Unmasking Howard Carter – the man who found Tutankhamun

A century after the discovery that would captivate the world, the British archaeologist at the centre of the find remains an enigmatic figure – much like the pharaoh himself.

Howard Carter at work on the second coffin of a nested three in the burial chamber of Tutankhamun, 1925.  

Photograph by Harry Burton / Alamy
By Simon Ingram
Published 19 Oct 2022, 16:30 BST

THE MOMENT Howard Carter was assured everlasting fame can be pinpointed to five syllables, uttered breathlessly in a hot, dusty tunnel outside Luxor at around 2pm on 26 November 1922. The British Egyptologist had just made a small hole with an iron spike through the top left corner of a wall of ancient mortar. His hands shook; The wall was in fact a door, bearing the funerary seal of the pharaoh Tutankhamun.

Carter waited for the foetid flow of warm air to disperse from the hole before inserting a candle and peering in after it. It was the first light to fall on the room that lay beyond for over 3,200 years – and Carter’s the first gaze. He remained silent as he watched the candle dance over glimmers of gold in the dark. Then came a question from his companion, George Herbert: “Can you see anything?”
“Yes,” Carter replied. “Wonderful things.”

Both the scene and the soundbite are the stuff of historical gold, in every sense. But for many, the discovery of KV62 – otherwise known as the resplendently intact tomb of the boy king Tutankhamun – is also where the story of Egyptology’s most famous excavator begins, and ends. A century after the find that would change history, the story of Howard Carter himself remains peculiarly obscure – a slight picture of a gifted but polarising individual.

Howard Carter in his late twenties, taken in approximately 1903 during his employ for the Egyptian ...

Howard Carter in his late twenties, taken in approximately 1903 during his employ for the Egyptian Antiquities Service.  

Photograph by Alamy

Inspiration close to home 

Born in Kensington in 1874, Howard Carter was from a generational family of artists who worked around the Norfolk town of Swaffham. His father Samuel John had relocated to London and become a modestly successful painter of rural pursuits and animals. Art was a talent exhibited by several of the future Egyptologist’s siblings, as well as Howard himself.

The youngest of eleven children, three of whom died in infancy, as a child he too was considered ominously sickly – enough for his parents to move his upringing from London to Norfolk, where he was raised largely by a nurse in the family’s Swaffham home. 

There young Howard spent much of his childhood, nurturing a love of nature. His official education was obscure, and probably took place at a ‘dame school’ – a kind of informal facility run by local women common in Victorian times. It was also evidently brief, with Carter noting in later life that he ‘earned a living from the age of fifteen.’

Learning artistic skills from his father, he was almost certainly destined to follow a similar path were it not for an acquaintance with the wealthy Amherst family – some of whom his father had been commissioned to paint. The Amherst home of Didlington Hall was a sprawling testament to the family’s enthusiasm for antiquities and artistic ephemera from Egypt, with which the young Carter became fascinated. This led to his intoxication with the country, and his first assignment there – as a junior draughtsman under the tutelage of archaeologist Percy Newberry – in 1890, at the age of 16. His first work was as a ‘tracer’ – inscription copier – at Newberry’s Beni Hasan digs.  

The site of the tomb's discovery in the Valley of the Kings, outside Luxor. The large ...

The site of the tomb's discovery in the Valley of the Kings, outside Luxor. The large opening in the picture's centre shows the entrance to the tomb of Ramses VI; the entrance to Tutankhamun's tomb lies beneath it to the right, beneath the site of worker's huts dating from the time of the grander, later tomb above.

Photograph by Harry Burton / Alamy
A cracked – but intact – seal, one of many found throughout Tutankhamun's tomb, November 1922. ...

A cracked – but intact – seal, one of many found throughout Tutankhamun's tomb, November 1922. It is the necropolis seal, depicting the jackal god of the underworld, Anubis, watching over nine bound captives. The tomb had in fact been entered at some point in antiquity, evidence by a hole dug in the outer door, then re-covered. This outer door was stamped with the necropolis seal, with some featuring the cartouche containing the name of the king himself. The inner chambers containing the king's sarcophagus and treasury were undisturbed.

Photograph by Harry Burton / Alamy
Evelyn Herbert (far left), Lord Carnarvon, Howard Carter and Arthur Callander stand at the entrance to ...

Evelyn Herbert (far left), Lord Carnarvon, Howard Carter and Arthur Callander stand at the entrance to Tutankhamun's tomb, November 1922. Lady Evelyn was often in the company of her father in his Egyptian endeavours; she and Carter were apparently close, with rumours of a romance, which she later refuted. Biographer TGH James notes there was no evidence Carter formed any significant personal relationships throughout his life. 

Photograph by Harry Burton / Alamy

Later basing himself seasonally in Luxor, Carter would rapidly galvanise his reputation with a role in the Egyptian Antiquities Service and through his work as a documentarian, a skilled epigraph artist, and his handling of the more practical aspects of excavation. Working under the wings of archaeologists such as Flinders Petrie, Edouard Naville and Theodore M. Davis, Carter made several significant early finds, including the tombs of Thutmose IV and Hatshepsut – the latter, in 1903 within chamber KV60 in the Valley of the Kings, yielding a mummy many today believe to be the great queen herself. His work, even then, was that of a methodical and tenacious excavator.

“Personally, I view Carter as a game changer in Egyptian history,” says Nora Shawki, an Egyptian archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer. “His qualifications were debatable, [and he was] initially commissioned as a site artist for an archaeologist. But his methods were extremely detailed and meticulous, and his documentation in his journals extraordinary. They’re still helpful to modern day archaeologists.”

Committed, loner

As to Howard Carter’s personality, what records there are paint a sometimes austere picture of the world’s most famous – yet curiously uncelebrated – archaeologist. He lived as a bachelor in a series of cavernous desert properties, was fond of cigars and whisky, kept pets including a series of dogs, a gazelle and a canary, and owned a horse named Sultan. He spent time with his siblings and their families, though never married or had children.

His early career in Egypt was notable for the odd professional skirmish, notably the ‘Saqqara Affair’ in 1904 – a well-publicised clash between Egyptian tomb sentries and allegedly drunk French tourists. While crotchety relations in the murderous heat and bureaucratic quagmire of Egyptology were common, Carter did seem to have a knack for finding himself in conflict.

Carter reputedly modelled his sartorial style of practically battered suit and trilby after his financier, George ...

Carter reputedly modelled his sartorial style of practically battered suit and trilby after his financier, George Herbert (left) – also known as Lord Carnarvon. 

Photograph by Alamy Stock Photo

In his scholarly 1992 biopic of Carter, TGH James – a former Keeper of Antiquities of the British Museum – described him as a man of ‘uncertain temper and generally unforgiving nature,’ and this did seem to impact his professional relations. Following Saqqara – for which Carter was criticised for supporting the guards, suggesting a principled nature – he resigned from the Egyptian Antiquities Service in 1905. Remaining in Luxor, Carter painted for tourists and undertook the occasional archaeological commission.

A turning point came in 1907, when he formed an alliance with George Herbert, otherwise known as the 5th Earl of Carnarvon – a socialite, aristocrat and enthusiast of all things Egypt. In Carter, Carnarvon found his ‘man’ in Luxor; in Carnarvon, Carter found a financier.

With the departure of an ailing Theodore M. Davis in 1914, Carnarvon had bagged the coveted concession to dig in the Valley of the Kings. World War One saw Carter remain in Egypt, engaging in intermittent service in intelligence as a translator, and communications courier. There then followed four years of systematic searching for a tomb of an obscure pharaoh named ‘Tut.ankh.amen’ which, from pottery fragments bearing his name found in 1909, Carter was doggedly convinced lay unfound. This fruitless but persistent searching would have enough to sear both Carter and Carnarvon’s names as a footnote into the history of Egyptology. As history proved, their discovery in November 1922 would grant them worldwide fame.

Everywhere the glint of gold

Tutankhamun himself was a brief and largely unremarkable leader. As such – relatively speaking – he had a rather poky tomb that bore all the hallmarks of a hasty and unexpected burial, interred as he was at the age of 19. But the level of decadence given even to this pharaoh in death hinted at what might have been bestowed on grander leaders – Rameses II, say – whose cavernous tombs were emptied by thieves centuries before archaeologists came looking.

Carter at work with Arthur Callander (left) on the door to the sepulchral (burial) chamber, 1923.

Carter at work with Arthur Callander (left) on the door to the sepulchral (burial) chamber, 1923.

Photograph by Harry Burton / Alamy
The antechamber was the first room of the tomb proper to be opened by Carter's team ...

The antechamber was the first room of the tomb proper to be opened by Carter's team – containing the 'wonderful things' of his memorable quote. 

Photograph by Harry Burton / Alamy
The treasury, adjacent to the burial chamber with its enormous sarcophagi, contained some of the tomb's ...

The treasury, adjacent to the burial chamber with its enormous sarcophagi, contained some of the tomb's most enigmatic objects. These including the canopic shrine, at the rear of this image, protected by the four female divinities and containing the alabaster canopic jars containing the deceased king's organs. Also pictured is the jackal-formed Anubis shrine, which was thought to have been used during the funeral procession, and was intended to protect the king's resting place.  

Photograph by Harry Burton / Alamy

It would be these unprecedented treasures, Carter’s ‘strange and wonderful medley of extraordinary and beautiful objects heaped upon one another,’ that would captivate the world. He would later famously write of that first vision, ‘details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold… everywhere the glint of gold.‘

Stocked as it was with provisions to allow Tutankhamun to continue a lively and privileged existence in death, the time-capsule tomb turned our shadowy knowledge of ancient Egyptian life into technicolour. From burial customs and offerings, to armaments, to the domestic minutiae of everyday life, the tomb at a stroke became a repository of knowledge Carter and his team would spend over a decade documenting.      

Carter’s accounts of the find are today held by the Griffith Institute of the University of Oxford, to whom they were bequeathed by Carter’s niece, Phyllis Walker. Carter’s detailed journal and diary entries, speckled frequently with biblical passages, chronicled the many preservation issues he encountered and the sometimes quirky ways he tackled them. These include placing the king’s mummy, still in its coffin, in the Luxor sun for a few hours in an unsuccessful attempt to soften the ‘pitch-like material’ Carter found had stuck one to the other, and using a hot knife to separate the mummy’s head from the funeral mask as the alternative to a ‘hammer and chisel’.

A painting depicting the removal of treasures from the tomb – including an opulent couch decorated with depictions of sacred bulls – from 1923. The discovery of the tomb caused no small amount of diplomatic crises, with the excavation dogged by conflicting parties claiming authority over the dig, and an exclusive press deal orchestrated by Lord Carnarvon with The Times of London which restricted coverage of the find.  

Photograph by Hirarchivum Press / Alamy

More difficult to detect in Carter’s writing is evidence of the man himself. Daniela Rosenow is co-curator of the Griffith Institute’s Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive exhibition to mark the 100th anniversary of the tomb’s discovery. “What we have is an excavation diary – you won’t find feelings,” Rosenow tells National Geographic (UK). “I have worked on excavations myself for 20 years, and you don’t put in those diaries, ‘I wasn’t feeling well today.’ You say what happened on the excavation. So it is quite hard to get a sense of the man.”

Examining the diaries, which have been digitised, whenever Carter’s tightly-florid handwriting begins drifting into more ruminative thoughts (‘It is astonishing when one thinks…’, ‘One begins to realise…’) the entries are revisited with a sharp crossing out, as if such colourful speculations were a distraction from the job in hand. The moment the team uncovered the breathtaking funeral mask of Tutankhamun is described crisply: “A very neatly wrapped mummy of the young king, with golden mask of sad but tranquil expression, symbolising Osiris” – but Carter allows himself a brief drift into profundity: ”The similitude of the youthful Tut.Ankh.Amen, until now known only by name, amid that sepulchral silence, made us realise the past.”

Carter's house in the desert, nicknamed 'Castle Carter', at Elwat el-Diban, Luxor. Built in 1911 and close to the Valley of the Kings, Carter lived here or at a house in Medinet Habu, Western Thebes for most of his tenure in Egypt.

Photograph by DE ROCKER / Alamy

The interior of the house has been turned into a museum preserving it in state as it was when Carter lived there; there is also a replica of the tomb in the gardens. 

Photograph by Mike P Shepherd / Alamy

Carter's correspondence, diagrams and images of the tomb's discovery taken by photographer Harry Burton remain the best source of insight into Carter's personality. Most are held today by the Griffith Institute at Oxford University. 

Photograph by Martin Norris Travel Photography 2 / Alamy

Rosenow indicates Carter’s elegant sketches from the autopsy of Tutankhamun’s mummy are ‘probably my favourite objects…. They are stunning. He really was a talented artist, and he had a deep appreciation for the ancient Egyptian art and culture.” It's telling the mummy was not accessed, nor the sketches made, until October 1925, almost three years after the tomb's discovery – an indication as to the scale of the task.     

Fame, infamy, obscurity

In captivating the world with their discovery, Carter and Carnarvon would inadvertently gather global profile for an already well-established cliché: that of the inbound, trilby-and-linen-clad scholar, powered by aristocratic wealth, marshalling anonymous local labour on an excavation pored over by a grasping foreign media. But in this, Carter was hardly the first – merely the most emblematic. “In Egypt, he’s not particularly viewed as a hero; more a colonialist who discovered a tomb and sparked Egyptomania abroad,” says Nora Shawki, though adds that “the stereotypes regarding male archaeologists in the field were not solely created by him. And he did indeed pave the way for future scientists.”

The publicity accorded to Tutankhamun’s discovery also highlighted the value of diverse skills in archaeology – widening the opportunities for less represented talents in preservation, art, logistics and study. As Shawki says, “following Carter’s work, females did in fact get commissioned to work behind the scenes, and are apparent in journal entries and publications — as artists, analysts, epigraphists.” 

Daniela Rosenow also underlines that Carter’s documentation of the tomb was far from a one-man job – a fact corroborated by his diaries, which namecheck those others present, sometimes exhaustively, though not always entirely. “It was a team effort,” she says, “and a large team – people with special expertise that produced many different kinds of documents. And let’s not forget, it didn’t need to be excavated. It was a tomb with 5,000 objects inside it. But that doesn’t mean it was easy. It took 10 years.”

Tutankhamun's astonishing innermost coffin is made of solid gold. The treasure – which contained the king's mummy and death mask – alone weighs 110kg. 

Photograph by Kenneth Garret

The golden detail of Tutankhamun's throne, depicting the king being massaged by his consort. 

Photograph by Kenneth Garrett

Tutankhamun's mummy remains at rest in his tomb, within a humidity controlled stone sarcophagus. The original outermost coffin pictured here wqs transferred to Cairo in 2019 for restoration and display at the Grand Egyptian Museum, where the three coffins of Tutankhamun will be displayed together for the first time since their discovery. 

Photograph by Kenneth Garrett

This notwithstanding, other than Carter, Carnarvon and perhaps photographer Harry Burton, few names instrumental with the discovery are remembered today. Not Arthur Mace, an Egyptologist who assisted with the tomb’s cataloguing along with chemist Alfred Lucas and engineer Arthur Callender; Dr Mohamed Saleh Hamdi Bey, who performed the autopsy on Tutankhamun’s mummy; Carter’s Egyptian foreman, Reis Ahmed Gerigar. And the 12-year old water boy, unnamed by Carter, Hussein Abdel-Rassoul; the subject in a famous image Burton took of an Egyptian child wearing a necklace. It is widely written it was Abdel-Rassoul who found the first step to the tomb, though in a 1992 interview he appeared to remember the pivotal event otherwise. 

Those closest to the find are also associated with the infamous mystique that surrounds it. On 18 March 1923 Carnarvon travelled from Luxor to Cairo. During dinner with Egyptologist Alan Gardiner, he complained of a painful face – caused, he said, by an infected mosquito bite. Swiftly crippled with swollen glands and a temperature, the 56-year-old was soon exhibiting the symptoms of a bacterial infection called erysipelas, which progressed to probable sepsis, and pneumonia. He died in his hotel room in the early hours of 5 April.

Hussein Abdel-Rassoul, the 12 year-old water carrier who is often reported as the discoverer of the first step to the tomb on 9 November, 1922. 

Photograph by Harry Burton / Alamy

At the time of his death, it was reported that the lights went out in Cairo – and at home, in his grand family seat of Highclere Castle (of Downton Abbey fame), Carnarvon’s beloved dog died the same night – some have said the exact moment – of its owner.

Carnarvon’s health was at best fickle. He’d been the victim of one of the first car accidents, and was prone to lung infections. But nevertheless, speculation ran gleefully wild. The idea of the ‘curse’ of the pharaohs were not helped by prominent author and supernatural enthusiast Arthur Conan Doyle, who publicly blamed Carnarvon’s death on an ‘elemental’ spirit unleashed by the excavation. In any case, contrary to popular belief, no inscription specifically prophesising death to any interloper was ever found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

A sad success

As the man at the centre of the find, Carter’s own survival seems to dash any idea of a ‘curse’, though many might point out that he hardly lived long or happily enough to be considered a convincing riposte.

While sprinkled with a few honorary titles from various parts of the world, Carter received no royal or academic honours in the UK, and – according to TGH James – was curiously shunned by colleagues in Egyptology circles. This could have been due to his disagreeable manner, to snootiness at his lack of formal training – or else jealous resentment of his extraordinary find. “It… remains strange that the man who had made such a wonderful discovery and become so feted and favoured in other ways should have been passed over for formal honours,’ wrote James, later adding that the solitary Egyptologist’s life was one of ‘sad success.’

Left: Top:

Tutankhamun's mummy, which rests in the tomb to this day. The remains of Tutankhamun have been the source of fierce debate – with various theories as to the king's infirmity in life, and death at a young age. The mummy was already in poor condition when Carter's team examined it in 1925, and is thought to have been damaged by moisture and the leaking of resins from the coffins. 

Photograph by National Geographic Image Collection
Right: Bottom:

Howard Carter, photographed in 1923. Although he received honorary titles from various international institutions and enjoyed the patronage of dignitaries abroad, Carter was not formally honoured by his own country for the work he undertook excavating Tutankhamun.

Photograph by Alamy

In the aftermath of the tomb’s discovery, from his letters there was a clear closeness with Carnarvon’s daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, though no evidence it blossomed into romance, despite modern rumours; he enjoyed an active speaking career and was frequently a guest of royalty, though more so abroad than in Britain. Modelling his sartorial style on the late Carnarvon, with a Homburg hat and three-piece suit, Carter also capitalised on the surge in demand for Egyptian antiquities the tomb’s discovery had spurred by continuing to deal in their trade – an activity he had long been involved in.

But there was also a more doleful side to Carter’s later years. With his examination of Tutankhamun behind him and little likely to surpass it, Howard Carter’s later life was marred by a reported decline in curiosity and activity. One anecdote – recounted by TGH James – pictures the archaeologist haunting the entrance hall of Luxor’s Winter Palace Hotel ‘sunk in thought, and solitary… waiting like the Ancient Mariner to trap some visitor to whom he might talk.’

“I was interesting that a lot of people seem to feel he wasn’t treated well by the British public – or perhaps the upper classes,” says the Griffith Institute’s Rosenow. “I’m not British, I’m German, but my impression is that [British society] was very class-bound in these days. And Carter was clearly not from the upper classes.”

Carter in 1934, five years before his death from Hodgkinson's lymphoma. 

Photograph by Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy

Rosenow recounts a recent visit to the exhibition by some American tourists, who – shocked by Carter’s lack of a Knighthood, MBE, or similar during life – followed up with a ‘strong stance’ in writing that the archaeologist should receive a posthumous honour.

“He arrived in 1891 and discovered the tomb in 1922, roughly 30 years working in Egypt. And he was very lucky to learn from the best Egyptologists in the field,” she says. “But on paper you have a lack of academic skills, you don’t have a degree in archaeology, let alone Egyptology. And his whole upbringing maybe resulted in a lack of diplomacy... the kind of language where you learn how to negotiate your position. And it led to disputes with colleagues, with Egyptian authorities, with the media.”

Rosenow, adding that this was only her personal impression ‘having worked with the material, and spending weekends reading Carter biographies’ rather than evidence in the archive – suspects this may have accounted for any perceived flaws in Carter’s character. “I think maybe the expression in English is he had a chip on his shoulder.”

English Heritage's Blue Plaque program honoured Howard Carter with his in 1999 at the house at 19 Collingham Gardens, London, where Carter was born – though some feel the Egyptologist was a son of Swaffham in Norfolk, where he spent his formative years. He is otherwise largely uncelebrated. 

Photograph by Vindice / Alamy

A legacy laid to rest

Carter’s malaise in later years was likely to have been exacerbated by an illness, likely Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which eventually left him bed-ridden. He died on 2 March 1939, in his London flat, aged 64.

Odd for one so systematic in method, it emerged that Carter didn’t know his own age – and throughout his life quoted his date of birth as a year earlier than that on his birth certificate. Recollection seems to have been a weak point; Carter’s own memory proved to be imprecise at times in retelling the saga of the discovery, though it is thought never with the intent to mislead.

With photographer Harry Burton named as an executor of Carter’s estate, some minor controversy also followed his death when it emerged the late Egyptologist had in his possession several objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun which had been illicitly removed, either by Carter himself, or by someone else. Letters indicated that he had intended to give them up, but possibly due to bureaucratic hurdles, his alienation of influential contacts and any likely embarrassment – he had not gotten around to it. They were later returned to Egypt. More recent controversy suggests he gave some trinkets from the tomb as gifts. 

The iconic, 11kg funeral mask of Tutankhamun on display in the Cairo Museum in 2010. Tutankhamun's treasures will be the centrepiece of the Grand Egyptian Museum, due to open in 2022. 

Photograph by Kenneth Garret

Such is the mythologising of the tomb’s discovery – much like other famous verbal strides into immortality, by everyone from Neil Armstrong to Shakespeare – even that famous phrase might be misreported. Carter’s own notes of his words in the tunnel that day were ‘Yes, it is wonderful,’ later published as ‘yes, wonderful things,’ with other tellings recording it as the rather more preoccupied ‘there are some marvellous objects in here.’ Whatever the words, history would prove the utterance quite the understatement.

Given the opportunity to quiz the archaeologist about his legacy, Daniela Rosenow’s question would be simple: “I think maybe I would just ask him, ‘were you happy? With the fruits of your lifetime, did you find some satisfaction, a happy ending?’” She adds: “We clearly owe him this massive enthusiasm for Egyptology. For many, access to this fascination with Egypt starts with Tutankhamun.”  

If the new Grand Egyptian Museum opens as anticipated in Cairo in November, it will be exactly 100 years since Howard Carter opened the tomb for which he will be forever remembered. Those ‘wonderful things’ will be exhibited in their shimmering entirety as the extraordinary centrepiece of the largest archaeological museum in the world.

Meanwhile, the great discoverer himself is buried undramatically in Putney Vale cemetery in London. His own gravestone is only saved from what would be a rather ironic anonymity by being an intact and striking black granite – amongst so many other pale and crumbling tumbledown monuments.  

Discover more about Tutankhamun’s 100th Anniversary on 5 and 6 November. Tune in from 4pm on the National Geographic Channel.


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