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Before The Greatest Tomb Discovery, Occasional Paper No. 21

By Elaine A. Evans, Curator/Adjunct Assistant Professor, McClung Museum, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

King Tutankhamun
King Tutankhamun (1361–1352 BC) Portrait of Tutankhamun from the third, solid gold coffin of the king.
Howard Carter
Howard Carter (1874–1939). From portrait of Howard Carter by his brother William Carter, 1924.
Queen Ahmose
A water-color by Howard Carter of Queen Ahmose, mother of Queen Hatshepsut (1503–1482 BC), from a wall painting in the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri.

Behind The Scenes

Tomb entrance

Entrance to the Tomb of Ramesses VI below workmen’s huts (top) and entrance to the Tomb of Tutankhamun (bottom)

The most famous archaeological discovery of all time took place in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, uncovered by the British Egyptologist Howard Carter and his patron excavator and collector the Earl of Carnarvon (1866–1923).* Often forgotten are events leading up to the discovery of The Tomb of Tutankhamun. What was
presented to the public in 1922 was sensational, but not all had been smooth sailing. Some troubling circumstances were associated with Carter’s work in Egypt. A few compelling intrigues were to arise before the great find. The field of Archaeology was not free of duplicity and confrontations. All was not just finding great treasure. His eventful ascendancy to archaeological fame is fascinating as summarized in this all too brief account.

Howard Carter (1874–1939): The Early Years

The tomb’s famous excavator was born in Kensington, England in 1874, the youngest of a family of ten sons and one daughter. A youth of delicate health, he was encouraged at an early age to draw. He inherited promising, artistic skills from his father the animal painter Samuel John Carter, a well known and established artist, whose work appeared in the Illustrated London News. This talent was to launch and secure his later archaeological achievements. As a young man he had the good fortune to work with some of the giants in Egyptology in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Carter’s education seems to have been modest. But he was good at math, a skill which was to prove invaluable. Although he was mostly brought up in the country in a family that did not travel, he was able to further his education in the Egyptian galleries at the British Museum. There, he studied the MSS and drawings of Egypt by the Scottish antiquarian Robert Hay (1799–1863). Also, he had been inspired by visits to the important Amherst Egyptian collection amassed by William Amhurst Tyssen-Amherst and was greatly assisted by a letter of introduction by Amherst’s wife, so impressed by his artistic skills. As a result, Carter landed in Egypt in 1891 to become a member of the English Egyptologist Percy Newberry (1869–1949) excavation at the tomb site at Beni Hasan.

Before the Greatest Discovery

At age seventeen, Carter was on his way. He arrived at the dig and no doubt was assigned to trace tomb scenes and inscriptions, later being inked-in for publication plates. The next year, we find him using his math skills surveying and mapping under the watchful eye of the renown British Egyptologist Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) at Tell el-Amarna, the site of the famous, so-called, heretic pharaoh Akhenaten.(1379-1362 BC). What a privilege for a talented beginner, one who had applied his artistic talents and could now speak Arabic. From these archaeological opportunities began his life’s focus—Egypt.

Howard Carter

Howard Carter as a young man

Then, from 1893-1899, Carter applied himself as a draftsman for the Swiss Egyptologist and Biblical scholar Henri Édouard Naville (1844-1926) at Deir el-Bahri, during his excavation of the Temple of Hatshepsut near the Valley of the Kings. Carter produced drawings of such outstanding quality and accuracy they appeared in the resultant, six-volume, excavation publication (see frontis-piece). He was privileged to have become part of the Archaeological Survey of Egypt, due to his skill as an artist and draftsman. It was not long before he became a proficient excavator and epigrapher in his own right.

An important appointment came his way in 1899, at age 25. He was given the post of Chief Inspector of the Antiquities Service of Upper Egypt, under Gaston Maspero, the respected French Egyptologist and Director-General of the Antiquities Service of the Egyptian Government. Maspero watched over monuments,
granted permits for excavations and many others concerns, over Egypt.

From 1902, among a host of other responsibilities, he organized and supervised the excavations sponsored by the American business man Theodore M. Davis (1837-1915), financial supporter for excavating important royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

But intrigues were brewing. That same year, Carter was falsely accused by a disgruntled antiquities dealer at Luxor of unprofessional dealings. The dealer attempted to throw a blanket of suspicion on him by statements of compliances with other antiquity dealers and local tomb robbers. He also charged Carter with illegally abetting E. Wallis Budge, British Museum Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities, who actively sought in various ways Egyptian antiquities for his Museum collection. Although his career was in jeopardy, he was exonerated by a sympathetic Maspero, who trusted and stood by him. Carter could continue his duties of overseeing the conservation and restoration of temples at Kom Ombo, and Edfu, Philae, Ramesseum, etc.

The French Dispute at Saqqara

Step Pyramid

The Step Pyramid of King Zozer at Saqqara.

But more scandal loomed on the horizon in 1905. It was to be sweet yet sour affair. In 1904, he had been made Chief Inspector of Lower Egypt, a shift in place of operation from Luxor to headquarters at Saqqara. This meant he had to leave his well known haunts of eleven years at Luxor and the Theban area in Upper Egypt and assume duties in Cairo. Carter felt it good to have a change. Alas, the feeling did not last long.

According to his own account of the episode, some rowdy, drunken Frenchmen caused a commotion at Flinders Petrie’s wife Hilda’s huts at the Saqqara necropolis. Reportedly they also broke up furniture at the nearby Antiquity Service’s rest-house house. Then, they asked to see the tombs. The ticket-inspector insisted they buy tickets of entry, whereby some paid for tickets and other did not.

The party forced entry, causing damage and demanded candles so they could see the interior, but were told no candles were supplied to visitors. When they demanded the return of their money, a nasty, bloody altercation took place with local inspectors and guards. The French party barricaded themselves inside the rest house.

Carter was summoned to quell the dispute. Upon arrival he was confronted by great incivility and obstinacy and ordered the group to leave. They took flight, not without leaving a few guards badly injured. It seems Carter’s mistake had been to give orders to his site guards to protect themselves. Carter asked Maspero to take legal steps against them. However, there was the French version of the event to consider. They presented a less violent account. The Cairo newspapers had their French and British versions, reflecting the cultural differences. Neither side would give in. Stubbornly, Carter held his ground on principle, even against the prudent advice of colleagues and friends for a change in attitude. Much was at stake. The situation did seem a governmental thing between the British and French. His dignity
and honor bruised, a stubborn Carter might have to resign his post. Fortunately, the affair was settled by diplomacy and Maspero did not seek his resignation.

A Reassignment

Tea Time

Time out for tea with visitors at the Luxor Hotel

But in the same year came another change. He was re-assignedand sent from Cairo headquarters to a far less important post at Tanta in the Delta, 80 miles north of Cairo. Carter felt humiliated, having been accused of lacking international courtesy. For a while he would miss interacting and mingling with distinguished visitors and other notables as he had been accustomed. It was too much his being so isolated.

Also in 1905, he resigned his post and left the Antiquities Service, disappointed by the Saqqara outcome and Spartan conditions in Tanta. By 1906, he was back in Cairo and Luxor, but this time as a free-lancer, seeking employment with a steady income. There had been highs of discovery and lows of dis-appointment. Now, he might regain, too, his share of lunches, dinners and afternoon teas with distinguished visitors and dignitaries. After all, he was in his former social and archaeological milieu, which offered opportunities for buying and selling antiquities as well. This would occupy him for four years. A turn for the better was just around the pyramids.

A Fated Partnership

The arrival of the Earl of Carnarvon on the scene was to change his life. Lord Carnarvon, an amateur, who had an avid interest in Egypt and was keen to excavate there. He successfully persuaded Maspero to grant him a concession to dig in Thebes. But Carnarvon‘s first two seasons were disappointing. He needed a trained person to help him. Fate was to have its way.

Lord Carnarvon

Lord Carnarvon relaxing

In 1909, Carter joined him for his third season. It was well known Carter was a fine artist, excellent organizer and excavator, and had especially good relations with local villagers. This was another stroke of good fortune for Carter, who now had a salaried position and excavations to look forward to. The partnership was sound. Several sites were excavated, always with great care and diligence as Carter had much experience under his belt. After all, in his career he had discovered some six royal tombs, including that of the greatest tomb.

The outcome of various excavation attempts, which at first seemed promising to Carter, resulted only in a few good, but mostly modest finds. Therefore, their attention turned toward the Valley of the Kings concession. Another stroke of luck was to come their way. In 1914, Theodore M. Davis, who was now 77 and ill, gave up his concession in the Valley of the Kings!

World War I (1914–1919) was in progress and Carnarvon had returned to England for its duration. During the war years another shift came. In 1915, Carter became associated with the Intelligence Department of the War Office, probably due to his knowledge of Arabic and ease with locals. He had no military rank. and to him unrewarding tasks. Ever resourceful, he bought up bargains in antiquities, which came easy to him. He also became an agent for museums and again for private individuals. Agreements were struck with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and other institutions wanting to enrich their ancient Egyptian holdings.

A Trip Home

Although the war had kept an ailing Carnarvon in England, he continued to support Carter’s explorations to find a site worth full attention. In 1919, a visit back home to England to visit his mother, family and friends, did Carter a world of good. It also took him to Highclere Castle, Carnaron’s home, where he catalogued Carnarvon’s collection and prepared exhibit cases. Off and on from 1919 to 1922, Carter had home visits. During this time he became involved with auction houses such as Sotheby’s in London and its important sales of antiquities, including the collection of his friends the Amhersts. These activities were associated with his role as an agent for building museum acquisitions.

The Greatest Discovery


The first view of the Antechamber

In January 1922, Carter was again back in Egypt. In February, Carnarvon arrived in Egypt and joined him for excavations in the Valley of the Kings. But after another disappointing season Carnarvon returned to England. They had been bent on finding the tomb of a little known pharaoh named Tutankhamun as the result of a find in 1909 by Theodore M. Davis. Davis had uncovered a couple of objects inscribed with the pharaoh’s name. Carter believed the king’s true tomb was yet to be found, a quest which became a fixation in his mind. But Carnarvon had different thoughts and by then wanted to abandon the Valley, believing it a fruitless task. Carter persisted and it was agreed to one more season to dig away a pile of untouched rubble to the rock bed Carter had set his sights on. Surely it would yield a tomb. The uncleared area was just below the entrance to the Tomb of Ramesses VI!

On November 1, 1922, clearing began. On November 4, the first blocked entrance with the king’s seal was discovered. On November 6, Carter sent a cable
to Carnarvon in England announcing the extraordinary discovery, stating the entrance would be recovered until his return. On November 24, it was reopened and the floor to ceiling rubble was cleared to the second blocked doorway. There, on Novermber 16, Carter carefully broke a hole into the Antechamber. While peering throughthe hole, Carnarvon eagerly asked, “Can you see anything?” Carter replied with his famous, often quoted, “Yes, wonderful things.” From that moment on the story of ancient Egypt would never be the same.

Plan of the tomb

Plan of the tomb

Selected Reading

Howard Carter, The Tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amen: Discovered by the Late Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter, vol. I., New York 1927.

Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt, Life and Death of a Pharaoh Tutankhamen, New York 1963.

T.G.H. James, 2nd edition, Howard Carter. The Path to Tutankhamun, London 2001.

C.N. Reeves, Anicent Egypt at Highclere Castle, Highclere 1980

Nicholas Reeves and John Taylor, Howard carter before Tutankhamun, London 1992.

Nicholas Reeves, The Complete Tutankhamun, New York 1995.

Treasures of Tutankhamun, The Trustees of the British Museum, The Times and the Sunday Times, 1972


This article has been adapted from a booklet prepared for a tour, co-sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America/East Tennessee Society and the McClung Museum, to the Atlanta Civic Center, Atlanta, Georgia, November 22, 2008, to see the travelling exhibition Tutankhamun the Golden King and the Great Pharaohs.