Born in Kensington on May 9, 1874, Howard Carter uncovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings. He was no stranger to ancient Egypt by the time he made arguably the greatest (and certainly the most famous) discovery in the history of modern Egyptology. With little formal schooling, Carter was trained as an artist by his father, and it was his artistic talents—along with his interest in the Egyptian antiques kept in Didlington Hall, near the town where he grew up—that initially got him sent to Egypt at the age of only 17, where he assisted Percy Newberry.
Carter spent the next decade in Egypt, working for the Egyptian Antiquities Service, where he was made Inspector of Monuments for Upper Egypt in 1899, at just 25 years of age. He worked in places like Amarna, the temple of Hatshepsut, Thebes, and the Valley of the Kings, and he was known for his innovative improvements to the artistic methods by which tomb decorations, wall reliefs, and other artifacts were copied and recorded. As his work continued, he also spearheaded the development of a grid-block system for locating potential digs.
By 1905, however, Carter had resigned from the Antiquities Service amid scandal. For some time, many of the excavations had been dogged by accusations of tomb thefts, but the breaking point for Carter came after what was known as the Saqqara Affair, a violent clash between French tourists and Egyptian guards at one of the dig sites—one in which Carter sided with the Egyptians.
It would be nearly two more decades before Carter made his greatest discovery, though. By then he was working for a benefactor by the name of Lord Carnavon. In 1914, Carnavon was granted permission to dig in the Valley of the Kings, and Carter began a years-long search for tombs that had been missed by previous expeditions—a quest that, initially at least, seemed doomed to frustration and defeat.
In fact, by 1922, Lord Carnavon had decided to withdraw his funding at the end of the season’s digging in the Valley of the Kings. It was in November of that year that a water boy working for the diggers quite literally stumbled over what proved to be the top of a set of stone steps leading down to the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Tutankhamun is believed to have been the last pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, ruling for a relatively brief nine years from 1332 until around 1323 BCE. Only around 18 or 19 years old at the time of his demise, Tutankhamun came to the throne at less than ten years of age, and had two children before his death, despite his youth. Those who have studied his mummified remains also contend that he may have suffered from a variety of maladies during his short life, though the cause of his death remains unknown and highly disputed.
What we do know, from Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, is how he was buried—which is to say, extravagantly. Though the tomb itself is smaller and less heavily decorated than many other royal tombs from the same period, it is probably the most famous tomb ever discovered, owing its notoriety in no small part to the fact that the tomb was one of the most intact ever found. Though there was evidence of ancient break-ins, the tomb seemed to be almost completely untouched, and contained more than 5,000 different items, including the mummy of Tutankhamun himself.
The field of Egyptology itself has been around since the days of ancient Egypt. Indeed, the various Egyptian dynasties spanned several thousand years, making the last of the Egyptian dynasties more chronologically distant from the first than Carter’s discovery was from the time of the most recent pharaoh. By 1922, however, Egyptology in Europe had reached a fever pitch, especially as the British Empire had captured the nation from the French, who had occupied it since its conquest by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1801.
Into this hotbed of demand for all things Egyptian came Carter’s discovery of the nearly-intact tomb of Tutankhamun, and the result was a media frenzy. Images of the tomb and its contents traveled all over the world, while the items contained within were sent to places like the Egyptian Museum in Cairo or the British Museum in London. Even the tomb itself became a tourist destination, though completely clearing it out took another full decade under Carter’s leadership.
Fueling the public’s hunger for all things related to the tomb—a phenomenon that became known as “Tutmania”—was the untimely death of Lord Carnavon less than six months after the tomb was opened. Though he died of “blood poisoning progressing to pneumonia,” his demise was chalked up to the supposed mummy’s curse.
The idea of such curses had been around for some time. In fact, a few of the tombs that had previously been excavated did bear written curses, most of them warnings to the priests to maintain the tombs properly, rather than maledictions against grave robbers. But the idea of the curse had already seized the public imagination by the time that Carter’s discovery kicked off “Tutmania,” and Lord Carnavon’s death only solidified the idea that such excavations were inviting dark fates. Indeed, by the time the clearance of the tomb was complete, the first movie made about a mummy’s curse, Universal’s 1932 film The Mummy starring Boris Karloff, would already be playing in cinemas around the world.
For Carter, however, the tomb proved to be far from cursed. Indeed, the clearance of it became his life’s work in many ways, occupying a full ten digging seasons as the chambers of the tomb were cleared room by room, and their contents preserved for transportation to Cairo or points beyond. The mummy of Tutankhamun himself, which became the most famous of the many thousands of mummies excavated from Egypt, occurred in 1925. The mummy and its sarcophagus were sent to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, part of an agreement between Carter and the Egyptian government that allowed the dig to continue.
Carter himself retired from field work after the clearance of the tomb was finally finished, though he continued to winter in Luxor until his death in 1939, at the age of 64. Years later, unearthed correspondence would suggest that Carter had been pocketing certain treasures from the tomb for himself. But at the time, he was considered one of the great heroes of Egyptology, and his name has gone down in history as the discoverer of one of the most famous archaeological sites of all time.