Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon

This article takes a detailed look at Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon and their important relationship which led to arguably the greatest archaeological discovery of all time. The article begins by looking at how Carter and Carnarvon came to Egypt in the first place, before considering their exhaustive search for Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

Howard Carter

Early Life

Howard Carter was born in the affluent district of Kensington, London, in 1874; the son of the artist, Samuel John Carter, who was a well known animal painter. Samuel Carter worked for the Illustrated London News from 1867 to 1889 and was also a portrait painter during that time.

Mordaunt Bisset By Samuel John Carter

Mordaunt Fenwick-Bisset (1825-1884), Master of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, painted by Samuel John Carter

The young Howard followed in his father’s footsteps, showing artistic talent from an early age, which his father was quick to encourage. As a teenager, his ability as an artist had developed such that he was able to gain a commission and travel to Egypt, at the tender age of seventeen.

The reason that such an extraordinary opportunity was gifted to Carter at this early age, was in part due to his acquaintance with Lord and Lady Amherst, who lived in the stately home of Didlington Hall, near to the village where he grew up. The Amhersts owned one of the largest private collections of Ancient Egyptian antiquities in England, and they were able to arrange a meeting for Carter with the Egyptologist, Percy Edward Newberry. 

Having seen Carter’s artistic ability, Newberry commissioned him to help document tombs in Middle Egypt, where he began work tracing paintings at the Ancient Egyptian cemetery site of Berni Hasan. Before long, Carter had caught the eye of Flinders Petrie, the well known Egyptologist and archaeologist, who at that time was exploring the city of el-Amarna. 

Carter soon joined Petrie, a pioneer of systematic methodology in archaeology, who would play a significant role in his mentoring and training as an Egyptologist. It was under Petrie’s supervision that Carter learnt how to responsibly and systematically excavate a site. Incidentally, the city of el-Amarna was built by Tutankhamun’s father, Akhenaten, for his revolutionary religion that worshipped the sun-disk, Aten. It is quite likely that this was the first time that Carter became aware of the boy pharaoh.

By now Carter had become quite adept in improving the methods of copying tomb decorations and from 1894 to 1899, he worked with Édouard Naville at Deir el-Bahari, recording the wall reliefs in the temple of Hatshepsut. Unlike Petrie, the Swiss archaeologist had little regard for the detailed evidence to be found in the course of an excavation, being more concerned with the large scale clearance of sites and for this reason, he was often criticised by his peers. Certainly, Naville’s archaeological methods were in complete contrast to the painstaking detail and systematic methodology used by Carter himself later in his career.

Chief Inspector of Antiquities Services

In 1899, the 25-year-old Carter had become quite established as an archaeologist and was appointed Chief Inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Service for Upper Egypt. This was quite a responsible role for a man of his age, and he successfully supervised a number of excavations at Thebes. It was also during this period that Carter first came into contact with the wealthy American archaeologist, Theodore Monroe Davis, who had obtained the coveted licence to excavate in Western Thebes.

Davis enjoyed great success during his twelve years excavating in Thebes, discovering some 30 tombs in that time, which eventually included those of Horemheb and Queen Hatshepsut. He also financed a couple of excavations for Carter, who successfully looked for and then found the tomb of Thutmose IV. This was Carter’s greatest discovery to date and proved the grid-block system he used to search for tombs to be successful. Unfortunately, the tomb had been plundered by grave robbers, but nonetheless there were still a number of important items left, including the tomb’s colourful wall paintings, and so the find was considered quite a coup for the young archaeologist.

In 1904, Carter was transferred to the Inspectorate of Lower Egypt, where he was praised for his improvements in the protection of existing excavation sites.  However, just as Carter’s career seemed to be going from strength to strength, he suffered a major setback with an incident that subsequently became known as the Saqqara Affair. It centred around a noisy confrontation between Egyptian site guards and a group of French tourists, where Carter loyally sided with the Egyptian personnel. He was accused by the French tourists of disrespect, and was then ordered to apologise to them by his employees. Carter, true to his stubborn nature, refused and instead resigned from the Antiquities Service in 1905.

Howard Carter
Howard Carter

With hindsight, Carter’s resignation may not have been the wisest thing for him to do. Certainly, for the next few years his career plummeted, and he struggled to make a living as a tour guide, a dealer in antiquities and from selling his watercolour paintings. During that time, he longed for a chance to dig, to excavate a site using his meticulous grid-block method and to finally discover an intact tomb. However, it was not until 1907, when he met with Lord Carnarvon, on the recommendation of Gaston Maspero, the Director General of Excavations and Antiquities in Egypt, that Carter’s luck began to change.

Lord Carnarvon

George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, was born in 1866, at Highclere Castle, in Hampshire. Educated at Eton and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, Carnarvon succeeded his father in the earldom in 1890, aged 24. 

In 1895, Carnarvon married Almina Victoria Maria Alexandra Wombwell, the illegitimate daughter of the millionaire banker, Alfred de Rothschild. Her father provided Almina with a £500,000 dowry, which allowed her financially strapped husband to maintain the family estate at Highclere Castle.

Carnarvon was an enthusiastic owner of race horses and established Highclere Stud to breed thoroughbreds. He also had a passion for driving automobiles, often quite recklessly, and unfortunately had a serious motoring accident in 1901, near to Bad Schwalbach, in Germany.

Although Carnarvon survived, the accident left him extremely weak and quite vulnerable to the cold British weather. This led to the earl spending his winters abroad, and in 1903 he visited Egypt for the first time.

Lord Carnarvon
Lord Carnarvon

Although the Cairo weather suited Carnarvon’s health, he soon found it to be quite a boring place to live, and so decided to take up the hobby of Egyptology to help pass the time. Little did he know then just how much of his time and money this new hobby would take up.

Carnarvon first approached Lord Cromer, the Consul-General of Egypt, to ask if he could find him a small excavation to oversee. Cromer obliged with a site in the area of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, and soon Carnarvon had moved from Cairo to Luxor, so he could be nearer his new interest. Despite six weeks of digging, the site returned few results, but rather than deter the earl, he decided that if he were to succeed in this new-found hobby, he would need to hire some professional help.

This time Carnarvon turned to Gaston Maspero, the Director General of Excavations and Antiquities in Egypt, asking if he knew of anyone suitable. Maspero immediately thought of Howard Carter and arranged for the two to meet. Although from totally different backgrounds, Carter and Carnarvon seemed to hit it off straight away. Lord Carnarvon had found the professional he needed for his new hobby, and Carter had found the source of financing he needed to carry out his work.

Carter and Carnarvon and the Valley of the Kings

When Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon first met, the concession for digging in the Valley of the Kings was actually owned by the archaeologist, Theodore Davis, who Carter had previously done work for between 1902 and 1904, in his role as Inspector General of Antiquities for Upper Egypt. 

The Valley of the Kings is an area in Egypt, just west of Luxor, where the Pharaohs and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom were buried from the 16th to the 11th Century BC. In ancient times, the official name for the burial site was actually a bit of a mouthful, “The Great and Majestic Necropolis of the Millions of Years of the Pharaoh, Life, Strength, Health in The West of Thebes”. Unsurprisingly, it was more commonly known as “The Great Field”.

The first pharaoh to be buried in the Valley of the Kings was Thutmose I. This new location was chosen by the pharaoh’s advisor, Ineni, as it was considered to be far less conspicuous than the pyramid tombs of the earlier pharaohs, which had all been plundered by grave robbers. Ineni actually wrote on the walls of his own tomb that when he built his pharaoh’s tomb he did so with “No-one seeing, no-one knowing”

Some Egyptologists believe that the workers who built Thutmose’s tomb were killed on its completion, in order to keep its location a secret. Whether this is true or not, the attempt at secrecy ultimately failed, because despite being less obvious than the pyramids, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were still all plundered by tomb raiders to some degree or another, including the tomb of Thutmose I.

Carter and Carnarvon
The Valley of the Kings

The Valley of the Kings actually consists of two valleys, East and West. The East Valley is where the majority of the royal tombs are to be found, and the tombs are numbered KV1 to KV63, in the order of discovery, with KV standing for Kings Valley. Meanwhile, the West Valley tombs have a WV prefix, but follow the same numbering system (e.g. WV22 – WV25).

Although Carter’s ultimate goal had always been to systematically excavate the Valley of the Kings, this was not possible while Davis owned the concession, and so he and Carnarvon would have to content themselves with other sites in the region. Nonetheless, during this time, Carter always kept a close eye on the progress Davis was making in the Valley of the Kings.

Theodore M Davis

On the whole, Theodore M. Davis was enjoying some considerable success in the valley, and discovered or cleared about 30 tombs in the 12 years he owned the concession. One of his most well-known finds was that of Horemheb’s tomb, discovered by the young British Egyptologist, Edward Ayrton, in 1908.

The opening of Horemheb’s tomb

Another important discovery, again excavated by Edward Ayrton on behalf of Davis, was that of KV54, in 1907. Various storage jars were found within the tomb, which contained pottery, dishes, animal bones, floral collars and, most importantly, linen containing text and dated to the final years of Tutankhamun’s reign. This discovery led Davis to incorrectly declare, in 1912, that he had in fact found what was left of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

By 1913, Davis had grown weary of the Valley of the Kings and disillusioned with the fact that he had been unable to discover an intact royal tomb. He was convinced that the area had now been exhausted, and so he finally gave up his concession to excavate in the valley, during the 1913-14 season. This, of course, was the moment that Howard Carter had long been waiting for, and he wasted no time in convincing Lord Carnarvon to now take up the concession.

Carter’s grid block system

Carter was initially quite successful with his excavations, but unfortunately World War One had begun to have a major effect on life in Egypt, and he found that he was not able to spend much time on his archaeological work, due to his wartime post as a diplomatic courier.

Following the war, Carter and Carnarvon agreed that they would now concentrate on a systematic search for the tomb of Tutankhamun, using Carter’s grid block system. However, the very nature of Carter’s methods meant that thousands of tons of rubble needed to be removed from each block on the grid, if the area was to be properly excavated, leaving no stone unturned.

Seasons of hard work followed, which on the surface did not appear to be producing any noticeable results. The costs involved in the excavations mounted and slowly, but surely, Carnarvon’s interest in the endeavour began to wane. By the end of the 1921 – 1922 season, Carnarvon was beginning to think that perhaps Theodore Davis had been correct all along and that all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings had already been discovered.

Carter and Carnarvon and the Last Season

Such was the lack of success in the preceding seasons, Carnarvon was forced to make a decision. He would have to stop financing Carter’s work and would give back his concession for the excavation of the site. He then sent for Carter, so that he could tell him of his decision face-to-face.

Howard Carter made the journey back to England for his meeting with Lord Carnarvon, knowing that the earl was about to pull the plug on his attempts to find Tutankhamun’s tomb. The news was confirmed to him at Highclere Castle. Carter understood Carnarvon’s reasons, but pleaded with him to at least keep on the concession, so that he could try and finance the work out of his own pocket.

Carnarvon was so impressed with Carter’s commitment that he not only agreed to keep the concession, but he also agreed to pay for one final season himself. Thus, Carter returned to Egypt, knowing that the 1922-23 season would almost certainly be his final one in the search for the tomb of Tutankhamun. Carnarvon’s generous nature and confidence in Carter’s ability was about to be rewarded.

John Gardner Wilkinson's Map of the Valley of the Kings, where Carter and Carnarvon finally had the concession.
John Gardner Wilkinson’s Map of the Valley of the Kings

The 1922-23 season began on the 1st November. Carter’s diary from 1922 reveals that he began the excavation where it had stopped the previous season, at the north-east corner of the entrance to the tomb of Ramses VI. Over the course of the next three days, ancient workmen’s huts, which were used during the building of Ramses VI’s tomb, were first cleared of the rubbish covering them, before being removed for further investigation below.

Then on the 4th November 1922, three days after the new season had begun, a young water boy named Hussein Abdel Rasoul discovered the top step of a stairway. This turned out to be the first step of a sunken staircase, and Carter was confident it would eventually lead down to the entrance of an 18th Dynasty tomb.

For Howard Carter, the 5th of November was certainly a day to remember. Having worked hard excavating the staircase the previous day and then until sunset on the 5th, his team of workers had cleared down to the 12th step of the stairway, where Carter was now able to see the upper portion of a sealed doorway. It was the entrance to a tomb, and what’s more the seals appeared to be intact.

Carter was also fairly confident that it must be an intact tomb, because of the ancient workmen’s huts that had been built on top of the entrance, which dated back to the 20th Dynasty. Howard Carter then told his men to cover up the stairway to the tomb, and immediately cabled Lord Carnarvon the following telegraph:

“At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; recovered same for your arrival; congratulations”
Howard Carter

Carter and Carnarvon’s search for the tomb of Tutankhamun had finally come to an end.