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

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Howard Carter, the British explorer who opened the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, will forever be associated with the greatest trove of artifacts from ancient Egypt. But was he also a thief?

Dawn was breaking as Howard Carter took up a crowbar to pry open the sealed tomb door in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. With shaking hands, he held a candle to the fissure, now wafting out 3,300-year-old air. What did he see, those behind him wanted to know. The archaeologist could do no more than stammer, "Wonderful things!"

This scene from Thebes in November, 1922, is considered archaeology's finest hour. Howard Carter, renowned as the "last, greatest treasure seeker of the modern age," had arrived at his goal.

Photo Gallery

5  Photos
Photo Gallery: The Wayward Treasures of King Tut's Tomb
Carter obtained about 5,000 objects from the four burial chambers, including furniture, jars of perfume, flyswatters, and ostrich feathers -- the whole place was a dream of jasper, lapis lazuli, and turquoise. He even discovered a ceremonial staff adorned with beetles' wings.

The "unexpected treasures," as Carter described them, suddenly brought to light an Egyptian king previously almost unknown -- Tutankhamun, born approximately 1340 B.C., who ascended the throne as a child. A statue shows the boy king with chubby cheeks and a delicate face. Tutankhamun later married his older sister and conceived two children with her, both born prematurely. The fetuses were found in small but magnificent coffins.

The king died at the age of 18. An ardent racer -- six of his chariots were also discovered in the tomb -- who often went ostrich hunting in the Eastern Desert with his dog, Tutankhamun may have suffered a chariot accident and died of subsequent blood poisoning.

Lotus Flowers and Nightshade Berries

Interest in the young Egyptian monarch remains high today. An exhibit of replicas currently on show in Hamburg has drawn 150,000 visitors to date. Nothing even nearly comparable has ever been recovered from these earliest periods of human culture. With 27 gloves, 427 arrows, 12 stools, 69 chests, and 34 throwing sticks, the sheer volume of objects is breathtaking.

When Carter first opened the cavern, it still smelled of embalming oil. Lotus flowers and nightshade berries still rested on the coffins.

The grandeur of the find rubbed off on its discoverer. Carter was awarded an honorary doctorate and US President Calvin Coolidge invited him to tea. Horst Beinlich, Egyptologist at Würzburg University, calls him a "thoroughly honest man full of idealism."

It appears, however, that this isn't quite true. Documents show that the hero of the tombs cheated on many counts, manipulating photographs, forging documentation on the discovery and deceiving the Egyptian Antiquities Service.

The discoveries in that tomb set in motion a power struggle that has been only partially uncovered. Carter wanted to send as much of the treasure as possible to England and the United States. This plan quickly met with resistance. Egypt had been a British protectorate since 1914, but the administration of antiques lay in the hands of a particularly intractable Frenchman.

In the end, Carter's entire scheme went awry and the pharaoh's golden treasures remained in Cairo, marking the end of an era of ruthless appropriation of cultural assets. Carter and his team went away empty-handed.

Pocketing This and That

Or at least, that was the official word. Secretly, however, the Carter team helped themselves, despite lacking authorization. Objects in several museums have now been revealed to belong to Tutankhamun's treasures.

The most recent example is a small ushabti, or servant for the dead, made of white faience and standing in the Louvre. On a recent visit to the Paris museum, Egyptologist Christian Loeben couldn't believe his eyes. "Tutankhamun's throne name is written on the figure," he explains. "It can only have come from his tomb."

Forbidden treasures in the form of two golden hawk's heads were also found in Kansas City. Examination revealed them to be part of a collar that had lain directly on the mummy's skin, which was coated with 20 liters (5 gallons) of embalming oil. The jewelry broke when it was pulled away, and Carter collected the pieces to give as a present to his dentist.

Objects of Tutankhamun's have also wound up in Germany. A museum director in the state of Saxony, who wishes to remain anonymous, confessed to SPIEGEL that he is in possession of several blue faience beads. "Carter pocketed them as the tomb chambers were being cleaned and later gave them to his secretary," he says. The museum director came across these dubious items through an auction house.

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