Who was Tutankhamun? The true story of Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s search for the boy king

The quest for the tomb of the pharaoh has just begun on ITV, but what's the real story behind the drama?

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Max Irons and Sam Neill are bringing the tale of Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s search for the tomb of Tutankhamun to life on ITV on Sunday nights, but who exactly was the Egyptian pharaoh? Who were the men who hunted for his tomb? And how did their search progress in real life?

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Who was Tutankhamun?

Perhaps one of the most famous Egyptian pharaohs of all time, to put it bluntly. His dazzling golden death mask is one of the images most people traditionally associate with Ancient Egypt.

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He was the son of Akhenaten, the man who incited a major religious revolution when he decided to worship a new god (Aten) instead of the traditionally worshipped Amun during his reign, sometime around 1350-1330 BC. You may have heard of his stepmother too – they called her Queen Nefertiti.

When he inherited the throne, Prince Tutankhaten reverted to the worship of Amun (hence the ‘amun’ replacing the ‘aten’ in his name), and moved his people back from the city of Akhetaten (now Amarna) to Thebes. 

Tutankhamun is often referred to as the boy king because he ruled while he was still in his teens. He was thought to be about 18 or 19 years old when he died, and some speculated that he was murdered because shards of bone were found loose in his skull.

However, that has since been largely dismissed with other theories arguing that he died as a result of an infection contracted after he broke a leg, or from multiple strains of malaria, or from a chariot accident. The latest suggestion, though, is that his early death was actually a result of genetic weaknesses, possibly due to inbreeding in the royal line. In fact, Tutankhamun himself went on to marry his half-sister Ankhesenamun.

We’d probably know very little about Tutankhamun, were it not for two British men with a passion for archaeology and Egypt: Howard Carter and George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon.

Who was Howard Carter?

Born in 1874 in Kensington, London, Howard Carter was the youngest of 11 children born to artist and illustrator Samuel Carter and his wife Martha Joyce.

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He spent much of his childhood living in Norfolk with his aunts, but became fascinated by Egypt when his father took him to the home of William Amherst Tyssen-Amherst aka Baron Amherst of Hackney.

Amherst had an Egyptian collection at his home, and it’s believed that Carter became fascinated with the country and its history while examining the artefacts as his father painted. 

He was just 17 when he began working in Egypt sketching for archaeologists, and eventually rose through the ranks to a position with the Egyptian Antiquities Service. It was during his time as first inspector general for the Monument for Upper Egypt that he worked with American lawyer, Theodore Davis, who was funding numerous digs in the Valley of The Kings. 

Carter supervised the exploration of the floor of the Valley of the Kings for Davis, before being transferred to Lower and Middle Egypt in 1903. In 1905 he resigned from the EAS, allegedly in the aftermath of a dispute between Egyptian site guards and a group of drunken French tourists

He had been going through a tough time when, in 1907, his fortunes changed upon meeting Lord Carnarvon. 

Who was Lord Carnarvon?

George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon (now there’s a mouthful) was an aristocrat and amateur archaeologist.

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Born at Highclere Castle (yes, the home of Downton Abbey), he attended Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, before taking on the family title.

Long before he began searching for pharaohs in the sand, Carnarvon was a well known racehorse owner and automobile enthusiast. In fact, it was a serious accident he had while behind the wheel in Germany that gave him the permanent leg injury hinted at in the ITV series.

His doctor recommended visiting warmer climates, so Carnarvon made regular visits to Egypt and took an interest in local history while he was there.

How did Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon meet?

Carter and Carnarvon were introduced by Gatson Maspero, a French Egyptologist who was working as Director General of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. He recommended Carter to Carnarvon, and the Earl put the archaeologist in charge of all of his Egyptian digs.

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During their early years together the men began digging in the West Bank of Luxor, where they made several important discoveries.

It wasn’t until 1914, seven years after their initial meeting, that Carter and Carnarvon obtained the concession to dig in The Valley of The Kings. 

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Carter was aware that a number of items related to Tutankhamun had been discovered by Davis in the area in 1905, but he was convinced that the American Egyptologist hadn’t come across the pharaoh’s tomb.

Despite Davis’s claim that the Valley was “exhausted”, Carter was convinced something still lay buried beneath the sand, and convinced Carnarvon to back the project. 

Did the First World War really hold up the hunt for Tutankhamun’s tomb?

Yes, it did indeed. The pair were both called in for diplomatic duties during the conflict and work was halted on the site until 1917. 

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Carter resumed his search after the war ended, but it remained fruitless for years. Despite an intensive search, he and his teams struggled to find anything and came close to giving up hope.

But the archaeologist persuaded his patron to keep hold of his concession and finance just one more season of digging in the Valley. 

On November 5th 1922, 15 years after they first met, Carter found what they were looking for – the first of the steps that lead to the entrance of the tomb of the boy king…

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Tutankhamun continues on ITV on Sunday nights at 9pm