The youngest son in an 11-child family, Howard Carter was born on May 9, 1874, in Brompton, Kensington, London. The Hamond family, the lords of the manor of Swaffham, employed his father, Samuel Carter, and his grandfather, Samuel Carter Senior, as gamekeepers on their estate. Howard developed an interest in sketching and painting because of his father and brother, William Carter, who were both artists.
As the weather in London didn’t suit him, Howard was transferred to live in Swaffham, a market town in Norfolk. Due to his ill health, he only had a meager formal education and was tutored at home privately. His father gave him drawing and painting lessons when he visited Swaffham frequently, laying the groundwork for his future careers as an artist and an archaeologist.
Howard Carter on the Road to Become an Archaeologist
Howard Carter’s exposure to the collection of Egyptian artifacts owned by the Amherst family from Didlington Hall, near Swaffham, was a significant event that stoked his interest in Egyptology. Carter became fascinated with ancient Egypt as a result of his many visits to the Egyptian section at the Hall.
Carter, who was only 17 years old and had never received professional archaeology instruction, went to Egypt in 1891 as an archaeological draftsman. Lady Amherst who admired his artistic abilities asked the Egyptian Exploration Fund (EEF) to send him to work with the Egyptologist Percy Newberry, a family friend. There, he contributed to the copying of inscriptions and artwork during the excavation of the Middle Kingdom tombs at Beni Hasan. Carter’s creative ability served him well throughout these early explorations.
Carter was offered the chance to work under the guidance of renowned archaeologist Flinders Petrie after his abilities drew his attention. Carter’s aptitude was initially questioned, but Petrie soon realized his promise as an archaeologist.
Working on numerous excavation sites over the years, like the Queen Hatshepsut temple, Tuthmosis IV’s tomb, and the cemetery of the eighteenth-dynasty queens, Carter improved his expertise. He established his value as an archaeologist and was subsequently chosen to serve as the Egyptian Antiquities Service’s Inspector of Monuments for Upper Egypt.
The Discovery of Tutankhamun’s Tomb
At the beginning of the 20th century, many scientists and archaeologists believed that the Valley of the Kings had already been fully excavated, leaving little hope for any sensational discoveries. However, Howard Carter held a different belief. He had an unwavering conviction that there was still something remarkable to be found in the Valley.
In 1907, Carter’s life took a significant turn when he met Lord Carnarvon (George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert), a wealthy nobleman and an amateur Egyptologist. Carter managed to convince Carnarvon that the tomb of an obscure Pharaoh named Tutankhamun was still waiting to be discovered in the Valley of the Kings. With Carnarvon’s financial support, Carter began his search for the elusive tomb.
For five years, Carter tirelessly pursued his excavation, but his efforts seemed fruitless. Many doubted his claims and Lord Carnarvon grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of results. However, the advent of the First World War in 1914 interrupted the work, and Carter spent the war years working in the diplomatic service. During this time, he worked as a courier and interpreter, but he was finally able to resume his normal activities at the end of 1917.
On November 4, 1922, Carter’s persistence paid off when his team discovered a flight of steps leading to a sealed doorway in the Valley of the Kings. Excitement filled the air as they realized they might be on the verge of a momentous find.
Finally, on November 26, 1922, Howard Carter entered the burial chamber of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. The sight that greeted him was nothing short of awe-inspiring. The tomb contained four chambers filled with an astonishing array of burial artifacts made of gold, precious stones, ebony, alabaster, and more.
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb stunned the world. The burial chamber contained a treasure trove of jewelry, cult objects, amulets, chests, chairs, weapons, musical instruments, royal insignias, and, most significantly, the iconic death mask on the face of the mummy. The beauty and richness of the findings surpassed anything previously seen, and it reignited global fascination with ancient Egypt.
Howard Carter’s Life after the Tomb
Following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, Howard Carter’s life changed dramatically. The world’s attention turned to the excavation site, and Carter became a celebrated figure in the field of archaeology.
Carter’s work continued as he cataloged and preserved the thousands of artifacts found in the tomb. This process took nearly a decade, and he ensured that each discovery was carefully documented and photographed. He worked with Albert Lythgoe, an American archaeologist, and others from the Metropolitan Museum’s excavation team, as well as analytical chemist Alfred Lucas.
The excavation also attracted significant media attention, with newspapers reporting the findings in detail. Carter’s work and his lectures on the excavation, delivered during his tours in Britain, France, Spain, and the United States, contributed to a wave of Egyptomania, with people around the world becoming enthralled with ancient Egypt.
Despite his notable accomplishments, Carter received no formal acknowledgment from the British government. In 1926, King Fuad I of Egypt awarded him the Order of the Nile, third class, and he got an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Yale University.
In 1929, Carter retired from excavation work. He continued to live in his house near Luxor in the winter and maintained a flat in London. However, as interest in Tutankhamun waned, he lived a relatively isolated life with few close friends.
Howard Carter’s reputation as an archaeologist remained intact, and he retained his passion for collecting antiquities. Unfortunately, he faced accusations of stealing artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb–new evidence emerged in 2022.
Carter’s health began to decline, and he succumbed to Hodgkin’s disease on March 2, 1939, at the age of 64, at his London flat. He was buried in Putney Vale Cemetery in London, with his gravestone bearing a quotation from the Wishing Cup of Tutankhamun.
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb has left an indelible mark on the field of Egyptology. Howard Carter’s legacy lives on through the treasures he unearthed and the insight he provided into the fascinating world of ancient Egypt.
I wanted to write an article about the first Queen of Egypt and it quickly became clear that I didn’t know enough to really understand what I was reading. The only thing I really know in this field is the story of Howard Carter’s discovery. So I wrote about that instead. I often make references to Ancient Egypt in my articles as a lot of inventions are that old, like when I wrote about concrete. I’m sure I’ll have more occasions to explore the subject.