Howard Carter was born in Brompton on 9th May 1874 to Samuel John and Martha, the youngest of eleven children. He was thought to be quite a sickly child, but was trained by his father in the family business – art. Samuel John Carter exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy and was known for his paintings of wildlife and hunting scenes. He taught several of his children to paint, and many of them also went on to exhibit at the Royal Academy. One of Samuel John Carter’s clients was William Amhurst Tyssen-Amherst of Didlington Hall in Norfolk. It was on visits here that young Howard may have first seen Egyptian antiquities in the family’s private collection. Another guest at Didlington Hall was Percy Newberry, who frequently visited to discuss matters relating to Egyptology and horticulture. It was these connections that came together and changed Howard Carter’s life – and the history of Egypt.
In 1890 Newberry had been appointed Director of the Archaeological Survey of Egypt by the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF), now the Egypt Exploration Society. Initial plans proposed by Francis Llewellyn Griffith to survey and record all of Egypt’s visible monuments were quickly revised and, instead, the region of Middle Egypt between el-Minya and Mallawi was chosen. Here, the rock-cut tombs of local officials between the Old and Middle Kingdoms had been frequented by visitors for millennia and were in need of recording and protection. To the south of the region lay the area labelled on the map as “probable extent of Khutaten”, or what we know today as Akhetaten or Amarna.
The first site to be recorded was Beni Hasan. Here, 39 rock-cut tombs are carved into the cliffs of the Eastern Desert facing the vast floodplain toward the west. Twelve of the tombs are elaborately decorated, often preserving the names and titles of the deceased, (auto)biographies, and scenes showing daily life in the Nile Valley almost 4,000 years ago. Newberry and his team, Marcus Worsley Blackden and George Willoughby Fraser, were tasked with recording these tombs. The undertaking was enormous, and after a whole season of work it was clear that further help would be needed. At Margaret Susan Amherst’s suggestion, the young Howard Carter was appointed ‘tracer’ to the project by the EEF Committee on 16th October 1891; he was 17 years old. Carter’s appointment was in no small part due to the influence of Newberry and Mrs Amherst, but also thanks to Amelia B Edwards, whose letters show that she took a special interest in the Archaeological Survey, and worked hard to ensure that funds were made available by the Committee of the EEF.
In November 1891, Carter and Newberry arrived at Beni Hasan, and worked there together with Blackden and Fraser for the next few months. For accommodation, they used a tomb on the terrace: an undecorated tomb-chapel numbered 16. Their beds were made from palm strips, while their simple bookcase was constructed from planks of wood supported by empty biscuit tins. In later recollections of his time at Beni Hasan, Carter would write fondly of this simple lodging and noted that he much preferred it to tents! Carter reminisced less positively on the technique that had been implemented by Newberry to copy the decoration. This consisted of tracing the scenes on sheets of paper hung over the walls. Once complete, these tracings were taken back to Britain where they were inked in for publication. During this later phase, the outlines of the figures (human and animal) were filled-in in black. This method of working, though efficient, lost much of the finer detail preserved on the walls and, apart from a few watercolours by Carter and Blackden, the masterful artwork at Beni Hasan was distilled into basic black-and-white shapes on a page. Carter would have his opportunity to implement his own methods in time, and his legacy lives on in the techniques of epigraphy still employed today.
The next stage in Carter’s training would come quickly. In January 1892. Marcus Blackden had been expected to take up a position with William Matthew Flinders Petrie on his excavations at Amarna. However, due to a falling-out between the members of the Archaeological Survey team, Carter became Blackden’s replacement. This fortuitous opportunity gave Carter the essential skills he needed to follow a career in archaeology. Petrie gave Carter the responsibility of excavating the Great Aten Temple area – no small task – and would check on him periodically. Amarna, the birthplace and childhood home of the young prince Tutankhamun 3,000 years previously, is perhaps where Carter was first introduced to the boy king. A selection of ring bezels and moulds bearing the cartouche of Tutankhamun were indeed found at Amarna during Petrie’s work there, and many can now be seen in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology at University College London (UCL). Was it objects such as these that first brought Tutankhamun to Carter’s attention?
Carter’s first season of work in Egypt had been instrumental, and ultimately life changing. He would go on to improve these new skills in further seasons for the Archaeological Survey of Egypt before being appointed, aged just 19, to the largest project of the EEF – the excavation, recording, and reconstruction of the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut on the West Bank of Luxor at Deir el-Bahri. Here, Carter would develop his own techniques of recording the scenes on the temple walls. He would later write:
“I tried many expedients, but they resolved in this simple solution: to first observe the fundamental laws of Egyptian Art; how it eliminates the unessentials; to copy that art accurately and intelligently with honest work, a free hand, a good pencil, and suitable paper.”
(Carter MSS vi.2.9 – page 71, Griffith Institute, University of Oxford).
Later epigraphers would come to perfect their own techniques too, including the use of grids or rubbings, but Carter’s ability to copy freehand from the scenes and to scale meant that he would be considered “the very best artist” by Sir Alan Gardiner in 1917 and applauded by later epigraphers such as Ricardo Caminos, who described Carter as “an epigraphist of outstanding ability” (1976).
Carter was joined at Deir el-Bahri by several assistant artists, one of whom was his brother Vernet (sometimes spelt Verney). The paintings created on site are virtually indistinguishable, demonstrating Carter’s ability to train others in his techniques to ensure a consistent standard in the published record. Many of Carter’s paintings can be considered exceptionally beautiful archaeological records, but also useful conservation documentation. As well as drawing the scenes and reproducing the colours found on them, Carter also recorded the destruction he witnessed. These records allow us to consider, along with other records, to what extent the monuments have deteriorated since they were uncovered. Many of Carter’s original watercolours can now be found in the Griffith Institute, University of Oxford, and the Egypt Exploration Society. One such watercolour, the largest in existence, remains in the ownership of the EES today. It shows Thutmose I and his mother, Sensenet, from the Shrine of Anubis at Deir el-Bahri. This part of the temple, currently closed off to visitors, is still undergoing restoration and full publication by Dr Maciej Witkowski, part of the Polish Mission working at the temple over the past 60 years. The painting, dated March 1894, is also in need of some conservation, and this year the EES is raising funds to protect this irreplaceable painting.
Carter left his position at Deir el-Bahri in November 1899 to take up the important role of Chief Inspector of Upper Egypt for the Service des Antiquités under Gaston Maspero. He remained in Luxor until 1904, when he transferred to the Inspectorate of Lower Egypt. Following an incident at Saqqara in 1905, he subsequently resigned from his position, and eventually returned to Luxor. In 1909, Carter began working for Lord Carnarvon and, as they say, the rest is history!
Though Carter may be best remembered for the discovery of Tutankhamun, this overshadows the achievements of a talented artist and epigrapher. Carter’s formative years working for the Egypt Exploration Fund, though often forgotten, ensured that he was part of a rich network of researchers well-trained in the techniques of the time – and even given the opportunity to develop his own methods in some cases. These methods, still celebrated by Caminos in 1976, would inspire later epigraphers and continue to influence the Archaeological Survey of Egypt at sites such as the Temple of Sety I at Abydos, and at Saqqara. The rapid and intensive training of Carter by the EEF between 1891 and 1899 ensured that he was well prepared to conduct excavations in the Valley of the Kings, to communicate effectively in Arabic with his team, and to understand the diplomatic niceties of early Egyptology, although he often failed to employ them in practice. Without the Egypt Exploration Fund, Carter may never have led the team that discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.
If you would like to contribute to the conservation of Howard Carter’s painting of Thutmose and Sensenet, visit www.ees.ac.uk
Dr Carl Graves is Director of the Egypt Exploration Society. He gained his PhD from the University of Birmingham in 2017, specialising in cultural landscapes in Middle Egypt.