World-famous for his discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, exactly 100 years ago, archaeologist Howard Carter has a surprising connection with RSGS.



Sketch of Howard Carter by Manuel Rosenberg (1924)

On 4th November 1922, Howard Carter saw the first clue that led to a sensational discovery.  It was nothing earth-shattering - just a single stone step, cut into the bedrock of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings - but clearance work soon revealed a whole stairway leading down to a sunken door.  On the door, Carter was excited to see a Necropolis seal, a small piece of clay impressed with symbols of the pharaohs.  Crucially, it was still intact.

What followed, some three weeks later, is still one of the most iconic moments in the entire history of archaeological discovery.  With trembling hands, Carter made a small breach in a second sealed door.  An iron testing-rod was inserted into the hole, to confirm that whatever lay beyond was a space, and not a rubble-filled passage.  Hot air wafted out, three thousand years old, causing the candle flame to flicker.  A test was made for noxious gases, and then, widening the hole, Carter cautiously inserted the candle and peered in.  What he saw rendered him speechless. 

Eventually, one of Carter’s companions - Lord Carnarvon, who was his sponsor - broke the silence.  ‘Can you see anything?’ he asked.  With an effort, Carter forced himself to speak.  ‘Yes,’ he answered.  ‘Wonderful things.’


Grave goods arranged as Carter would have seen them in the antechamber, reproduced for ‘The Discovery of King Tut’ exhibition in New York City.  (Mary Harrsch, via Flickr)

If the internet had been around in 1922, when the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb saw the first light of day since about 1323 BC, it would almost certainly have ‘broken’.  The gleam of gold was everywhere.  In the light of the candle, Carter gazed in wonder at chariots, thrones, statues, and furniture inlaid with ivory and semi-precious stones.  At the far end, another door was guarded by two life-size figures of Tutankhamun, painted black and gilded.  No wonder the sight took his breath away.

What is even more astonishing is that this room was not the burial chamber itself.  Carter called it the ‘antechamber’.  It would be another 15 months before he could lift the lid on the pharaoh’s sarcophagus to reveal the gold coffin and extraordinary gold death-mask inlaid with gemstones.


Born in Kensington, the youngest child of a family from Swaffham in Norfolk, Howard Carter inherited his father’s considerable artistic talent and went out to Egypt in 1891 at the age of 17, tasked with tracing tomb drawings and hieroglyphics for the archaeologists Percy Edward Newberry and Flinders Petrie.  One of his first assignments was in the tomb of the pharaoh Akhenaten (now believed to be Tutankhamun’s father).  Petrie noticed Carter’s remarkable skill, and before long he was hired as an excavator in his own right.

A six-year appointment as Inspector of Monuments for the Egyptian Antiquities Service ended in controversy in 1905.  On the Saqqara plateau, some rowdy tourists wished to visit monuments without buying tickets, and clashed with Egyptian guards.  Carter backed the guards, and in the resulting scandal he lost - or resigned - his post.  He was therefore at a loose end when he met the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, an Egyptologist, in Luxor.  Lord Carnarvon was overseeing the excavation of ancient tombs, and he made an offer that changed the course of Carter’s life.


The Valley of the Kings

Success didn’t strike overnight:  only in 1914 did Lord Carnarvon obtain permission to dig in the Valley of the Kings, an area on the west bank of the Nile containing rock-cut tombs that dated from the 16th to the 11th century BC.  Soon afterwards, all work was halted by the First World War.   Although Carter was employed by the Intelligence Department of the War Office in Cairo, his biographer, T G H James, says that ‘the precise nature of Carter’s war-work is a mystery.’  There were rumours, however, that he was involved in blowing up the base of the German Archaeological Institute, a newly-erected building that stood next to the Ramesseum at Thebes, and whose appearance had been described by one of Carter’s friends as an ‘abomination’. 

In the summer of 1922, after several seasons of unspectacular results, Lord Carnarvon invited Carter to his home at Highclere in Berkshire and tried to persuade him that it wasn’t worth continuing in the Valley of the Kings.  He felt that they had exhausted the possibilities, and would be better off focusing their attention elsewhere.  Carter disagreed.  He had made a careful study of all the robberies recorded there, and could see no evidence that the elusive tomb of Tutankhamun had ever been found or robbed.  Prestigious items bearing Tutankhamun’s name had been found in 1909 in another tomb, but they didn’t seem to match the comparatively low-status setting, and Carter suspected that they had been deposited there at a much later date.

Getting out a map, Carter pointed to a small patch of ground that was still unexamined, close to the tomb of Ramesses VI.  The remains of workmen’s huts from the 12th century BC had protected anything that might lie underneath.  His view was that ‘as long as a single area of untouched ground remained, the risk was worth taking.’  Lord Carnarvon allowed himself to be persuaded, and a few months later, on 6th November 1922, he received a telegram that delighted him beyond all expectations:


Carter had quickly re-filled the excavated stairway in order to secure the site, and braced himself to wait nearly three weeks for his patron to arrive in Egypt.  On 24th November, in the presence of Lord Carnarvon and his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, the stairs and entrance were cleared once more, and this time the unmistakeable seal of Tutankhamun was revealed.  Behind it lay a passage containing rubble which took two days to clear, and beyond that, another sealed door was the one that gave Carter his first glimpse of ‘wonderful things’.  


Carter (right), Lord Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn Herbert at Tutankhamun’s tomb

The antechamber contained such an abundance of precious artefacts that it took many weeks to remove and catalogue them.  Not until 16th February 1923 could Carter open the sealed doorway that led from the antechamber into the burial chamber.  And even then, there was no final revelation because a succession of sealed shrines presented him with tantalising new puzzles and possibilities.


Carter (left) and Lord Carnarvon entering the burial chamber

By this time, Carter was experiencing unexpected pressure.  The opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb had become one of the world’s first media sensations, and every new stage in its excavation was attended by excited onlookers and press photographers.  Awestruck visitors streamed into the tomb for about 10 days, after which Carter sealed it up for the season.  Shortly afterwards, the excavation was marred by tragedy:  the sudden death of Lord Carnarvon, from blood-poisoning resulting from an infected insect bite. 


Crowds of visitors at Tutankhamun’s tomb in February 1923

Shocked and stressed, and not in the greatest of health himself, Carter returned to Britain, travelling in style on the Simplon Express.  Over the summer of 1923 he was swept into a whirl of high-society events, including a royal garden party at Buckingham Palace, and he completed the first volume of his book about the discovery of the tomb.  Describing the opening of the burial chamber, he revealed that he had one regret ‘which all the world must share - the fact that Lord Carnarvon was not permitted to see the full fruition of his work;  and in the completion of that work, we, who are to carry it out, would dedicate to his memory the best that in us lies.’  (Vol. I, The Tomb of Tutankhamun, 1923) 

Not surprisingly, Carter received plenty of invitations to give talks, and a tour of the US was being discussed.  But as the hosts for his first ever public lecture, he chose the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Edinburgh.  On 10th September 1923 he delivered a talk in the Usher Hall to an audience estimated at over 3,000.  The Scotsman newspaper reported on the event the following day:  Carter had accompanied his talk with lantern slides showing the Valley of the Kings, the antechamber and many of the objects that had already been removed from it. 


Cutting from The Scotsman (11th September 1923) describing Carter’s lecture (RSGS Collections) 

Revealing the facts that were known at that time, he explained that Tutankhamun ‘was to us a very shadowy king.  Of his reign scarcely anything was known.... The evidence in the tomb, so far as they had got, seemed to show that he died very young.’  Regarding Tutankhamun’s marriage, he said they ‘knew that Akhenaten married [Tutankhamun] to his third daughter, Ankh-s-n-Pa-Aten [Ankhesenamun], and that this, according to the ancient Egyptian law of succession, made him heir to the Throne, but they did not know why Akhenaten did this.’ (Modern DNA analysis has shown that Tutankhamun’s wife was his half-sister, suggesting that Akhenaten was also Tutankhamun’s father).

Carter told his audience that the task of the coming winter ‘would be the dismantling of the great shrines within the sepulchre under which the king lay.’  He believed that ‘when the sealed doors of the tomb were opened they would find the King himself unscathed, untouched by the robbers, and probably with him would be the crowns of Egypt and other regalia of Tutenkhamen.’  He concluded by saying that ’it had given him great pleasure to deliver his first lecture on his discoveries in Edinburgh - a magnificent city, which he had never seen before.’

Later that September, Carter delivered three lectures in London, the first to an audience invited by Lady Carnarvon, the widow of his late sponsor.  Exactly how RSGS managed to secure a prior appointment is hinted at in our Council Minutes for 30th January 1923, which report that the newly-formed Lecture Committee had directed RSGS’s Secretary, George G Chisholm, ‘to take steps immediately to secure a lecture if possible from Lord Carnarvon on the Theban excavations, but to ask the President [Lord Salvesen] if he would be good enough to send the invitation in his name.’      

This was obviously before the untimely death of Lord Carnarvon in April of that year, and it is interesting to wonder whether Howard Carter stepped in to honour the commitment.  In any case, the minutes for 28th June report that ‘the announcement that Mr Howard Carter had consented to lecture to us was heard with gratification…’

On 12th February 1924, amid the blinding explosions of camera flash-bulbs, Howard Carter finally lifted the lid of Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus to reveal the exquisitely decorated coffins, the startling gold mask, and the mummified body of the pharaoh.  It had been a long and difficult journey, fraught with claims and counter-claims about newspaper rights, disputes with Egyptian authorities, and an unprecedented level of interest from the general public. 


Carter examining a coffin within the sarcophagus

Tutankhamun’s death-mask, crafted in gold, lapis-lazuli and other precious stones (R Ijzermans via Flickr)

One of the warmest tributes to Carter’s character was paid to him in a letter from James Breasted, an American archaeologist;  it was written in March 1923, after Carter had first opened the burial chamber:  

‘…under crushing pressure from all sides, staggering under responsibilities enough to break down a dozen men, you have quietly and persistently pressed on, with the sole purpose of being true to your scientific obligations.  Obliged by circumstances to carry on one ceaseless social function, while at the same time salvaging with brilliant success the greatest body of archaeological material ever found - that is an achievement absolutely without parallel…’

Howard Carter signed the RSGS Visitors’ Book when he lectured in Edinburgh on 10th September 1923.  Accompanying him was his friend Percy White, a writer and Professor of English Literature at the Egyptian University in Cairo, who assisted him with the first and second volumes of his book on Tutankhamun’s tomb.  Carter has given his address as the Burlington Fine Arts Club in London, of which he was a long-standing member.  (RSGS Collections)


Quotes and reference:


T G H James, ‘Howard Carter:  The Path to Tutankhamun’ (1992)

Howard Carter, ‘The Tomb of Tutankhamun’ in 3 volumes (1923, 1926, 1933)

The Scotsman, 11th September 1923