The Legacy of Howard Carter Did King Tut's Discoverer Steal from the Tomb?
Part 3: 'The Break-In Was Faked'
Hoving's revelations in the 1970s similarly attracted little interest. Many saw him as fouling the nest.
But suspicions continue to grow, especially among German Egyptologists, who doubt that the looting of the tomb in antique times really played out the way Carter described. "Much of the story is exaggerated," Loeben believes. His colleague Rolf Krauss goes further and says, "The break-in was faked."
"Under these conditions, it's clear the discoverers must have tried construe the state of their find in their favor," is Krauss' analysis. This casts a dubious light on the man considered a leader in his field.
The Ambitious Young Carter
The son of an artist known for his portraits of animals, Carter arrived in Egypt in 1891, when Victorian-era colonialism was at its height. The young man developed a knack for finding hidden burial chambers. Before hitting it big with Tutankhamun's tomb, Carter had already found three other royal tombs -- all of them empty. He liked being connected to the powerful, working intermittently for American millionaire and amateur archaeologist Theodore Davis.
The young Carter was somewhat awkward in his personal interactions. After coming to blows with some French tourists, he lost his job as inspector for the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Carter was stubborn and hot-tempered, Hoving says, adding, "Few people could be around him for an extended period without being driven up the wall." But his knack for finding tombs is undisputed. Starting in 1907, Carter began his obsessive pursuit of the child pharaoh whose corpse had never been found, hunting every possible clue.
Eventually he defined a triangle in the Valley of the Kings. The untouched sanctuary would be found there, he believed, somewhere under the mounds of detritus.
Carter quickly found a sponsor for the plan, although dozens had failed before him in the same pursuit. Lord Carnarvon was in poor health after a serious car accident, but the nobleman dandy, who had once circumnavigated the globe, had a mania for eerie shrines to the dead and embalmed mummies.
The Path to Tutankhamun
During the Tutankhamun project, Carnarvon's teeth fell out one after another, and he died of an inflamed mosquito bite five months later -- the beginnings of the myth of the "curse of the pharaoh."
Carter didn't have an easy time either. Oppressed by the heat and buffeted by dusty winds, he urged on a team of local laborers. One unsuccessful season followed another. After four years, the group was only a few centimeters from the discovery site. Suddenly, though, the boss withdrew his workers and continued the dig elsewhere.
There is a strong case for the theory that Carter had tracked down the entrance to the tomb at this point, but kept silent for tactical reasons, keeping a trump card up his sleeve. It can be said, at the very least, that when Carnarvon wanted to cut off funds in the summer of 1922, things moved surprisingly fast. Carter returned to Britain and begged for financial backing for one last campaign.
'A Magnificent Tomb With Seals Intact'
Hardly had he arrived back in Thebes, or so runs the legend, when an assistant dashed into the excavation tent and reported a sensational find -- a buried set of stairs leading down to a sealed door. Was there intrigue behind this announcement? A half brother of Lord Carnarvon thought so. He claimed Carter had crept secretly into the underground chambers three months before.
The official story is that Carter, by his own account, felt "almost overwhelmed" by the urge to break open the irksome door, but resisted, and buried the stairs once again. The next day, November 6, 1922, he cabled Lord Carnarvon, "At last have made wonderful discovery in the Valley. A magnificent tomb with seals intact. Recovered same for your arrival. Congratulations."
Then he waited more than two weeks, ostensibly without taking any action, for his chain-smoking sponsor to arrive. Carnarvon traveled to Luxor by ship, railroad, and steamboat on the Nile. Together with his daughter Evelyn, then 21, he alighted at the glamorous Winter Palace Hotel and rushed, having barely slept, to the Valley of the Kings. Not until then did the men open the sealed door, whose mortar showed clues of a previous break-in.
Behind it lay a corridor filled with rubble.
By afternoon on November 26, the workers had removed the debris and exposed a further walled-in doorway. Carter managed to clear a peephole in the blockade, and caught a glimpse of the "wonderful things" in the antechamber.
Again and again, authors have attested to this "solemn moment," in which the archaeologist looked in on that "eternal place," dazzled, spellbound, awed -- yet managing to keep his head. Then, according to the excavation leader, he stopped, in order to notify the Egyptian inspector general as duty required.
Carter's words: "We had seen enough. We plugged the hole again."
- Part 1: Did King Tut's Discoverer Steal from the Tomb?
- Part 2: 'Unstamped Things'
- Part 3: 'The Break-In Was Faked'
- Part 4: Lord Carnarvon's Alternate Story