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SUNDAY Series® | 1922 – Carter Breaches Entrance to Tutankhamun’s Tomb!

Pyramid of Khafre and the Great Sphinx of Giza

Howard Carter (May 9 1874 – March 2 1939) was an English archaeologist and Egyptologist. Born in the London district of Kensington, his childhood was spent primarily in the market town of Swaffham, Norfolk, where he lived with his maiden aunts. He is most famous as the discoverer of KV62, the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt.

Early Work

Portrait of Howard Carter

In 1890, at the age of 16, Carter began copying inscriptions and paintings in Egypt. He worked on the excavation of Beni Hasan, the grave site of the princes of Middle Egypt, c. 2000 BC. Later he came under the tutelage of William Flinders Petrie.

He is also famous for finding the remains of King Hatshepsut’s tomb in Deir el-Bahri. In 1899 (Even if a female was pharoah they were still considered king not queen.) , Carter was offered a job working for the Egyptian Antiquities Service, (EAS) from which he resigned as a result of a dispute between Egyptian site guards and a group of drunk French tourists in 1905.

Location of the valley in the Theban Hills, West of the Nile (red box shows location)

Valley of the Kings, Southern Egypt – Arid landforms comprise much of this nearly vertical view of a portion of the Nile River. These desert landforms include eroded valleys and wadis (watercourses). The fertile and highly productive green Nile River Valley stands out in marked contrast to the tan desert landscape on either side. This part of the Nile Valley varies in width from 4 to 9 miles (6 to 14 kilometers). Near the southern edge of this photograph, the city of Luxor can be ascertained along the eastern bank of the Nile. The narrow, linear runways of the airport are visible on the edge of the desert east of the city. This particular bend in the Nile River is the home of many historical points of interest-Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Temple of Luxor, Tomb of Tutankhamen, and Necropolis of Thebes.

Tutankhamun’s Tomb

After several hard years, Carter was introduced, in 1907, to Lord Carnarvon, an eager amateur who was prepared to supply the funds necessary for Carter’s work to continue. Soon, Carter was supervising all of Lord Carnarvon’s excavations.

Lord Carnarvon financed Carter’s search for the tomb of a previously unknown Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, whose existence Carter had discovered. After a few months of fruitless searching, Carnarvon was becoming dissatisfied with the lack of return from his investment and, in 1922, he gave Carter one more season of funding to find the tomb.

On 4 November 1922, after 15 years of searching and being funded, Carter found the steps leading to Tutankhamun’s tomb (subsequently designated KV62), by far the best preserved and most intact pharaonic tomb ever found in the Valley of the Kings.

Tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings

He wired Lord Carnarvon to come, and on 26 November 1922, with Lord Carnarvon, Carnarvon’s daughter, and others in attendance, Carter made the famous “tiny breach in the top left hand corner” of the doorway, and was able to peer in by the light of a candle and see that many of the gold and ebony treasures were still in place.

He did not yet know at that point whether it was “a tomb or merely a cache”, but he did see a promising sealed doorway between two sentinel statues.

When Carnarvon asked him if he saw anything, Carter replied: “Yes, wonderful things”.

The next several weeks were spent carefully cataloguing the contents of the antechamber. On February 16, 1923, Carter opened the sealed doorway, and found that it did indeed lead to a burial chamber, and he got his first glimpse of the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun.

Carter’s own papers suggest that he, Lord Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn Herbert entered the tomb shortly after its discovery – without waiting for the arrival of Egyptian officials (as stipulated in their excavation permit).

Some bizarre and demonstrably inaccurate theories have been offered about the exact extent of the excavators’ rule-breaking; but it seems likely that it was (in reality) merely a case of impatient curiosity. They probably felt entitled to look because they had invested time, effort and money on the project for many years – it is widely accepted that their relationship with the government officials interested in their find was strained to the point where tacit non-cooperation became almost second nature to Carter.

Carter's house in the Theban Necropolis

Home of Howard Carter, Luxor, West Bank, Egypt

Later work and death

Following his extensive finds, Carter retired from archaeology and became a collector. He visited the United States in 1924, and gave a series of illustrated lectures in New York City which were attended by very large and enthusiastic audiences. He died of lymphoma in England on March 2, 1939 at the age of 64. The archaeologist’s death, so long after the opening of the tomb, is the most common piece of evidence put forward by skeptics to refute the idea of a curse (the “Curse of the Pharaohs”) plaguing the party that violated Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Howard Carter is buried in Putney Vale Cemetery in West London.

On his gravestone is written: “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” and “O night, spread thy wings over me as the imperishable stars”.

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