What Drew Them to Tut's Tomb

Article excerpt


Mariners sail wine-dark seas in search of new continents. Mountaineers climb forbidding heights because they are there. But what prompts archaeologists to spend their lives digging in some of the world's least inviting areas, where failure and despair are far more prevalent than fortune and glory?

The answer is a complex one, and every contradiction was to be found in the career of Howard Carter, who gained fame when he discovered the fabulous tomb of Egypt's King Tut. Carter - a nervous, driven workaholic - is the subject of In the Valley of the Kings, a short, insightful biography by Columbia University historian Daniel Meyerson.

Egypt was a British dependency in the late 19th century, but its cultural treasures were up for grabs. The country's fragile ruins were at risk from natural disasters, European antiques dealers and indigenous thieves - the last a plague since the tombs were dug more than 2,000 years before Christ. Peasant families squatted in tombs and temples along with their goats and camels.

As for archaeology, the rules of the game called for a division of the spoils. When archaeologists made a find, half went to the Egyptian Museum at Cairo, with the remainder going to the diggers and their wealthy backers. They often came in pairs, Mr. Meyerson writes, the archaeologists and their sugar daddies.

Carter arrived in Egypt in 1891, having been hired as an artist to assist in the ongoing excavation of Beni Hassan. With little education and even less money, Carter was fortunate to come under the tutelage of William Flinders Petrie, one of the leading archaeologists of the day. Even so, Mr. Meyerson writes, Carter was an acquired taste. Taciturn, brooding, and bad-tempered .. He had nothing but his stubbornness, and iron determination to make good

In 1899, Carter was appointed chief inspector for Upper Egypt by the Egyptian Antiquities Service. He supervised a number of excavations before he was transferred to Lower Egypt in 1904. There, a group of French tourists brought about his downfall.

One evening, Carter heard that a visiting group from France was causing a disturbance at one of the old temples. When he arrived at the scene, he found that the visitors had broken through a gate to gain access to a denied area and were very drunk. When the intruders began shoving and even striking the guards, Carter authorized the guards to hit back.

For natives to strike Europeans, even Frenchmen, was unacceptable. Carter was fired by the Antiquities Service and spent three years scratching out a livelihood as a private guide. …