Wonderful Things: a Story of Persistence and Triumph

Howard Carter was born in England in 1874.

He developed a keen interest in ancient Egypt and, at the age of 25, he landed a job with the Egyptian Antiquities Service. He was appointed Inspector of Monuments for Upper Egypt. He did well in his role. Most importantly to Carter, the Antiquities Service provided funding to head his own excavation projects.

Valley of Kings, 1910. Source unknown

 

But Carter’s independent nature soon led to trouble. In 1905, a group of tourists had a dispute with the Egyptian guards. The visitors turned to the young archaeologist but he sided with the guards, prompting them to complain to the Antiquities Service. The agency was cautious about jostling relationships with tourists and told Carter to apologize. When he refused, they threatened to demote him which prompted the archaeologist to quit.

The loss of his job was catastrophic for Howard Carter. He was not a wealthy man. He could fund no excavations on his own, and now he had to find a new way to survive. For the next few years, Carter supported himself by selling his sketches of the pyramids and Valley of the Kings.

A fortuitous introduction to the Earl of Carnarvon in 1908 changed everything. Like Carter, Lord Carnarvon was a student of ancient Egypt. Unlike Carter, Carnarvon had plenty of money to fund his interests.

Most of the pharaohs’ tombs had been looted in antiquity. The lavish treasures they contained were stolen. Carter and Carnarvon was certain that there was one tomb that had never been discovered in the Valley of the Kings. If the tomb of King Tutankhamun, a pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, could be found and it was intact, it would be one of the incredible historical discoveries ever made. Carnarvon appreciated Howard Carter’s knowledge and passion for the project and hired him to supervise the excavation efforts he funded.

Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter. Source unknown.

 

The years passed with minor finds, but nothing like the glorious discovery that Carter and Carnarvon dreamt of. After more than a decade of disappointment, Carnarvon admitted he was defeated. Carter had not given up. He felt his chance slipping away and pleaded with his benefactor. Just one more chance, he urged.

Carnarvon agreed and on October 29, 1922 excavation began. Carter’s desperation can be imagined. The dream that had dominated his life was crumbling but he was certain that the tomb of the ancient pharaoh was close by—within his reach. Only days into the excavation, Carter experienced a glimmer of real hope: an ancient step was uncovered. It turned out to be the top step in a flight that descended far into the Earth and ended with a sealed door. And behind that door was Tutankhamun.

When Carter confirmed that he had found the tomb, he exercised tremendous self-control. He stopped, covered the work, and sent a telegram to Lord Carnarvon which read in part: “At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact.”

It’s hard to imagine the excitement everyone connected with the excavation felt—especially the lead archeaologist. For over three thousand years, the ancient pharaoh had waited behind this mysterious door. And he, Howard Carter, would be the man to open the door.

Photograph by Harry Burton. Archaeologist Howard Carter peers into the burial chamber. From the BBC.com

 

Carnarvon hurried back to Egypt. On November 26, Carter and Carnarvon stood in front of the sealed door together. With them was Mr. Harry Burton, a photographer from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He had been chosen to document the momentous discovery.

Lord Carnarvon turned to Carter anxiously, and he began to chisel at the door. At last a sliver of space was made, just enough room for Carter to get a candle through. Through the crack, he squinted into the chamber. He could see statues, pottery, and gold in the flickering light. At his side, Carnarvon was unable to bear the suspense.

“Howard, what do you see?” he asked desperately.

Carter inhaled deeply. Then he turned to his sponsor and smiled. “Wonderful things,” he replied.

They had found the tomb of 18-year-old King Tutankhamun, intact and magnificent.

Photograph by Harry Burton. The gold mask in Tutankhamun’s Tomb, still inside the third solid gold coffin. Colorized. From the MetMuseum.org.

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