Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter 19

Valley of the Kings

January 1900

“GENTLEMEN ARE INVITED to take off their coats,” Carter advised the tour group as they approached the tomb. “It will get rather warm inside. Ladies, I’m afraid you’ll have to settle for removing your hats.”

His work ethic and passion for Egyptology had already lifted the ambitious twenty-five-year-old Carter from the obscurity of his early days to the relative power of his new position as chief inspector for the Antiquities Service in Upper Egypt.

Carter had beaten out Percy Newberry for the job, and now he oversaw all excavation in the region.

Many within the British Egyptology community found this distasteful, even ridiculous. They objected to Carter’s lack of book knowledge, his lack of a university degree, and, perhaps most of all, his lack of table manners. To them, Carter was not one of the world’s foremost Egyptologists, just its most infamous and crude.

At a Christmas dinner in 1897, Newberry’s brother had marveled at Carter’s lack of social graces: “He doesn’t hesitate to pick his last hollow tooth with a match stalk during dinner, bite bread that is so hard you can barely cut it with a chopper, and help himself to whiskey in an absentminded fashion, emptying half the bottle into his tumbler, then laugh and pour it back again.”

Even Gaston Maspero, Carter’s new boss, admitted that his charge was obstinate.

But Carter also had supporters and admirers, many of them female.

Lady Amherst still welcomed Carter to Didlington Hall whenever he returned to England. He was something of a hero to her family for his ongoing series of adventures in the Egyptian desert.

Carter was certainly someone to reckon with, even if he didn’t know which fork to use for his salad. He was now museum curator for the entire Valley of the Kings. The area was an isolated jumble of hills, cliffs, and dry riverbed located three miles west of the Nile, just below the “horn,” the highest point in the Theban hills.

Nobody knew exactly how many Egyptian rulers were interred beneath the sunbaked earth. And there was a good chance no one would ever know. Time and weather, crumbling rock, and blowing sand had completely changed the valley floor and enhanced its natural camouflage.

To actually stumble upon a tomb was to find the proverbial needle in a haystack, which is why any discovery was so precious and why everyone, from tourists to tomb raiders, was eager to see inside each burial chamber.

Since Italian circus strongman-cum-Egyptologist Giovanni Belzoni had performed the first serious excavation of the area in 1815, the tombs of more than two dozen pharaohs had been found within its craggy, soaring walls. Belzoni had stopped excavating in the valley after thirteen years because he believed there was nothing left to find.

The discovery of tomb after tomb since then proved he’d been wrong.

In exchange for a “concession”—permission to dig in the valley—excavators agreed to split all treasure fifty-fifty with the Egyptian government. Sometimes the discovery process was as simple as clearing away a few scattered rocks. At other times finding a tomb required scraping away mountains of hard-packed sand and stone, clear down to the bedrock.

The allure was treasure first, history second.

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