This month marks the 100th anniversary of the most important archaeological discovery in history — the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the golden Pharaoh of ancient Egypt.
On this occasion, I believe that the most important thing for the public to know is the circumstances and the thrills of the story before and after the tomb’s discovery. After the tomb was discovered, many things happened that people still talk about today, among them the gold and silver found in the tomb and the possibility of a curse.
But they do not talk about the important actions taken before and afterwards and the thrills of the relationships between the people that led to the discovery.
First, the man who found the tomb had his name recorded in history. This was the Englishman Howard Carter, who was born on 9 May 1874 to a modest family in a modest house in London. His father was Samuel Carter, a draughtsman for the Illustrated London News. His mother, Martha, bore 10 sons and one daughter.
Three of his brothers died before Howard was born, and he himself was a sickly young man that his parents did not believe would live long. As a result, they decided to send him to live with his aunt in the countryside far away from London. They hoped that the “country air” would help to save him.
His only talent was drawing, like his father and his brother William. He did not have a good education but instead depended on the school of life. He himself would later say that “life taught me.” He learned how to read and write in schools for the poor and the results can be seen in the letters he later sent from Egypt to England when he was a young man that are riddled with spelling errors.
Carter came to Cairo under the protection of a famous family, Lord and Lady Amherst, who had five daughters. Lord Amherst loved art and culture and owned a huge library full of books on various topics. He also collected papyri and Egyptian artefacts. Lord Amherst met Carter through his father, who had done portraits of Amherst and his family.
While Carter was in Cairo, there was an announcement that a committee was being formed to discover more about Egypt that would include an expedition to record monuments in Middle Egypt. This expedition would be headed by Percy Newberry. Margaret Amherst wrote a letter to the committee asking that they include Carter on the expedition because of his artistic skills. They agreed, giving him a salary of 50 pounds sterling per year, or about four pounds a month. This was in 1890 when Carter was 17 years old.
Carter spent some time in Cairo before heading to Minya with the expedition. It is here that he met the British father of archaeology, William Flinders Petrie. He also visited the predecessor of the Cairo Museum at the time, the Palace of Ismail Pasha at Giza. Objects were moved to this palace after the Boulaq Museum was destroyed by flooding in 1878 when construction work on the new museum had not begun.
Newberry and Carter went to Minya to begin working on the tombs of Beni Hassan and Deir Al-Bersha. They lived inside the tombs while they were working there. After they finished recording and drawing, they would walk through the mountains. Then a fight took place in the team, and Newberry was forced to resign. Carter lost the man who was behind him on this expedition.
He then worked with Petrie and began to learn excavation techniques such as recording and restoration. He moved around to work with other expeditions, living in Egypt for a long time, learning Arabic, and becoming an expert in how to deal with workmen. When he worked at Deir Al-Bahari, he moved from being a draughtsman to being a professional archaeologist. His name began to be known in the archaeological field.
ARCHAEOLOGIST: After the Cairo Museum was constructed, it became the main place for antiquities in Egypt.
Two new positions were created: chief inspector of monuments of Lower Egypt (north) and chief inspector of monuments of Upper Egypt (south). These inspectors would oversee bringing new artefacts to the museum.
The power of the northern inspector extended from Alexandria and the Delta to Cairo, while the southern inspector was in control of Kus in Middle Egypt down to the Sudan, with his headquarters in Luxor. Egyptologist Edouard Naville and other archaeologists put up Carter’s name to take one of the positions, and he chose to work in the south. James Edward Quibell, who had graduated from Oxford University in the UK, got the northern position.
Each man had a salary of LE600 per year, or LE50 per month. At the time, this was a great deal of money. The Egyptian pound was worth a little bit more than sterling at the time, with a British pound being worth 97 piastres. Carter may not have graduated from a school or university, but he was equal to any educated archaeologist working in Egypt.
This was a good time in his life. He began working in Luxor, where he excavated, worked on restoration, and prepared sites for visits. He used his relationships with rich people to bring in money and used his position to protect antiquities from theft. He changed the doors of the royal tombs from wood to iron to protect them from looting, for example.
At the same time, the tomb of the Pharaoh Amenhotep II was looted, and the thieves attacked the mummy of the king and other mummies in the tomb. They also stole a boat from the tomb. Carter was sure that the notorious Abdel-Rasoul family was behind the theft. Three family members were arrested, but the stolen boat was never recovered.
In 1904, Carter moved to be inspector of Lower Egypt in the north and stayed in Saqqara. The move was a reward for him, and it was what would be the catalyst for an important moment in his life. A few months later, on 8 January 1905, a team of 15 men from a French electricity company came to Saqqara. They were all drunk and treated everyone badly. They hurt Mohamed Effendi, the chief Egyptian official in charge of Saqqara, and hurt the guard of the Serapeum. This guard went to Carter while the Frenchmen got worse.
Carter gave an order to the guards to face up to the men and remove them from the site. The guards were ready to do just this and attacked the Frenchmen with sticks and shoes, hitting them repeatedly. However, the director of the electricity company then wrote a letter to the government against Carter, stating that he and the guards had attacked women and children who had been with the group. Despite evidence to the contrary, the government decided to move Carter to Tanta. He did not stay there long, as he resigned from his post on 4 November 1905.
It is strange to think that 4 November was the day the Carter lost this job but also the day that would later become the most important day in his life.
Carter now believed he was on his own. After the fight with the French, he did not go back to England but stayed in Egypt. He returned to Luxor and lived in the house of a farmer, paying little rent. Without a steady income, Carter reverted to his artistic skills, drawing and selling his work. He knew that Egypt and its monuments had made him an important person for a while and that if he left, he would be nothing. So, he stayed on as an artist. Unfortunately, he did not have the skills of his brother or his father.
LUXOR: While living in Luxor, Carter met Theodore Davis, an archaeologist and adventurer who had an important concession in the Valley of the Kings.
Carter got a position working under him, but the two men did not like each other. They were too different. After a time, Carter met the Englishman Lord Carnarvon and started a new chapter of his life. The two would have their names recorded in history because Carnarvon funded the excavations in which Carter found the tomb of Tutankhamun.
But before we discuss the discovery, let me mention a letter that Carter wrote when he was chief inspector to Lady Amherst. In the letter, he asked her to tell Lord Amherst that the government trusted him and had allowed him to make rules and laws to protect the country’s antiquities. Carter assured her that this was a secret, and that she should not tell anyone. But what Carter wrote was not true at all, as the laws came from the Egyptian Antiquities Department and were then sent to the Egyptian parliament.
I do not know why later Carter would not seem to understand these laws and would fight to take 50 per cent of the contents of Tutankhamun’s tomb. In the letter, he had likely been lying to Lady Amherst to say he was more important than he was.
On 4 November 1922, it was announced that the tomb of Tutankhamun had been found by Howard Carter in an expedition funded by Lord Carnarvon in the Valley of the Kings. This was during their fourth season of working together, and it had been agreed that the fourth season could be the last, as none of the previous seasons had made any important discoveries.
Carnarvon hoped that an intact tomb could be discovered because he wanted to share it with the Egyptian government. He wanted to sell his portion to be richer than he already was, which would also allow him to continue his archaeological adventures. He wanted his name to be recorded for his amazing discoveries. While his name would be recorded, the political circumstances of Egypt and the rest of the world during that time foiled his plans.
We must now discuss how Egypt came to be under the influence and control of England at the time. It is true that many people, especially foreign writers, have discussed this period, but most of these have never understood Egypt in general. Also, many of the facts have disappeared from the public eye, hidden from these people as they were blind to what occurred. The gold and the thrill of the discovery of the tomb has hidden many of these circumstances.
On 8 December 1914, Egypt came under England’s direct control, ending the power of the Ottoman Empire. The announcement came a few months after the beginning of World War I, when England and other countries stood against the Ottoman Empire, Austria, and Germany. On 11 November 1918, World War I ended with the victory of England and its allies and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire.
After 1918, life began to return to normal. Tourists came back to Egypt, and people again began to care about Pharaohs and monuments. Archaeological expeditions returned. Frenchman Pierre Lacau became the director of antiquities in 1914 and would retain the position until 1936. In 1918, Carter began his search for new discoveries in the Valley of the Kings.
On 28 February 1922, England announced Egypt’s independence, but it retained control of the Suez Canal and rights to protect foreigners in Egypt. This control was refuted by the Egyptians, who still struggled with the English for complete independence. The country changed from a state under English rule to an Egyptian kingdom.
On 4 November 1922, Carter announced the discovery of the tomb. He and Carnarvon thought that for the coming years it would bring them more glory, fame, and wealth. But some important things did not occur to them. Egypt was not under English control anymore. It lost that control less than nine months before the discovery.
As a result, the English discoverers of the tomb did not have the power to take anything from it. If it had happened before Egypt’s independence, the artefacts from the tomb could all have ended up in Carnarvon’s home or in the British Museum.
Carter also did not know that Lacau would never accept his arrogance. Lacau was the director of antiquities at the time, and he often made adjustments to the rules regarding antiquities, especially those found by foreign expeditions. Only expeditions connected with museums and institutions could work in Egypt. However, Carter and Carnarvon had been given permission before this rule came into effect, so they could continue to work.
Lacau also ruled that the Egyptian Museum had the right to keep anything deemed unique, and if a tomb was intact, there was to be no division of antiquities. At that time, Carnarvon and Carter did not know that these new rules would mean that the golden treasure of Tutankhamun would be taken out of their hands and would stay forever in Egypt.
MEDIA REPORTS: The first thing that Carnarvon did after the discovery of the tomb was to give exclusive rights of the discovery to the London Times on 9 January 1923. For these rights, he received the sum of 5,000 pounds sterling.
Carnarvon refused to put a line in the contract regarding films, as he was hoping that Hollywood would want to make a film about the discovery. Carnarvon thus never thought that this discovery had been made in Egypt for Egyptians. Egypt had its own press and reporters at the time, and it had writers wanting to cover the discovery. But Carter and Carnarvon did not believe that they should do something for the Egyptians.
British Egyptologist Arthur Weigall commented that Carter had lost any sense of the simple diplomatic rules that govern how to treat people. As a result, at the beginning of the second half of the season after the discovery, everyone was faced with the issues of no newspaper being able to write about the discovery except the London Times. Carter and Carnarvon also began to take the treasures out of the tomb. But where would they go?
Discussions began between Carnarvon, Carter, and Lacau. Carter was shocked that nothing would be allowed to leave Egypt. Carnarvon was also shocked that he could not take anything. At first, he believed it to be a “French joke”, but later he found that it was true. Because of the laws at the time, Carnarvon and Carter then began to say that the tomb was not intact, but had been entered and robbed twice. If this were true, the rules about intact tombs could not apply. They even brought in foreign archaeologists to witness their efforts and to write that the tomb was not intact.
Many people began to talk to Lacau about letting the artefacts leave Egypt. Others talked about the arrogance of Carter. The press attacked the Egyptian authorities, saying that the items should go to England. Other archaeologists who were jealous of Carter began to attack his morals.
At this point, another man appeared on the scene. The then Egyptian minister of public works Marcos Pasha Hanna hated the English because they had earlier put him in jail, but now the Antiquities Department was under his control. He could see that Carter was not permitting Egyptians to enter the tomb, and when on 13 February 1924 Carter was going to open the tomb of Tutankhamun to the wives of the members of his expedition, allowing them to go into the burial chamber, this was the final straw. Hanna stopped Carter from implementing his plans, and then he sent Carter away from Egypt. People in Cairo marched in the streets, yelling “Viva the Minister of Tut!”
Others tried to talk Hanna into allowing Carter to return because they were afraid objects would be stolen from the tomb if the work did not continue. Hanna finally agreed on two conditions. The first was that Carter must apologise for the way he had treated the Egyptians during his excavations. The second was that Carter and Evelyn Carnarvon, the daughter of Lord Carnarvon and the current sponsor of the excavation, must write a letter stating that they had no right to any division of the goods in the tomb.
At first, Carter refused, but eventually he relented in order to come back to Egypt and to save the tomb from possible robbery. Lady Evelyn and Carter wrote the letter and signed that they had no right to any division. Then the Egyptian government did a very smart thing — it paid Lady Evelyn 36 pounds sterling, the amount that her father had spent on his expedition that had found the discovery. It told her to leave Egypt while Carter was hired by the government to continue excavating the tomb.
LAST THINGS: There are still two important things to discuss. The first is the death of Lord Carnarvon.
Five months after the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, Carnarvon died. The world’s reporters could not write about the discovery of the tomb due to the contract with the London Times, but they could write about Carnarvon’s death. Many stories were created, and the “curse of King Tut” was born.
There was one story that he was bitten by a cobra and another that insects had attacked him. One story was written by a German man in a book called the Curse of the Pharaohs, saying that when Carnarvon died in the Shephard’s Hotel in Luxor, his dog died at the same time in England. None of this is true, however. The only “curse” likely to come from ancient Egyptian tombs is that if you close a tomb for 3,000 years with a mummy inside it, germs are likely to grow. The early archaeologists would hurry into the tomb and get sick from these germs.
The second thing concerns Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon. I am not going to say that they were thieves, but there are some interesting facts.
There are 19 objects at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, for example, which are highly interesting. When I asked officials Tom Campbell and Dorothea Arnold about these objects, they told me that they were given to the Museum by Carter. However, they did not say if he had given them for free or if they were sold.
There is also the issue of the beautiful head of Nefertum, which was found inside KV4 (the tomb of Ramses XI) and put in a box in order to leave Egypt. The assistants of Carter said that this was not from this tomb, however, but from the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Carter was lecturing at the time of this incident, so we do not know if he was aware of this possible deception, or if it was meant as a deception. Other claims were that the object with others was put into the tomb for temporary safekeeping during the excavations.
Finally, there are some letters from Egyptologist Alan Gardiner, who translated texts from the tomb. From the letters, it appears that Carter gave Gardiner some amulets, presumably from the tomb of Tutankhamun, as a reward for his work. It also appears that Carter had given such gifts of amulets to others, including Lady Evelyn.
Gardiner returned his amulets and told Carter that he had had no right to do what he had done. Carnarvon likely also began to take items from the tomb after he realised that there was no way to take objects out of the tomb legally to England.
The best evidence for this is in a book written by Tom Hoving, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum, called Tutankhamun: The Untold Story.
While the story of the discovery of the tomb of the golden boy-king Tutankhamun may be known throughout the world, there are still some parts of it that are not told enough.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.