LIKE A GENERAL COMMANDING a small army, Carter barked orders, positioning his workers across the landscape in the spots where they would soon dig and dig, then dig some more.
The men marched to their positions and leaned on their hoe-like turias, knowing that the work would not commence until Carter said so.
The forty-three-year-old Howard Carter, fluent in Arabic and knowledgeable about Egypt, had been deemed a vital resource by the British army. So, rather than searching for forgotten pharaohs, he’d spent the war in Cairo, laboring for the Military Intelligence Department of the War Office.
“War work claimed most of my time for the next few years,” he wrote, “but there were occasional intervals when I was able to carry out small pieces of excavation.”
But those were strictly reconnaissance efforts, not genuine searches for Tut or some other lost pharaoh. Then on December 1, 1917, while war was still being waged in Europe, Carter was finally released from duty and allowed to return to his beloved Valley of the Kings.
“The difficulty was knowing where to begin,” he noted. “I suggested to Lord Carnarvon that we take as a starting point the triangle of ground defined by the tombs of Rameses II, Mer-en-Ptah, and Rameses VI.”
Just as so many soldiers in the trenches had longed for loved ones, so had Carter pined for the valley. To be standing here beneath the blazing blue skies, feeling a fine layer of dust settle on his skin—it was like falling in love all over again.
“Proceed,” he yelled, his words echoing.
The bare-chested army of diggers swung their turias into the earth.
Carter intended to clear the area around the tombs of Rameses II and Rameses VI right down to the bedrock, a task that would require removing tens of thousands of tons of stone and soil. He had already laid narrow-gauge tracks and arranged to have a small train haul away the debris.
The plan was ambitious, but after a decade of waiting, anything less would not have been acceptable to Carter or His Lordship. There was too much stored-up energy, too much deferred ambition.
But would he find his virgin tomb? Would he find King Tut?
Davis had said that the valley had been exhausted, and by the time he’d up and left, the American had become its leading authority. For that reason experts had taken Davis at his word.
But now Davis was dead, having keeled over from a heart attack just six months after abandoning the valley. Carter, however, was very much alive and hard at work.
He wondered about his diggers, those veterans with callused hands and broad shoulders who had moved so much earth in their lives. Did they also think the valley was exhausted? Were they just here for the paycheck? Did they believe they were digging all day long in the blazing sun with no hope of finding anything? Or did they believe in their hearts that they might help unearth a long-buried tomb?
Would they discover the elusive Tut?