Ancient History & Civilisation


Sir Flinders Petrie standing beside a table with some of his rare archaeological findings.


Cairo: The Hotel Royale, where Carter, just off the boat from England, is introduced to Petrie

THE FIRST TIME THE YOUNG CARTER MET HIM (IN A CAIRO HOTEL), Petrie was dressed in his “city” clothes: a worn but still passable suit. It was buttoned up, showing just a bit of the cravat, which was knotted anyhow beneath the high white collar in fashion then. He was unforgettable with his large, generous features; his full beard and shock of black hair brushed back over a high, swarthy brow; his enormous dark eyes set wide apart; his thick lips compressed in thought. His expression was very alert—his features were stamped with intellectual passion as surely as greed or lust can be read on other men’s faces.

In all the photographs from this decade, Petrie seems always to be wearing this same suit! Somehow there is an incongruity about these respectable clothes of his, as if someone had dressed up an Old Testament prophet in a suit, cravat, and high collar. It is as if at any moment his large, athletic body will burst open the worn-out cloth, revealing his larger-than-life presence.

It is more fitting for him to be naked, like some heroic figure sculpted by Michelangelo. When working inside one or another of the pyramids, at Giza or Hawara or Lisht, he would sometimes have to wade through half-flooded chambers (the water level having risen over the centuries). Or to crawl through lower passages where the heat was unbearable. At such times—for example, when measuring Khufu’s great pyramid at Giza, he would “emerge just before dawn, red eyed, oxygen deprived, smelling of bat dung”—and in his birthday suit.

Which was how Carter saw him the second time the two met: As desert winds covered Petrie with a fine layer of sand, the father of modern archaeology stood in an irrigation canal, naked under an umbrella. He had just finished soaking the salt off some ancient pots, and now he was submerged up to his shoulders in the river, trying to cool off.

In this pose, he looked “rather like a water buffalo,” as Amelia Edwards, another witness of the nude Petrie, affectionately recalled. As director of the Egyptian Exploration Society, Ms. Edwards had much to do with Petrie; she fell in love with the bearded buffalo-scholar—though it was “as hopeless as loving a young obelisk,” she sighed in a letter to a friend.

He was as single-minded and chaste as a monk. At least for the first half of his life, he was alone with his scarabs and pots and pyramids. Until he finally met his match in the brilliant and beautiful young Hilda Urlin, the only women he held in his arms were ones he dug up from tombs and burial pits.

He was indifferent to everything except archaeology. Sleep was a waste of time. Clothing—another unfortunate necessity—must be worn until ragged. As for food: The young hopefuls who worked with him might learn much (Carter, Mace, Weigall, Quibel, Wainwright, Engelbach, and Brunton among them—the list is long). But they would suffer. They would sleep on straw pallets or wooden packing cases, and they would starve.

“I have known him to knock a hole in a tin of sardines and drink the oil before opening it…. I can’t go on with Petrie I have got so weak and horrid from this beastly food,” Arthur Weigall wrote to his wife, a complaint echoed by a chorus of hungry young archaeologists.

“Petrie was a man of forty-one with … the agility of a boy,” Charles Breasted remembered. “His clothes confirmed his universal reputation for being not only careless but slovenly and dirty. He was thoroughly unkempt, clad in ragged dirty shirt and trousers, and worn-out sandals…. He served a table so excruciatingly bad that only persons of iron constitution could survive it; even they had been known on occasion stealthily to leave his camp in order to assuage their hunger by sharing the comparatively luxurious beans and unleavened bread of the local fellahin [peasants]…. The fact remains that he not only miraculously survived the consistent practice of what he preached, but established in the end a record of maximum results for minimum expenditure which is not likely to be surpassed….”

There were no tinned sardines, however, at the Hotel Royale, where Petrie was staying when he first met Carter. Though it was in a good quarter of Cairo, Ezbekia, it was not the exclusive, fashionable Shepherd’s Hotel. However, it had the same chef as Shepherd’s, as the man had saved up and gone into business for himself. Thus, Petrie’s visitors were treated to the last word in culinary refinements when they attended his nightly archaeological salon.

The many distinguished scholars, the epigraphists and geologists, the linguists and historians and excavators, not to mention Petrie’s half-starved students—everyone—as the talk turned on mummy-bandaging techniques and nummulitic limestone, could gorge himself to his heart’s content under Petrie’s disapproving, fanatic eye.

Carter remembered those gatherings in his journal. He was awed by the company and afraid of Petrie, “a man,” he noted, “who did not suffer fools.” It was a phrase Amelia Edwards also used about him, adding fondly that that was because “he was born more alive than most men.”

Be that as it may, at these meetings Carter was silent while Petrie talked. Petrie was in his forties, while Carter was still in his teens, and the older man theorized, pronounced, and advised about everything. Everything! From the subtleties of scarab styles to excavation guards who snore to the name of the pharaoh of the Exodus. How to deal with ancient, fragile textiles, with carbonized papyri, and with fleas.

Covering many subjects with lightning speed, Petrie held forth like an oracle in a cryptic, staccato style, backing into tables and overturning chairs when he became excited. Even the sound of his voice was oracular: It had a high and eerie quality, the way the Sibyls were said to have sounded in their trances. But though Petrie was, like them, a being possessed, there is a simpler explanation for his quavering, reedy tones—an act of violence he met with at the beginning of his career.

“Exploring on foot and alone in the Sinai desert,” his colleague Gertrude Caton-Thompson related, “he was approached by three Bedouin in that empty land. He scented danger, and quickly threw his wallet by a backhand movement into a bush unobserved. They fell on him and nearly strangled him while he was searched. Then, empty handed, they went on their way, leaving him temporarily speechless,” his throat injured, his voice permanently changed.

The young Petrie got up and—not forgetting to retrieve his wallet—continued his explorations in “that empty land.” It is a barren landscape, with red sandstone cliffs and deep gorges and endless sand dunes broken at long intervals by a lone flowering broom tree or sometimes, in the crevice of a boulder, a hardy, sweet-smelling herb.

He had set out to study what he called the “unconsidered trifles” that would remain important to him throughout his career. Sinai’s turquoise mines yielded as much knowledge to him as a royal tomb (as would the alabaster quarries of Hatnub and the granite mines of the Hammamat).

As he taught Carter, and as he would write later, after seventy years of digging (the times changed to confirm his ideas, not the other way around): “The observation of the small things had never been attempted…. The science of observation, of registration, of recording, was yet unthought of; nothing had a meaning unless it was a sculpture or a treasure.”

Nothing escaped his eye in the desert: the ancient graffiti scrawled on cliffs and quarry walls; the wells dug millennia ago; the low stone huts of native slaves (foreign ones were simply worked to death); the signs of the religious life, such as votary steps carved into the mountains, simple altars, or sometimes a complete temple like the one at Serabit el Khadeem.

Scratched on stone, an inscription read: “I traveled here with one thousand men behind me!” The size of an expedition to this land where nature is so hostile revealed a dynasty’s strength, its wealth, degree of organization, and the like. The ratio of soldiers to workers, even the chiseling technique on a discarded block, had meaning for Petrie: He could deduce much simply from knowing whether the workers were skilled or only peasants drafted during shommu, the season when the Nile inundated the land.

Crude erotic drawings with holes drilled into the stone told of the soldiers’ desperation in the desert outposts. As did “dream books.” Left behind in the rubble, the ancient manuals interpreted dreams where men couple, almost unimaginably, with baboons, horses, donkeys, wolves, crocodiles, mice, birds, jerboas, serpents, foreigners, and two women together, all to the accompaniment of rattles and pipes and drums, the instruments themselves sometimes merging with the lovers, with harp strings stretched on phalli.

Here, in the barren land of the quarries, inscriptions on stone recorded jubilant voices raised in self-praise. At a time so remote that Rome was merely a wild forest and Jerusalem an obscure Jebusite threshing floor, they proclaimed: “I hunted gazelles! I hunted lions! I made the name of this mountain famous! Because of me this land had fat bulls and oxen without number!”

“Never happened the like to a servant of the king….”

“In the beginning of my life I was excellent, but at the end no one could surpass me.”

“Great was my praise with him [pharaoh]—more than a son, more than a brother. He allowed me to renew my power.”

Then there were the rubbish heaps—how Petrie loved them! (Ancient ones, of course.) For they contained the remains of the daily life of the past, pottery especially.

Petrie became known for his work with pottery. It was a passion with him, though he had made many more sensational discoveries: sandals and finger stalls in electrum (an alloy of silver and gold); a uraeus—the pharaoh’s protective cobra—fashioned in gold and lapis lazuli; a royal diadem, a circlet of flowers and reeds worked in gold and jewels.

In the western Delta, he had located and “cleared” (of sand and debris) the fortress where the prophet Jeremiah took refuge in Egypt when Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 BC. His find confirmed the biblical text down to a design in its courtyard.

He had uncovered a stela with the first reference to the Jews (now in the Cairo Museum). It is a thirteenth century BC proclamation by Pharaoh Merenptah whose hieroglyphs read: “Israel is destroyed. Its seed is no more….” (On the other side was an even older text.)

In the rubble of Sinai’s Serabit el Khadeem he had found a head of Queen Tiye, great royal wife of Amenhotep III and a power in her own right (mentioned in fourteenth century BC foreign correspondence). It was a marvel of its kind, the queen’s strong, pouting features and world-weary expression subtly caught in green stone.

He had explored the hitherto sealed burial chambers of pyramids, discovered an unknown script (the Proto-Sinaitic), and dug up entire Roman cemeteries in Middle Egypt. All very well and good, but what was his greatest find? “The key to archaeology,” Petrie declared in his trembly, sibylline voice, “is pottery.”

Its importance cannot be overestimated, he insisted to anyone who would listen—and Carter listened, never dreaming that before the end of the year, he himself would be searching for clues among broken pots and millennia-old dung heaps under Petrie’s guidance.

Carter had come to Egypt to work as a mere copyist. There was no thought of anything more. But now, at the very beginning of his career, Petrie’s force and intellectual passion had begun to work on him. His conversation imparted a strange glamour to heaps of rotten cloth and beads and pots.

In this new milieu, these nightly encounters with the excavating crowd, the boy was becoming intoxicated with the intense excitement of archaeology—without realizing where it was leading him, however. “I found him [Petrie] puzzling for me to understand,” he noted in his journal. “But obviously a man with both the confidence and the power to solve problems—in archaeological matters, a Sherlock Holmes…. But what interested me most was his recognition and love for fine art.”

Fine art, though, was beside the point. Throughout his career, Carter sketched, drew, painted—when he was low on cash, he sold his watercolors; but art was not his calling. More important in his life were Petrie’s lessons in excavation, the accumulated practical experience of years of digging. He was, as Carter called him, a Sherlock Holmes, down to his magnifying glass and his “snooping”—his analytic method of considering the smallest clues.

Petrie did what nobody else would think of doing with cartonnage, for example (a kind of ancient papier-mâché made from “scrap” papyri; compressed and plastered over, the papyri were then molded into mummy’s masks, full-figure casts, and so on). He soaked the cartonnage, separating the layers one by one. The papyri emerged “none the worse for their pasting and plastering”—ancient moments frozen in time. Just one such “soaked” cast yielded a will disinheriting a drunken son; tax bills; scenes of a lost play by Euripides; and a letter by a terrified royal gooseherd confiding that he didn’t have enough geese for Ptolemy’s upcoming feast.

Petrie would teach Carter the tricks of the trade—how to treat thousands of beads, complex designs sewn onto a cloth that had rotted away (hot beeswax, applied spoonful by spoonful, preserved the beads in place). Or how to reward workers for finds (pay too little and they might simply steal them; pay too much and they might bring in outside things and plant them on the dig).

He would lecture Carter on necessary “shortness of nail and toughness of skin” and on the archaeologist’s duty to conserve what he uncovered. He would show him how to move heavy stones; and how to dodge rock slides in unstable tunnels; and the best way of treating corroded silver and bronze. These were the lessons that would be crucial to Carter, not Petrie’s casual remarks about fine art, his after-dinner—or, rather, after-sardine—musings about Raphael or Botticelli.

But if Carter was in the dark about his future, Petrie also misjudged him. Even after the two had begun to work together, Petrie delivered the verdict (in his journal): “It is no use to me to work him up as an excavator,” adding that Carter’s real interests were natural history and art.

Which was often the way with beginnings, as anyone can see who watches “the stealthy convergence of human lots,” as the novelist George Eliot so perfectly put it. “A slow preparation of effects from one life on another…. Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.”

Carter’s “cast of characters” so far had been made up of provincial Norfolk farmers and tradesmen (with a few aristocratic “extras” thrown in). But now a new major player must be announced in bold letters: Enter William Flinders Petrie, mentor extraordinaire, arms filled with pots.

A Petrie excavation found him piecing together thousands of potsherds like a huge puzzle. Various factors came into play: how they were made, whether by hand or by wheel, for example; their colors; the materials of which they were composed—Nile mud, sandy, micaceous clay, and so forth. But most important of all, he studied the pot’s style, which enabled him to give it an accurate date, thus also dating the site or tomb in which it was found.

Or so he claimed, his critics scoffed, dismissing his theories out of hand and ignoring his evidence, pottery painstakingly collected over the years at remote ancient sites. “Even the British Museum,” Petrie wrote to Ms. Edwards, “has practically rejected [his] collections of perfect examples [of pots], all dated.” His undramatic though crucial finds were stored away in some back room of the museum—just as later (in 1907) the simple clay pots buried near Tut’s then undiscovered tomb were disregarded and stashed away in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. (These pots will be written up archaeologically only in 1941.) If Carter immediately understood their significance, “reading” them correctly, it was in no small measure due to Petrie’s training.

Foremost among Petrie’s critics was Édouard Naville. Scholar, linguist, and clergyman, Naville was also excavating in Egypt at the turn of the century for the Egypt Exploration Society (later Carter will also work under him). He sighed with patronizing pity over Petrie’s unhappy pottery obsession, his fatal error, a mind led astray, and so on. Pottery styles varied according to geographic region, not time period, Naville insisted. For good measure, Naville added that Petrie’s detailed recording methods were as absurd as “noting all the raisins in a pudding.”

But could Naville be objective on any subject connected to Petrie? For Petrie had privately called Naville’s excavations lazy, incompetent, expensive, and destructive. Which they certainly were—or rather, to put it more charitably, Naville’s talents lay in scholarship and architectural reconstruction, not excavation. An entire papyri library from the time of the Ptolemies, ca. 300 BC, for example, crumbled into useless fragments in Naville’s clumsy hands. Confidentially, Petrie had requested that the Egyptian Exploration Fund deny Naville permission to work on the more important sites. But nothing remained private or confidential in Egypt.

After that, only an angel would support Petrie and agree that pottery styles could be chronological—and the genteel, egoistic Naville was no angel.

In truth, Petrie could sometimes be wrong. He refused to revise his date of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, putting it a whole Sothic cycle1* too early (1,460 years)—and anyone who tried to contradict him had better be prepared to make a run for it.

He was wrong again about the predynastic Faiyum and Badarian cultures, tracing them incorrectly to the Paleolithic Solutrean. What can you say to such a man? shrugged the offended Naville.

Petrie was stubborn in his opinions and sometimes equally foolish in his economies. It was a capital crime to discard anything on a Petrie dig. Pity the neophyte who threw away an empty tin can after dining on its contents. (“Petrie is silly beyond human endurance!” exclaimed Reverend Chester, a visiting clergyman-antiquarian who was distressed by Carter’s appearance. Fortunately, another visitor [a medical man] arrived in time to restore Carter’s health with a “prescription” of wine, preserves, and Valentine meat juice.)

But though many charges could be leveled against the father of modern archaeology, when it came to pots Petrie was on the money. For Carter, it was a good introduction to “the fight”—or the vendetta, as Petrie called archaeology. That is to say, the tangle of personal and professional motives was as much a part of turn-of-the-century archaeology as mules or magnetometers.

1* Every 1,460 years, the star Sirius rises at the same time as the sun at the beginning of the Nile inundation (the Nile’s yearly flooding ceased only in modern times with the construction of the Aswan dam). This phenomenon, now confirmed by computer analysis, was observed by the Egyptian priests, who marked the occurrence in their chronicles as a Sothic cycle.

TEMPERAMENTALLY, CARTER WAS SUITED TO THIS ROUGH AND ready milieu of scholarly jealousy and backbiting. Especially as he was an outsider, he saw early on that he would need self-belief and stamina if he was to make his way in the archaeological world.

Both of which qualities he possessed in good measure. When attacked, he gave as good as he got—and there were many attacks. Carter was embroiled in quarrels from his very first assignment until he drew his last breath—and afterward as well. Amid much head shaking, Tut’s glass headrest was found among Carter’s possessions, along with gold rings and steatite scarabs from the tomb, gold nails from the funeral shrine, and gold rosettes from the pall—Carter’s due, less than his due, he would have claimed: mere mementos! If he had been alive, he would not have hesitated to go to court and create an international incident to argue his side. The ancient objects were returned to Egypt in the diplomatic pouch, however, and placed in the Cairo Museum by the indignant King Farouk (himself famous for sticky fingers, royal indignation notwithstanding).

Carter’s enemies would make sure that during his lifetime he received no honors in Great Britain and would not be allowed to accept foreign orders, either; after his death, they likewise saw to it that his name would not be found on the Egyptian Museum’s grand façade and that there would be no mention of him in the many rooms filled with Tut’s treasures. Such slights—and these are just a few of many—are a measure of the long-lasting bitterness that his quarrels engendered.

These “vendettas” consumed Carter. While Petrie could quickly shake off a venomous exchange, forgetting everything in the joy of an intellectual problem, Carter was capable of spending an entire night awake, full of hate. If, as it has been said, archaeologists are “dead men on leave,” they certainly lack the calm of the dead (the perspective of eternity) but are goaded on by green-eyed jealousy, vindictiveness, and vanity—with the most eminent often being the least open-minded.

The superstar Heinrich Schliemann, surrounded by a blaze of glory from his discovery of Troy, showed up at a Petrie dig together with a sidekick named Georg Schweinfurth. Petrie enthusiastically described the visit (reported with different emotions by his guests). Schliemann was “short, round headed, round faced, round hatted, great round goggle eyed, dogmatic, but always ready for facts,” Petrie recorded. He added that Schweinfurth was “a bronzed bony fellow” and “an infatuated botanist” whom he, Petrie, had thrilled with wreaths of ancient red roses from the tombs.

They lunched. In his distinguished visitor’s honor, Petrie hospitably opened one of his precious bottles of citric acid and mixed it with water. Now there would be lemonade to wash down the tinned sardines. (High on the list of Naville’s unforgivable sins was having once broken a bottle of the same stored away with Petrie’s things in a Cairo warehouse. When the letters between the insincerely contrite Naville and the furious Petrie are unearthed in AD 3000 or 4000, they will undoubtedly lead some future archaeologist to write an essay—“Bitter Ambrosia”—on the high value attached to citric acid in the early twentieth century.)

In any case, as Petrie caroused with his guests, they saw “a procession of gilt mummies coming across the mounds glittering in the sun”—workmen bringing in a new find. The best coffin was Ptolemaic, with a vivid portrait of a gloomy young man surrounded by an olive leaf wreath. Inscribed across his chest in Greek were the words O Artemidorus, farewell!

The young man’s mummy was inspected, and then the conversation turned to other matters. Poor Artemidorus, after twenty-two hundred years of dwelling in the “world of truth,” must now witness, as his first example of modern life, archaeological duplicity.

It was very hot—even for Egypt. “A day,” Petrie recorded, “when one thought not of glasses, or jugs, or pails of water, but of nothing short of canals and rivers….”

Nevertheless, as the sun beat down on the living and the dead, the enthusiastic Petrie explained that he had discovered that a pot’s style had a life cycle. There was its first appearance, then its “flourishing” or popular phase, and then its “degraded” or simplified stage.

He picked up a handleless pot with two wavy lines painted on its sides. Degraded! he pronounced, for the lines were only a “shorthand” or simplified version of an earlier version in which it had wavy handles. The wavy lines linked it to the earlier version while showing just where in time the pot existed.

Schliemann was profoundly silent. Petrie took the silence for assent and continued. After reaching its final, simplified phase, he explained, the style died or disappeared. “Degradation is followed by death,” he intoned as Schweinfurth suggested a descent into the cooler tombs—a suggestion nixed by Petrie, who was in the midst of recording and did not want anything disturbed.

The sun lit up Artemidorus’s gilt-and-red plaster coffin as if it burned with the ancient sacred fire—which certainly enveloped the oblivious, discoursing Petrie.

He demonstrated his theory with a variety of other pottery styles. Of special interest were some perfume jars he had recently unearthed. In earlier phases, they were filled with costly unguents, but in the “degraded” (or simplified) phase in which he had found them, they were empty. The scented clay from which they were made, however, gave them away: They were definitely connected to the earlier perfume jar tradition.

Despite the heat, Schweinfurth managed to murmur, “It is certainly very important to know the age of pottery,” an innocuous comment that Petrie recorded with pleasure. He was delighted finally to have an understanding audience.

After a style’s disappearance, there was still another phase, a kind of resurrection: A new style followed that had similarities to the one that had gone before.

It was too much for Schweinfurth. The suffering botanist burst out that he was “incredulously pleased” by Petrie’s explanations.

But the explanations were not yet over! After all, his visitors would surely want to hear about Diospolis Parva (Upper Egypt), where he had uncovered over four thousand graves and determined the burial sequence by using pots found among the grave goods….

He was reminded that the trip to the nearest hotel was a long one (the site was some distance from the Faiyum oasis). But how could that matter to Petrie? He never spared himself and couldn’t imagine that anyone would be more interested in comfort than in knowledge. Though his guests were on camels, he himself frequently walked that distance and more on the off chance of discovering something interesting along the way. In any case, he was just coming to the best part: his mathematical calculations!

As the citric acid was passed around, he continued: To order such a vast amount of evidence as is found in four thousand graves (the numbers become even more staggering in the sacred ibis and crocodile cemeteries where burials run into the hundreds of thousands), he used a statistical method known as “seriation.” In fact, his brilliant use of mathematics throughout his career has led a modern authority on the subject, David Kendall, to call him “one of the greatest applied mathematicians of the 19th century.”

Professor Kendall, though, was judging Petrie “in retrospect” and from the comfort of his study. At the time, the sweating Schweinfurth, his stomach filled with sardines and his heart with a bitterness that not even Petrie’s ancient roses could assuage, doubted everything—as did Schliemann. (What Max Planck observes in relation to physics applies equally to archaeology: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”)

Word of Schliemann’s skepticism quickly made the rounds in archaeological circles: a blow to Petrie! Schliemann has stated “in the strongest terms … the utter impossibility of establishing anything like a chronology of Egyptian pottery,” Naville gloated in a letter to a colleague. “I should have liked Francis Llewellyn Griffith [of the British Museum] to hear him,” and so on. And so the conflict raged on, a dividing line—one of many in the archaeological world—being formed on either side of Petrie’s cracked pots (pun most certainly intended).

While even Petrie’s critics could appreciate his more spectacular finds—the magnificent Ptolemaic coffin, for example, with its sensitive portrait of Artemidorus—Petrie’s singularly modern approach was beyond them. His emphasis on knowledge, his “ravings” about potsherds and dung heaps … everything, in fact, that made him unique.

Such was the nature of the archaeological gossip making the rounds when Carter showed up in Egypt. He listened and observed and silently drew his own conclusions. Foes and friends and false friends chose sides in the battle for truth? For reputation and the best sites? Or for survival—as Carter put it when writing about his own first archaeological dispute, calling it nothing less than “the struggle for existence.” The Darwinian phrase was very much in the air at the time and resonated with the driven, do-or-die young man fallen into the midst of this intense and crazy new world.

He was literally just off the boat. A whirlwind had just taken him from the calm of the English countryside to London, then to Alexandria, then to the teeming never-never land of Cairo. He had had no time to pause, to catch his breath and get his bearings. Less than a week earlier, his father had seen him off at what was to be their last meeting. His father called after him with emotion. He paused to hear that now he had permission to smoke. Then he was on his own.

Exhilarated and heartsick, Carter crossed the English Channel and made his way to Marseilles, where he boarded one of the dilapidated old boats belonging to the Messageries Maritime Company. It was still seaworthy, or just barely. His cabin was next to the “smelly dining salon,” he noted, where the food was served up “oozy with oil.” The weather was rough, and his groans were heard by a fellow passenger. The man, a sympathetic Franciscan, knocked on his cabin door with Christian charity in the practical form of a bottle of wine. His head spinning, his stomach churning, Carter fell asleep to awaken the next day in the port of Alexandria.

Anyone who has found himself alone in the midst of a bustling foreign city knows what it’s like to be overwhelmed by a place where everything is strange and new—sounds, smells, sights. But there was no time for Carter to linger in Alexandria. He had to go on to Cairo right away, since it was uncertain when his expedition would be leaving for Beni Hasan. But as he passed through, he got a dreamlike impression of the cosmopolitan city, half Oriental, half European.

Its narrow winding streets were alive with the color of rich fabrics; with mountains of dates and pomegranates and the hard brown dohm fruit; with the cries of street hawkers, splashing fountains, the wail of prayer from mosques, and the chanting of students in the madrassas. The small squares opened onto the broad modern streets, where Arabic mixed with a medley of Italian, Greek, French, and English and where the architecture was French rather than Arabic.

But like a shadow falling over the vibrant oceanside city, there were still signs everywhere of the British bombardment of a decade earlier. Photos of Alexandria in the 1890s show the Street of European Consulates, the Hotel d’Europe, Ramleh Boulevard, the Bazaar, and the Okelle Neuve pockmarked with ruined buildings and shattered monuments. It was a dark chord of warning: Political passions simmered just under the surface.

The Europeans who had seized control of the unstable country naïvely thought of themselves as benevolent. After all, they were reorganizing Egypt’s desperate finances and extending its irrigation system; they were building bridges and roads and digging up its antiquities. But they were arrogant, racist, self-seeking infidels, and they were hated. The struggle had just begun that would end in the Egyptian revolution of 1952. Then the magnificent Cairo opera house where Aida was first heard, the elegant Shepherd’s Hotel, the Fencing Club, and the rococo theaters would go up in flames; the British would be driven out and the British-backed King Farouk would hurry through these same Alexandria streets on his way to exile in Italy.

The young Carter, though, was traveling in the opposite direction: toward the heart of Egypt. Taking the Alexandria-Cairo train south, he passed through countryside that had changed little since the time of the pharaohs. The naked boys on skinny water buffaloes might have ridden out of a frieze in a Sixth Dynasty tomb. As might the irrigation shaduf they turned, the pole-and-bucket arrangement in use a thousand years before King Tut was born. The mud brick pigeon houses still rose in fantastic shapes amid the palms, and brilliant blue lotus blossoms floated timelessly on shimmering, flooded fields.

All his worldly possessions crammed into a trunk and a cloth portmanteau, Arabic grammar in hand, Carter arrived in Cairo. It was a harsher city than Alexandria (then as now): its contrasts more pronounced, its beauties more hidden, its amenities fewer, its climate worse, its past longer and perhaps darker as well, with the ruins of the ancient Egyptian capitals On and Memphis, the sphinx and the pyramids, looming at the “modern” (AD 969) city’s edge.

While Alexandria faces outward toward the Mediterranean, Cairo is situated at the culmination of the Nile valley with its enclosed, “claustrophiliac” Egyptian life. For more than six hundred miles to the south, the landscape does not vary. On each side, the Nile is bordered by the fertile land that the river creates. Beyond that there is nothing but cliffs, desert, and tombs.

Carter’s stay in Cairo was a short one. He took leave of Petrie never guessing that the two of them would work together before long. Petrie’s exhortations echoing in his ears, he set out to join his expedition in Beni Hasan, having barely had time to take in Cairo’s sights.

He was formally dressed. If Petrie, even when spruced up for the city, was too impatient to bother about socks, he was secure in his status: He was a gentleman and knew he could afford what amused colleagues called his “gypsy appearance.” Carter, though, understood that in his case they would be less forgiving. Throughout his career, he was always meticulous in his appearance, on the sites or off. Photos often show him putting on the Ritz in his homburg and three-piece suit, a silver-topped walking stick under his arm, even while mounted on a donkey. Which was how he was dressed now, minus the silver-topped stick. He looked more like a young English lord than a raw youth setting out to rough it in tombs and burial shafts.

Upon arriving at Minya by train, the seventeen-year-old Carter and a colleague took donkeys the last lap of the journey to Beni Hasan’s rock-cut tombs.

“With our luggage and various impedimenta strapped upon donkeys,” he recorded in his unpublished memoirs, “we rode through the cultivated fields to the river, crossed over to the east bank in an antiquated ferry-boat, and in the dusk we climbed up the slope of the desert escarpment to the terrace where the rock tombs are situated. And there, as the twilight fell swiftly and silently upon those dun coloured cliffs, my first experience was an aspect of dreary desolation which, I must admit, filled me with distrustful phantoms that sometimes haunt the mind on the eve of an adventure.”

It was too dark and he was too weary to examine the tombs he would be working in. But the light of the rising sun provided a revelation as he climbed the high, windswept cliffs to the tombs of the princes and nobles of the first intermediate period (2181-2040 BC).

The light was caught by mirrors placed at the tombs’ doorways and reflected into other mirrors set farther back in the dark, cavernous chambers. Here the world of the living was also mirrored in scenes painted on the tombs’ walls: Soldiers march out to war, brewers make the strong Egyptian beer, crocodiles laze in the sun, launderers wash clothes, and squatting women give birth.

Birds, animals, and flowers abound. If harvesters gather olives, apes sit in the trees above them, watching. Here a bald-headed old priest sports with naked girls. There a swineherd, milk on his tongue, weans a piglet. Fishermen cast their nets, pottery makers turn their wheels, weavers ply their trade, while nearby idle gamesters play at draughts, mora, thimble ring, and sennet. Bakers and harpists are lit up by the rising sun, as are cooks and singers, wine makers and acrobats, hunters, dancers, butchers, and lovers.

There may have been no treasure in the tombs here, and there may have been no depictions of gods among the scenes. But there were wrestlers—rows of loincloth-clad men covered the east wall of tomb #15. More than a hundred pairs were laid out on a grid like the frames of a film strip. While the men themselves were identical, the twisting, turning arms, legs, and torsos were all drawn in unique positions (like the modern wrestlers photographed in sequence by the French artist Eadweard Muybridge in 1887). The observer’s eye swept across the tomb wall from “frame” to “frame,” taking in the motion and struggle captured on the thin layer of plaster nearly four millennia ago.

In places, wasps’ nests (hard as rock) had damaged the friezes or cracks had appeared from the shifting limestone. In some tombs, early Christians had scrawled crosses over scenes, while in others walls had been blackened by squatters’ fires. All kinds of accidents reminded one of the murals’ vulnerability. From early morning until late at night (when weak candlelight replaced the mirrored sun), Carter remained “entombed,” slaving away like some ancient harried painter with only seventy days to finish his work.1*

If he was happy with the assignment, he was dissatisfied—“horrified,” to use his expression—by the expedition’s copying methods. They were deadening and mechanical, he protested, though he was low man on the totem pole (only a seventeen-year-old assistant archaeological artist, his official title).

“The modus operandi in force [at Beni Hasan],” he wrote, “was to hang large sheets of tracing paper upon the walls, and with a soft pencil trace the scenes upon them…. These paintings [tracings] were then to be transported to England, where they could be inked in with a brush … often by persons without any knowledge of drawing.”

Carter wanted to work freehand, to draw rather than trace. He wanted to show what he could do. “I was young, however, it was my first experience, and in the struggle for existence I had to obey and carry out this method of reproducing those beautiful Egyptian records….”

A few months into the 1892 season, the expedition moved south to El Bersheh. For the first part of the trip, the mode of travel was by foot in order to search for tombs and quarries along the way.

There were four men: Newberry Carter, Blackden, and Fraser. Newberry, the scholar who had suggested hiring Carter for the expedition, was in charge. Blackden was an archaeological artist, like Carter, but his experience gave him seniority—and as a gentleman, he had a higher social standing.

Finally, there was Fraser, engaged as both surveyor and copyist. An engineer by training, Fraser originally came to Egypt as a member of the elite Department of Irrigation (the official class most privileged because of the country’s dependence on their work). Soon after arriving, though, Fraser was bitten by the archaeology bug. He gave up his high-paying job with Irrigation and went to train under Petrie at Hawara and El-Lahun, swimming around among bobbing skulls in the dark, flooded pyramid chambers and subsisting on sardines.

If Newberry and Carter were natural allies, then it was to be expected (on the aforementioned “principle” of archaeological jealousy and ambition) that Fraser and Blackden drew together in shared antipathy for their colleagues. The hot, exhausting journey during which the men discovered only empty, uninscribed, undecorated, and roughly hewn burial chambers did nothing to improve their mood. By the time they reached the town of Sheikh Ibada (where they had to wait for a boat), they were taking tea separately—an ominous sign.

The ruins of Sheikh Ibada, the ancient Antinopolis, were meager. Some marble pillars remained standing amid its mud brick houses, dusty palms brushed up against a broken Roman wall or two—nothing more. When some years before the French novelist Gustave Flaubert passed through, he marveled that the squalid place had once been a thriving city with grand, romantic associations.

For in the second century AD, the story goes, when Emperor Hadrian sailed down the Nile, an Egyptian fortune-teller appeared to him here. He predicted death for Hadrian—unless someone freely agreed to take his place.

Hearing his words, Hadrian’s young lover, the beautiful eunuch Antïnous, drowned himself in the Nile, moving Hadrian to decree that a magnificent city with Antïnous’s name should rise on the spot—which is how Antinopolis (the City of Antïnous) rose here, where the four down-in-the-dumps archaeologists now sat wearily (and separately) taking their improvised tea. “Bread, water and onions!” as Newberry noted with an exclamation point, silently passing over Hadrian and the tragic Antïnous. After all, there was no percentage in dwelling on either of them: Hadrian’s tomb was in Rome, while Antïnous went to a watery grave. The talk of the town centered on the still undiscovered tomb of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, said to be somewhere in the vicinity.

Rumor had it that Akhenaten (father of Tut’s wife, Princess Ankhesenamun, and of Tut as well) was buried somewhere in the desert surrounding El Bersheh or nearby Amarna, where just now Petrie was raking over the site with a fine-tooth comb.

All kinds of stories were in the air. That Bedouins had stumbled upon the tomb and were secretly selling objects from it—somehow in cahoots with the French director of the Antiquities Service. Or that the Amarna villagers had found the pharaoh’s coffin and, not wanting foreigners to seize it, had reburied or burned it in the dead of night (a British officer even claimed to have caught sight of the torchlight reburial procession).

Such rumors were fire, and the young archaeologists, eager to make their mark, were tinder. Carter’s task, though, was not to search for Akhenaten’s burial place, but to copy the tomb walls before him. And copy them he did, as the weeks stretched into months and the seasons followed one another, bringing changes in the desert that the boy, very alive to natural beauty, recorded on his sketch pad … while he dreamed of a discoverer’s glory.

Carter’s work at El Bersheh (freehand at last!) was excellent, and the Egyptian Exploration Fund was delighted with him. All very gratifying. The discoverer of Akhenaten’s tomb, though, would win not only the fund’s praise, but that of the world at large.

Is it any wonder that thoughts of the fascinating figure of Akhenaten sometimes came between Carter and the tomb walls he was copying? Evidence of Akhenaten’s period was just beginning to come to light in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The pharaohs who came after him damned the “great criminal” (as they called him), striking his name from the royal chronicles and destroying his monuments in an effort to erase all memory of him. Even today, his chaotic seventeen-year reign (the seals on his wine bottles stop at year 17)2* is interpreted in a more widely varying and contradictory manner than any other reign in Egyptian history. He is a riddle.

What is undisputed is that Akhenaten, a son of Amenhotep III, came to the throne at a time when the empire was at its height (New Kingdom, 1350 BC). Egypt’s boundaries stretched from Syria in the north to Nubia (now the Sudan) in the south. Lesser kingdoms trembled at the name of Egypt. Tribute poured in from Asia; the army was powerful, the granaries bursting, the temples rich and resplendent. But all of this did not interest Amenhotep IV (“Amun is pleased”)—or Akhenaten, as he called himself in honor of the Aten, the dazzling Sun Disk at the height of day and the object of his constant meditation.

He was deformed—possibly. At least it may be said that he broke with the conventional portrayal of the king. In murals and most especially in a series of enormous nude statues (now in the Egyptian Museum), he had himself depicted as having huge hips, almost female breasts, no genitals, long, “spidery” fingers, an elongated skull, and a strange, gaunt, brooding face.

His haunting features are unlike any seen in the three thousand years of Egyptian royal portraiture. Possibly such statues were “realistic” and the pharaoh was a Marfan’s case or a sufferer from Froelich’s syndrome.3* Just as possibly the portraits were the expression of a new aesthetic linked to the “heretic’s” religious philosophy. It is like asking whether El Greco’s elongated figures should be traced to severe astigmatism of the artist’s eye—or to the Byzantine icon tradition he absorbed in his youth. Or analyzing Gauguin’s use of light and shadow in terms of his cataracts. After all the scholarly opinions are studied, one still has to flip a coin—and the answer may very well be both heads and tails.

A visionary, Akhenaten turned away from Egypt’s many gods and wrote hymns to the one source of all life, the sun, who warmed all beings from the chick in his egg to the pharaoh on his throne. If Egypt’s principal god, the ram-headed Amun (whose name means “Hidden”), was worshipped in temples with dark, enclosed holy of holies, the Aten was the visible sign of divinity that daily crossed the sky. His worship was conducted in open courtyards, standing out under the sky; art of the period represented him with many life-giving hands reaching out to his creatures below.

In an attempt to fit Akhenaten into an earlier tradition, scholars have pointed out that solar worship was present from the very first dynasties. However, Egypt had never seen anything like Akhenaten’s fanaticism, his chiseling out of the name of “Amun” in inscriptions and earlier royal cartouches, his closure of the temples of other gods, his turning away from political life and absorption in religious contemplation, which led to the ruination of the empire.

Deserting his ancient capital, Wast (Thebes, Luxor), Akhenaten traveled upriver to where the present-day village of Amarna is located in Middle Egypt. Here, in a completely barren stretch of land, he dedicated the new city of Akhetaten to his god. The other pharaohs of his dynasty (the Eighteenth) were buried far to the south, in the Valley of the Kings. But Akhenaten’s vow, inscribed on a series of boundary stelae placed in the surrounding mountains, was to remain here—“in this place”—forever.

These inscriptions, taken together with the fact that his great officials all had tombs in the region, meant that the pharaoh’s tomb was certainly hidden in some wadi, some dry riverbed, or perhaps some cliff.

On Christmas Day, Fraser and Blackden headed for the nearby city of Minya to celebrate, while Carter and Newberry set off to search for Akhenaten’s tomb, keeping their plan secret from their colleagues. Of course, they were not honor-bound to inform them. However, the detail is important in getting a sense of the mood—an almost feverish rivalry was in the air, Carter’s protestations notwithstanding. (“There was not the slightest idea of winning discovery by selfish competition with our colleagues, nor getting the advantage over others….” He was acting “for the advancement of general knowledge.”)

But if we can’t trust Carter’s account of his motives, his description of their exploration provides a good picture of the terrain and distances involved. “There were rumours abroad that the Bedu [Bedouin] had discovered the long lost tomb of Amenophis IV [the Greek form of Amenhotep IV], or Akhenaten, which was believed to be hidden somewhere in the desert hills behind the great plain of El-Amarna, south of Deir [Arabic for the Monastery of] el-Bersheh.

“Encamped on the desert near us between the cultivated fields of Deir el-Nakhleh and the ravine in which we were working, there was a large Bedu family, of the Ababda tribe who dwell in groups and haunt the solitudes of the eastern desert….

“From these nomads we sought information. Whether they had any knowledge of a large tomb in the desert east of El-Amarna. The chief man among them, called Sheikh Eid, professed to know of a place situated on the desert plateau east of a village at El-Amarna, called Haggi Qandil, where there was a deep cutting in the rock, which he described as being much like the chapels [tombs] of El-Bersheh.

“But as the Ababda, who possessed an original language of their own, had exchanged it for bad Arabic, it was very difficult to understand the Sheikh’s description of the cutting excepting that it was ‘written’ (i.e. inscribed). The Sheikh, however, volunteered for a remuneration and the hire of his camels to show us the spot.

“We crossed the desert tract of El-Bersheh, skirted along the base of the perpendicular cliffs of Sheikh Said that reach down to the river bank, whence we gained, at about noon, the great open desert tract of El-Amarna. Here lie the ruins of the city of Akh.en.Aten, bordered by palm groves that grow along the narrow strip of cultivated land beside the river.”

Without giving it a second thought at the time, Carter was passing through the place where Tutankhamun (the Living Image of Amun), at that time named Tutankhaten (the Living Image of Aten, the Sun Disk), spent the early years of his life. In the ruins of Akhenaten’s city, Carter would have walked along the same palace paths where the child who would later change his life took his first steps.

1* The time it took to embalm the deceased. Once the embalmers had finished, the funeral took place and the tomb was sealed whether or not the artist was satisfied with his work.

2* Wine bottles bore clay seals stamped with vintage dates (sometimes they also had wooden dockets attached to them upon which the vintage date was written along with other information, such as the name of the estates from which they came). Egyptian dates always reverted to year 1 every time a new pharaoh’s reign began. Therefore if no wine bottles from Akhenaten’s reign were found after year 17, it must be assumed that he had died and that what would have been year 18 had now become year 1 of his son’s reign.

3* Two medical conditions that produce deformities similar to those that appear in Akhenaten’s portraits—the elongated skull, for example, or the androgyny. However, other symptoms of these medical conditions do not match Akhenaten. Froelich’s syndrome produces sterility, for example, and the pharaoh is seen time and again in friezes and statues with one or another of his six daughters.

CARTER AND NEWBERRY HAD NO TIME TO EXPLORE THE RUINS just now. The journey they had begun was a long one, and the guides were urgent: “From there [Amarna] we trailed across desert tract in a south-easterly direction, our guide obviously following an old beaten track of the Bedu. This path led to an open spacious valley, situated on the south-eastern corner of the plain, and which winds away amid the Arabian desert. At the entrance of this valley, along its bed, we struck the remains of an ancient Egyptian road. This we followed over undulating ground for about an hour, when it took a sharp turn to the left (eastward), and wound up a pass on to the higher desert plateau.

“On this barren boulder bestrewn plateau the track of the ancient road became very distinct. It was swept clear of boulders, confused masses of broken rocks, and in parts it looked as fresh as if it had been made quite recently. We continued to follow it over hill and dale for at least another two hours, until it reached some extensive mounds of debris, which were obviously refuse dumps from some ancient excavation.

“Here we dismounted, stiff and tired from the rolling gaits of the camels. In the midst of these dumps were two deep and extensive cuttings in the rock of the plateau; not the tomb of Amenophis IV [Akhenaten] but the famous Hatnub quarries, their existence hitherto unknown save from the records upon the ancient monuments.

“These quarries were cut deep into a stratum of alabaster (calcite) where immense blocks of that material could be procured.” The stone was travertine (limestone calcium carbonate), used for embalming tables, canopic jars, temple vessels, and so on. The material for Senwosret I’s beautiful chapel in Karnak temple was quarried here; thanks to the stone’s pure white and translucent quality, the chapel seems, by moonlight especially, to be an unearthly dream.

“Engraved upon their [the quarries’] vertical sides was a multitude of inscriptions” Carter concludes, “from which we learn [italics mine] that they were opened during the Old Kingdom [2590 BC]….” And, Carter might have added, the inscriptions continue as late as Roman times, into the third century AD, making the quarry walls a veritable Who’s Who of ancient Egypt.

“Inscriptions from which we learn,” Carter wrote. But just who was reading these inscriptions? Certainly not Carter and Newberry! At the time, they were too discouraged and disappointed by the fact that they had not discovered Akhenaten’s tomb to appreciate what they had discovered. They were too hot, tired, and saddle sore to study inscriptions, Old Kingdom or Roman (many written in hieratic to boot, a very difficult script version of the hieroglyphs).

They stood before Quarry P and Quarry R, open, circular pits (two hundred feet across and fifty feet deep), surrounded by huge spoil heaps of travertine chips—and they were brokenhearted. They had hired the camels at an exorbitant price and had forgone the luxury of a Christmas break at Minya, and all for what?

When Arthur Weigall (a young colleague who began training in Egypt at the same time as Carter) explored the porphyry quarries in the south (Gebel Dukhan), he was as content and grateful as Carter would be in King Tut’s tomb. He let his imagination wander (as Carter would in Tut’s tomb), envisioning the flawless stone floated upriver and then across the ocean to Rome, where “thoughtless implacable men dip their jeweled fingers into the basins of purple porphyry as they reclined in the halls of imperial Rome.”

Weigall was filled with awe as he stood in the midst of his desert quarries, describing the “ground strewn with yellow fragments of sandstone, orange coloured ochre, transparent pieces of gypsum, carnelian and alabaster chips and glittering quartz … wiggly lines of lizards, footprints of wagtails, vultures, eagles, desert partridges, short jumps of jerboas, padmarks of jackals and foxes, heavier prints of hyenas, and gazelle…. Then in the warm perfect stillness there came, at first almost unnoticed, a small black moving mass, creeping over an indefinite hill top. Presently, very quietly, the mass resolved itself into a compact flock of goats. There arose a plaintive bleating and the wail of the goatherd’s pipe … behind the flock two figures moved, their white garments fluttering in the wind….”

It was a magical place for him. But then, Weigall had not traveled to Gebel Dukhan in pursuit of a royal tomb, and thus he was not disappointed or blinded by ambition.

In a hurry to get back to camp, Carter and Newberry returned to El Bersheh without copying or even noticing most of the Hatnub inscriptions. They left without opening the wonderful “Christmas present” they had been given and returned to punishment.

Their rivals now seized their chance: “Fraser and Blackden returned to El Bersheh the following evening full of the Christmas amenities at Minia. [A sneer characteristic of Carter in “battle” mode.] When we told them of our exploit they seemed somewhat crest-fallen, and did not take it in the light we expected. After a day or so, they disappeared hastily at the break of dawn from the camp, taking with them their servants and tents. We were puzzled to know why. But later, we learnt, from the Bedu, whose camels they had taken, that they had gone with Sheikh Eid to the selfsame Hatnub quarries. And when after five days’ absence, they returned, in a somewhat lofty manner informed us that they had succeeded in making a complete survey of the quarries, and had made copies of all the more important inscriptions therein.”

Creating a sensation in the archaeological world, Blackden and Fraser published “their” discovery: “Collection of Hieratic Graffiti from the Alabaster Quarries of Hat-Nub”—a “hot” work in more than one sense of the word! There was much hand-wringing and indignation on the part of Carter and Newberry The latter resigned his post with the Egyptian Exploration Fund in protest and thought of leaving Egypt forever.

While one would imagine that the very graffiti chiseled into the quarry walls, the proud boasts of long forgotten deeds, would remind the feverish archaeologists of the vanity of all human accomplishment, such was not the case. The aggrieved Carter wrote: “In all such archaeological research, there is one recognized unwritten law: the right of first publication being that of the discoverer.”

Blackden and Fraser, for their part, claimed to have discovered the inscriptions, arguing that Carter and Newberry did not actually recognize what it was they’d stumbled on—the ancient Hat-nub quarries. And so the argument went, for over thirty years. In 1923, Newberry and Fraser were still slinging the archaeological mud in articles and reviews.

Sides were chosen, and Petrie, who had been planning to accept Blackden as an apprentice excavator, backed off, saying that his behavior “leaves a bad taste in the mouth.” Which was the most significant result of the whole brouhaha. For Petrie still needed an assistant to help him in the work he had undertaken: a thorough exploration of Akhenaten’s ancient capital. Up until this time, the important site had been studied only half a dozen times, all of the expeditions brief and the reports cursory (Jomard in 1798; Burton, 1825; Champollion, 1828, on his way south; then Hay and Wilkenson, both in 1834; and finally—though only for a week—the great German Egyptologist Karl Richard Lepsius visited Amarna in 1842).

Instead of the credit-stealing Blackden, Carter was now pushed forward as a likely candidate to train under Petrie for the coming season in 1893. His careful work in the tombs of Beni Hasan and his paintings of the El Bersheh murals, in the true spirit of Egyptian art, were mentioned. He was also helped by the intervention of his old patron of Didlington Hall, William Tyssen-Amherst, who was anxious to augment his collection by financing the expedition.

Arrangements were made with surprising speed. “In a week’s time I was to leave the expedition,” Carter wrote later. “In this way began another phase in my career…. I must admit that I had sad misgivings regarding this new undertaking [excavating with Petrie] for which I had not the least experience…. However, in spite of this, in the morning I arose earlier than usual and set myself to arrange my things and pack.” If, as Heraclitus says, character is fate, it was all there from the beginning: Carter’s courage, his stubbornness, his truculence, his dedication.

To which list may be added his “demons.” For both he and the driven, obsessed Petrie were desperadoes and doubles. But with this difference: Petrie was saved by falling in love—and by being able to fall in love—and what’s more, with a woman willing to put up with his Spartan ways and join him in his life’s endeavor. Carter would have nothing to console him but his work.

“I resolutely avoided any possible entanglement for it would, I always knew, be almost life and death to me to really care about anyone,” Petrie wrote to the young Hilda Urlin in an early, despairing letter. “I drowned my mind in work, and have kept my balance by filling every thought with fresh interests and endeavors, at a cost and a strain which I could hardly live under….”

There was just as much dammed-up passion in Carter as there was in Petrie. But it found expression only in his dark rages. He could never write to another human being as Petrie wrote to Hilda.

“Overwork is a necessity to me, as a narcotic to deaden the mind to the condition of a solitary life,” Petrie told her. He offered her no compliments, he made no mention of her long, light hair or her blue eyes (though she was so beautiful that she posed as Dante’s Beatrice for the Pre-Raphaelite painter Henry Holiday). Instead, he wooed her with his desperation. “To me life seems such an unsatisfactory experiment in spite of the many advantages that I am blessed with having.”

The girl’s first reaction was, naturally, to draw back in wonder. Up until these declarations, their relationship had been purely intellectual. First seeing her at a University College London exhibition of his finds, he followed her from room to room, finally managing to strike up a conversation amid his scarabs and pots (whether in their early, flourishing, or degraded stage is not recorded). He invited her to draw his antiquities; he lent her books and sent her tickets to his lectures.

Their relationship deepened. Hopelessly in love, he gave her the key to his scarab cabinet (his idea of a romantic gift). She refused him. He wrote to tell her that he was leaving for the remotest deserts in Syria. She replied that this was rather rash. Her mother invited him to visit the family. He agreed—and the rest was history.

Photos of Hilda and Petrie at the excavation sites reveal marital bliss. Petrie watches as Hilda, wearing her large floppy hat, smock, and daring new “bloomers” (knee length, resembling knickers), climbs into a burial pit or kneels among her husband’s pots and coffins.

Weigall provides a more intimate picture of the lovers in a letter to Newberry: “Petrie is a very bad sleeper, and yet for the sake of his health, he finds it necessary to take ‘just a second or so’s rest’ from the hour of 1.30 until about 3.30 [p.m.]. Now during this time the rest of the happy family [his assistants, students, and so on] is making a horrible noise about the courtyard—fitting up pots, copying stelae and so forth…. Also the extraordinary sensations in his inside—due of course to tinned peas and salad oil—keep him painfully alive to the existence of a stomach not yet subordinated to the intellect. And moreover the glaring sun streaming into the hut, the heat, the millions of flies, all combine to annoy him…. Upon retiring to his hut after his ample meal of, let us say, stale peas, sardine oil, aged bread, and eleven oranges, he proceeds to remove all his garments except a coat and a pair of trousers….

“Next he takes two lumps of plaster of Paris and thrusts them into his ears…. Then, seizing a large green tin from off an upper shelf, he anoints his hair, beard and coat with the famous green [insect] powder…. The insubordinated stomach alone remains to be dealt with; and so the Prince of Excavators throws himself upon his bed.

“But, stop a moment, I have omitted to mention the system of dealing with excessive light. [He] has fashioned himself a black mask … and this he ties over his face…. Having now arranged himself upon his bed, his wife steps in to deal with her husband’s world-famed stomach … lying across the offending portion of his anatomy….

“Going in one day to [his] hut … I was horrified to see lying upon the bed a terrible figure curled up, with another equally terrible one lying at right angles above. The face was pitch black, the hair bright green, the beard also green … one hand was flung out over the hinder portions of the blue lump lying on its face on the top; the other clasped a stray hand belonging to the said lump. The atmosphere was thick with powder. Half asphyxiated I coughed and horrors! the lumps began to move. It was Professor W. M. Flinders … himself!”

In one of his most moving love letters, Petrie wrote to Hilda during their courtship, “I cannot again live as I did before I knew you.” But it was just that lonely existence Carter would lead among the desert ruins and tombs.

Thirty years after the young Carter first came to Egypt, he’d finally announce to colleagues that he intended to bring back a companion from England. Which of course caused much speculation about the woman he’d fallen for. Had he, like Petrie, found an ardent beauty to join him on the sites?

Carter returned from leave not with a woman, however, but with a canary—explaining to the astonished men that although Egypt had ornithological wonders aplenty—ibises and hawks and egrets and black-legged spoonbills—sadly, it had no songbirds of its own.

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