Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Carter, Howardlocked

  • T. G. H. James

Howard Carter (1874–1939)

by William Carter, 1924

© Griffith Institute, Oxford

Carter, Howard (1874–1939), artist and archaeologist, was born on 9 May 1874 at 10 Rich Terrace, Brompton, Kensington, London, youngest child of Samuel John Carter (1835–1892), artist and illustrator, of Kensington and Swaffham, Norfolk, and his wife, Martha Joyce (1837?–1920), daughter of Mr Sands, a builder of Swaffham. Carter's childhood was passed mostly in Swaffham, where he was cared for, and probably educated, by maiden aunts in the Carters' ‘country house’, a cottage in Sporle Road. He was not a strong child, and was never exposed to the rough-and-tumble of conventional schools. He was, however, carefully trained in drawing and watercolour by his father, who was an accomplished artist, exhibiting regularly at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (1855–90), and serving as a staff illustrator on the Illustrated London News (1867–89).

Like most of Samuel Carter's children, Howard was brought up to be an artist, and it was as an artist that he was first sent to Egypt, on the recommendation of the Amherst family of Didlington Hall, not far from Swaffham. William Amhurst Tyssen-Amherst was a collector of Egyptian antiquities and an influential member of the committee of the Egypt Exploration Fund. Through him the young Howard Carter went to Egypt in late 1891 to work as a ‘tracer’ of tomb scenes at Beni Hasan. After a few weeks he was sent to join W. M. Flinders Petrie who was excavating at Tell al-Amarna. Four months with Petrie, an obsessive but outstanding fieldworker, inspired Carter with a desire to excavate. He was still just seventeen.

From 1893 to 1899 Carter was responsible for the drawing of the painted reliefs in the temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir al-Bahri, Thebes. The results, published in six large folio volumes, The Temple of Deir el Bahari (1894–1908), are considered among the finest records of Egyptian inscribed monuments. His experience in archaeological management during this time led to his being appointed in 1899 the first chief inspector of antiquities in Upper Egypt by Gaston Maspero, director-general of the antiquities service of Egypt.

Carter's appointment at the age of twenty-six, with limited archaeological experience and no formal qualifications, surprised the archaeological community in Egypt, but he justified Maspero's trust by pursuing active campaigns against tomb-robbers, and by protecting and restoring monuments at Thebes and elsewhere. He also directed excavations for the antiquities service at the tomb of King Mentuhotpe II, and initiated with the American Theodore Davis explorations in the Valley of the Kings. For Davis, Carter discovered the tomb of King Tuthmosis IV.

In the autumn of 1904 Carter was transferred to the lower Egyptian inspectorate in Cairo. Shortly afterwards, at Saqqara in January 1905, foreign visitors were involved in a skirmish with Egyptian antiquities guards. Carter was held to be responsible. He refused to offer an apology, and was reprimanded and transferred to Tanta in the Nile delta. A stubborn, unbending attitude, especially towards official interference, would on more than one subsequent occasion bring him to the brink of calamity. In 1905, dissatisfied with the apparent lack of support for his position, he resigned from the antiquities service. For three years he scraped a living by painting watercolours, and by conducting rich foreign tourists around the ancient sites of Egypt.

Carter's rehabilitation came in early 1909 when, on the recommendation of Maspero, he began his association with George Herbert, fifth earl of Carnarvon. Until the First World War they excavated in the Theban necropolis, making important, but unspectacular, discoveries, partly published in Five Years' Explorations at Thebes: a Record of Work Done, 1907–1911 (1912). Additional, but short-term, exploratory excavations were also carried out on two delta sites, Sakha (1912) and Balamun (1913). Carnarvon was then encouraged by Carter to apply for the concession for the Valley of the Kings, surrendered finally by Davis in 1914. The time was not right, and the prognostications for discovery were not favourable. Davis, Maspero, and others believed that there was nothing of importance left in the valley to be discovered. Carter thought otherwise.

A short campaign by Carter in the tomb of King Amenophis III in 1915 produced trifling results, and for the rest of the war until 1917 he was employed as a civilian by the intelligence department of the War Office in Cairo. His duties were not onerous, and he was able to spend much time at Thebes, even carrying out some epigraphic work for Alan Gardiner, a leading British Egyptologist. In 1917 he was at last free to return to working for Carnarvon, and until 1922 he conducted annual campaigns in the Valley of the Kings; but few positive results were achieved.

In the summer of 1922 Carter persuaded Carnarvon to allow him to conduct one more campaign in the valley. Starting work earlier than usual Howard Carter opened up the stairway to the tomb of Tutankhamun on 4 November 1922. Carnarvon hurried to Luxor and the tomb was entered on 26 November. The discovery astounded the world: a royal tomb, mostly undisturbed, full of spectacular objects. Carter recruited a team of expert assistants to help him in the clearance of the tomb, and the conservation and recording of its remarkable contents. On 16 February 1923 the blocking to the burial chamber was removed, to reveal the unplundered body and funerary equipment of the dead king. Unhappily, the death of Lord Carnarvon on 5 April seriously affected the subsequent progress of Carter's work.

In spite of considerable and repeated bureaucratic interference, not easily managed by the short-tempered excavator, work on the clearance of the tomb proceeded slowly, but was not completed until 1932. Carter handled the technical processes of clearance, conservation, and recording with exemplary skill and care. A popular account of the work was published in three volumes, The Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amen (1923–33), the first of which was substantially written by his principal assistant, Arthur C. Mace.

No archaeological discovery had met with such sustained public interest, yet Carter received no formal honours from his own country. In 1926, however, he did receive a decoration from the king of Egypt, and he was made a commandeur of the order of Léopold II by the king of the Belgians in 1932. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Yale University in 1924, and was made a corresponding member of the Real Academia de la Historia, Madrid, in the same year.

The last years of Carter's life were plagued by illness, and he found himself incapable of preparing the full scientific publication of his remarkable discovery. Disillusioned, largely neglected by his few Egyptological friends, and suffering painfully from Hodgkin's disease, he eventually died on 2 March 1939 at his London home, 49 Albert Court, Kensington Gore, and was buried on 6 March at Putney Vale cemetery. He was unmarried.


  • autobiographical essays, AM Oxf., Carter MSS
  • autobiographical essays, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, department of Egyptian art
  • private information (2004) [J. Carter]
  • T. G. H. James, Howard Carter: the path to Tutankhamun (1992)
  • N. Reeves and J. H. Taylor, Howard Carter before Tutankhamun (1992)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.
  • The Times (7 March 1939)


  • Egypt Exploration Society, London, MSS
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, department of Egyptian art, corresp.
  • priv. coll., family MSS
  • U. Oxf., Griffith Institute, archaeological papers, notebooks, and indexes, incl. complete record of objects found in tomb of Tutankhamun
  • U. Oxf., Griffith Institute, Egyptological drawings


  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


  • BL NSA, documentary recording


  • W. Carter, pencil or crayon drawing, 1882, priv. coll.
  • W. Carter, oils, 1924, U. Oxf., Griffith Institute [see illus.]
  • photographs, U. Oxf., Griffith Institute
  • photographs, priv. coll.

Wealth at Death

£2002 19s. 8d.: probate, 5 July 1939, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

English probate sealed in Cairo, 1 Sept 1939, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford