The Legacy of Howard Carter Did King Tut's Discoverer Steal from the Tomb?

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Part 2: 'Unstamped Things'


Such handling of foreign property only serves to strengthen a suspicion Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, raised in the 1970s. Based on internal file notes, he documented cases in which Carter and his partner, the English Earl of Carnarvon, allowed their fingers to wander. They gave a clasp that showed the pharaoh on a war chariot as a present to Egyptian King Fouad I, for example. American oil baron Edward Harkness received a gold ring.

Carnarvon himself was looking for a fresh supply of such treasures. He wanted "unstamped things," he wrote from Highclere Castle to Thebes on December 22, 1922, meaning pieces without a cartouche containing a name, so that they would be difficult to identify.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: The Wayward Treasures of King Tut's Tomb
Carter was only caught in the act once. He'd slipped a painted bust of the young pharaoh into a side chamber, without a registration number. Inspectors discovered the bust, a "masterpiece of antique sculpture" in Hoving's words, in a wine crate. The archaeologist talked his way out of the situation, and the scandal was never made public.

Most of the time, Carter's subterfuge worked. A series of mostly small objects disappeared. Who stole what when -- and where the pieces ended up -- remains one of Egyptology's greatest mysteries.

Ancient Tomb Robbers?

What's known for sure is that the Metropolitan Museum of Art alone contains around 20 objects presumed to have originated from KV 62, Tutankhamun's tomb. These include a small dog made of ivory, a gazelle, rings, a splendid painter's palette, and even two silver coffin nails.

The Brooklyn Museum has in its possession, among other things, a statue of a girl, an ointment spoon, and a blue glass vase. A cat carved from black hematite turned up in Cleveland. The owners release very little information on the disputed objects.

"Nobody likes to talk about these unpleasant things," explains Loeben, the Egyptologist. In England, Carter is known as a brilliant counterpart to Heinrich Schliemann, the German archeologist who excavated ancient Troy. That Carter earned his money through antique dealing, though, is normally hushed up.

The most recent allegations go further. Carter is said to have fudged archaeological facts, leading generations of researchers astray. The focal point of the criticism is Carter's theory that the tomb had been looted multiple times in antiquity.

Thieves broke into the sanctuary "immediately following the burial rituals," Carter wrote. Backed up by corrupt necropolis officials, they ransacked all the tomb's chambers, he claimed, and other bandits later came and stole cosmetic oils.

The archaeologist gave signs of a break-in as proof, saying he had to force his way through a series of doors that had been broken open and then re-sealed by necropolis guards, all in ancient times.

Robbers With a Thing for Small Jewelry

Carter described the robbers' destruction in vivid detail. Chests had been rifled through and stoppers pulled from alabaster vases and thrown to the ground, he said. The robbers had torn ornamentation made of precious metals from the furniture and chariots, as well as stealing a 30-centimeter (12-inch) solid gold statue.

That scenario represents the prevailing opinion today. In his standard work "The Complete Tutankhamun," British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves accepts the figure that 60 percent of the tomb's small ornaments and jewelry were lost. But is it true? No independent witnesses were present when Carter first entered the tomb.

It's also clear that he lied on at least a few points. Alfred Lucas, one of Carter's employees, revealed that his boss secretly broke open the door to the burial chamber himself, afterward relocking it with deceptive authenticity using an antique seal, to hide his transgression. That report appeared in 1947, but only in a little-read scientific journal in Cairo. Hardly anyone took notice.

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