’s interest in Egyptology and admiration for Howard Carter were inspired by reading The Tomb of Tutankhamun, loaned to her by her primary school headmaster as entertainment over the summer holidays. To explore the Folio edition click here.

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