Egypt: Howard Carter, the Discoverer of the Tomb of Tutankhamun

Howard Carter

by Jimmy Dunn writing as John Warren

It may simply have been the luck of the draw, but no one has probably furthered the interests of Egyptology, and indeed the world's archaeological focus on Egypt more than Howard Carter. His discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun has inspired almost a century of Hollywood movies, books and media attention for this greatest of all living museums we call Egypt.

Howard Carter

While Howard Carter's find of the mostly intact tomb of a pharaoh may have been lucky, it was the result of a dedicated career in Egyptology and the culmination of consistent exploration.

Howard Carter was born on May 9th, 1874 in the small town of Kensington, London, England. His father, an artist named Samuel John Carter who drew portraits (mostly of animals) for local landowners, trained Howard in the fundamentals of drawing and painting. He was Samuel Carter's youngest son. But Howard Carter developed an early interest in Egypt, so when he was 17 years old, under the influence of Lady Amherst, a family acquaintance, he set sail for Alexandria, Egypt. It would be his first trip outside of England, and he hoped to work with the Egyptian Exploration Fund as a tracer. Tracers copied drawings and inscriptions on paper for further study.

His first assignment came at Bani Hassan, where he was tasked with recording and copying the scenes from the walls of the tombs of the princes of Middle Egypt. It is said that he worked diligently throughout the day, and slept with the bats in the tombs at night.

It was under the direction of William Flinders Petrie that Carter grew into his own as an archaeologist. Considered as one of the best field archaeologists of this time, Petrie really did not believe that Carter would ever become a good excavator. Yet Carter could have had no better teacher at this point in time. At el Amrna, Carter proved Petrie wrong by unearthing several important finds. During this training period, Carter also worked under Gaston Maspero, who would later become the Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service.

A watercolor painting by Howard Carter

A watercolor painting by Howard Carter

After being appointed as the Principle Artist of the Egyptian Exploration Fund's excavations at Deir el Bahari under the direction of Edouard Naville, the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, Carter was able to perfect his drawing skills and strengthen his excavation and restoration techniques. His admirable efforts on the project led to his appointment by the Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, at age 25, as the first Inspector General of Monuments for Upper Egypt. This was obviously an important area of Egypt that included the ancient Thebes area. He became responsible for supervising and controlling archaeology all along the Upper Nile Valley. It is interesting to note that during this time, he erected the first electric lights in the Valley of the Kings (in various tombs) and at the temples at Abu Simbel.

Regrettably, he was forced to resign from the Antiquities Service in 1905. An incident occurred between Egyptian archaeology site guards at Saqqara and a few drunken French tourists. When the tourists became violent, Carter allowed the guards to defend themselves. The tourists protested to various high officials including the Egyptian Consul General Lord Cromer. Cromer called for Carter to make formal apology, but Carter refused, and was relieved of his post and re-stationed to Tanta, a place with very little archaeological involvement. Carter had very little choice but to leave the service.

Howard Carter

After his resignation from the Antiquities Service he spent the next four years as a watercolor painter and dealer in antiquities. However, seeking private funding for excavation work, Carter became the Supervisor of Excavations for the 5th Lord of Carnarvon (George Herbert). While World War I delayed Howard Carter's work, by 1914, Lord Carnarvon owned one of the most valuable collections of Egyptian artifacts in private hands. He would eventually discover six tombs in the Valley of the Kings on the West Bank at Luxor. But Carter had become somewhat obsessed with finding the tomb of a fairly unknown pharaoh named Tutankhamun, and year after year, searched in vain for this the pharaoh's lost tomb.

In fact, Lord Carnarvon was becoming frustrated with Carter's efforts, and by 1922, issued an ultimatum to the Egyptologist that this would be his last season of funding. Confident of his eventual success, on November 1, 1922, Carter began digging for his final season and three days later unearthed the staircase to Tutankhamun's tomb. After excavating down to the plaster blocks of the tomb, at 4 PM on November 26, 1922, Howard Carter broke through and made one of the 20th century's most amazing discoveries. It would take another ten years just to catalog the artifacts from this one tomb, which are currently in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo, though they are scheduled to be moved in the near future.

Lord Carnarvon

Lord Carnarvon

During this time, Lord Carnarvon died in Cairo of pneumonia. This sent the already sensational press into a frenzy. Media hype about the mummy's curse set the media on fire, and much to Carters displeasure, he began receiving letters from spiritualists from around the world. Legend has it that by 1929, eleven of the people connected with the discovery of the tomb had died, including two of Lord Carnarvon's relatives, and Carter's personal secretary, Richard Bethell. This would spawn mummy movies through the end of the the twentieth century and beyond.

After his discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, Howard Carter retired from active field work. He began collecting Egyptian antiquities himself, and became moderately successful. He could often be found at the Old Winter Palace Hotel in Luxor, mostly keeping to himself. He returned to Kensington, England in 1939, and died on March 2nd of that year at the age of 65.

See Also:






Reference Number

Ancient Egypt The Great Discoveries (A Year-by-Year Chronicle)

Reeves, Nicholas


Thmes & Hudson, Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05105-4

Complete Valley of the Kings, The (Tombs and Treasures of Egypt's Greatest Pharaohs)

Reeves, Nicholas; Wilkinson, Richard H.


Thames and Hudson Ltd

IBSN 0-500-05080-5

Tutankhamun (His Tomb and Its Treasures)

Edwards, I. E. S.


Metropolitan Museum of Art; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

ISBN 0-394-41170-6

Valley of the Kings

Weeks, Kent R.



ISBN 1-5866-3295-7