Get Carter

Today, 16th February, is the official anniversary of the day in 1923 when Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon first broke through into the actual burial chamber of Tut Ankh Aten’s tomb. Officially, Carter had discovered the tomb in November, and cabled his sponsor. The two, along with Carnarvon’s daughter, Lady Evelyn, officially cracked a hole into the tomb’s antechamber two weeks later.

When Carter first made a small hole in the plastered door and held a candle to it, Carnarvon asked him if he could see anything. “Yes, wonderful things.” was the historically recorded answer.

However, I’ve just been reading Carter’s notes, and according to him, he said “Yes, it is wonderful.”

Carter’s diaries and notes survive. The small diary for 1922 (Lett’s No. 46 Indian and Colonial Rough Diary 1922) has only the very briefest of entries. (On many days he notes “Two donkeys”. That must be some private code to himself. I hope.) The actual excavation notes are in a loose-leaf binder. That may be significant.

You see I’ve always been slightly suspicious of Carter. The official story is that he found the staircase down to the tomb on 4th November, excavated the rubble down to the first sealed doorway by the end of the following day, and then sealed it up again with some very large stones on the top while he telegraphed his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, and waited until 20th November when he picked up Lord C and Lady E in Cairo.

He knew he had a major discovery — in fact the telegram to Carnarvon says “AT LAST HAVE MADE WONDERFUL DISCOVERY IN VALLEY A MAGNIFICENT TOMB WITH SEALS INTACT RECOVERED SAME FOR YOUR ARRIVAL CONGRATULATIONS” — and yet he left it untouched for a fortnight? That was very honourable.

Tut's tomb, Burton Photo. No. P0012, © Copyright Griffith Institute, 2005

My guess is that Carter’s diary is genuinely contemporary, day by day. (21st November says “Camel and donkey”. Busy man.) But the excavation notes can’t possibly tell the whole story, and of course, in loose-leaf form, could easily have been manipulated. While I’m not aware of any solid evidence that Carter opened the outer door before Carnarvon arrived, there is first hand information from Carnarvon himself that they went right into the final burial chamber itself on the evening of the first day, 26th November.

This was in violation of the terms of their archaeological permit. They were supposed to inform the authorities and wait for inspection and permission to continue, which wasn’t forthcoming until February. Hence the official story: the claim that they had indeed held back, and that the damage done to the doors and contents was the result of tomb robbers in ancient times.

In fact, the idea of tomb robbers suited Carnarvon and Carter very well, since they were required to hand all artefacts to the Egyptian authorities only if the tomb was totally intact when discovered. If it had been plundered previously, then half of the (remaining) contents would have been legally theirs for the taking.

In the end, it was ruled that everything was to stay in Egypt, but that wasn’t because the idea of ancient tomb robbing was disbelieved. Lord Carnarvon died (Aaagh! The Mummy’s Curse!) and being the actual signatory to the excavation permit, the Egyptian government declared that the original terms were now null and void. This, in 1923, marked the first turning point of establishing the country’s rights to hold on to its own antiquities.

Of course, the Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb got Carter as well. He only lived for a mere 16 years after opening Tutankamun’s grave, and died of lymphoma at the age of 64.

All the original photographs and documents can be accessed on line at the website of the Griffith Institute, Oxford at

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