Guest expert Wendy Gomersall visited Egypt, and the home of world-renowned archaeologist Howard Carter – the man who uncovered the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamen back in 1922.
Imagine it – after years and years spent rummaging around in the desert, at last you find the final resting place of a pharaoh, still intact and stuffed to the gills with precious artefacts. It’s a treasure hunter’s dream.
Ninety years ago this November, English archaeologist Howard Carter broke into the newly discovered tomb of some unimportant boy king who had ruled Ancient Egypt for just a few years. Inside he discovered ‘wonderful things’, as he described them, from jewellery to golden coffins, exquisite statues and alabaster urns.
And on the mummy itself, the best prize of all – a stunningly beautiful mask of gold and gemstones. It is the serene, charismatic face of Tutankhamun that ignited Egyptmania and it’s still the most iconic image of Ancient Egypt, instantly recognisable all over the world.
The same cannot be said for poor old Howard Carter though…
Millions of tourists from all over the world now visit both Cairo’s Egyptian Museum every year to admire Tutankhamun’s 5,000-plus treasures and his tomb, designated number KV62, in the Valley of the Kings, near Luxor in southern Egypt, where his mummy still lies.
Numerous studies have built up an intimate picture of the handsome pharaoh since 1922 – his life, his wife, what killed him – until ironically, we know more about this ancient ruler than we do about the modern man who ‘found’ him.
It’s fascinating then to pay a visit to Howard Carter’s house, the domed, mud-brick place close to the Valley of the Kings that he called home.
The house was renovated and turned into a museum just a year or so ago, and it’s NOT the white house misinformed guides sometimes point out on a hill. You can’t squeeze a big group inside, so it’s best to visit it on a private tour, but it costs only 20 Egyptian pounds (around £2.50) to get in.
OK, I admit, I found it a little underwhelming at first, especially as I have been to the Cairo museum a few times and still not seen every one of Tutankhamun’s marvellous artefacts. It took ten years to catalogue and clear all them all from the tomb – I reckon you’d need half an hour for Carter’s.
But you do get an intriguing, intimate mini-portrait of one of the world’s most famous archaeologists. Instead of a golden mask, you’ll find Carter’s trademark Panama hat. There’s his shaving set, all neatly laid out in a case, walking sticks, an old gramophone, letters and notes in his handwriting, a desk with an old typewriter and his easel – he was a good artist.
You can see his excavation tools and the darkroom where he and photographer Harry Burton processed the 2000 or so images taken of the tomb and its contents. Some are on display, too.
When it’s working, there’s also an entertaining film in which a Howard Carter lookalike actor tells the story of his quest and presents his discoveries.
One other thing you learn is that Carter, born 9 May 1874, died in 1939 at the age of 64, some 17 years after breaking into the tomb. So if there was a mummy curse, it must have been a bit of a slow one, eh?