Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter 17

Deir el-Bahri


THE BLAZING SUN was beating down on Howard Carter’s neck. It was Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, which meant that dig season was over, since the men fasted during the day. This made them too weak to dig in the hot sun.

Now Carter, working alone, alternately photographed and sketched the northwest chamber of a newly excavated temple near Luxor. He was nineteen years old.

It was Carter’s second season excavating the structure dedicated to Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh nearly as famous as Nefertiti. It was a rocky location, situated at the base of a cliff, two miles from the Nile. Daytime temperatures often soared above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, and there was no shade.

Still, Carter worked dawn to dusk, in the fashion he had learned from Petrie, mainly because he so loved what he did. This was his life. There was nothing else for him.

His boss now was a Swiss named Edouard Naville. The prolific excavator had long believed that a vast temple complex lay beneath the soil at Deir el-Bahri, and the results of several seasons’ work were proving he might be correct.

Grand columns and towering walls now rose from the ground, unearthed after centuries of landslides and storms had covered them over.

Naville had been pleased with Carter’s growing professionalism but was also concerned that the young Englishman was too slow when it came to sketching and photographing. The same methodical bent that Petrie had once encouraged was now seen as a serious flaw.

But this cloud had a silver lining. Naville had requested a second artist to help Carter. The man hired for the task was none other than Carter’s thirty-year-old brother, Vernet.

The two had worked side by side through the early months of 1894, producing a series of dazzling sketches that were soon to be reproduced in book form.

Howard Carter had come a long way, actually. Not only had he learned to excavate, photograph, and supervise dig crews, but the young man was showing that his childhood sickliness was a thing of the past. When Naville closed the site for Ramadan, he asked the Carter brothers to continue working.

But the strapping Vernet fell prey to the heat and deprivation. He was forced to return to England, leaving his brother to finish Naville’s job alone.

Carter had enjoyed the time with Vernet, but he never once contemplated returning home with his brother.

The life of an Egyptologist had its perils to be sure. It wasn’t everyone’s idea of the ideal job. But for Howard Carter, it was paradise.

And one day, he hoped to be a modern-day king—in the Valley of the Kings. He dreamed of making the greatest tomb discovery of them all, even though he had no idea what it might be.

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