When Lord Carnarvon met Howard Carter

The famous British archaeologist, Howard Carter, will forever be remembered as the man who found the ancient Egyptian tomb of King Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings.

As one of the most important discoveries in history, the tomb had remained largely intact for more than 3,000 years. The 1922 expedition unearthed the burial place of the young king.

© Sean M Smith / Shutterstock.com

Sometimes called King Tut, he was only nine years old when he ascended to the throne. During his short reign, he restored his nation’s traditional religion and art, which had been set aside by his predecessor, Akhenaten. Sadly, King Tut died suddenly, at the age of only 19.

When his tomb was finally discovered, most of the ancient Egyptian burial places had already been unearthed by archaeologists. It was considered such an important archaeological find because it had been unaccounted for, despite historians knowing of his existence.

Carter’s interest in archaeology

Carter was an eminent late 19th-century archaeologist and Egyptologist. Born in 1874, in Kensington, he spent most of his childhood in the market town of Swaffham in Norfolk.

His fascination with ancient Egypt was sparked by his visits to nearby Didlington Hall, home of the Amherst family, which contained a large collection of Egyptian artefacts. Mary Cecil, the 2nd Baroness Lady Amherst, was impressed by Carter’s interest. He was also a skilled artist, having been trained by his father, artist and illustrator Samuel Carter.

In 1891, the baroness, who was a charity worker and amateur archaeologist, took young Carter under her wing as her protégé. She decided he was an ideal choice to accompany the Amherst family’s friend, Percy Newberry, on an archaeological expedition to explore the Middle Kingdom tombs at Beni Hasan.

The Egypt Exploration Fund provided the money to send 17-year-old Carter to assist the dig. Initially, his artistic abilities led to his employment in copying the intricate tomb decorations. This sparked his lifelong interest in Egyptian tombs.

As a result, he was appointed Inspector of Monuments for Upper Egypt in 1899, employed by the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Based at Luxor, he managed a number of excavations at nearby Thebes. He also supervised the exploration of the Valley of the Kings by Theodore Davis, an American archaeologist.

In 1904, Carter joined the Inspectorate of Lower Egypt, where he was praised for stepping up the protection of existing excavation sites, while also improving accessibility. He developed a grid-block system to assist when searching for tombs.

The Antiquities Service gave him funding so he could lead his own excavation projects. In 1905, he left the Antiquities Service and returned to Luxor. He became the freelance draughtsman to Davis.

Life-changing meeting

In 1907, something happened that was to change Carter’s life. The wealthy 5th Earl of Carnarvon, George Herbert, had begun taking a keen interest in the archaeological expeditions in Egypt after ill health led to his spending winters there with Lady Carnarvon.

He had inherited Derbyshire’s Bretby Hall estate from his maternal grandmother, the Dowager Countess of Chesterfield, Anne Elizabeth, in 1885. He then succeeded his father to the earldom in 1890. In 1895, his wealth was further boosted when he married into the millionaire banking family, the Rothschilds.

Lord Carnarvon spent his money on breeding racehorses and also became a racing car driver. However, a serious motor car accident in 1903, when still only 36, left him in poor health for the rest of his life. On medical advice, he had to find a warmer climate.

While in Egypt, he became a keen amateur Egyptologist, buying historic artefacts to ship back to the family collection in England. He also agreed to fund further excavations. In 1907, Lord Carnarvon announced he was to sponsor a dig of several tombs in Deir el-Bahri.

Soon afterwards, a historic meeting took place that led to arguably the most ground-breaking discovery in history. Gaston Maspero, director of the Egyptian Antiquities Department, had recommended Carter to lead the new expedition. When Lord Carnarvon met Howard Carter, he was impressed by his knowledge and enthusiasm.

Their working relationship was productive and in 1912, Carnarvon published a factual book, Five Years’ Exploration at Thebes, which he co-wrote with Carter. It described their various excavations, as the British public had a thirst for knowledge of the ancient Egyptians.

How was Tutankhamun’s tomb found?

In 1914, Davis resigned from the Valley of the Kings. Lord Carnarvon appeared to be his natural successor and received the concession to replace Davis. Carnarvon again appointed Carter to lead the work. They wished to carry out a systematic search of the area, looking for tombs missed by previous digs. In particular, they were searching for the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun.

The first world war interrupted the excavations, but late in 1917, work commenced once more. However, after five years, little of any significance had been unearthed. They began to wonder if they were wasting their time and Lord Carnarvon decided this was to be the final year he would pay for the digs.

On 4th November 1922, Carter struck gold. Out of the blue, after five fruitless years, he sent a telegram to Lord Carnarvon, who was in England at the time, saying: “At last, we have made wonderful discovery in Valley; a magnificent tomb, with seals intact!”

Congratulating Carnarvon, Carter said he awaited his arrival. Carnarvon went back to Egypt to accompany Carter on the excavation of the chambers of the tomb on 26th November 1922. As they began exploring King Tutankhamun’s tomb, they realised the true magnitude of their discovery. The interior chambers of the tomb were intact and housed an amazing collection of thousands of objects.

What artefacts were found?

The tomb contained more than 2,000 artefacts, including many valuable antiques and Tutankhamun’s famous gold mask. Carter described it as an “astonishing sight” that appeared to be a “solid wall of gold” when they first entered. This was just the Great Shrine before they even reached the burial chamber.

It took several years to explore all of the rooms. The most fascinating discovery was a stone sarcophagus containing a solid gold coffin, where the mummified body of King Tutankhamen had been laid to rest.

In an age of newspaper and radio news, the amazing discovery created a sensation, with “Egypt-mania” sweeping the world. The gold and other riches of the tomb made it a most exciting discovery. Everyone was awestruck at the sheer quantity of precious materials.

King Tut’s life

While the treasures were fascinating to the public in the 1920s, the mummified body of King Tut was of more interest to 21st-century scientists, helping them to piece together his life and death.

His exact parentage was unknown, but his characteristics resembled those of another mummy, officially labelled “KV 55”, found in a different tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Some scholars believed KV 55 was the body of the King of Egypt, Smenkhkare.

Others thought it could be Akhenaten, another King of Egypt, who had established a new cult dedicated to the sun god, Aton, during his reign. It was King Tut who cast aside this sun cult and returned ancient Egypt to its old religion.

As a result of their discovery in 1922, Carter and Carnarvon became world-famous overnight. Sadly, Carnarvon didn’t live long enough to see the outcome of their expedition. He suffered a severe mosquito bite on 19th March 1923, which later became infected.

He died on 5th April, at the age of 56, at the Continental-Savoy Hotel, in Cairo, as a result of blood poisoning that led to pneumonia. Meanwhile, Carter capitalised on the heightened interest in Ancient Egypt to promote his books and lecture tours in the UK, Europe and America.

Top tourist attraction

King Tut’s tomb was soon one of Egypt’s top visitor attractions, welcoming up to 4,000 people a day in the 1980s. Most of the treasures are kept in Cairo Museum today, but tourists can also visit the tomb.

The unique find prompted a new interest in Ancient Egypt and contributed to our improved knowledge of the era and lifestyle. The memorable meeting between Carnarvon and Carter had far-reaching consequences that are still rippling into the 21st century.

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