Did King Tut’s Discoverer Steal from the Tomb?

By | January 19, 2010

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. …

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. …

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. …

“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.

Animal figures shone from

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. …

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. …

All that is a lie. What really took place can be gathered from a report — to this day never published, but studied in detail by Hoving — that Lord Carnarvon wrote shortly before his death. Instead of waiting dutifully as regulations required, the party forced its way through the narrow opening right away.

Using tallow candles and a weak electrical lamp, the interlopers first entered the antechamber. Golden beds and beautifully carved chairs were piled up in the narrow room, as well as gaming tables and precious vases. Oval basins held food for the dead pharaoh. the posts of gilded litters, monstrous in the weak cone of light from the lamp. The explorers moved chests, trampled brittle woven baskets, and pocketed perfume jars, opening chests in the side chamber as well. …

But the most important question remained: Where was the mummy? At last the intruders discovered another bricked-in entranceway, framed by two life-sized black sentinels. Although being found out would have cost them their license, the group broke blocks of stone away from the door. And everyone pushed their way through.

Now they stood inside the room with the four gilded wooden shrines, each inside the next, with four coffins nested inside. In the innermost of these lay the mummy, with a beaded skullcap on its shaved head. Carter rattled the outermost door and the hinges sprang open, creaking. It wasn’t until yet another seal obstructed his progress that he paused, with a shiver.

A Holy Mess

The conspirators left the underground tomb chambers hours later. Overwhelmed and blissful, they rode home by donkey in the wan moonlight, agreeing to keep silent about their activities. Only Lady Evelyn hinted at the events of that night in a letter, thanking Carter for taking her into that “most holy place.”

The negative scientific consequences of those nighttime misdoings are still felt to this day. No one knows how the tomb really looked in its untouched state. Carter always attributed this to the barbarism of ancient thieves — but the chaos in the tomb could just as well have been caused by Carter himself. …

via The Legacy of Howard Carter: Did King Tut’s Discoverer Steal from the Tomb? – SPIEGEL ONLINE – News – International.

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