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4 November 2008

On this day in history: Entrance to the tomb of King Tutankhamun discovered, 1922

In 1891, at the age of just seventeen, Howard Carter arrived in Egypt to work as an artist tracing the scenes on the walls of newly discovered tombs. While working for the passionate archaeologist W. M. Flinders Petrie at the excavation at Tell al-Amarna, Carter first felt the inspiration to become an archaeologist himself. Nevertheless, he continued to work as an illustrator until 1899 when Gaston Maspero, the director-general of the antiquities service of Egypt, gave him the position of chief inspector of antiquities in Upper Egypt in recognition of his managerial skills.

The appointment surprised the archaeological community because Carter had no formal qualifications in the field; however, he proved a capable administrator working hard to preserve and protect existing antiquities, and overseeing new excavations. In 1904, Carter was transferred to lower Egypt but during the following year he resigned following a violent incident between a group of foreign visitors and Egyptian antiquities guards. After spending a couple of years barely supporting himself selling his watercolour paintings and working as a tourist guide, Carter formed a relationship with Lord Canarvon after being introduced to Maspero.

Canarvon provided the financial backing for a number of digs in Egypt, and before long Carter was supervising them all. Carter approached Canarvon for funding for a project of his own: the hunt for the tomb of Tutankhamun, a previously unknown pharaoh whose existence Carter had recently discovered. A number of years passed with little success and as a result the two agreed that the 1922 expedition would be the last.

On 4th November 1922 Carter located the steps leading down to Tutankhamun's tomb, the best preserved example of its type in the Valley of the Kings. The excavation work and removal of the artifacts took a decade to complete while Carter travelled the world presenting lectures that fuelled a period of egyptomania. Ill health prevented Carter from producing a complete scientific report of his discovery; he finally died aged 64 in 1939.

The Ashmolean Museum web-site hosts Howard Carter's records of the five seasons of excavations financed by Lord Carnarvon in the Valley of the Kings 1915 - 1922.