Howard Carter, May 8, 1924.
TWO MEN WHO DID NOT KNOW EACH OTHER PROVIDED ENTERTAINMENT for the gossips of Luxor during the 1905 digging season. One was the dour ex-inspector Carter, hawking his watercolors and taking “superior” tourists around the sights. Though it was in his interest to be polite, many times an unconsidered remark would bring on an outburst of Carter’s temper, sending the “superior” tourist or potential buyer running for cover and leaving the ex-inspector without his fee, perhaps, but with the satisfaction of having spoken his mind.
The second figure of fun for the locals was the silly, rich British earl who could be seen raising clouds of dust in the desert hills near Deir el-Bahri.
Although Carnarvon had hired a large band of workers and basket boys, anyone could tell that he was an amateur. Digging first in one spot and then suddenly switching to another, he proceeded erratically, without any method to his madness.
Or so it seemed. A casual observer of this new farce in the desert had no way of knowing that though no archaeologist directed Carnarvon’s excavation, the earl was getting advice from a more reliable source—the ancient priests themselves, who whispered their messages to him through his psychics and supernormalists. The result was that after Carnarvon’s first season was over and the dust had settled, what he had to show for his work was … well, a mummified cat.
An unimpressive find, perhaps—weighed on the scales of the uninitiated. But if we consider the account of Arthur Weigall, the new inspector, then Carnarvon’s first discovery might be seen as a portent of things to come, a find in keeping with the earl’s mystical propensities and psychic energy.
“Lord Carnarvon … discovered a hollow wooden figure of a large black cat, which we recognized … to be the shell in which a real embalmed cat was confined.
“The figure looked more like a small tiger as it sat in the sunlight at the edge of the pit in which it had been discovered, glaring at us with its yellow painted eyes. Its body was covered all over with a thick coating of smooth, shining pitch, and we could not at first detect the line along which the shell had been closed after it had received the mortal remains of the sacred animal within; but we knew from experience that the joint passed completely round the figure—from the nose, over the top of the head, down the back, and along the breast—so that, when opened, the two sides would fall apart in equal halves.
“The somber figure was carried down to the Nile and across the river to my house, where by a mistake on the part of my Egyptian servant, it was deposited in my bedroom. Returning home at the dead of night, I here found it seated in the middle of the floor directly in my path from the door to the matches; and for some moments I was constrained to sit beside it, rubbing my shins and my head.
“I rang the bell but receiving no answer, I walked to the kitchen, where I found the servants grouped distractedly around the butler, who had been stung by a scorpion and was in the throes of that short but intense agony. Soon he passed into a state of delirium and believed himself to be pursued by a large grey cat, a fancy which did not surprise me since he had so lately assisted in carrying the figure to its ill-chosen resting-place in my bedroom.
“At length, I retired to bed, but the moonlight which now entered the room through the open French windows fell full upon the black figure of the cat; and for some time I lay awake watching the peculiarly weird creature as it stared past me at the wall. I estimated its age to be considerably more than three thousand years, and I tried to picture to myself the strange people who, in those distant times, had fashioned this curious coffin for a cat which had been to them half pet and half household god….
“In the distance I could hear the melancholy wails of the unfortunate butler imploring those around him to keep the cat away from him, and it seemed to me that there came a glitter into the eyes of the figure as the low cries echoed down the passage.
“At last I fell asleep, and for about an hour all was still. Then, suddenly, a report like that of a pistol rang through the room. I started up, and as I did so a large grey cat sprang either from or on to the bed, leapt across my knees, dug its claws into my hands, and dashed through the window into the garden. At the same moment I saw by the light of the moon that the two sides of the wooden figure had fallen apart and were rocking themselves to a standstill upon the floor, like two great empty shells. Between them sat the mummified figure of a cat, the bandages which swathed it round being ripped open at the neck, as though they had been burst outward.
“I sprang out of bed and rapidly examined the divided shell; and it seemed to me that the humidity in the air here on the bank of the Nile had expanded the wood which had rested in the dry desert so long, and had caused the two halves to burst apart with the loud noise which I had heard. Then, going to the window, I scanned the moonlit garden; and there in the middle of the pathway I saw, not the grey cat which had scratched me, but my own pet tabby, standing with arched back and bristling fur, glaring into the bushes, as though she saw ten feline devils therein.
“I will leave the reader to decide whether the great cat was the malevolent spirit which … had burst its way through the bandages and woodwork and had fled into the darkness; or whether the torn embalming cloths represented the natural destructive work of Time, and the grey cat was a night wanderer which had strayed into my room and had been frightened by the easily explained bursting apart of the two sides of the ancient Egyptian figure.”
Naturally or supernaturally, the cat was out of the coffin; and with the necropolis feline as tutelary spirit, Carnarvon’s new career was under way. He continued digging with undiminished enthusiasm—though he uncovered nothing of importance (or rather nothing that he considered important). Among his finds, though, there was an old wooden tablet that had cracked in half—but what of it? Carnarvon was looking for some beautiful objet d’art and tossed the tablet into a basket along with the other ancient debris, potsherds, and scraps of mummy bandages.
His carelessness caused three crucial lines to be lost, for the tablet is inscribed. On one side were the sayings of the sage Ptahhotep, while the other contained a record from one of the least documented periods in Egyptian history—the national rebellion against the invading Hyksos, nomadic “shepherd kings” who ruled Egypt for some two and a half centuries (ca. 1800 BC). It will become known as “the Carnarvon Tablet,” though at the time it was only the Carnarvon washboard, some ancient junk he dropped off at the inspector’s office on his way back to Cairo. As it turned out, though, Carnarvon’s washboard would be his calling card with Carter.
Weigall, as inspector responsible for overseeing the Valley of the Kings, wrote indignantly to the linguist Francis Llewellyn Griffith, “Towards the end of the work [Carnarvon’s dig], I had to go away, and when I returned to Luxor, Lord Carnarvon had gone, leaving his antiquities in my office. There was a basket full of odds and ends. Amongst these, stuffed anyhow into the mouth of the basket was this tablet, in two pieces, and I am sure this rough handling is responsible for some of the flaking. A sadder instance of the sin of allowing amateurs to dig could not be found. Lord Carnarvon does his best, and sits over his work conscientiously; but that is not enough.”
Griffith replied, “It is grievous to think the plaque may have been perfect when found. I have worked at it again since I wrote to you … the three lines from the middle are a great loss. It is the most important document we have next to the el Kab Ahmosi inscriptions.”
Sir Alan M. Gardiner, the most respected linguistic authority of the day, wrote in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, “No single inscription has been more important in the last ten years.”
The grieved linguists pored over the now only half-comprehensible boasts of the warrior Kamose (a distant ancestor of Tutankhamun’s), who “at the time of the perfuming of the mouth [early morning] pounced on the foreign enemy like a hawk, destroying his wall, slaying his people, carrying off slaves, cattle, fat and honey—the hearts of my soldiers rejoicing.” Meanwhile, Carnarvon—oblivious to the archaeological suffering he had caused, enthusiastically made boasts of his own. Speculating on the endless possibilities before him, he announced, “I would rather discover a royal tomb than win the Derby!”
The archaeologists appealed to Maspero, who, continually harassed for funds, was not anxious to alienate Carnarvon. On the one hand, a wealthy patron was not easy to come by. On the other, Maspero was a scholar sensitive to his colleagues’ concerns. What was more, he saw the situation as a way of rehabilitating Carter, whose talents he valued and whose situation he deplored. Why not arrange it so that Carnarvon’s excavations were carried out by Carter—surely a satisfactory arrangement from every point of view, Maspero decided.
Carnarvon agreed immediately—a “learned man” was just what he required since he hadn’t had the time to sufficiently “get up” on the subject. Though he’d heard the gossip about Carter, the man’s stubbornness attracted him rather than otherwise—for he was unconventional himself, down to the rebellious brown shoes he wore to Ascot.
For Carter, who had been languishing in the twilight world of dealers and picturesque watercolors since his resignation as inspector in 1905, this opportunity was nothing less than a resurrection. He went to meet Carnarvon at Luxor’s Winter Palace, where they sat on the hotel’s Nile-side terrace and discussed the upcoming 1909 season. And where they took stock of each other. Though “Dr. Johnny”—Carnarvon’s personal physician, whom he frequently kept by his side—hovered in the background, Carter could see that the nobleman was determined and energetic, if inexperienced. And Carnarvon immediately liked Carter, who obviously lived with only one thought in mind—to make a great find.
The American entrepreneur Theodore Davis had held the excavation concession for the Valley itself since 1902 and showed no sign of relinquishing it. For the time being, they would have to dig around the Valley proper: in the cliffs above Hatshepsut’s temple, at the bottom of the slopes of Dra Abu el-Naga, the Birabi, the Assasif, and at the edge of the cultivation, the lush green land flooded by the Nile. It was not the Valley of the Kings proper, but still there was no telling what they might find here. Carter unrolled his map, while Carnarvon—defying both Dr. Johnny and the odds—raised a glass to their partnership.
And so the match was made, courtesy of Maspero, archaeological cupid, with good results soon following. “After perhaps ten days work we came upon what proved to be an untouched tomb,” the thrilled Carnarvon wrote of “his first.” “I shall never forget the sight. There was something extraordinarily modern about it. Several coffins were in the tomb, but the first that arrested our attention was a white brilliantly painted coffin with a pall loosely thrown over it, a bouquet of flowers lying just at its foot. There these coffins had remained untouched and forgotten for two thousand five hundred years.”
Over the next seven years, from 1907 until the outbreak of World War I, they made many such discoveries in the Theban hills. Carnarvon in his elegant Edwardian getup hovered nearby, while Carter like a conjuror brought up from the earth mummies, mirrors, game boards, statues, jewelry, musical instruments, and magical oars—along with the so-called beds of Osiris, the resurrected god of the dead torn to bits by his evil brother, Seth, and pieced together by his wife-sister, Isis. The hollow wooden Osiride boxes (shaped in the god’s form) were filled with seeded soil that began to sprout millennia ago under their mummy bandages, a symbol of the irrepressible, enduring nature of life and its triumph—even in the tomb—over death.
There was almost no knowing what or who would appear next as the dour archaeologist presented his patron with the artifacts of a vanished world. Carnarvon watched, awed, deferential; Carter was gruff, focused, sometimes aloof, sometimes taking the time to explain. This was the nature of their relationship from now until the end. A colleague (Arthur Mace) recorded later that when he was working with the two in Tut’s tomb, Carnarvon was always wandering about, pestering Carter with questions, and that Carter “spoke to him as if he were a naughty child!”
By that time, they had lived through more than sixteen years of shared disappointments, victories, and anxieties: Would a fragile antiquity survive as sand was brushed from its surface? Would the overhanging tomb masonry collapse or hold? Which museums should receive one of the sixty-four painted coffins from tomb #37? How best to pack up the Amunemheb statue—a breathtaking bronze of a naked young boy, his shaven head thrown back, his lithe body striding forward, his expression alert, intent, alive.
But through all the years of Carter’s preliminary work with Carnarvon, he never stopped brooding over “the Valley.” The activities of the American millionaire Theodore Davis, who held the concession to dig there, were widely reported. Carter followed Davis’s excavations step by step as numerous tombs were uncovered, some royal, some not, all plundered in antiquity with one exception: the almost intact tomb of Thuya and Yuya, parents of Queen Tiye. The tomb created a sensation with its fine furniture and perfectly preserved mummies, but it was soda pop next to the champagne of Tut’s tomb—which Davis suddenly announced to the world that he had discovered as well.
Imagine that you are Carter. You are in the middle of the complicated excavation of a reused Middle Kingdom tomb (ca. 2000 BC) that has evidence of intrusive burials all the way down the line: fine New Kingdom coffins (ca. 1500 BC) and late dynastic mummies (ca. 900 BC) and piles of Graeco-Roman “junk” (ca. 330 BC-AD 200). It requires all your concentration as you work in the mongrel tomb with its intermingled remains. But how can you keep your mind on Tetiky, ancient mayor of Thebes—or even on Tetiky’s unwrapped wife, two mummified miscarriages between her legs, when you hear that that arrogant, careless, filthy rich American had finally gotten the prize you most desired?
Davis was jubilant—he went crowing all over the Valley—now there would be another royal find to his credit! And another one of his lush, expensive, leather-bound publications to announce it. Volumes notoriously and maddeningly short on crucial archaeological detail—Davis had no patience with the vital facts and information compiled by his archaeologists—and equally notoriously and maddeningly long on “modest” bows by the immodest Davis. And in fact The Tombs of Harmhabi and Toutânkhamanou (The Tombs of Horemheb and Toutankhamun) by Theodore Davis was just such a work—glossy, flashy, vain, and, archaeologically speaking, useless.
Davis was triumphant—while Carter was left with what, after years of calculation? A hatched map showing the area where Tut’s tomb must be, a triangle formed by three royal tombs that Carter had marked out with a firm, experienced hand:
Which was just where that damned Davis found him.
But then Carter learned the details. The tomb (given the number 58) was one room—a naked little rough chamber barely five feet by four and six feet in depth. Surely it was not a royal tomb, Carter decided.
Surely it was, Davis announced, shrugging off its unroyal proportions: The insignificant boy Tut, son of a despised heretic, would not have been given a grand burial. Among other evidence in the tomb, a strip of thick gold foil had been found, gilding torn off a royal chariot. Tut’s figure was engraved on the foil, riding in a chariot and shooting arrows at a target to which foreign captives were bound.
There was no mistaking the cartouche with Tut’s throne name inscribed in the middle—the basket for Neb, or “Lord of;” the dung beetle for Kheperure, or “Manifestation of” (literally: “Becoming”); and the disk for Ra, or “Sun”: Nebkheperure, Lord of the Sun’s Manifestation.
Davis announced that now everything that was to be found in the Valley had been found. He “fears the Valley is now exhausted,” as he put it, and he gave up the now worthless concession.
Which Carter tried to convince Carnarvon to take up. Carnarvon hesitated. A long list of experts agreed with Davis—the Valley had been “done.” The consensus of archaeological opinion was against Carter; and even Maspero, renowned for his scholarship, suggested that Carnarvon would do better to dig elsewhere.
Carter insisted that Davis was wrong, that the gold foil with Tut’s name was not original to the tomb. It had most probably been carried in by later flooding, he argued. Every instinct told him that #58 was not a royal burial, but an ordinary pit tomb like nearby #54, also stumbled upon by Davis some years earlier.
At the time, Davis had attached no importance to #54 with its meager contents: satchels of a mineral used in embalming (natron), earthenware pots, mummy bandages, and floral wreaths thrown together with bones from an ancient funeral feast. Davis had torn to bits some of the floral wreaths at a dinner party and given away the worthless find for the asking—the asker being Herbert Winlock of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, who wanted to take the objects back to America for further study (the find can still be seen in a small room in the Met).
But if Davis was not interested in the undramatic contents of #54, Carter was. He noted the Eighteenth Dynasty pots (Petrie’s training) and took to heart Winlock’s opinion that the material had been used in a royal burial. In addition, Carter pointed out to Carnarvon that a green faience cup bearing Tut’s name had been found behind a boulder in “the triangle.”
If Davis was wrong and Tut’s tomb still remained to be discovered, and if Tut was in fact buried in the Valley (as the embalming cache and faience cup seemed to indicate), then, Carter argued, there was a good chance it was unplundered. He pointed to the lists of the ancient priests of Amun who had overseen the royal necropolis. During Ramesside times, they had recorded the royal tombs that had been broken into, the royal burials that had to be “renewed”—Carter could reel them off by heart and knew that Tutankhamun’s name was not among them.
Carnarvon took his time deciding. Once he backed Carter, he would back him all the way, but it was daunting to put up a fortune—not to mention being thought a fool by those in the know—on the basis of some old mummy rags and lists drawn up by priests three thousand years ago. Any day a donkey’s leg could go through the ground and in some underground cache or other another ancient list of plundered tombs might be found with Tutankhamun’s name on top.
Davis was preparing his volumes on Tut’s tomb; Maspero—who had recommended Carter to begin with—disagreed with Carter. Other archaeologists had tried to interest Carnarvon in digging elsewhere—why remain in the much-explored Valley when better results might be achieved elsewhere?
But stay in the Valley Carnarvon did. Each reason he gave himself against remaining was an added incentive to remain as well. After all, Carnarvon was a sportsman, and what real sportsman could resist backing a dark horse? He agreed to take the concession, and now at last the way was open for Carter to test his cherished theory. Only one obstacle remained to be gotten over, and then he could begin—World War I.
When war was declared, Carter reported for duty in Cairo, where he was assigned to the Department of Military Information. The menace was not just in Europe, but right across Egypt’s borders; for Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, which had sided with the Central Powers and declared war on Great Britain. The Suez Canal must be protected if the Allies were to win, and desert scouts with a good knowledge of Arabic were in demand.
But there was more to Carter than his expert knowledge of the terrain. There was his nervousness, his poor temper, his bad manners, his inability to get along with most people. After a short stint with the government, Carter was discharged from the service, the War Administration deciding they were better off without him.
For Carter, World War I meant that he had time on his hands. Now he had the leisure to get his teeth fixed and to scour Cairo’s markets, where because of the war antiquities were going for a song.
We next see him in the teeming Cairo railroad station. Making his way through the crowds of soldiers setting out to guard the canal, he was heading in the opposite direction. For soon after his discharge, Carter headed back to Luxor, where Carnarvon had built him a home: Simple, domed in Arabic style, constructed with bricks from a foundry Carnarvon owned in England, it was situated on a desert mound overlooking the Valley of the Kings.
What did Cairo have to offer him? Though he and Carnarvon could not yet make use of the Valley concession, still this was the place where he belonged. If the war had any impact on Carter, it was only in terms of the tombs, specifically a tomb in the lonely valley Wadi e ‘Táqa e ‘Zeide.
As he told the story (which throws a unique light on the Theban necropolis during wartime): “The absence of officials owing to the war, to say nothing of the general demoralization caused by the war itself, had naturally created a great revival of activity on the part of the local native tomb robbers, and prospecting parties [of thieves] were out in all directions.
“News came into the village one afternoon that a find had been made in an unfrequented region on the western side of the mountain above The Valley of the Kings. Immediately a rival party of diggers armed themselves and made their way to the spot, and in the lively engagement that ensued the original party were beaten and driven off, vowing vengeance.
“To avert further trouble the notables of the village came to me and asked me to take action. It was already late in the afternoon, so I hastily collected the few of my workmen who had escaped the Army Labour Levies, and with the necessary materials set out for the scene of action, an expedition involving a climb of more than 1,800 feet over the Kurna [Gurneh] hills by moonlight. It was midnight when we arrived on the scene, and the guide pointed out to me the end of a rope which dangled sheer down the face of a cliff.
“Listening, we could hear the robbers actually at work, so I first severed their rope, thereby cutting off their means of escape, and then, making secure a good stout rope of my own, I lowered myself down the cliff. Shinning down a rope at midnight, into a nestful of industrious tomb robbers, is a pastime which at least does not lack excitement.
“There were eight at work, and when I reached the bottom there was an awkward moment. I gave them the alternative of clearing out by means of my rope, or else of staying where they were without a rope at all, and eventually they saw reason and departed. The rest of the night I spent on the spot, and as soon as it was light enough, climbed down into the tomb again to make a thorough examination.”
After a difficult clearance with a small team of men (the work financed by Carnarvon), the tomb was found to be an early one of Queen Hatshepsut’s, empty of all but a beautiful quartzite sarcophagus—which, however, the Service des Antiquités’ tough new director, Pierre Lacau, would not allow Carnarvon to keep.
Gaston Maspero had just retired at the end of a long and distinguished career, worn out not only by the strains of the directorship, but by the death of his son. Arthur Weigall related that when Maspero visited Luxor, all he wanted to do was play with Weigall’s children; his heart was no longer in his work. (In a few years’ time, Weigall too would be “out of the business”: Suffering a nervous breakdown, he would return to London to write potboilers and design exotic stage sets.)
Had Maspero continued as director, Carnarvon certainly would have been recompensed with the sarcophagus. But times were changing, and Carter was caught between the old and the new. Lacau had taken over the service with the firm intention of retaining everything discovered for Egypt; further, he planned on giving institutions of learning precedence over private excavation teams—such as Carter and Carnarvon’s.
THE SARCOPHAGUS WAS AN INDICATION OF WHAT WAS TO COME when Carter faced the great task of his life: Once Tut’s tomb was opened, Pierre Lacau goaded and insulted Carter like a toreador prodding a mad bull. He not only denied the Carnarvon/Carter team a division of the spoils, but refused him permission even to show the tomb to a party of his colleagues’ wives, thus forcing a showdown, which by that point was what he wanted, to bring their quarrel out into the open.
From today’s point of view, Lacau’s resistance to the Carnarvon/Carter team is perfectly natural; but it must be remembered that at the time of the tomb’s opening, Carter had been digging with Carnarvon for sixteen years, working in good faith under an agreement established at the very beginning.
He would not agree that Lacau or anyone else had the right suddenly, at the moment of his success, to change the rules. He would not give in to national passions, to Lacau’s scientific slogans, or to the newspaper campaigns. The tomb would be closed for two years while he fought a losing battle. And he became a kind of sacred monster—isolated after Carnarvon’s death, heroic, villainous, with a strange, “affected” voice that talked familiarly about the long, long dead.
At this point, however, the new director did not yet show his hand. Even under the old rules, unique pieces were reserved for the Egyptian Museum: Carter and Carnarvon did not consider the piece they found in Wadi e ‘Táqa e ‘Zeide to be unique. But Lacau declared that the thirty-five-hundred-year-old royal monument must remain in Egypt, and he was the last court of appeal in the matter.
Though the issue rankled, it was forgotten as the war drew to a close and the Carter/Carnarvon team prepared to dig at last in the Valley of the Kings itself. Carter’s plan was to clear the area he had marked out down to bedrock. Mountains of debris from earlier excavations were scattered about, so there was only one way to ascertain what was really underneath: to clear it all away, foot by foot if necessary.
Which it proved to be. During the first season, nothing was found. Likewise, season number two brought rien—nicht—nothing, giving the international community its first good laugh since the war. A colleague, Arthur Mace, tried to comfort the forlorn team as their third and then fourth futile seasons rolled by: Archaeology, he intoned, is like a second marriage—the triumph of hope over experience.
But Carter and Carnarvon were way past their “second” marriage—they were on their way to outdoing Elizabeth Taylor, going into their sixth marriage (that is, season), with nothing more to show for it than a dozen or so Ramesses II alabaster vases finally dug out of the rubble (by Lady Carnarvon, who, atypically, had decided to desert her lover for a spell). It was a measure of the vases’ insignificance that Lacau let the explorers keep whichever ones they wanted.
Carnarvon returned empty-handed to Highclere Castle, where perhaps the bracing cold or the gloomy, misty fields cleared his head. He realized that the whole venture was insane, doomed, and going to bankrupt the noble house of Carnarvon.
Carter had returned to England as well to help his first patron, William Tyssen-Amherst, who was having money troubles as well (in a few years, he would go bankrupt). Just now, however, Carter had been asked to help him sell off some pieces from Tyssen-Amherst’s Egyptian collection; he was to act as Tyssen-Amherst’s agent with Sotheby’s (first to go: the large granite statues of Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddesses who had awed the boy Carter on his way to sketch the family pets).
Hearing that Carter was in England, Carnarvon invited him to Highclere for a talk, determined to call it a day.
An account of their interview was given to us by James Breasted, one of the first American Egyptologists and founder of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. Carter’s contemporary and co-worker, Breasted was one of the few colleagues with whom Carter remained on good terms for his whole life. (Of course, they had a falling-out: Carter bought an antiquity to which Breasted claimed he had right of first refusal. But it was nothing in the scheme of Carter’s violent quarrels with almost everyone.)
Breasted was someone to whom Carter turned in a pinch—when Tut’s tomb was discovered, for instance, Breasted immediately showed up and generously gave of his epigraphic expertise, recording and deciphering the many seals plastered over its walls and doors. His account of the Carnarvon-Carter meeting, therefore, was to be trusted.
“In the summer of 1922,” Breasted revealed, “after still another unsuccessful season of excavation, Carnarvon summoned him to Highclere Castle to discuss the question of whether they should continue this expensive and thus far fruitless task. Carnarvon rather dreaded the interview which as it then seemed to him could end only in a decision even more saddening for Carter, if possible, than for himself….
“Carter also anticipated their interview with anxiety, for he better than anyone knew that thus far the record warranted no other conclusion. His one hope resided in a simple plan which he proposed to lay before Carnarvon.
“When they finally met at Highclere, Carnarvon reviewed the history of their work, expressed again his appreciation of the years of effort Carter had given to it, and with genuine regret stated that in view of the post war economic stringency, he would find it impossible to support further this obviously barren undertaking.
“In reply Carter said that their consistent failure to find anything had not in the slightest weakened the conviction he had held for years, that The Valley contained at least one more royal tomb—” Italics mine. This at least is really something. It sets Carter apart. What is he saying! Not only is King Tut buried in the Valley, but there may be other undiscovered royal tombs as well! And he has the chutzpah to offer this opinion after so many hundreds of thousands of pounds have been wasted.
He followed this up with another gesture that was quite wonderful, a kind of grand shrug: “He granted that perhaps even this problematical tomb might have been robbed in antiquity—”
What is Carter “granting”?! That even if they find Tut’s tomb, it may be empty! One can just imagine Carnarvon mopping his brow or jumping up and turning the portrait of his father, the Fourth Earl of Carnarvon, to the wall, for surely in the history of Highclere Castle the family’s cash assets had never been squandered so recklessly. Horses, mistresses, and marathon card games were solid investments compared with this.
Whatever Carnarvon’s reaction, he let Carter finish his spiel: Granted, Carter said as if he were the lord and Carnarvon the retainer, granted it all might be for nothing, it might be that the tomb had been robbed in antiquity—but then again—Carter wound up: “There was always the possibility that it had not!”
Now, admittedly words were not Carter’s strong suit. One of his colleagues (Breasted) put it a little strongly, perhaps, when he wrote in a letter, “It is well known that Carter does not know the meaning of the English language.” Fine—he was a practical man, a sharp-eyed observer of nature, a craftsmanlike artist, a great draftsman, a good photographer, an intuitive, practically self-taught archaeologist, and he was in a class by himself as an excavator. What did it matter that he wasn’t eloquent?
Ghostwriters and collaborators helped him cook up his account of the discovery of Tut’s tomb—comparing it with his letters, excavation reports, and the like, one can easily spot what an act of ventriloquism his popular (and profitable) writings were. Ditto his lectures. Say of Carter (as Madame de Staël said of one of her lovers), “Speech is not his language!”
Still, surely Carter could have come up with a better conclusion than this when arguing his case before Carnarvon, some moving speech, some clinching syllogism, some eloquent appeal. However, Hermes Trismegistus help him, he did not.
What did Carter do next? Breasted tells us that he “laid before him [Carnarvon] the familiar map—” The map! One can imagine what a welcome sight that was to Carnarvon, who had seen it so often that he could have shown it to Carter by this time. The map, “which recorded, season by season, the account of their probing and excavation. At first glance, not a square metre of Valley floor and slopes appeared unchecked, but Carter reminded him that just below the entrance to the tomb of Rameses VI there remained a small triangular area—” The triangle again! Another sight that must have been most welcome to Carnarvon’s eyes.
And why had Carter left it until last, this wonderful triangle of his? Why for the last six years had he ignored the place of his original hunch, the area where Theodore Davis had found his King Tut’s tomb, the place where Edward Ayrton had reached behind a boulder to find the telltale green faience cup with Tut’s name? What had he been waiting for? The answer he gave reminds one of a derelict schoolboy excusing his unpreparedness: He was waiting for an opportune moment!
What is he talking about? “Some later, off-season time because it would temporarily prevent visitors from entering the foregoing tomb.” That is, the tomb of Ramesses VI.
Now, this sounds simply beyond belief, and more than one Egyptologist has questioned it. Not only wild-eyed weavers of conspiracy theories (of whom there are many), but a clear-eyed, learned, lucid, and interesting scholar such as Christine El Mahdy—for one—doesn’t believe Carter for a minute. An Egyptologist at Yeovil College, England, she has pursued a lifelong interest in King Tut by carefully and critically studying all the available evidence.
In her thought-provoking Tutankhamen, she underscores her skepticism by pointing out, quite correctly, that as inspector, Carter had worked on strengthening the retaining wall leading to the entrance of Ramesses VI’s tomb. That means he would have been working directly over the entrance to Tut’s tomb. How can one believe he didn’t know about it? No, she opines, he knew it, but he was saving it for just such a moment as this: It was his ace in the hole for when Carnarvon should get tired of bankrolling a fruitless series of digs at high price.
Why should Carter have proceeded in this way? Well, unfortunately, one such doubt leads to another—and another and another—until we see Carter as either the mastermind of a complicated plot unequaled in the annals of archaeology—or a fool!
Was he looting the tomb through secret entrances running into it from below, behind, or on the side (another theory proposed by less scrupulous theorists than Mahdy)? Did he have a fleet of airplanes hovering overhead to take away the treasure, as was widely believed not only by the villagers, but even by sober members of the Wafd (or Nationalist) Party? Did he—
But wait! Let us draw back from these crazy theories and return to the well-informed Ms. Mahdy (whose account of Tutankhamun’s tomb is filled with truly striking, original, and thought-provoking insights). It is possible that she is right that Carter knew about Tut’s tomb from the beginning, but Carter’s motive—or rather his motive behind his motive—is not convincing.
Say he wanted to string Carnarvon along (motive number one, given by Mahdy). But why? Why is he buying time? One has to answer that—and in doing so, one falls into a morass of speculation that just does not jibe with something essential to Carter: For whatever fetishes, dishonesties, rages, and out-and-out craziness he was capable of, he had integrity in the higher sense.
The (literally) thousands of painstakingly accurate index cards he filled out in his clearance of Tut’s tomb; the fanatically detailed sketches of objects; the care with which he treated the rotting cloth and fragile wooden antiquities of the tomb; the fanaticism with which he polished the jewelry and restored every atom of the royal chariots—down to the gilded horse blinkers—all was a result of his love for his work, his genius, his devotion.
Did he give in to dark impulses? Certainly! Did he try to steal this or that? Without a doubt. Was he a part of some Mafia-style scam? It seems to the present writer that the answer is an emphatic no.
It is altogether possible to say that Carter’s digging away from Tut’s tomb when he was just within a few feet of it at the very beginning is altogether in the nature of things. There is an irony about the way the world is put together, as thinkers from the Egyptian Old Kingdom on have observed.
After the fact, one can exclaim with disbelief: How is it possible? But one would perhaps have to be out in the hot sun surrounded by rubble and singing workers to enter into Carter’s feverish gambler’s frame of mind. One would have to hear the laughter of his colleagues, to feel the insult of his dismissal as inspector, and to have had the experience of years in dark, claustrophobic tombs to know just what motivated Carter to act this way or that. And as the simplest explanation is the one generally accepted in the scientific model, perhaps one should resort to simplicity as well in accounting for human motives.
Breasted continued his account of the Carnarvon-Carter meeting: “In this area,” Carter explains to Carnarvon, referring to the “triangle,” “he [Carter] had noted the foundation remains of a row of crude stone huts, evidently built by ancient tomb workmen, which he would have to remove in order to probe the terrain beneath them.”
Just what these ancient crude stone huts were must be explained. During the unstable last days of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Ay seized for himself the large, royal-size tomb that had been excavated in the West Valley—probably the one originally intended for Tut—and buried the boy-king in a tomb that had probably been dug for some high-placed but nonroyal aristocrat.
Ay did not live long, and his successor, General Horemheb, had no children, passing the throne along to a fellow soldier, Ramesses I, who founded the Nineteenth Dynasty. Which in turn was followed by a long line of Ramesses in the Twentieth Dynasty.
This was what preserved Tut for three millennia—that the Ramessides built over the relatively small tomb (small by Eighteenth Dynasty royal standards: a flight of sixteen steps, a corridor, an antechamber with a side room, or “annex,” on one side, a sealed door on the other leading to the burial chamber, with another storeroom, the treasury, to one side). Ramesses VI’s tomb was just a little higher up on the slope; and the Ramesside tomb workers also covered up the forgotten boy-king’s sepulcher with their huts.
Huts that Carter now proposed to demolish as he laid his cards on the table. Breasted concluded, “Now, said Carter, only when this triangle had been cleared would he feel that their work in The Valley had been absolutely completed. He therefore wished to propose that Carnarvon grant him permission to undertake one more season’s work at his—Carter’s—own expense, using Carnarvon’s concession, and the same workmen and equipment he had employed for years; and if at the end of this final season he found nothing, he would of course, and with a good conscience, agree that they should abandon The Valley.
“But if on the other hand he should make a discovery, it should belong to Carnarvon exactly as under their long-standing arrangement….
“Carter’s proposal appealed to him [Carnarvon] as eminently fair—in fact, as too generous. He would agree, he said, to another and final season of excavation; but it would be at his own, not Carter’s expense….”
Poor Carnarvon! Oppressed by “post war stringencies” and heavy expenses! Burdened by a huge estate and a small army of old family servants and pensioners! The sole support of an extravagant wife and her indigent lover! Obliged to underwrite a famous stable and an infamous archaeologist—a fanatical excavator who was either a genius or a fool, who held out to him crumbling earthenware pots and torn linen bandages as a sure sign of treasure!
Poor Carnarvon, everyone had a hand in his pocket! He was shelling out left and right at a time when my lord of this was renting out his castle and my lady of that was going bankrupt—take the Tyssen-Amhersts, selling off their Sekhmets, a terrible business.
But he had given his word, and he did not go back on it. He stood the test. At a time when he did not know where his next plate of pâté de foie gras was coming from, he backed Carter on a final throw of the dice.
EVERYTHING HAPPENED VERY QUICKLY AFTER THIS MEETING at Highclere—with such speed that Carter barely had the chance to catch his breath. It was as if they had to be tested first—each according to his capabilities—before the earth would open up under their feet and yield up what they had been seeking.
Toward the end of October, Carter returned to Luxor and told his reis to round up the workers—there would be another season after all. Then he strode out to the site to plan and record the ancient workers’ huts, which must first of all be torn down (at least those beneath Ramesses VI’s tomb). If he had been “sleepwalking” around this vital area before, now he was wide awake.
There was a layer of rubble under the huts, around three feet deep, and by November 3 the men began to clear this away, preparing to trench toward the south of the triangle.
But before they got very far, a young water boy, hired the day before, saw a step beneath the soil and cried out. Though sometimes Carter mentioned him in his lectures, in his written account the boy did not appear. Except for varying details such as this, Carter’s written account can be trusted (at least until he reaches the inner door). Indeed, it would be very difficult for him to depart from the truth, since every step of his way into the tomb was so closely watched.
“Hardly had I arrived on the work next morning,” he wrote, “than the unusual silence, due to the stoppage of the work, made me realize that something out of the ordinary had happened … a step cut in the rock had been discovered underneath the very first hut to be attacked. This seemed too good to be true, but a short amount of extra clearing revealed the fact that we were actually in the entrance of a steep cut in the rock….”
It seemed too good to be true not only to Carter, but to skeptics who read his story. But if this sudden discovery was a “setup,” as has been suggested, surely Carter would have been more clever about it. He would have waited a month or at least a few weeks before “allowing” the discovery to take place. In any case, the nervous strain Carter suffered until the tomb was finally opened was evident to everyone who knew him. Far from being assured, he was like a man on trial for his life. He could not sleep, he could not eat, he could not stop speculating about what he had found—a cache or a tomb, an intact burial or an empty, plundered sepulcher.
The men had to keep digging, since “masses of rubbish overlay the cut.” They cleared step after step until finally they were positive it was a descending staircase they were working on. Carter stood rooted to the spot, watching until finally by the twelfth step the men reached “the upper part of a doorway, blocked, plastered, and sealed.”
The seal gave no clue as to the owner’s identity. It was the jackal over nine captives seal used by necropolis officials. Clearly whoever was buried here was of importance, but nothing more could be inferred. Carter hollowed out a peephole, but the passageway behind the door was filled in with rubble.
“Anything, literally anything, might lie beyond that passage,” he wrote, “and it needed all my self control to keep from breaking down the doorway and investigating then and there.”
But it was late in the day, and the sun was beginning to set. Clearing the passageway behind the door would take time. Its rubble must be sifted for possible clues, and Carter was a professional. He might break the service’s rules, but he would never jeopardize the smallest scrap of knowledge to be gleaned from a find. Petrie had trained him too well for that.
Again, he was tortured by doubts. If it was Tut’s tomb, why was the entranceway so narrow? The necropolis seals were a good sign—but then, they didn’t necessarily prove anything. There might be nothing at the end of that passageway but a bundle of bones stripped of jewelry and amulets and reburied in antiquity by pious ancient priests.
If he had cleared away just a few more inches of rubble, if he had exposed just a little more of the lower part of the door, he would have found Tutankhamun’s royal seal as well. But that did not happen. For security, the workmen shoveled back all the debris onto the steps and then rolled huge flint boulders in front of its entrance. Carter’s reis bedded down for the night in front of the tomb, together with his most trusted men. And then Carter rode home through the moonlit desert.
The next day, he telegraphed Carnarvon, who was in England, “At last have made wonderful discovery in valley: a magnificent tomb with seals intact; recovered same for your arrival; congratulations.” Then he must sit back and wait—he owed it to his patron to do nothing until he arrived.
He had overstated the matter in his telegram, as critics point out. But what could be more natural? After so many years of pursuing Tut, of course he was carried away by the possibility of success. In any case, he was not the only one to be carried away. When Carnarvon appeared two weeks later with his young daughter, Lady Evelyn, there was electricity in the air. The province’s governor escorted them from the train with a guard of honor while crowds cheered, though of course, nothing was certain yet.
The boulders were rolled away, the staircase was cleared, and this time with the entire doorway uncovered, Tut’s seals could be clearly seen. But a new element was added. An examination of the seals on the doorway made it clear that the portion of the door bearing the necropolis seal had been opened twice and resealed twice.
“Plunderers had entered it, and entered it more than once,” Carter realized. “But that they had not rifled it completely was evident from the fact that it had been resealed.” There was no way of knowing, of course, and the tension built as Carter, with Carnarvon looking over his shoulder, proceeded with the work.
On November 25, they removed the blocking stones from the doorway and found that the corridor behind it was completely filled in with stone and rubble. Again, there was evidence of plundering: A tunnel had been dug through the filling. Clearing this passageway took up the rest of the day, but by the next morning, they had reached a second, inner door. The moment of truth had arrived.
“With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left hand corner,” Carter wrote. “Darkness and blank space, as far as an iron testing rod could reach, showed that whatever lay beyond was empty and not filled like the passage we had just cleared … and then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle and peered in. Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn and Callender standing anxiously beside me to hear the verdict.
“At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold—everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment—an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by—I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.’”
Carter’s whole life was a preparation for this moment—but nothing could prepare him for what he saw—a sudden burst of fantasy sixteen steps beneath the stark desert cliffs. For the splendor of Tut’s tomb partook more of the realm of the imaginary than the real. He stepped through Alice’s looking-glass into a room filled with casket after casket of fantastic jewelry, gilded couches, and brilliantly beaded clothing, chariots, and fans and boats and vases—the list is staggering.
But what he saw when he stood there peering through the hole was just a fraction of the find. He recorded that his exhilaration gave way to solemnity when he actually entered the tomb and saw that the antechamber led to three more rooms filled with astonishing works of art and fragile antiquities. He fell silent, realizing that the tomb was more than a wonderful find. It was a responsibility and a burden that by the end would consume the rest of his life.
In the larger sense, Carter’s story ends here. The excavator passed King Tut on that stairway of sixteen finely chiseled steps. Tut was resurrected after thirty-three centuries. He came alive in scene after scene from the tomb. His features, serene and noble, molded in gold, entered modern consciousness as an icon of the past.
While Carter, the main quest of his life fulfilled, descended into the tomb as surely as if he were wrapped in linen winding bandages. Of course, there would be lectures, banquets, political struggles, the work of restoration. He would be insulted, enraged—and he would dine with presidents and kings. But for all that, the rest of his life was one long postscript to this moment of revelation that left him speechless with wonder.