How Did Howard Carter Discover Tutankhamun’s Tomb

Howard Carter (1874-1939)

The history of Egyptology is filled with the names of many influential scholars, who not only helped advance the discipline, but also forwarded human knowledge in general. The Frenchman Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832) is known for deciphering the enigmatic Egyptian hieroglyphic script and for developing translation and decipherment methods that have been used in other studies. Englishman Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) made many discoveries in Egypt, but more importantly he developed scientific methods of archeology that are still used today around the world in nearly every sub-discipline of archaeology. James Henry Breasted (1865-1935) is known today as the father of American Egyptology and for helping making the Oriental Institute of Chicago into one of the premier ancient Near East research institutes in the world. Often included in the list of the world’s greatest Egyptologists is Englishman Howard.

Does Howard Carter deserve his Fame?

Professional Egyptologists usually rank Carter’s overall influence on the field significantly behind the men listed above, but for non-professionals Carter’s name is often the first, and sometimes the only, name of prominent Egyptologists to come to mind. Carter is best known for the discovery of tomb KV 62 in the Valley of the Kings outside Luxor, Egypt in November 1922. Of course this was the tomb of the legendary King Tutankhamun (ruled ca. 1345-1335 BC), more commonly known as “King Tut,” which happened to be the best preserved and most complete of the New Kingdom, Valley of the Kings tombs. The discovery cemented Carter’s legacy as an Egyptological maven, which was further enhanced by the later claims of a curse.

But Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb came at the end of his career and it almost never happened. After a successful career at the top of the Egyptological world, Carter grew tired of the politics and called it quits, but the wealthy Lord Carnarvon gave him an offer he could not refuse, resulting in the greatest archaeological discovery of the twentieth century.

Carter’s Early Life

Howard Carter was born to a middle class English family and grew up in the Kensington district of London. His father John made a living as a wildlife and animal painter, selling his works to private individuals and magazines. Young Howard showed an aptitude for painting and drawing as well, learning the techniques from his father but also apparently inheriting the raw talent from his as well. [1] It also helped that the Carters owned a small menagerie so young Howard was able to get plenty of practice.

At a relatively young age, Howard painted the pets of rich people for fees that got progressively larger as his skills and reputation around London grew. [2] Carter primarily worked in watercolors at this point in his life, which would be the medium he would later use to establish a foothold in the field of Egyptology. One of John Carter’s well-connected and wealthy clients was so impressed with the teenager’s work that he offered to introduce him to some of the leading Egyptologists in the London area. [3] Since photography was still a fairly new medium in the late nineteenth century, Egyptologists primarily used artists to document the reliefs in tombs and to aid in epigraphy. The young Howard Carter quickly learned that his artistic skills were in great demand with the world’s top Egyptologists.

Carter’s First Foray into Egyptology

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Carter’s Painting of Hatshepsut’s Grandmother, Seniseneb, from the Temple of Deir el-Bhari

Howard Carter’s artistic skills earned him a position with the Archaeological Survey of Egypt in 1891 at the age of seventeen. In his first season, Carter worked with the esteemed Egyptologist Percy Newberry at the sites of Beni Hasan and El-Bersheh, notably documenting the reliefs from the tomb of the Twelfth Dynasty official, Khnumhotep, in watercolor. [4] The experience allowed Carter to make more connections and to work with perhaps the greatest Egyptologist of his time in the next excavation season.

The 1892 excavation season proved to be quite fortuitous for Howard Carter in two different ways. First, he was invited to work with Flinders Petrie, which allowed him to learn new archaeological techniques that he would use throughout his career. Becoming part of Petrie’s circle of friends and colleagues also gave his career a boost through the increased connections and prestige it brought. Furthermore, working for Petrie brought Carter to the site of Amarna, which was the capital city of the enigmatic Eighteenth Dynasty King Akhenaten (ruled ca. 1364-1347 BC), who was Tutankhamun’s predecessor on the throne. Carter initially was assigned to paint images of excavated items, as he had done for Newberry, but he was eventually given the Great Aten Temple to excavate. [5] Although the work at Amarna certainly helped Carter’s career, the reality is that he was not Petrie’s first choice of young assistants.

Petrie was obligated to listen to at least some of the requests of his primary financial backer, William Thyssen-Amherst, with one being to hire Carter. [6] Petrie seems to have genuinely liked Carter, as can be evidenced by the friendship the two man had for the rest of their lives, but he was apparently not convinced that his young protégé was entirely serious about a career in archaeology. He wrote in his journal:

“Mr. Carter is a good-natured lad whose interest is entirely in painting and natural history: he only takes on this digging as being on the spot and convenient to Mr. Amherst, and it is of no use to me to work him up as an excavator.” [7]

Petrie’s criticism notwithstanding, Carter would go on to work at other important sites throughout Egypt, advancing in the profession in the process.

The Height of His Career

The Entrance to the Valley of the Kings
After working with Petrie for a year, Carter next did epigraphy work for Edouard Naville at Queen/King Hatshepsut’s (reigned 1490-1469 BC) temple at Deir el-Bahri. [8] By the end of the 1893-94 field season, Carter had proven himself to be an excellent artist and epigrapher, a competent archaeologist, and an all around excellent Egyptologist. The most prominent Egyptologists were beginning to take notice of the young artist turned Egyptologist.

In 1899, Howard Carter would be the recipient of another fortuitous turn of events that would further propel his career, but was at the same time the beginning of the end of that chapter in his life. The Frenchman Gaston Maspero was the Director General of antiquities in Egypt in 1899 and in an effort to be diplomatic, he consciously appointed Germans and Brits to the directorate along with his fellow Frenchmen. [9] Carter was the British recipient of Maspero’s good will, being awarded the position of Inspector General of Upper (southern) Egypt.

Carter proved to be an especially active Inspector General, personally playing a role in the issuing of excavation permits and doing his best to utilize modern technology and techniques in the process. He installed the first electric lights in the Valley of the Kings and at Ramesses the Great’s temple at Abu Simbel, [10] taking a particular interest in the Valley of the Kings, which would of course be where he would later make his mark on the world. Carter oversaw the first systematic exploration of the Valley of the Kings in 1902, which was conducted by American archaeologist Theodore Davis. [11]

In 1903, Carter was transferred to be the Inspector General of Lower and Middle Egypt, which meant that he was based in Saqqara instead of Luxor. Not long after taking the post, Carter was involved in an altercation with some French tourists who wanted to see the Serapeum of Saqqara, which was the tomb complex for the sacred Apis bulls. Carter had little patience for the belligerent tourists, who happened to be drunk, so the arguing became more heated until there was pushing and a few punches were thrown.

Eventually cooler heads prevailed and the tourists left, but they later demanded an apology from Carter. Maspero agreed and admonished Carter to give a formal apology, but he refused and instead quit the post and returned to England. He went back to work as a painter and traded antiquities to support himself. [12] It appeared to most people, including Carter himself, that Howard Carter’s career as an archeologists had come to an end. But then fate grabbed hold of Howard Carter once more.

Another Chance in Egypt

Carter at the Entrance to Tutankhamun’s Tomb

As Carter worked on the edges of the field of Egyptology in England, a wealthy Englishman named George Herbert (1866-1923), the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, decided to use his money to fund his own archaeological dig in Egypt. Herbert conducted a dig in 1907 near Thebes in Upper Egypt, but was told by Maspero that he needed to get a professional archaeologist if he wanted to continue digging in Egypt. [13] Herbert was then put in touch with Carter and the two men began a professional relationship that lasted until the end of Lord Carnarvon’s life.

After digging in the Delta for several years, Carter convinced Herbert that they should return to the Thebes area, but securing a concession would not be easy. The Thebes area was and remains the most popular region for archaeologists, especially the Valley of the Kings. Carter used his connections to get a concession, which brought him back to his old American friend and colleague, Theodore Davis. With war looking inevitable, Davis agreed to give Carter his concession to dig in the Valley of Kings in 1914. [14]

World War I, or the “Great War,” as it was then known as, did in fact halt Carter’s work in the Valley of the Kings for about three years, but operations resumed in 1917. Then, after a few chance circumstances when the team was near quitting, Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered on November 4, 1922. [15] Howard Carter would live for almost another twenty years after discovering the tomb and would lecture and publish extensively about his finding, but the discovery proved to be the apogee of his career.


Howard Carter is rightfully considered to be one of the most important and influential of all Egyptologists, but most of the attention on his career has revolved around his discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Although it is true that the discovery proved to be the high water mark of Carter’s Egyptological career, he had already left his mark on the study of Egyptology in many ways. Carter’s skills as an artist were in demand by some of the world’s top Egyptologists, which allowed him to learn archaeology and to make important connections in the field. Without the knowledge, skills, and connections he made during those early years, Howard Carter may not have discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb.


  1. Shaw, Ian and Paul Nicholson. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), p. 61
  2. Newberry, P. E. “Howard Carter.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 25 (1939) pgs. 67
  3. Schlessinger, Birgit. “Howard Carter before Tutankhamun: Sounderausstelung im Britischen Museum in London.” Antike Welt 24 (1994) p. 51
  4. Schlessinger, p. 51
  5. Drower, Margaret S. Flinders Petrie: A Life in Archaeology. (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), p. 194
  6. Montserrat, Dominic. Akhenaten: History, Fantasy, and Ancient Egypt. (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 67
  7. Drower, p. 194
  8. Shaw and Nicholson, p. 61
  9. Reid, Donald Malcom. Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity form Napoleon to World War I. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), p. 168
  10. Shaw and Nicholson, p. 61
  11. Newberry, p. 68
  12. Newberry, p. 68
  13. Newberry, p. 68
  14. Schlessinger, p. 53
  15. Schlessinger, p. 53