Howard Carter

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Howard Carter

Howard Carter (9 May 1874 – 2 March 1939) was a British archaeologist and Egyptologist who discovered the intact tomb of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh, Tutankhamun in November 1922, the best-preserved pharaonic tomb ever found in the Valley of the Kings.

Early work in Egypt

In 1907, Carter began work for Lord Carnarvon, who employed him to supervise the excavation of nobles' tombs in Deir el-Bahri, near Thebes. Gaston Maspero, head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, had recommended Carter to Carnarvon as he knew he would apply modern archaeological methods and systems of recording. Carter soon developed a good working relationship with his patron, with Lady Burghclere, Carnarvon's sister, observing that "for the next sixteen years the two men worked together with varying fortune, yet ever united not more by their common aim than by their mutual regard and affection".

In 1914, Lord Carnarvon received the concession to dig in the Valley of the Kings. Carter led the work, undertaking a systematic search for any tombs missed by previous expeditions, in particular that of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun. However, excavations were soon interrupted by the First World War, Carter spending the war years working for the British Government as a diplomatic courier and translator. He enthusiastically resumed his excavation work towards the end of 1917.

By 1922, Lord Carnarvon had become dissatisfied with the lack of results after several years of finding little. After considering withdrawing his funding, Carnarvon agreed, after a discussion with Carter, that he would fund one more season of work in the Valley of the Kings.

King Tut's Tomb

Carter returned to the Valley of Kings, and investigated a line of huts that he had abandoned a few seasons earlier. The crew cleared the huts and rock debris beneath. On 4 November 1922, their young water boy accidentally stumbled on a stone that turned out to be the top of a flight of steps cut into the bedrock. Carter had the steps partially dug out until the top of a mud-plastered doorway was found. The doorway was stamped with indistinct cartouches (oval seals with hieroglyphic writing). Carter ordered the staircase to be refilled, and sent a telegram to Carnarvon, who arrived from England two-and-a-half weeks later on 23 November, accompanied by his daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert.

On 24 November 1922, the full extent of the stairway was cleared and a seal containing Tutankhamun's cartouche found on the outer doorway. This door was removed and the rubble-filled corridor behind cleared, revealing the door of the tomb itself. On 26 November Carter, with Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn and assistant Arthur Callender in attendance, made a "tiny breach in the top left-hand corner" of the doorway, using a chisel that his grandmother had given him for his 17th birthday. He 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 whether it was "a tomb or merely an old cache", but he did see a promising sealed doorway between two sentinel statues. Carnarvon asked, "Can you see anything?" Carter replied: "Yes, wonderful things!" Carter had, in fact, discovered Tutankhamun's tomb (subsequently designated KV62). The tomb was then secured, to be entered in the presence of an official of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities the next day. However that night, Carter, Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn and Callender apparently made an unauthorised visit, becoming the first people in modern times to enter the tomb. Some sources suggest that the group also entered the inner burial chamber. In this account, a small hole was found in the chamber's sealed doorway and Carter, Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn crawled through.

The next morning, 27 November, saw an inspection of the tomb in the presence of an Egyptian official. Callender rigged up electric lighting, illuminating a vast haul of items, including gilded couches, chests, thrones, and shrines. They also saw evidence of two further chambers, including the sealed doorway to the inner burial chamber, guarded by two life-size statues of Tutankhamun. In spite of evidence of break-ins in ancient times, the tomb was virtually intact, and would ultimately be found to contain over 5,000 items.

Opening of tomb

On 29 November the tomb was officially opened in the presence of a number of invited dignitaries and Egyptian officials.

Realising the size and scope of the task ahead, Carter sought help from Albert Lythgoe of the Metropolitan Museum's excavation team, working nearby, who readily agreed to lend a number of his staff, including Arthur Mace and archaeological photographer Harry Burton, while the Egyptian government loaned analytical chemist Alfred Lucas. The next several months were spent cataloguing and conserving the contents of the antechamber under the "often stressful" supervision of Pierre Lacau, director general of the Department of Antiquities. On 16 February 1923, Carter opened the sealed doorway and confirmed it led to a burial chamber, containing the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun. The tomb was considered the best preserved and most intact pharaonic tomb ever found in the Valley of the Kings, and the discovery was eagerly covered by the world's press. However, much to the annoyance of other newspapers, Lord Carnarvon sold exclusive reporting rights to The Times. Only Arthur Merton of that paper was allowed on the scene, and his vivid descriptions helped to establish Carter's reputation with the British public.


Towards the end of February 1923, a rift between Lord Carnarvon and Carter, probably caused by a disagreement on how to manage the supervising Egyptian authorities, temporarily halted the excavation. Work commenced in early March after Lord Carnarvon apologised to Carter. Later that month Lord Carnarvon contracted blood poisoning while staying in Luxor near the tomb site. He died in Cairo on 5 April 1923. Lady Carnarvon retained her late husband's concession in the Valley of the Kings, allowing Carter to continue his work.


Carter's meticulous assessing and cataloguing of the thousands of objects in the tomb took nearly ten years, most being moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. There were several breaks in the work, including one lasting nearly a year in 1924–25, caused by a dispute over what Carter saw as excessive control of the excavation by the Egyptian Antiquities Service. The Egyptian authorities eventually agreed that Carter should complete the tomb's clearance. This continued until 1929, with some final work lasting until February 1932.

Despite the significance of his archaeological find, Carter received no honour from the British government. However, in 1926, he received the Order of the Nile, third class, from King Fuad I of Egypt. He was also awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Science by Yale University and honorary membership in the Real Academia de la Historia of Madrid, Spain.


Carter wrote a number of books on Egyptology during his career, including Five Years' Exploration at Thebes, co-written with Lord Carnarvon in 1912, describing their early excavations, and a three-volume popular account of the discovery and excavation of Tutankhamun's tomb. He also delivered a series of illustrated lectures on the excavation, including a 1924 tour of Britain, France, Spain and the United States. Those in New York and other US cities were attended by large and enthusiastic audiences, sparking American Egyptomania, with President Coolidge requesting a private lecture.