Ancient History & Civilisation


There are two sources for the Nile—one is in Uganda, the other in the Ethiopian highlands. The “two” Niles, the Blue Nile and the White Nile, join in the Sudan, at Khartoum, and begin their long journey toward the Mediterranean. When the Nile reaches Cairo, it fans out into many branches that run through a low-lying delta region to the sea. The area around Cairo and the delta is known as Lower Egypt.

Somewhat south of Cairo (120 km south, to be exact, about a subject that is not exact), we arrive at the city of Beni Suef, which is a good conventional demarcation point between Lower Egypt and Middle Egypt. Middle Egypt may be said to run to a city on the Nile called Qus, which is 20 km north of Luxor. Upper Egypt starts here and runs south, encompassing Nubia, an area that includes northern Sudan (part of Egypt in ancient times).

Ancient Egyptians thought of their country as having two parts: Upper and Lower Egypt. Their history was said to have begun with the unification of the Two Lands (one of the names for Egypt) when the king of Upper Egypt conquered the north. This duality was reflected in countless ways in Egyptian iconography, most prominently seen in the pharaoh’s Double Crown. The basketlike Red Crown, symbol of the north, would be worn inside the cone-shaped White Crown of the south.

Over time, the north/south duality became part of the multifaceted dialectic that obsessed Egyptian thought: North/south, barren desert/fertile farmland, birth/death were not merely facts of life, but inspired art, ritual, and myth for this imaginative, speculative people.


Howard Carter seated beside the coffin of King Tutankhamun, removing the consecration oils that covered the third, or innermost, coffin, 1926.

New Year’s Day 1901 Deir el-Bahri, Southern Egypt

EVERYONE WHO WAS ANYONE WAS IN THE DESERT THAT DAY. AN excited crowd had gathered beneath the stark cliffs that rose dramatically behind the two ancient temples. One was dedicated to the soul of Queen Hatshepsut, 1550 BC, and the even older one next to it, Mentuhotep I’s, had stood there in the relentless sun for four thousand years.

It was a place of great desolation and silence. Behind the temples towered the lifeless cliffs; and before them, the blinding white sand stretched endlessly to meet the empty sky. Djeser djeseru, the ancients called it, the holy of holies, the dwelling place of Meretsinger, the cobra goddess: She Who Loves Silence.

And it was here that the noisy crowd descended, chattering, speculating, filled with the nervous restlessness of modernity. In search of sensation, treasure, beauty—how could the goddess bear them as she watched from her barren heights?

First and foremost was the British viceroy, Lord Cromer, a man whose word was law in Egypt. He’d dropped everything, leaving Cairo in the midst of one of Egypt’s endless crises. After ordering his private train, he’d traveled five hundred miles south, then taken a boat across the Nile, and then a horse-drawn calèche out toward the desert valley. The price of Egyptian cotton had plummeted on the world market, pests were ravaging the crops, and starvation stalked the countryside. But what did that matter next to the fact that a royal tomb had been discovered? After months of laborious excavation, the diggers had finally reached the door of a burial chamber with its clay seals still intact—and His Lordship wanted to be present at the opening.

As did an assortment of idle princes, pashas, and high-living riffraff from the international moneyed scene … along with the usual hangers-on of the very rich: practitioners of the world’s oldest profession. Which in Egypt didn’t refer to—to what it usually does, but meant grave robbers (or archaeologists, as they are more politely known).

To dig with any success (“to excavate,” in the polite lingo), one needed knowledge. And one needed money—a great deal of it.

Thus, they often came in pairs, the archaeologists and their sugar daddies. There were famous “couples”—inseparables for all their differences of temperament and background. For example, looking back on turn-of-the-century Egyptology, can one think of the American millionaire Theodore Davis apart from the young Cambridge scholar Edward Ayrton?

Together they discovered a long list of tombs and burial shafts, Pharaoh Horemheb’s, Pharaoh Siptah’s, and “the golden tomb” (KV #56)1* among them. As well as the mysterious Tomb Kings Valley #55—and the animal tombs (#50, #51, and #52): the mummified and bejeweled pets of Amenhotep II. The beloved creatures had been stripped of their jewelry by ancient robbers who had even decided to create a “joke”—perhaps the oldest in existence—leaving pharaoh’s monkey and dog face-to-face. Which was how Davis and Ayrton found them some three thousand years later: locked in an eternal stand-off.

The two men, the millionaire and the scholar, made a striking picture: Davis, headstrong, determined, unwilling to be denied anything he wanted. The entrepreneur stood erect, staring down the camera in his flared riding pants and polished boots and gray side whiskers; Ayrton stood next to him, athletic, boyish, shy, a straw boater tilted at a rakish angle as he smiled absentmindedly staring out over the desert. If it wasn’t exactly a marriage made in heaven—the two had their ups and downs—still their partnership produced significant results.

Or take Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon, another such couple. Carter, irascible to the point of being rabid when the fit was on him, intense, brooding, obsessed. With almost no formal education and a humble background, he was the quintessential outsider whose artistic ability was his one saving grace. Where would he have been without his Earl of Carnarvon, the lovable “Porchy”—bon vivant heir to a thirty-six-thousand-acre estate who came to the excavations supplied with fine china, table linen, and the best wines?

Though they tried to pass themselves off as patrons of the arts and archaeology, the truth was that these high rollers were not selfless. They paid for an excavation because they stood to gain a great deal from it, more than they would have at the racetracks and roulette tables of their usual watering holes.

The laws—or, better, the rules of the game—in Egypt allowed for an equal division of whatever was found: statues, jewelry, papyri. The fledgling Egyptian Museum at Cairo got half the take, the other half went to the wealthy diggers. It was this prospect that drew the British earls and American millionaires to the remote desert wadis with their magnificent treasures … and their ancient curses and gods.

There was, however, one exception in this high-stakes game, the wild card in the deck: an intact royal burial. A pharaoh’s tomb or a queen’s sepulcher undisturbed since the time of its sealing. In the case of such a discovery, all bets were off and the rules changed. In theory, everything went to the Egyptian Museum—though what would happen in practice no one knew, since up to that time such a discovery had never been made. What was more, it was such a remote possibility that those in the know discounted it. The tombs found so far had all been at least partially plundered in antiquity.

But this discouraged no one, since a plundered tomb could be astonishing enough. What had been worthless to the ancient thieves was often worth a fortune to their modern counterparts. The early grave robbers concentrated on gold and silver, or on jars filled with costly perfumes and unguents. They would pour the oils into animal skins to be easily carried away, leaving behind exquisite works of art. They couldn’t have fenced the finely carved statues. Or the limestone and alabaster sarcophagi, the painted coffins and splendidly illustrated rolls of papyri. Such priceless leavings made the game well worthwhile (a game that in modern terms came to hundreds of thousands of British pounds, or American dollars, or French francs).

Then, too, there were the accidental finds stumbled upon in such “plundered” tombs: amulets overlooked in the folds of mummy wrappings or jewelry dropped in the haste of an ancient getaway. A “worthless” crocodile mummy, brittle to the touch, would crack open to reveal a hundred-foot papyrus roll, a masterpiece of the calligrapher’s art. A mummified arm would be discovered—the arm of Queen Mernneith, broken from her body and thrust into a niche during the First Dynasty (3000 BC). Laden with wondrously worked golden bracelets, the arm had been plastered over by some hapless thief who’d never managed to return for his booty. His loss was his modern “brother’s” gain (the severe and Spartan W. Flinders Petrie, working over the supposedly exhausted Abydos site with a fine-tooth comb).

With so much at stake, is it any wonder that Egypt was a place of feverish rumors and speculation? Competition was fierce: among private collectors, among dealers in antiquities (both real ones and forgeries), and among the great museums of the world. The Louvre, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art all had their unscrupulous representatives at work. Greedy, squabbling children, they were anxious to obtain the finest examples of ancient art: provenance known or unknown—no questions asked.

Of course, they were all there in the desert on that hot, bright November day. The opening of an intact royal tomb was not an event they were likely to miss. Nor would the “father” of this naughty family overlook such an occasion: Gaston Maspero, the mudir, or director, of the Service des Antiquités, a devoted scholar whose job it was to keep his acquisitive children in check.

Portly, middle-aged, unworldly—a French academic—Maspero had come to Egypt in 1881 to become the second director of the newly established service. His position as mudir had forced him quickly to learn the ins and outs of the shady antiquities markets.

His first task had been a very “unacademic one”: to trace the source of a steady stream of treasure, recognizably from royal burials, that had been showing up on the market. With the help of a wealthy American collector (Charles Wilbour) and an agent working for both Russia and Belgium (Mustafa Aga Ayat), Maspero followed a torturous trail. It began with two leather strips, outer mummy wrappings, and led to a notorious grave-robbing family, the Abd er Rassuls.

Maspero had its members “interrogated” roughly. For though he was soft-spoken and humane, when it came to saving antiquities he could be as hard as nails. He ordered a bastinado for the culprits, a beating on the soles of their feet. Ironically, it was a harsher method than the one used on the ancient grave robbers, who were merely lashed on the back to make them talk (the blows given by the hundred, one wound counting as five blows). The bastinado, though, besides causing the whole body to swell, created extreme mental anguish. It left Ahmad er Rassul, the brother who finally confessed, crippled for life (afterward, Maspero was clever enough to recruit him as a service inspector).

The disclosures led to the discovery of a remote desert tomb known as the Deir el-Bahri cache—the hiding place of thirty royal mummies, among them Amenhotep I; Thutmosis I, II, and III; Seti I; Ramesses II and III; and the royal family of the priest-pharaoh Pinedjem. During the breakdown of order in Egypt (in the Twentieth and Twenty-first dynasties), the royal mummies had been taken from their tombs by priests striving to protect their sacred god-kings. Moved from place to place, they were finally reburied here, DB tomb #320.

Here they had remained for three thousand years—and might have remained forever if not for some roaming Arabs. One idly threw a stone into a cleft in the face of the cliffs, and the hollow ringing echo alerted an er Rassul brother who was with them. Keeping his suspicions to himself, he frightened his companions with talk of demons and ghosts in the area. Then he and his brothers returned to investigate. As a result, the er Rassuls had been selling the tomb’s treasures bit by bit for over a decade.

Maspero had the royal mummies taken upriver to Cairo. They made the long trip to wailing all along the way, “the women screaming and tearing their hair,” as Emile Brugsch, Maspero’s assistant, wrote. The peasants crowded to the riverbank, filling the air with a ritual lamentation. Their stylized wailing went back to the earliest epochs of history, when the pharaoh’s death was an act of cosmic significance: It represented the death of a god, the eclipse of the sun, a time of danger and instability. Perhaps moved by some obscure instinct, the mourning villagers now reenacted the same scene that had taken place thousands of years before.

Once in Cairo, the mummies were eventually studied with the most up-to-date scientific methods of the time.2* The notes scrawled on their coffins were translated and the history of their wanderings recorded. Finally put on display, their expressive features—faces from another world—were gazed upon by an admiring multitude. And thus Maspero began his directorship of the service with a resounding success.

Maspero’s position plunged him into the thick of Egyptian politics. Among his many responsibilities was the granting of concessions to excavate. It was up to him to decide which ancient sites went to whom. National passions were at their height in the years before World War I, and the claims of British diggers had to be considered against French ones, not to mention American, Italian, and German rivalries. Complicating matters was the fact that the British exercised political control over Egypt, while the French had been culturally preeminent in the country since Napoleon’s invasion a century before.

By nationality Maspero was French; by extraction he was Italian; and in his sympathies he was Anglophile. But the cause closest to his heart was knowledge. He sought to strengthen the service, hoping in this way to preserve the ancient sites and to stop the unrestrained looting of Egypt’s treasures.

A beautifully wrought work of art had a monetary value on the antiquities market. But when exact information as to where it had been found could be obtained—when it could be put into a historical context—its scientific value increased tenfold.

Both realist and idealist, Maspero knew that money was the key. Money not only to excavate, but also to preserve what had already been uncovered. To guard the temples and tombs, to restore them, to record the inscriptions covering their walls. Since scant public funds were available, private contributions were a necessity—and such contributions often had to come from the very people he had to be most wary of.

In pursuit of his goals, the new director cultivated a wide range of friendships, anyone and everyone who could be of help. There were the poor itinerant scholars: men and women wandering among the ruins, notebooks in hand, their families moving from pension to pension (figures such as James Breasted, whose translations of ancient inscriptions in Egypt and Nubia ran into many volumes and remain a standard work; his son Charles recalls meager meals in backstreet Egyptian restaurants, his parents dividing the food among the three of them with a careful hand).

And there were the wealthy itinerant aristocrats—an international crowd wintering in Egypt. They sailed the Nile on luxurious dahabiyyas or were pampered in fantastically opulent hotels such as Shepherd’s in Cairo or Luxor’s Winter Palace. Maspero was always a welcome presence among them: earnest but never gauche; witty and sociable.

He enlisted the help of pious churchmen, reverends eager to prove the historical truth of the Bible; and he employed impious thieves of every stripe and rank, high and low. An embassy clerk might pass on a tip as to what was being smuggled out in the diplomatic pouch: a rare scarab, a pharaonic diadem, or a bust such as the famous one of Nefertiti that was brought to Berlin in this way.

It is a wonder that Maspero, understaffed and overworked, had the energy not only to fulfill his duties as mudir so brilliantly, but at the same time to pursue his scholarship. But somehow he did—keeping one eye on the fashionable guest list of Shepherd’s Hotel and the other on a papyrus scroll. His knowledge of the monuments was encyclopedic, his writings were prolific, and his work on the pyramid texts was groundbreaking. He was first among the Egyptologists of his generation, at the same time taking under his wing many young hopefuls of the next.

Among those Maspero encouraged was Howard Carter, though the young man fit into none of the usual categories. He had no education, no money, no family background, and no training in Egyptology. He could speak neither Arabic nor French, and his manners were awkward and abrupt. He was taciturn, brooding, and bad-tempered. He didn’t even have the robust constitution required for turn-of-the-century archaeology, when diggers lived for months on tinned food, sleeping in tents or ancient tombs cut into the cliffs. He had nothing but his stubbornness, an iron determination to make good.

His roots were rural and lower class. His grandfather had been gamekeeper on a Norfolk country estate, where his family had lived for generations. Carter’s father, Samuel, had been the one to break away, developing his natural gifts to become a painter specializing in animal portraits.

Carter would write of him in later years (in an autobiographical sketch or journal he never published): “He was one of the most powerful draughtsmen I ever knew. His knowledge of comparative anatomy and memory for form was [sic] matchless. He could depict from memory, accurately, any animal in any action, foreshortened or otherwise, with the greatest ease.”

To this he added a word of professional criticism: “However, if a son may criticize his father, this faculty was in many ways his misfortune. For by it he was not so obliged to seek nature as much as an artist should, hence his art became somewhat styled as well as period marked.”

Whatever his merits or faults as a painter, the elder Carter had enough admirers to make a career for himself. He worked in the great country houses, painting the beloved horses of the aristocrats; and he worked as an artist for the Illustrated Times as well, supplying sketches and drawings for the London newspaper. This eventually necessitated his moving to London with his large family and his animal models (penned up behind the house).

Howard Carter, however, was raised by a maiden aunt in Norfolk. He was a sickly child, and it was thought that the country air would strengthen him. What’s more, such an arrangement eased the financial strain, Carter being the youngest of eleven brothers and sisters.

His formal education was cut short after a few years in a simple rural school in Norfolk where he learned the basics. He wrote later that this was due to ill health, but the real reason was probably financial. It was necessary for Carter to begin to make a living as soon as possible. “I have next to nothing to say about my education … nature thrusts some of us into the world miserably incomplete,” he remarked with some bitterness in his journal. Throughout his life, he felt his lack of education. It was one of the sources of his resentment—and of his determination to succeed.

Fortunately, Carter showed early signs of having inherited a gift for sketching and painting. When his father worked in the great country houses, the young Carter began to go with him, serving a kind of informal apprenticeship. Soon, he was able to obtain small commissions of his own: “For a living, I began by drawing in water colours and coloured chalks portraits of pet parrots, cats and snappy, smelly lap dogs.”

But as he sat drawing his lapdogs and parrots, fate hovered over the boy. William Tyssen-Amherst, one of his father’s patrons, was an aficionado, an Egyptomaniac, an addict—call it what you will—a passionate collector. He was mad for Egypt, as was his whole family, his wife and five daughters (Mary Tyssen-Amherst, later Lady Cecil, would excavate in Aswan, uncovering a significant cache of late Ptolemaic papyri, among other finds).

Didlington Hall, the Tyssen-Amherst estate, housed some of the most important Egyptian antiquities in private hands. As you approached the manor on its south side, you passed through a formal garden. Here, seven massive black statues loomed amid the flower beds and gravel paths. Fashioned in the fourteenth century BC for Amenhotep III—Tutankhamun’s grandfather—they were signifiers of a different reality: images of Sekhmet, a goddess who tore men to pieces at the request of the sun, her lithe, bare-breasted body joined to a lion’s head.

They were a hint of what was in the great hall: the vividly painted coffins and shawabti (magical figures, “answerers” who would come to life at the utterance of a spell); the wonderful statues from almost every period in Egypt’s history. Some, like the block statue of Senwosret-Senebefny, Overseer of the Reckoning of the Cattle, were covered with biographical inscriptions. The Overseer is a powerful figure, whose strong limbs, or a suggestion of them, can be seen just under his robe, a marvel of the sculptor’s art (Twelfth Dynasty, ca. 1800 BC).

For two years, from age fifteen to seventeen, Carter was a frequent visitor at the estate, becoming a favorite of the family. From a sketch his father made of him at the time, we can see the boy: An enormous white collar falls over his buttoned-up wool jacket, his longish wavy hair is parted on one side, his eyes are large and dreamy. When not occupied with his work, Carter drew the gods and goddesses, the mummies and coffins; his sketchbooks from this period are filled with them. He was developing a feeling for Egyptian art—he was “hooked”: “It was the Amherst Egyptian Collection at Didlington Hall,” he later wrote, “that aroused my longing for that country. It gave me an earnest desire to see Egypt.”

Just as important to him as the works of art were Tyssen-Amherst’s papyri. How could they fail to capture the boy’s imagination? Translated by the foremost scholars of the day, they included poems and songs and sacred texts beautifully illustrated—the Book of the Dead, and the Book of Gates, and the Book of What Is in the Underworld—and the harsh drama of an ancient grave-robbing trial known simply as the Amherst papyrus. Written in hieratic—a flowing script, a kind of shorthand hieroglyphs—the transcript records a trial that took place during the reign of Ramesses IX (Twentieth Dynasty, 1120-1108 BC).

Charged with plundering the tomb of Pharaoh Sobekemsaf, an ancient tomb even then (Thirteenth Dynasty), the stonemason Amunpanefer at first denied everything. But when he was beaten again and again with a double rod (“Give him the stick! The stick!”), he finally confessed. We can almost hear him cry out: “We found the noble mummy of this king with a sword. There were many amulets and jewels of gold upon his neck … and his mask of gold was upon him. The noble mummy of this god was completely covered with gold and his coffins were adorned with gold and silver, inside and out, and with every costly stone. We stripped off the gold that we found on the august mummy of this god, and its amulets and ornaments that were at its throat, and we set fire to the coverings….”

This trial was one of many, since the lure of the treasure was irresistible, as other ancient transcripts reveal: “We went up in a single body. The foreigner Nesamun showed us the tomb of Ramesses VI, the Great God. We said to him, Where is the tomb maker who was with you? And he said to us: He was killed….

“I spent four days breaking into the tomb, there being five of us. We opened the tomb and we entered it. We found a basket lying on sixty chests…. We opened them and found …

“My father ferried the thieves over to the island of Amunemopet and they said to him, This inner coffin is ours. It belonged to some great person. We were hungry and we went and brought it away, but you be silent and we will give you a loincloth. So they said to him. And they gave him a loincloth. But my mother said to him, You are a silly old man. What you have done is stealing.”

Later, such documents would be important clues when Carter began to piece together his deductions about the royal necropolis (city of the dead). But for now, he was just becoming familiar with the long-dead figures: the Ramesses and Setis and Amenhoteps who would, for the next forty-five years, be his all-consuming passion. There would be no great love in his life, not even a passing romance. No wife, no mistress, no children. The tombs he uncovered were to be the main events of his life, a long list of them leading toward the great prize: a royal tomb, almost untouched—as his sixth sense told him it would be—and filled with breathtakingly beautiful objects.

To the young Carter, though, Egypt seemed as far away as the moon. The Tyssen-Amherst collection had fired his imagination, but there matters ended. The scholars and professors who visited at Didlington Hall were in a different category from his. They were equals who had come to talk learnedly about the antiquities. In class-conscious England, Carter was a step above the servants; his job was to sketch Tyssen-Amherst’s favorite animals.

Ironically enough, his lack of education—his being “miserably incomplete,” as he put it—would give him his first break. His services could be obtained cheaply, which was just what the recently founded Egyptian Exploration Fund needed. They could not afford to hire another expensive gentleman-scholar.

Engaged in an epic project, the fund had been recording the countless ancient inscriptions and friezes endangered by vandals, flooding, fading, and the like. Photography could capture just so much, given the limited techniques of the time. To copy the paintings in the long, winding passages of the dark tombs, to record the rows of hieroglyphics on temple walls, to faithfully reproduce colors and details, artists were needed. The fund had a team working in the rock tombs of Beni Hasan (Middle Egypt). But the work had lagged, and an extra hand was needed.

One of the fund’s directors wrote to John Newberry (whose brother, Percy Newberry, was a Cambridge-trained Egyptologist working for the fund at Beni Hasan): “If you come across a colourist (eye for colour must be chief qualification added to drawing) who would like a trip to Egypt for expenses paid and nothing else, I should be much obliged if you would ask him to call…. It seems to me that as cost is a great consideration it matters not whether the artist is a gentleman or not. Your brother [Percy Newberry] can fraternize with George Willoughby Fraser [another member of the Beni Hasan team and a ‘gentleman’]…. A gentleman unless of an economical turn of mind would run into extra expenses very likely, while if a non-gentleman were sent out Percy Newberry could take him under his wing and manage all his feeding etc. as his employer. In this way 2 or 3 shillings might be saved daily.”

As it happened, Percy Newberry was on leave in England at the time, and his brother forwarded the letter to him. Since Newberry frequently visited at Didlington Hall, he immediately thought of Carter. He had seen his work and thought it was “good enough;” moreover, he liked the boy.

Tyssen-Amherst seconded the idea, so the matter was settled. Carter was to spend the summer training at the British Museum, where he would carefully study the precise and beautiful drawings done in the beginning of the century by Robert Hay, one of the first Europeans to have explored the ruins of Egypt.

Whatever training he received was picked up hastily, during these few summer months. Francis Llewellyn Griffith, superintendent of the Archaeological Survey, tried to prepare him as best he could, along with C. H. Read. “These venerable people,” Carter recalled later, “and this august building with its associations and its resonant rooms, deeply impressed me and produced an awe that caused me to be in a mortal funk lest my boots squeaked.” His boots well oiled—presumably—here he learned more about the lines of Egyptian art and the hieroglyphic writing he would be copying.

Then, at the end of those three months in 1892—Carter was seventeen years old—his new life began.

1* The tombs in the Valley of the Kings are numbered from one to sixty-two. The general rule is that tombs with lower numbers have either lain open since antiquity or were discovered earlier than those higher in the sequence. The tombs in the adjoining valleys (the Valley of the Queens, the Nobles, the West Valley, and Deir el-Bahri) are referred to by their own numbering sequences. DB #320, for example, refers to tomb number 320 from the Deir el-Bahri sequence. It is to John Gardner Wilkinson that we owe the numbering system still in use. In the 1820s and 1830s, Wilkinson lived in Gurneh, at the edge of the Valley of the Kings, where he studied those tombs that were accessible and devised his numbering system.

2* Over the next decades, the study of mummies would make great progress. The first X-raying of mummies was performed by William Flinders Petrie in 1898. By 1911, Sir Armand Ruffer, a French baron and professor of medicine in Cairo, had developed a technique for preventing brittle ancient mummy tissue from crumbling under the microscope. And the autopsies Dr. Grafton Elliot Smith of the Cairo School of Medicine performed on the royal mummies were all meticulously recorded and published.

ALMOST A DECADE LATER, THE CARTER OF 1901 STOOD BEFORE the tomb he had discovered. Though still not considered a gentleman by the standards of his countrymen, he could give a good imitation of one. At least he was considered passable company: His colleagues fraternized with him, albeit with a patronizing attitude.

He was formally attired, though he was in the middle of the desert, as were the others who had gathered for the opening of “his” tomb—that is, the intact royal tomb he had discovered.

With nothing more than a hunch to go on, he’d struggled for two years to organize an expedition. Every step of the way had been fraught with difficulties, from finding a backer to pay for the dig, to getting the Department of Antiquities’ permission to work the site,1* to the excavation itself, which proved unbelievably complicated.

Hundreds of feet underground, at the end of a long, descending passage, he had finally uncovered a vast, almost empty chamber after months of digging. Leading down from this chamber was a sunken shaft that was so deep, it took two seasons to clear it. But clear it he finally did, coming upon a door stamped with the seal of the royal necropolis: a recumbent jackal, Anubis, god of mummification, over nine bound prisoners.

This sealed doorway, and the unbreached underground stone wall on either side of it (twelve feet thick), caused him to summon the consul, the Egyptian prime minister, the head of the Antiquities Service, and the experts: Carter had made an unprecedented find.

If he was nervous, he did not show it: On public occasions he was known for his self-possession. From the shy boy in the British Museum, trembling lest his boots squeak, he had developed what Emma Andrews (traveling companion of the millionaire Theodore Davis) called “a dominant personality.” For almost a decade now, the Egyptian desert had been his home; he knew its terrain well, had explored its most remote valleys and lived in its tombs (sometimes sleeping in the ancient sepulchers when no other shelter was available, then a common practice).

From Carter’s notebooks it can be seen that nothing escaped his notice: the quality of the rock; the patterns of flash floods in the desert (over the centuries, sudden violent torrents moved great boulders and masses of debris, covering tomb entrances and burying temples and ruins); the ancient graffiti scrawled on the cliffs—secret “markers” left by priests, doodlings and caricatures scratched by necropolis workers and guards, comments by Greek pilgrims and Roman passersby; and the wildlife to be found in the desert, which especially appealed to him: “some scaly, a few furred like the fox and the desert hare, but mostly feathered. Several kinds of vultures, one or two falcons, a long-legged buzzard, ravens, blue rock pigeons, sand partridge and other smaller desert birds which delight in eking out a precarious existence in desolate solitude. On high eagles soared in the still air. And along the riverbank in the scant patches of palm were turtle doves.”

It was the one pleasure he allowed himself when he could: riding out on horseback to explore and to sketch. On one of these outings two years earlier (1898), his horse stumbled and fell. Unhurt, he got up to investigate. As he described it in the report he filed for the service (Anuales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte II [1901]): “The ground gave way under the horse’s legs bringing both of us down. Afterwards, on looking into the small hole there formed, I saw traces of stone work, from which I concluded that there must be something and most probably a tomb. I commenced excavating on the 20th January, 1900, in order to find out what really was there, and in a short time, I was able to trace the three sides of the stone work, the fourth side, to the east, being open. From this state of the east end, I concluded that, if it was a tomb, the entrance would be below the western end, so I at once set the men to work there….”

In his report, he quickly moved from the fateful fall in the desert to the excavation. But two years intervened before he was able to raise the funds for the excavation. His immediate superior at the time, the scholar Édouard Naville, was skeptical. As Carter remembered in his journal: “All that I received for my pains was a somewhat splenetic remark, that had a taint of ridicule.”

Carter shrugged off Professor Naville’s ridicule, however, and tried to raise money to dig. He won over Maspero, who found some money for him and then convinced an unidentified sponsor to step forward with the rest.

The excavation turned out to be more difficult than anyone had imagined. More and more workers had to be engaged, hundreds of men. The subterranean corridors were hundreds of feet long and cut deep beneath the ground. There were stone-blocking walls twelve feet in thickness and sharp salt stalagmites that had formed out of the rock, obstructing the passage. Finally, Carter reached not the burial chamber but a huge, vaulted room some 56 feet belowground. From this room a vertical shaft led down more than 320 feet to yet another corridor below. The area to be excavated was vast, and the amount of earth and stone to be removed was enormous.

“After working down some 17 metres [56 feet],” as Carter told it, “I found the door which had its original mud brick sealings intact. I made a small hole at the top of the door and entered, finding myself in a long arched passage having a downward incline of about 1 in 5. Inside the door, a head of a calf and portions of a calf’s leg were lying on the floor [the remains of four-thousand-year-old sacrificial offerings]. I descended the passage, which was quite clear and 150 metres [492 feet] long, ending in a large lofty chamber, the roof again arched….

“In the left hand corner, lying on its side was a seated statue … completely wrapped in linen of a very fine quality: beside it lay a long wooden coffin which was inscribed but bore no name…. The style of the work shewed that the tomb was of the early Theban empire [2010 BC]. Along the end wall and in the centre of the chamber, pots with mud sealings, a dish and many small saucers, all of rough red pottery, together with the skeletons of two ducks? and two forelegs of a calf which still had on them the dried up flesh, were lying on the floor. Having tested the ground with a piercing rod, I found that there was a shaft leading down from the chamber.

“On the 16th of March, 1900, I started the men to open the shaft; but on the 20th of April, the shaft proved to be so deep, the rock so bad and becoming so dangerous that I was obliged to stop the work until the next season….”

It was impossible to work in the valley during the summer; the temperatures rose to 120 degrees or more. He was forced to wait for the fall to see what the burial chamber at the bottom of the shaft held. Apart from the intact seals on the outer door, the statue he had found was a good augur. It was massive, powerful, the figure of a king seated on his throne and dressed in the short white cloak worn during the heb-sed, or thirty-year jubilee festival, when the god-king renewed his powers.

“I am hard at work,” he wrote to Lady Tyssen-Amherst, “trying to get to the bottom of the tomb I found at Deir el-Bahri last year. I trust to manage it soon though under difficulties—the men have now got down 97 metres [320 feet] vertical drop and still no end, but cannot help but think the end will come soon; then there are chances of a good find, it being untouched….”

“Consider the circumstances,” he noted in his journal, “a young excavator, all alone except for his workmen, on the threshold of a magnificent discovery.”

To really understand what this moment meant—it was everything for him, the reason for his existence—it is necessary to keep in mind what had gone into its making: the years of preparation, the work carried out in difficult conditions, the sweltering heat in the south, the swarms of insects in the Delta, the lack of creature comforts, the living in tents and tombs when no other shelter was available.

By day, the labor was backbreaking, painstaking, grueling: There was the endless digging and sifting, often yielding nothing but a handful of dust; the crawling and clambering through suffocating underground passages filled with thousands of bats, centuries of their waste creating a poisonous atmosphere; the unstable shale under the solid limestone threatening to collapse. Death or crippling accidents were an ever-present danger.

The work continued by night, though it was of a different sort. After doctoring the men, settling disputes, photographing finds, carrying out whatever immediate preservation was required for the most fragile finds, and so forth—after the countless tasks for which the excavator was responsible, there was the bookkeeping. Long hours in his tent or tomb going over the figures and writing out records of expenses: workmen’s wages, daily expenses—outlays for equipment damaged, food for the pack animals, rewards to the workers for anything found (to prevent pilferage), and the like. On a large dig with hundreds of workmen, especially when payments were made not by time but by the area cleared or the levels dug, the accounting could become bewilderingly complicated.

This was followed by more bookkeeping, equally tedious, though of an archaeological sort: the careful, almost obsessive noting of every detail of the day’s work. Everything must be recorded, nothing was too trivial. For what at the moment may seem insignificant could take on an unimagined importance later on. A decorative pattern painstakingly preserved—the rishi, or feather design, on a coffin’s decaying wood; or the position of thousands of beads on a piece of linen that had fallen apart at the touch. The shape of pottery shards tossed into a burial shaft. An ancient workman’s mark scratched on the wall of a tomb; or the kinds of animal bones left from a funeral meal.

This done, there was study. Carter learned his history and his Arabic on the job and whatever hieroglyphs were essential (he would never be proficient in the ancient language, his focus being on the terrain, the wadis and cliffs and valleys). Cramming like a schoolboy for a test, he put in long hours to understand the southern valleys that had increasingly become the center of his interest, the Valley of the Kings and the areas immediately bordering it: the Valley of the Queens, the Valley of the Nobles, Dra Abu el-Naga, the Assasif, the Birabi, the Deir el-Bahri.

Here in antiquity a fateful innovation took place. The massive stone pyramids of the Old Kingdom (2680-2180 BC) had proven no barrier to the grave robbers’ skill and were finally abandoned. In their stead, hidden underground tombs were created. By the time of the New Kingdom (1550 BC), these tombs were the rule. As Thutmosis I’s architect Ineni boasts on his funeral stela, “I planned the tomb of the pharaoh secretly, no one hearing, no one seeing.” For over five hundred years, the Valley was the scene of such secret royal burials. The hope was that pharaoh, suitably provided for in death, would join his fellow gods in eternity and see to the well-being of the land.

Huge chambers were hewn underground or in the desert cliffs and filled with treasure: jewels and gold and silver in amounts almost beyond belief. Egypt’s vast wealth was poured into these tombs—and Egypt was a country where “gold is as plentiful as dust,” as the king of Mitanni (an ally) wrote to Pharaoh Amenhotep III in a “begging” letter preserved in the ancient archives.

It was not only the monetary value of this treasure that kept Carter at work into the small hours of the night, but also its beauty. For the artistic impulse was very strong in Carter—he was alive to the marvels of ancient Egyptian art. From the very beginning of his career, his notebooks are filled with comments about form and color and design.

This sensitivity extended to his natural surroundings as well, the desert landscape that he lovingly sketched and painted. In fact, it was this highly developed aesthetic sense that helped him to bear the solitude of the excavator’s life. For though Carter glossed over it quickly in his memoir—“a young excavator, all alone except for his workmen, on the threshold of a magnificent discovery”—this unrelieved solitude had led more than one excavator to quit because they found it unbearable.

It was as much a spiritual solitude as a geographic one. An unbridgeable distance existed between the foreign archaeologists and the Egyptian fellahin, or native peasants, who worked for them. It was felt even by an excavator as close to his workers as Flinders Petrie, Carter’s most important mentor in Egypt. There are passages in Petrie’s memoirs where he admired the peasants’ exuberance and simplicity. He sympathized with their difficulties; he harshly criticized those archaeologists who dealt with them as if they were machines to sift and haul and dig; and he shocked his colleagues by having, in his words, “gone some way toward the fellahin” (that is, dispensed with formalities that most Europeans considered essential).

In his description of Egypt at that time, Petrie described the alienation, even the menace, felt by excavators living in remote villages and at desert sites. “There is the lack of intercommunication, the suspicion of strangers; the absence of roads; and the mental state of the people…. The man who can read and write is the rare exception in the country…. There is gross superstition, innumerable local saints….

“We [Europeans] cannot see the world as a fellah sees it; and I believe this the more readily because after living years among the fellahin … I yet feel the gulf between their nature and my own as impassable as ever….

“In the villages, derwish parties are formed from a few men and boys, perhaps a dozen or twenty: they are almost always held in moonlight…. The people stand in a circle and begin repeating Alláh with a very strong accent on the latter syllable; bowing down the head and body at the former, and raising it at the latter. This is done all in unison, and slowly at first; gradually the rate quickens, the accent is stronger, and becomes more of an explosive howl, sounding afar off…. The excitement is wilder, hideously wild, until a horrid creeping comes over you as you listen and you feel that in such a state there is no answering for what may be done. Incipient madness of the intoxication of excitement seems poured out upon them all….

“The children unintentionally reveal what is the tone and talk of the households in private; they constantly greet the European with wails of Ya Nusrani!, O Nazarene! The full force of which title is felt when your donkey boy urges on his beast by calling it, ‘Son of a dog! Son of a pig! Son of a Nazarene!’ Any abuse will do to howl at the infidel, and I have been for months shouted at across every field…. That a massacre of the Coptic [Egyptian] Christians was fully anticipated by them when Arabi drove out the foreigners [a failed revolt of 1882] should not be lightly forgotten.

“This fanaticism is linked with an unreasoning ferocity of punishment. I have seen a coachman suddenly seize on a street boy and for some word or gesture lash him on the bare legs with the whip again and again with all his might….”

The suppressed violence of desperate poverty and thwarted national hopes could be felt on every side. The archaeologist Gertrude Caton-Thompson, a friend and admirer of Petrie’s, recalled a typical outbreak near an excavation (whose finds were eventually published as Tombs of the Courtiers and Oxyrhynkhos): “The season’s work coincided with a serious insurrection which caused anxiety in the camp, where the loyalty of our seventy to eighty workmen was uncertain. We could hear the rattle of the machine guns, 25 miles away, mounted on the roof of the American Mission Hospital in Assyiut defending itself (successfully) against a mob who had murdered three young British officers in a train and adorned the engine with their limbs. The mutiny was quelled, but not before Petrie had stocked the well-hidden hermitage [Christian, fifth century AD] with food and water, as a possible refuge.”

This, then, was the atmosphere in which Carter had been living and working for a decade. Egypt was finally awakening politically. For more than two thousand years it had been, in the words of the Hebrew prophet, “a lowly kingdom” and “a broken reed”—a land dominated by foreigners. Its last native ruler, Nectanebo II, had fled to Nubia in 343 bc, where he spent his remaining years practicing magic and leaving Egypt to the conquerors who followed: Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ummayads, Ayyubids, Fatimids, Mamluks, Ottomans, and finally, at the end of the nineteenth century, the hated British.

One humiliation had followed another as Egypt descended into chaos and poverty. But now young Egyptians were determined to claim their birthright, and the situation was tense and explosive. Anything could trigger a furor.

In the search for a national identity, Egypt’s pharaonic treasures became a central symbol. The time was over when Empress Eugénie of France could deck herself out in the jewels of an ancient Egyptian queen, or the American millionaire Theodore Davis could use the skull of a Ramesside prince as a paperweight. When the great nationalist leader Sa’ad Zaghlul died, the royal mummies lay in state with him in the huge mausoleum honoring his memory. How delicate was the position of the foreign archaeologists and their backers, the brash, treasure-seeking capitalists counting on a “fair division” of the fabulous spoils.

Thus, Carter’s great discovery would become intertwined with national politics: In death, the boy-king Tutankhamun would find himself in the middle of a national upheaval, just as he had in life, when his name was changed from Tutankhaten and he was brought from his heretic father’s court to Wast (Thebes, modern-day Luxor) to symbolize the national revival.

If, as Carter wrote in his journal, he was “standing on the edge of a magnificent discovery,” he was also standing at the edge of a precipice. The royal tomb belonged to Egyptians and to Egyptians alone, it would be claimed: Despite all their backbreaking labor and toil, the foreigners had no rights at all.

Such thoughts, though, were far from Carter on that glorious day in 1901. Poised for victory, he stood next to the royal tomb he had discovered. A silence fell over the crowd as he and his foreman descended into the tomb.

The two climbed down unaided into the rocky passage, but a kind of basket-cradle had been arranged for the descent of the consul and the other distinguished visitors. First, though, the burial chamber’s blocking had to be removed, and Carter had to enter and survey the find.

“I had everything prepared,” he later remembered. “The long wished for moment had arrived. We were ready to penetrate the mystery behind the masonry. The foreman and I descended, and with his aid I removed the heavy limestone slabs, block by block. The door was at last open. It led directly into a small room which was partially filled with rock chips, just as the Egyptian masons had left it, but it was otherwise empty save for some pottery water jars and some pieces of wood. At first glance I felt that there must be another doorway leading to another chamber. But a cursory examination proved that there was nothing of the sort. I was filled with dismay.”

As everyone waited above, he frantically searched the passage, looking for some indication of a hidden staircase or tunnel or shaft leading—he hardly knew where, since by all indications and signs, this should be the burial chamber. It had been carefully sealed, hidden hundreds of feet underground, protected with a twelve-foot-thick wall—but it was empty. His searching uncovered only a tiny miniature coffin secreted in a wall. Its inscription indicated the king for whom the tomb was dug: Mentuhotep I, one of the first kings of the Eleventh Dynasty, a pharaoh who reigned at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom (ca. 2010 BC).

Perhaps the tomb had been dug in antiquity to throw would-be robbers off the scent. Perhaps the statue wrapped in linen represented some arcane ritual burial, a magical rite to ward off death. Perhaps building the huge mortuary temple at the foot of the cliffs (erected by this same king) caused him to change his plans and dig his tomb elsewhere in the cliffs. Or perhaps the tomb was abandoned for some other reason lost to history.

Whatever the reason, Carter now had to climb into the brilliant sunlight to publicly acknowledge his defeat. Among the onlookers were those only too ready to laugh at the presumption of this outsider, for jealousy among excavators and scholars was as intense as among opera divas—or thieves.

Covered with dust, he began to make his apologies, but quickly the compassionate and fatherly Maspero intervened. As Carter was to say of the moment: “I cannot now remember, all the kind and eloquent words that came from Maspero, but his kindness during this awful moment made one realize that he was really a worthy and true friend.”

Maspero’s private feelings matched his public stance. He wrote in a private letter: “Carter had announced his discovery too soon to Lord Cromer. Lord Cromer came to be present at his success and he is now very saddened at not having been able to show him anything of what he foretold. I console him as best I can, for he truly is a good fellow and he does his duty very well.”

Though Carter would later remember Maspero’s kindness with gratitude, at the moment he was shattered. Nothing could console him. He remained at the tomb until late at night, going over and over the underground rooms in his bewilderment.

The echo of chatter and speculation faded as the intruders went their way. They left the place to the heartbroken excavator on the threshold of his magnificent discovery—and to its tutelary goddess, Meretsinger, She Who Loves Silence.

Carter was inconsolable—but the irony was that he would also be inconsolable later, when he was finally granted his heart’s desire. For twenty years after this fiasco—two full decades later, in 1922—he would find his tomb. But then it would not come to him by beginner’s luck, the accident of a fallen horse, or by any other gambler’s sleight of hand. It would come through grueling work and suffering and faith: faith in the powers that he knew had been granted him, though the world looked at him askance.

He would be the first to uncover a tomb that had been sealed for thousands of years. He would stand in the presence of a pharaoh lying in a solid gold coffin under a gold mask of incomparable beauty: Tutankhamun Nebkheperure—Lord of the Manifestation of the Sun, the Strong Bull, Victorious, Eternal.

Here, in the small, dark rooms of this tomb, he would labor for ten long years, carefully bringing out thousands of precious objects, among them some of the most moving works of ancient Egyptian art. After which he would spend the rest of his life famous, wealthy—and embittered.

He would never excavate again. A solitary figure, idle, angry, withdrawn, he would live out his last days on the terrace of Luxor’s Winter Palace. With a touch of madness? Or perhaps with truth? He would tell anyone who would listen that he knew where the much-sought-for tomb of Alexander the Great could be found. But, he would add with spite, he would take that secret with him to the grave: The world did not deserve to know it.

Between the young boy sketching his smelly lapdogs and the raging old man was a lifetime spent in grueling, unsparing work. Yes, he would discover his tomb. But the gods would give him glory, not peace. He would fulfill the words of the New Kingdom tomb curse: “Let the one who enters here beware. His heart shall have no pleasure in life.”

1* With the establishment of the Egyptian Antiquities Service in 1858, permission to excavate had to be sought from the Department of Antiquities. Such permission, called a concession, marked out the area to be explored and stipulated the terms under which the excavator could dig and how he or she had to proceed in the event of a tomb being discovered. In 1902, the American banker Theodore Davis took on the concession to dig in the main Valley of the Kings, a concession he would not relinquish until shortly before World War I.

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