Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter 94

Valley of the Kings

February 16, 1923

TIME TO OPEN the burial chamber.

Carter had never told Trout Engelbach that he had already entered the chamber, so when the day of the “official” opening arrived, he had to pretend to be curious about what might be inside. And he had to be more convincing now than ever. As news of the great discovery had spread around the world, pandemonium had erupted in Luxor. Suddenly, Howard Carter was a star and a significant historical player.

Beyond that, a certain divisiveness had set in, with Egyptian bureaucrats and foreign hangers-on all trying to get a piece of the action.

“Telegrams poured in from every quarter of the globe. Within a week or two the letters began to follow them, a deluge of correspondence that has persisted ever since,” noted Carter.

Letters of congratulation gave way to “offers of assistance; requests for souvenirs—even a few grains of sand from above the tomb would be received so thankfully; fantastic money offers, from moving picture rights to copyrights on fashions of dress; advice on the preservation of antiquities; and the best methods of appeasing evil spirits and elementals.”

For a man like Carter, so fond of introspection and relative quiet, things were getting completely out of hand. No one could have predicted this, least of all himself or his detractors in Luxor.

“The Winter Palace is a scream,” noted Egyptologist Arthur Mace, whom Carter had recruited to join the excavation party. “No one talks of anything but the tomb; newspaper men swarm, and you daren’t say a word without looking around to see if anyone is listening. Some of them are trying to make mischief between Carnarvon and the Department of Antiquities, and all Luxor takes sides one way or the other. Archaeology plus journalism is bad enough, but when you add politics, it becomes a little too much.”

An unexpected and rather discouraging problem arose for Carter because of a decision made by Lord Carnarvon. Seeking to make as much money off Tut as possible, the earl signed an exclusive agreement with the Times of London that gave the newspaper the rights to publish all details of the discovery. This infuriated not only the Egyptian press but also newspapers and magazines from around the world that had been clamoring for a piece of the century’s greatest discovery.

Perhaps worst of all, the Antiquities Service and the Egyptian government began trying to take control of the tomb. That would prove to be an ongoing struggle that would plague Carter for years.

And then there was Lady Evelyn. As Lord Carnarvon became more and more suspicious about a relationship between Carter and his daughter, tensions between the men deepened. This, combined with Carter’s new fame, drove a wedge between the two longtime partners and friends.

And yet, both men were present as politicians and bureaucrats from Egypt and Britain crowded around the tomb opening. “After lunch we met by appointment, Lacau, Engelbach, Lythgoe, Winlock, and two or three native officials, and we all went in a party to the tomb,” recalled the Egyptologist Mace.

Carter led the group of notables inside. The statues in the antechamber had been pushed to the perimeter to safeguard them from haphazard elbows and hips.

A platform had been built along the wall that divided the burial chamber from the rest of the tomb. It looked very much like a stage, and that day Howard Carter was the star.

He climbed atop the platform, stripped off his jacket and shirt, and then placed a chisel blade against the wall.

With a mighty blow of his hammer, Carter began knocking the wall down.

Arthur Mace stood to one side, and as work progressed Carter handed him bits of rock that he had chiseled away. These were in turn handed to Callender, who passed them to a chain of Egyptian workers who collected them, then carried them out of the tomb.

Slowly, the hole widened. After two hours, Carter was “dirty, disheveled and perspiring”—and playing his part perfectly.

Carter squeezed inside and beckoned the others to follow. The alabaster jars, canopic shrine with figures of four guardian goddesses, and spangled shroud were clearly visible now.

The effect on the visitors was profound: they threw their hands up and gasped, dazed by the vision before them. “Anyone coming in would have said we had been taking too much to drink,” noted Mace.

Carter could only stand back and watch.

By now he was exhausted, from both the physical labor of opening the hole and the mental exertion of his daily jousting with Carnarvon and the press. He was privately making plans to reseal the tomb and shut himself in his house for a week of quiet and solitude.

When the momentous tour of Tut’s burial chamber was over, Carter and Carnarvon said their good-byes. Carter prepared to get down to the hard work of cataloging the tomb’s many contents, a job that could take him years but one he couldn’t wait to start. He believed it would be the pinnacle of his life’s work

Carter and Carnarvon resolved most of their differences before the earl left on February 23. But just six weeks later, Lord Carnarvon was dead. The cause seems to have been septicemia, which arose after he nicked a mosquito bite with his straight razor.

Carter was left to deal with Egyptian politics and bureaucracy on his own. He couldn’t do it. Less than a year later, he was evicted from Tut’s tomb and from the valley.

One last time, his temperament and stubbornness had done him in.

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