Born on 9th of May 1874
Died on 2nd of March 1939
In an age of gentleman scholars Howard Carter, finder of Tutankhamun’s tomb, was a brilliant outsider, whose energy and experience paid off with one of the greatest finds in archaeological history.
Carter, born in Kensington on May 9 1874 but brought up in Swaffham in Norfolk, was the eighth and last child of a journeyman portraitist. Fired by an interest in Egypt from an early age he shipped out for Alexandria when just 17, working as a tracer (artists copying art and hieroglyphics) with the Egypt Exploration Fund. He worked for a year with Flinders Petrie, demonstrating a flair for discoveries much against the latter’s expectations. Still at a lowly level he worked from 1894 to1899 recording wall reliefs at the temple of Queen Hatshepsut, before getting his first great break, offered the post of Director General of the Egyptian Antiquities Service. He carried out that role from 1899 to 1905, when drunken and rowdy French tourists were at his orders roughly handled by Egyptian guards. They were well connected, he was not, and when subsequently posted out of the way he resigned.
The next three years were precarious for Carter: he worked as a watercolour artist and as a tour guide to survive. In 1908, however, he was introduced to and employed by Lord Carnarvon, for whom he made many interesting if unexceptional finds. He exasperated his wealthy patron, hungry for glory and lost treasures, with a methodical and scientific approach to his work, but they seem to have complemented one another. By 1922 Carnarvon was growing tired of the hunt, and gave Carter one more season to make a major discovery. Work started on November 4 1922; three days later Carter’s waterboy stumbled on steps that would prove to be those to Tutankhamun’s tomb. At 4pm on November 26, with Carnarvon and his daughter present, Carter broke a small hole through to the tomb’s antechamber: asked what he saw Carter famously replied “I see wonderful things.” Greater yet were found when he entered the tomb itself on February 16 1923. It took another nine years to catalogue the artefacts unearthed.
Carter died of cancer on March 2 1939 in London. The last years of his life had been spent finally collecting for himself as well as for various American institutions, and as a celebrated lecturer.
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