Egyptians have long suspected Howard Carter, the archaeologist who found Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, of looting before the vault was formally opened. While rumors have persisted for many years, actual evidence has been difficult to come by.
The boy king’s tomb, which was filled with thrones, chariots, and thousands of other items required in the hereafter, was found by Carter and Lord Carnarvon 100 years ago. Carter oversaw their removal and passage down the Nile to Cairo so they could be exhibited in the Egyptian Museum over the course of the following ten years.
It has now been revealed that Carter was accused of handling items that were “undoubtedly stolen from the tomb” in a letter that was written to him in 1934 by a renowned British academic who was a member of his own research crew.
A renowned philologist named Sir Alan Gardiner wrote it. Carter offered Gardiner a “whm amulet,” which was used for making gifts to the deceased, to reassure him that it had not come from the tomb after hiring him to read hieroglyphs from the 3,300-year-old tomb.
Rex Engelbach, the Egyptian Museum’s then-British director, was horrified when Gardiner presented him with the amulet and informed him that it had indeed come from the tomb because it matched other specimens created from the same mold.
He sent Carter a letter and encloses Engelbach’s devastating conclusion: “The whm amulet you showed me has probably been taken from the tomb of Tutankhamun.”
“I really apologize having been placed in such a difficult position,” Gardiner said to Carter.
“I naturally did not inform Engelbach that I acquired the amulet from you,” he added.
Tutankhamun and the Tomb that Changed the World, a new book from Oxford University Press, will include the letters, which are now in a private collection.
According to its author Bob Brier, a renowned Egyptologist at Long Island University, rumors of Carter taking artifacts for himself have long circulated. But now there is no longer any ambiguity.
Carter’s assertion that the items in the tomb had been plundered in ancient times has been disputed by several Egyptologists. Alfred Lucas, one of Carter’s subordinates, said in 1947 that Carter covertly busted open the door to the burial vault himself before seeming to reseal it and cover the opening.
Although it has long been assumed that Carter may have benefited himself, these letters provide definitive confirmation that he did so.
Brier claims in his book that the Egyptians were unable to corroborate their suspicions but were nevertheless convinced that Carter had been plotting to steal a wooden head of Tutankhamun that had been found in his possession.
“The Egyptian authorities had entered and inspected Tomb No. 4, which Carter and the team had used for storage of antiquities, and discovered a beautiful lifesize wooden head of Tutankhamun as a youth. It had been packed in a Fortnum & Mason crate but it had never been mentioned in Carter’s records of the finds, nor in the volume describing the contents of the antechamber…. Carter argued that it had simply been discovered in the rubble in the descending passage,” Brier said.
“Later, we do find objects on the Egyptian antiquities market from his estate that clearly came from the tomb.”
Some were taken by museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which declared in 2010 that it would return 19 items to Egypt that it had purchased between the 1920s and 1940s since they “may be ascribed with confidence to Tutankhamun’s tomb.”
Carter’s letters kept at the Griffith Institute at the University of Oxford, which discuss a dispute with Gardiner that resulted in an amulet being sent back to Cairo, were cited by the late Harry James in his 1992 book on Carter.
The correspondence’s importance lies in the fact that the claim was made by a renowned specialist who had actually participated in the initial excavation.
Engelbach, who had “too much power and really knew his business,” would have been difficult for Carter to challenge, said Brier.