Finding Tutankhamun: Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon and “the greatest find ever made”

By Murray Dahm

November 26, 1922: archaeologist Howard Carter, accompanied by his sponsor Lord Carnarvon, have made their way down a staircase cut into the bedrock in The Valley of the Kings, Egypt. Along a passageway is a door leading to a previously unknown tomb, that of the pharaoh Tutankhamun. Making a small opening in the top left of the doorway to the tomb, Carter peers in, his only light that provided by a single candle: Lord Carnavon: “Can you see anything?” Carter: “Yes, wonderful things!”


Howard Carter in 1924

Born in 1874, Howard Carter was the youngest of eleven children. Near where he spent much of his childhood, in Swaffham, Norfolk, Didlington Hall contained a large collection of Egyptian antiquities. These sparked Carter’s interest in all things Egyptian. In 1891, Lady Amherst (of Didlington Hall) arranged through The Egypt Exploration Fund that Carter (at the age of seventeen) would accompany Percy Newberry to the excavation of Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt as a ‘tracer’ artist to record the finds.


In 1892 Carter found himself mentored by the great archaeologist Flinders Petrie at Amarna, capital of the pharaoh (and possibly Tutankhamun’s father) Akhenaten. From 1894-1899, Carter recorded the finds at Deir el-Bahari as both artist and photographer, especially the temple of Hatshepsut. In 1900, Carter was appointed chief inspector of antiquities for Upper Egypt by the Egyptian Antiquities Service at the young age of only twenty-six. Based at Luxor, Carter therefore oversaw excavations at Thebes and in the Valley of the Kings. In his time, he instituted more systematic, exacting and scientific methods of recording sites and the grid method of recording tombs. His appointment was not without controversy, however, and in 1904 he was transferred to the Inspectorate of Lower Egypt, but 1905 saw his resignation over ‘the Saqqara Affair’ (when Carter sided with Egyptian authorities over a violent altercation between guards and a group of French tourists). Carter made a living, until 1907, selling watercolours and acting as a freelance artist to other excavations.


Carter and Lord Carnarvon at King Titankhamun's tomb

Lord Carnarvon

In 1907, Carter was employed by George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon (and better known as Lord Carnarvon). Carnarvon had married into the Rothschild banking family in 1894 and was thus exceedingly wealthy. This money went first into race-horses, then motorcars and, after a car accident in 1903, into Egyptology. Advised he should spend his winters away from the cold of England for his health, Lord and Lady Carnarvon spent those months in Egypt from that year onwards. He became a keen amateur Egyptologist and began to sponsor excavations. In 1907 he undertook to fund the excavations of tombs at Deir el-Bahari, employing Carter to lead the excavation. This was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship (although not without its tensions and drama). In 1912 the pair published Five years’ explorations at Thebes recording their work from 1907-1911.


In 1914, Lord Carnarvon received the concession to dig in the Valley of the Kings (the previous holder, the American lawyer and archaeologist Theodore Davis (with whom Carter had worked) had not renewed his concession when it lapsed due to health reasons). Davis had dug in the Valley of the Kings since 1902, discovering and excavating many tombs, and had declared that the valley was exhausted (he had ended his diggings only two metres from the entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb, KV62). Howard’s eventual discovery of the tomb would prove Davis’ assessment entirely wrong.


The Valley of the Kings


The Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt

As he had at Thebes, Carter would again lead Lord Carnarvon’s expedition in the Valley of the Kings; the project was designed to check previous excavations and look for any tombs which may have been missed. It was to prove frustratingly unproductive work for several years, almost to the point of giving up. Work broke off due to the outbreak of World War One in 1914 (Egypt was a British Colony at that time, occupied by Britain since 1882), but resumed in 1917. By 1922, however, very little had been found and Lord Carnarvon declared that it would be the last year of the excavation.


Egypt in World War One

Egypt was used as a staging post for British troops in the Middle East and Mediterranean (especially before the Gallipoli campaign in 1915) and was of vital strategic value due to the Suez Canal. Hundreds of thousands of colonial troops from India, Australia and New Zealand arrived via the Suez before campaigning in the Middle East or embarking for the Western Front. Egypt was also a convalescence station and Egyptian hospitals were placed at the disposal of British and colonial troops. Egypt had been occupied by the British since 1882 but this was an unofficial occupation; Egypt was still, technically, an Ottoman province. Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire November 5, 1914, and this was followed by a formalising of her occupation, declaring a Protectorate on December 18. The Khedive of Egypt, Abbas Hilmi II, was deposed and Prince Hussein Kamel Pasha was made Sultan of Egypt. Egypt was compared to a military base and cities were fortified as it was feared the country would be invaded by Axis powers, especially the Ottoman Turks or the powerful German navy, in order to seize the Suez Canal. 30,000 troops had been stationed there by the end of 1914. The Turks launched their expected attack in February, 1915, but it was repulsed. The Turks then turned to supporting Senussi tribesmen in their revolt against British rule, but this too was put down. Advances made by the Allies, especially the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, to push the Turks out of the Sinai Peninsula meant any further Turkish attempt on the canal was impossible by August 1916. The Sinai was secured in December 1916, and this allowed a resumption of archaeological digs in Egypt in 1917, despite the ongoing war.


Carter began 1922 by clearing some huts and the stone underneath them from an earlier excavation and, on November 4, 1922, a worker tripped on the top of a stone staircase cut into the rock, one that descended to an undiscovered tomb. The stairway was cleared and a still-sealed and unbroken door was discovered. Carter had the stairway refilled and sent a telegram to Lord Carnarvon, advising him of the discovery: “At last we have made wonderful discovery in Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; re-covered same for your arrival; congratulations”


In his diary, Carter wrote somewhat more mundanely “Discovered tomb under tomb of Ramsses VI investigated same & found seals intact.” This entry does not reflect the excitement which soon seized Egypt, England and the world.


Carter, Lord Carnarvon and Lady Evelyb Herbert at the tomb

Carnarvon, accompanied by his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, travelled immediately to Egypt and arrived only three weeks later. The stairway was re-cleared in their presence on November 24. The cartouche of Tutankhamun was found on the doorway and, when this was cleared, a rubble-filled passageway led to another doorway, the door to the tomb itself, which was also intact. A small opening was made in the top left of the doorway and Carter peered through. This led to the now famous exchange.


The tomb was then resealed and it was intended that the tomb would be officially opened in the presence of a member of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities on the following day. On the night of November 26, however, Carter, his assistant Arthur ‘Pecky’ Callender, Lord Carnarvon and his daughter, entered the tomb. Accounts differ, but they may have entered the burial chamber as well (Carnarvon later mentions looking forward to “peeping” into the chamber although Lady Evelyn recalled that they entered a “second chamber”).


On the morning of November 27, the tomb was officially opened in the presence of a representative from the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. Carter brought in a rig for electric lighting and this revealed the vast treasure, some 5,000 items. Lord Carnarvon wrote to the great Egyptologist, Sir Alan Gardiner, on November 28 describing the finds and stating that there was enough to fill the whole Egyptian section of the British Museum. He surmised, perhaps egotistically, but not inaccurately that “I imagine it is the greatest find ever made.”


Thereafter, security was tight and up to 30 soldiers and police patrolled the site. The tomb was opened to other visiting dignitaries on November 29; the inner burial chamber was only opened on February 16, 1923, again in the presence of Lord Carnarvon (who had returned to England and then come back to Egypt in the interim). Inside was, perhaps the most spectacular find of all, the gold encased mummy of Tutankhamun. Tutankhamun’s tomb was virtually intact and now completely excavated (although fully cataloguing and caring for the finds would take years). In the century since, the wonder, wealth and significance of the rediscovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb has never been out of sight.


Further Reading

• T.G.H. James Howard Carter: The Path to Tutankhamun (London: Kegan Paul ,1992).

• H.V.F. Winstone Howard Carter: and the Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun (London: Constable, 1991).

1 comment

Good publication. Quite interesting!


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