The discovery of the tomb of the ancient Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun by British Egyptologist Howard Carter in early November 1922 was only the start of what for him was to become the work of a lifetime involving the clearing of the objects from the tomb and their cleaning, preservation, and documentation.
As Carter wrote in the account he later published of the discovery, this was the first time that an intact ancient Egyptian tomb of comparable importance had been found and of course it was also the only example ever found of an intact royal tomb.
As a result, he felt a clear responsibility to ensure that the tomb was properly documented, the objects within it properly preserved, and everything done to ensure that no information was lost. Even if the importance of this was not immediately evident, it needed to be carried out for the possible use of subsequent generations of Egyptologists.
The work of clearing the tomb and, after their initial inspection, documentation, and consolidation, the shipping of the objects to Cairo to be placed in the Egyptian Museum took the best part of a decade. Work took place during the excavation season, normally from early autumn to the following spring, and it had to be fitted in around other activities.
There were the growing numbers of tourists arriving in Luxor in the winter months, many of them wanting to visit the tomb of Tutankhamun. There was also the need to deal with the media and accompany visiting VIP parties on tours of the tomb.
The discovery had caused a worldwide sensation, and during the excavation season barely a day went by without Carter having to deal with journalists. Moreover, while the tomb could not be opened to tourists while work in it was still proceeding, this did not apply to VIPs. Carter found himself dropping everything in order to show tour parties around the tomb and recount, for what must have seemed the thousandth time, the circumstances behind its discovery.
However, Carter himself also profited from this worldwide interest, even if it may have held up some of the work on the tomb. He was accustomed to spending the summer months in England, and after the death of Lord Carnarvon, the English aristocrat who had financed the excavations that led to the discovery of the tomb, he found himself more and more in demand to lecture on it to British and international audiences.
According to his biographer T G H James, Carter was not a natural lecturer, and although it is impossible to judge he also seems to have been lacking in charm. James produces much contemporary testimony showing that Carter could be moody and difficult, quarrelsome and rude to his colleagues and short with those he did not consider to be on his level on what could be the punishing early 20th-century social scale.
Whatever the truth of such testimony may be, invitations to lecture flooded in, notably from the US where Carter spent a lucrative season lecturing on the discovery of the tomb across the East Coast in 1924.
In London, he was lionised as the man behind the most important Egyptological discovery ever made, and even in Egypt the discovery had made his position almost unassailable after the unfortunate incidents, detailed in an earlier article in this series, that had led him to be blackballed by some of his professional peers.
Or so it might have seemed — for though there was every reason to suppose that Carter, basking in the regard that the discovery had generated, could now dine out for the rest of his life on his discovery of the tomb, there were still some unexpected obstacles.
There was the legal situation concerning Carter’s continuing work at the tomb after Carnarvon’s death, for example, as it had been Carnarvon, and not Carter, to whom the original licence to excavate had been issued. There was also the controversy over Carnarvon’s signing away the media rights to the discovery of the tomb to the London Times newspaper for a large sum and the irritation or worse this caused among other outlets.
Finally, there was Carter’s own behaviour in pressing for items from the tomb to be spirited out of Egypt under the then-existing system of partage, or sharing, of Egyptological finds between foreign archaeologists and the Egyptian authorities and even allegations that he himself had benefitted from removing items from the tomb.
CLEARING THE TOMB: The most-pressing task following the discovery of the tomb was to clear the objects from it such that these could be properly preserved and put on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
In his later account, Carter says that clearing the antechamber, the largest chamber in the tomb and the first to be entered, “was like playing a gigantic game… so crowded were [the objects in it] that it was a matter of extreme difficulty to move one without running a serious risk of damaging the others.” Moreover, some objects, particularly those in which organic material had rotted away, would crumble into dust if touched, presenting complex problems of preservation.
The first priority was photography, in order to make sure that everything was properly recorded to show the general lay-out of the tomb. After that, experts were consulted on the best methods of preservation for the different materials used in the objects, and the process of slowly moving the pieces placed on wooden stretchers and swaddled in bandages began.
Once the antechamber and smaller annex room were cleared, work began on the burial chamber. This was entered in early 1923, and inside Carter found, practically touching the sides of the room, the set of nested gilded wooden shrines that contained the sarcophagus and inside that the coffins and mummy of Tutankhamun.
“So enormous was this structure [the largest of the shrines] that it filled within a little the entire area of the chamber, a space of only two feet separating it from the walls,” he later wrote. Clearing the burial chamber, and opening the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun, had to wait for the next excavation season.
Carter returned to work in autumn 1923, and in his later account he describes opening and then removing the series of gilded shrines before eventually coming to the innermost one containing the sarcophagus. “With intense excitement I drew back the bolts of the last [fourth shrine] and the unsealed doors; they slowly swung open, and there, filling the entire area within, effectually barring any further progress, stood an immense yellow quartzite sarcophagus, intact, with the lid still firmly in its place, just as the pious hands had left it” some 3,000 years before.
After that, there was the problem of removing the lid, weighing at least a ton, in the confined area of the burial chamber. Inside the sarcophagus the first of a nested set of golden coffins was found. Work on opening these did not begin until 1925, complicated by the large quantities of resin that the ancient Egyptian priests had poured into the coffins during the burial and that had now set hard. This would also have to be removed before the innermost coffin and the mummy of Tutankhamun could be freed.
But eventually Carter set eyes on the famous gold mask of the boy-king in the innermost coffin placed over the face of the mummy, the first man to do so for millennia. “The beaten gold mask, a beautiful and unique specimen of ancient portraiture, bears a sad but calm expression suggestive of youth overtaken prematurely by death,” he wrote in his account of the discovery.
Writing many decades later in his standard account of Tutankhamun, UK Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves has nothing but praise for Carter’s careful clearance of the tomb. “Carter’s clearance of the tomb of Tutankhamun, and his preservation of the treasures to make them fit for removal to Cairo, took almost a decade; had the tomb been found by anyone else, it would have been cleared and any surviving contents put on display within a month,” he says.
We are, in other words, in Carter’s debt, since thanks to his work, the exact positioning of every item in the tomb is known, and in most cases the objects were photographed in their original positions before removal. Moreover, fragile materials were carefully consolidated and conserved before any attempt to move them was made, most often in a neighbouring tomb pressed into service as an impromptu laboratory.
“Much that might, in less capable hands, have been lost forever was observed, noted, photographed, and preserved for posterity,” Reeves writes. “Tutankhamun’s is the richest burial ever to have been found in the Valley of the Kings; thanks to Carter, it is also the best documented.”
PROBLEMS: However, there were problems, the first having to do with the possibility that the then Egyptian government Antiquities Service would itself take over the clearance and documentation of the tomb.
The rights and wrongs of what happened can be debated, but for a time it seemed that Carter would be removed and the work transferred. In his account of events, James says that political developments in Egypt were to blame — he means the 1919 Revolution and the subsequent declaration by the British that they would be ending their protectorate over Egypt — with the result that new scrutiny was applied by the now independent Egyptian government to the work of foreign archaeological missions, particularly those that had benefited, as Carter’s undoubtedly had, from close connections with the British authorities.
After disagreements with new Egyptian minister of public works Morcos Bey Hanna, himself earlier imprisoned by the British, Carter left Egypt for his US lecture tour in 1924 uncertain whether he would be allowed to continue work on the tomb. There had been a series of problems that had culminated in his closing the tomb and initiating a law suit against the Egyptian government. It was a “wearisome” story “characterised by stubbornness, parti pris, bruised dignity, feelings of revulsion, and plain dislike,” James writes.
In the event, the disagreements were smoothed over, helped by the appointment of a new government led by Ahmed Ziwar Pasha, in the words of one observer a “Turkish-Egyptian of the old school who formed a ministry of nonentities… quite prepared to shelter behind the resources of the British High Commission.” Negotiating with this after running into Ziwar on his return to Egypt in December 1924, Carter was able to renew the concession on favourable terms after Carnarvon’s heirs abandoned claims to a share of the artefacts found in the tomb.
A second problem was the controversy over Carnarvon’s signing away the media rights to the discovery to the London Times for what at the time was the large sum of 5,000 pounds sterling (around 387,000 today), along with 75 per cent of the profits on the deal. The newspaper would be given the copyright on this material, but Carnarvon would be allowed to use any or all of it for whatever purposes he saw fit.
This agreement, signed in January 1923, at a time when interest in the discovery was at its height, appointed the Times “sole agents for the sale throughout the world to newspapers, magazines, and other publications of all news articles, interviews, and photographs… relating to the present and future exploration work conducted by the Earl [Carnarvon] and his agents in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings” with the newspaper free to decide on prices.
Aside from the question of whether Carnarvon had the right to sell media access to the tomb, the agreement created bad blood with the rest of the world’s media, notably in Egypt. The tomb was in Egypt, and yet access to news of the excavations could only be had through the British media. This seemed to be an example of the kind of attitudes that were so resented in Egypt and across the Middle East at the time, and it contributed to the hostility to Carter’s work.
A third problem, perhaps the gravest of all, was Carter’s pressing for items from the tomb to be spirited out of Egypt under the then partage, or sharing, system that divided finds between foreign archaeologists and the Egyptian authorities and allegations that he himself had removed items from the tomb without recording them.
The renewed agreement with the Egyptian government had meant the abandonment of claims by Carnarvon’s heirs to a share of the objects found in the tomb — in any case specifically ruled out in the original excavation agreement — but this had not prevented Carter from personally extracting certain objects from it that were found in his London flat after he died.
“Among the antiquities [found in Carter’s collection] were a small number of pieces which could without question be identified as having come from the tomb of Tutankhamun,” James writes, and these presented his executors with the problem of how to deal with them. Their existence could not be publicly admitted, and it was thought that the best way to dispose of them would be quietly to return them to Egypt through diplomatic channels.
In the event, they were sent, after an appeal to then Egyptian king Farouk, to the Egyptian Consulate in London in June 1940, where they remained until they were handed over to Farouk after World War II. “Nobody will dare to make inappropriate insinuations in the case of a matter in which His Majesty [Farouk] is himself interested,” a contemporary observer wrote.
AFTERLIVES: The afterlives of Tutankhamun and his discoverer are almost inextricably linked, so close did they become in their association after Carnarvon first hired Carter to find the boy-king’s tomb.
But they nevertheless took separate paths. Whereas Tutankhamun, soon known worldwide by his American soubriquet King Tut, became an international celebrity and possibly even the best-known of ancient Egypt’s kings, after a short blaze of publicity Carter retreated into obscurity.
Often to be found on the verandah of Luxor’s Winter Palace Hotel, he never made any comparable discovery or even showed much interest in continuing with his Egyptological work again in later years. After the publication of his initial popular account of the discovery and clearance of the tomb, he never finished or even really worked upon the more substantial scholarly version that was supposed to bolster his professional career.
Instead, he seems to have preferred a life of idling, sometimes dealing in ancient Egyptian antiquities either on his own account or on that of various friends or outside agencies including a series of US museums. He continued to lecture from time to time, though the invitations dwindled as the sensation of the discovery faded. The man who had discovered the only surviving ancient Egyptian royal tomb slowly disappeared from the public eye.
He did, however, become a wealthy man through his dealings in Egyptian antiquities, certainly rich enough to attract the interest of the British tax authorities in the 1920s and 1930s. But the general impression was of “a man who had to a great extent given up on the work which had determined his life for such a long time,” James writes. “Life in Luxor,” where Carter spent the winter months, “could become enervating, and there was always the possibility of wasting time and the danger of a relaxation of values in day-to-day behaviour.”
The posthumous reputation of Tutankhamun, on the other hand, went from strength to strength, and although international interest in the ancient Egyptian boy-king dipped in the 1930s, it more than recovered later. An exhibition at the Louvre in Paris in 1962 kicked off the recovery in the international reputation of Tutankhamun, underlined by a major touring exhibition in the 1970s that was one of the first of the blockbuster exhibitions that have since become familiar worldwide and that racked up some eight million visitors across half a dozen countries.
Today, the mummy of Tutankhamun still lies in the sarcophagus prepared for it some three millennia ago in the boy-king’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Between then and now, the world “has seen the rise and fall of Athens and Rome, the birth and crucifixion of Christ, the coming of Islam, the European Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution,” Reeves writes.
“Tutankhamun was a king unwanted by his subjects, ignored by his successors, and forgotten for more than 30 centuries… He has since been reborn as Egypt’s most famous son, to achieve true immortality.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.