Howard Carter: Get to Know the Discoverer of King Tutankhamun’s Tomb

Howard Carter went from painting pet portraits to excavating the tomb of Tutankhamun. Read this article to find out how he did it.

Feb 7, 2020By Nicole B. Hansen, PhD & MA in Egyptology, BA Egyptology
howard carter-discoverer of king tutankhamun's tomb
Howard Carter, via Wikimedia Commons (left), with Howard Carter in the tomb of Tutankhamun, via Bridgeman Images (right)


When Howard Carter first peered into Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, his patron Lord Carnarvon asked him whether he saw anything. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the darkness inside, but finally, Carter exclaimed, “Yes, wonderful things! Wonderful things!” Howard Carter long had an appreciation for wonderful things, and the discovery of the boy king’s final resting place capped a career of searching for and drawing wonderful things.


Howard Carter’s Childhood

Howard Carter examining the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun, 1925
Howard Carter examining the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun, 1925


Today, to run an excavation in Egypt, one needs to have a PhD, an affiliation with a recognized academic or research institution, and to pass security clearances. Howard Carter, on the other hand, had no formal education whatsoever.

Born in London in 1874, he was a sickly child and his family sent him to live with relatives in the countryside. His father was a painter catering to the rich who wanted portraits of themselves and their pets. On his visits with his son, he taught him how to paint. The younger Carter also earned pocket money himself as a child painting people’s pets.


A Fortuitous Meeting

One of his father’s clients was a wealthy collector of Egyptian antiquities, William Amherst Tyssen-Amherst. The elder Carter took his son along with him on visits to Amherst’s estate, and the curious boy developed a fascination for his collection of statues, scarabs, shabtis, and other artifacts. Amherst sadly had to sell his collection in 1906 after being swindled by a crooked solicitor. He only lived six weeks after the auction, so heartbroken was he to part with his beloved Egyptian antiquities. Nonetheless, meeting Amherst proved to be pivotal in launching Carter’s career in Egypt.


Archaeological Drawing

A shabti from Amherst’s collection
A shabti from Amherst’s collection


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Photography did not become a common method of recording sites and finds on archaeological excavations in Egypt until the early 1900s, and even then, color photography was not an option.


Howard Carter’s painting of a hoopoe bird, scan fromArchaeological Survey of Egypt, (London, 1900), Tomb 3, Beni Hasan IV, pl. V1.
Howard Carter’s painting of a hoopoe bird, scan from Archaeological Survey of Egypt, (London, 1900), Tomb 3, Beni Hasan IV, pl. V1.


Amherst’s wife recommended the young Carter to archaeologist P. E. Newberry, who was looking for someone to ink pencil drawings made during the season of his excavations at the tombs of Beni Hasan. The following year, in 1892, Newberry invited the young Carter to Egypt. He was so fascinated of the work that he stayed up all night doing watercolors of animals in the tombs by candlelight.


Archaeological Work with the Father of Archaeology

Flinders Petrie examining some of his finds, 1930.
Flinders Petrie examining some of his finds, 1930


The man who is considered the father of archaeology, William Flinders Petrie, also took notice of Carter’s talent and invited him to work on his excavation at Tell el-Amarna. This led to further employment on an excavation at the Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari as an employee of the Egyptian government. However, his employment was terminated in 1905 during a scandal involving a confrontation between some French tourists and local Egyptian guards at the site of Saqqara. He had sided with the Egyptians.



Lord Carnarvon Steps In

Lord Carnarvon and his wife at the horse races in 1921.
Lord Carnarvon and his wife at the horse races in 1921


To conduct an excavation in Egypt requires money. In the early days of Egyptology, this normally meant seeking funding from private donors. The British aristocrat the 5th Earl or Carnarvon and his wife liked to winter in Egypt and purchased many items for their collection of antiquities during these jaunts. In order to better furnish their collection, they invited Carter to undertake excavations on their behalf in the tombs of the nobles in Luxor in 1907.


The “wonderful things” Howard Carter saw when he first peered into the tomb
The “wonderful things” Howard Carter saw when he first peered into the tomb


In 1914, Carter received permission to work in the Valley of the Kings, where the archaeologist and his backer sought to find the as-yet-undiscovered tomb of King Tutankhamun. The work was fruitless and frustrating. By 1922, Carnarvon told Carter if he did not find the tomb that year, he would cut off his funding.


Tutankhamun’s Tomb Discovery

A detail of one of Tutankhamun’s gold shrines
A detail of one of Tutankhamun’s gold shrines


As luck would have it, 1922 would be the year Carter finally found the elusive tomb. Its gold treasures surpassed any previous archaeological finds. The press descended upon Luxor with a frenzy looking for any angle to cover the discovery and Carnarvon milked it for all it was worth. The Egyptian government took notice too. Much to the chagrin of Lord Carnarvon, they determined the tomb was intact upon discovery. This meant he could not take a share of the finds for himself and instead their ownership went to the Egyptian government.


The bracelets on Tutankhamun’s forearms as drawn by Howard Carter
The bracelets on Tutankhamun’s forearms as drawn by Howard Carter


Nevertheless, the discovery gave Carter a chance to put into practice all of the artistic and archaeological skills he had honed throughout his career. He drew plans of the tomb, including the position of the artifacts and sketches of the objects found. He even did a detailed layer-by-layer set of drawings of the artifacts found on Tutankhamun’s mummy. These drawings are housed in the Griffith Institute in the UK.


Later Life

Visitors still leave flowers at the late Egyptologist’s grave
Visitors still leave flowers at the late Egyptologist’s grave


Tutankhamun’s tomb would be the last archaeological site with Carter’s involvement. He spent seven years on excavations and the remainder of his life publishing the finds. He died in 1939, childless and never having married. His tomb is inscribed with the following epitaph taken from one of the artifacts in Tutankhamun’s tomb: “May your spirit live, may you spend millions of years, you who love Thebes, sitting with your face to the north wind, your eyes beholding happiness.” Indeed, Carter’s life and death were both full of beholding and drawing wonderful things thanks to support from collectors and archaeologists.


Sale of Carter’s Paintings

Some of Howard Carter’s paintings, as seen in Antiques Roadshow


Carter’s artwork continues to generate interest from collectors. Auction houses like Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams occasionally offer Carter’s original watercolors. These often feature ancient Egyptian artifacts, tomb reliefs, objects, or animals. They can fetch tens of thousands of dollars.


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By Nicole B. HansenPhD & MA in Egyptology, BA EgyptologyNicole B. Hansen received her PhD and MA in Egyptology from the University of Chicago and her BA in Egyptology from UC Berkeley. She worked for the Giza Plateau Mapping Project at the Giza Pyramids and for the Theban Mapping Project’s Cairo office. She taught courses on Egyptian art, language and culture at the University of Chicago, the American University in Cairo and Amideast. She has a special interest in the continuity of ancient Egyptian culture until the present day, animals, medicine, magic and culinary history and lives in a village in Luxor a short distance from the archaeological sites.