Every few years, somebody alleges that Howard Carter (1874-1939), famous as the discoverer of the tomb of the pharaoh Tut‘ankhamūn in 1922, stole objects from the tomb and then did his best to cover his tracks. Usually, it is said that he faked an ancient break-in at the tomb, removed a relatively small number of saleable objects for museums and collectors around the world and then created a scene of mild disturbance inside the tomb’s main chamber. Some accounts have been more fantastical and allege widespread robbery and fraud.
The latest claim, made by a number of German archaeologists, including Christian Loeben of the August Kestner Museum (Hannover) and Rolf Krauss, have revived the controversy following a visit to the Louvre by Dr Loeben. There, he recognised a faïence ushabti figurine bearing the throne name of Tut‘ankhamūn, Nebkheprurē‘, which must have been made for the king’s burial. As such, it ought originally to have been deposited in his tomb. He also claims that two gold falcons’ heads in a museum in Kansas City bear the king’s name and have been in contact with embalming fluid, so must have been ripped from the king’s mummy.
Carter failed to produce a full academic report on his most famous discovery. His site diaries have been transcribed and are available online from the Griffith Institute (University of Oxford) but the task of writing up his notes into a projected six-volume final report is probably the greatest failing of the entire project. There is a long tradition of archaeologists who do not publish the results of their excavations, which seems to become more all the more likely as the importance of the site increases. Thus, none of the twentieth-century excavations at Stonehenge, including those of William Hawley (1851-1941) and Richard J C Atkinson (1920-1994), was published until the 1995 volume Stonehenge in its landscape was produced by English Heritage. Many of us have our unpublished major sites, and I am ashamed that my pioneering work in 1994 on a slum courtyard at Hamilton Place (Chester, UK) remains unpublished, except in a summary form.
This failure of Carter makes it easier to come up with hypotheses about how he might illicitly have removed items from the tomb for personal gain. Without a definitive blow-by-blow account of the excavation of the individual parts of the tomb, without a complete series of drawings and photographs showing the condition and location of each object before removal, we can never know whether or not everything that was in the tomb at the time of its discovery can still be accounted for. All the photographs taken at the time as well as Carter’s popular written account show a scene of mild chaos in the tomb, which Carter attributed to two episodes of tomb robbing.
That robbing had clearly taken place is evident from Harry Burton’s photograph of the sealed entrance, which clearly shows the robbers’ break re-sealed. Archaeological chemist and conservator Alfred Lucas, who was invited to comment on the evidence for disturbance inside the tomb, was in no doubt that a robbery had indeed taken place. Howard Carter said that he had found evidence for two separate robberies, the first within a few years of the original burial and the second shortly afterwards. The discovery of an alabaster jar with the name of Djeḥutimose, the overseer responsible for the restoration of the tomb of Thutmose IV in Year 8 of Ḥoremheb (about a decade after the death of Tut‘ankhamūn) may provide evidence for the re-sealing of the tomb.
However, the two robberies scenario, in which the first concentrated on perfumes, cosmetics and linen as well as metalwork, while the second was more destructive and extensive, does not preclude the possibility that Carter was responsible for the second unauthorised entry. We do not have a sufficiently detailed record of the condition of the entrance corridor (apart from a photograph showing the rubble backfill of what appears to be a single robbers’ trench) to show that there was more than one ancient robbery. We can say that Rolf Krauss’s statement that “The break-in was faked” is wrong. Its effects may have been exaggerated, but that needs to be demonstrated, not simply assumed on the basis of the discovery of objects that may once have been in the tomb in museum collections outside Egypt.
In 1979, Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967 to 1977, published an account by Lord Carnarvon written shortly before his death that describes an unauthorised entry conducted a night by himself, his daughter and Carter, which reached the burial chamber. According to this version of the story (although, significantly, not in Carnarvon’s account), a small hole was made in the bottom of the door to the burial chamber that was subsequently hidden with reeds for the photographs of this part of the antechamber. However, the photographs of the demolition of this door make it absolutely clear that no such hole existed. It is more likely that, as Carnarvon wrote to Alan H Gardiner on 28 November 1922, that “before I leave we peep into the walled chamber” (the burial chamber); we have no evidence that he ever did so, though.
The “discovery” of objects bearing Tut‘ankhamūn’s name in museums outside Egypt ought really to occasion no surprise. In 1906, Theodore M Davis (1837-1915) had excavated KV54, which he considered the tomb of Touatankhamanou but which has been seen since the discovery of the king’s real tomb as a cache of materials used during the funeral ceremonies. This deposit of funerary objects may not have been the only one and a similar deposit may have been the source of some of the items now in world museums. We have also seen that one of the episodes of robbery was almost certainly ancient and the objects taken at this time may have entered the antiquities market long before the discovery of the tomb. The case against Carter is no nearer being proved than when Hoving first raised suspicions more than thirty years ago.