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4 November 2009

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 el-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 tomb, the best preserved example of its type in the Valley of the Kings. The excavation work and removal of the artefacts 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.

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Lascaux cave paintings discovered: 12th September 1940


Paul Baines said...

Would love to think that archaeologists could examine the mystery space under the Sphinx, it's all down to politics and conservation these days, unlike in the distant past. It's a tricky balance.

Unknown said...

Wow I didn't know he was so young when he first went to Egypt! Is it true that the volume of tourists these places receive every year is damaging the artefacts?

John | English Wilderness said...

I didn't realised Carter has such a varied life before his famous discovery. Is there any truth in the rumor when he died he had an infected mosquito bite on the same cheek as Tutankhamun?

Unknown said...

Paul: Agreed. The gung ho nature of the archaeologists of yesteryear is thankfully a thing of the past. There is little point in damaging that which you wish to study in the name of fame and fortune.

Jessica: It would not surprise me one bit. Saying that, the past is one of the Egypt's major economical assets and the government there do seem to be trying to make their tourist industry sustainable.

John: There are many wild stories about the Curse of Tutankhamen. I am not sure if there is much value in any of them.

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