Tuesday, July 28, 2009


By Daniel Meyerson

Ballantine Books, $26, 230 pages, illus.

Reviewed by John M. Taylor

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. He might have finished his career in obscurity had he not come to the attention of the wealthy Earl of Carnarvon, an enthusiastic newcomer to archaeology. The two hit it off immediately, and from 1907 until World War I, Carnarvon bankrolled Carter in a series of successful, if minor, digs. Carter, for his part, convinced his sponsor that there remained an undiscovered tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

After the war, Carnarvon became impatient over the lack of important results and, in 1922, gave Carter one more year in which to discover what Carter believed to be the tomb of King Tutankhamen. Carter was preparing to excavate one of the few areas yet unexplored near the tombs of other kings when a water boy stumbled onto the first step of a descending staircase. After 12 steps, they reached a sealed door that, when opened, revealed a room filled with treasure. Carter wired Carnarvon in London to come at once.

On Nov. 26, 1922, after Carnarvon had arrived, Carter entered the antechamber and examined the precious antiquities. He was convinced there was a second chamber, and he bored a peephole through which to see what lay next door. Unable to stand the suspense, Carnarvon asked, “Can you see anything?” “Yes,” Carter replied. “Wonderful things.”

Although scores of royal tombs had been discovered in Egypt, that of Tutankhamen was the first to have been found intact. Carter and Carnarvon became international celebrities, but the latter’s unexpected death a few months after the unearthing of King Tut encouraged talk of a “curse of the pharaohs.”

Carter lived on until 1939, lecturing on Egyptology and representing the interests of various museums. His bad manners — one colleague complained that Carter “doesn’t hesitate to pick his last hollow tooth with a match stalk during dinner” — kept him from ever gaining full acceptance by the archaeological establishment.

Mr. Meyerson is more tolerant, however, writing of Carter: “The (literally) thousands of painstakingly accurate index cards he filled out in his clearance of Tut’s tomb; the fanatically detailed sketches of objects; … the fanaticism with which he polished the jewelry and restored every atom of the royal chariots … all was a result of his love for his work, his genius, his devotion.” Anyone planning a trip to the Valley of the Kings should not leave without a copy of Mr. Meyerson’s fine book.

John M. Taylor, a biographer and historian, lives in McLean.

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