INTERVIEW WITH HOWARD CARTER

Howard Carter was born in London on 9 May 1874. His father was an artist and young Howard inherited his talent for drawing. This brought him, at the age of 17, to Egypt to help with the recording of the tombs in Middle Egypt. From then his Egyptological career took off in a spectacular fashion. Between 1893 and 1899 he was in charge of epigraphy in the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri. From 1899 until 1905 he was employed as Chief Inspector of Antiquities, first of Upper Egypt, then of Lower Egypt. In 1909 he began to excavate on behalf of Lord Carnarvon, a collaboration that culminated in the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in November 1922. The documentation of the tomb was completed in 1932. This was the greatest find in the history of Egyptian archaeology, but also one which aroused a good deal of envy and even accusations of unethical archaeological practices, including the charge that he wanted to keep the Lotus Head, which is mentioned below, for himself. Here Howard Carter has a fictitious chance to respond. He died in London on 2 March 1939.
For me, one of the items in the exhibition ‘Tutankhamun His Tomb and His Treasures’ embodies much of what can be said about the whole discovery. It is a relatively small and humble object and it would be easy to overlook it in the multitude of intriguing and gracious forms and the blinding glitter of gold. What you see in the exhibition is, of course, a replica. The original was made of wood, which was then covered with a thin layer of plaster and painted in vivid, even somewhat harsh colours. It represents the head of a handsome young man, hardly out of adolescence and in appearance as well as size seemingly not much older than a child. The head is placed, somewhat incongruously, on top of a lotus flower. The young man’s skull is quite conspicuously dolichocephalic, the elongated form which one associates with the members of the Amarna family, especially the young daughters of King Akhenaten and his chief Queen Nefertiti. His expression is unassuming but quietly confident, unlike the somewhat supercilious and faintly disdainful smile of the man behind the gold mask and the impersonally majestic gaze of the faces on the coffins. The whole arrangement is placed on a round base, a form known from old-fashioned table lamps. The combination of the two elements may seem odd until one realizes that the lotus is a symbol of rebirth and the moment shown here is that when the deceased, having undergone all the prescribed funerary ceremonies required for admittance into the afterlife, emerges into his new existence just like a lotus flower which bursts open above the waters of the Nile. This is an artistic expression of an abstract idea, something which Egyptian artists were very good at and which applies to most items found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. There is no inscription on the object but there is no doubt that it represents Tutankhamun, even though we are less certain how accurate the king’s likeness might be. What we know for sure is that this was how the young king was meant to be represented, and we cannot get much further than that with any Egyptian pharaoh.

Like so much else connected with Howard Carter and Tutankhamun’s tomb, the object is not uncontroversial. Perhaps more than any other item found in the tomb, it has suffered from unjustly bad publicity almost from the time when it became known. The precise find-spot of the object has been queried and, indeed, it has even been suggested that it does not come from Tutankhamun’s tomb at all. Carter was accused of trying to conceal its discovery and secrete it away for his own nefarious reasons. How much more can one malign an archaeologist and smear his reputation? If only it were possible to ask him about some of the details surrounding the object, then perhaps the situation could be clarified! Alas, that cannot be done.

Or can it? Perhaps I am becoming unhealthily obsessed with this, but last night, at the time when the dusk meets the morning, the dark relinquishes its sway to the light and one’s grasp of reality is at its weakest, I dreamt of an interview with Howard Carter. Now, in the cold and harsh daylight of a wet winter morning, I realize that it was but a dream, but I believe that the time when that dream becomes possible is not far away, for good or bad. This is what I dreamt.

My brand-new shining P2p-121 was brought by George, our paperboy, yesterday. As an electronic gadget it is a marvel of modern technology and design, the size of a small laptop which it superficially resembles, with a slick shiny gun-metal finish. When its limited release was announced it generated much excitement.

Serious academics immediately condemned it as a charlatan device which substitutes half-baked and often unwarranted theories for results based on solid scholarship and many hours spent poring over books in libraries and documents in archives. Media people welcomed it wholeheartedly because it transforms dull and dry material into what they always prefer, a live interview. Lawyers have cautioned about the deluge of libel, slander and defamation that the use of the P2p-121 can bring about. Television and radio pundits have pontificated at length about the social damage the gadget can cause if used to check on people applying for jobs or insurance, on the veracity of those standing for election to public offices, or even on the previous history of those planning to get married or wanting to adopt children. The anticipation was whipped up to such an extent that it was clear the demand for the first model was going to outstrip by far the limited number of the devices which would be available, hence I commissioned George the paperboy to queue up outside one of the outlets where the P2p-121 was going to be sold. A fee of £10 an hour was needed to persuade him to accommodate me and since the poor lad had to stand there in the cold and occasional rain for the whole night, it was money well spent.

The principle on which the P2p-121 works is simple. Most of us define our attitudes towards people, events and things, and so establish ‘our’ way of dealing with the problems that life places before us, quite early. These tend to remain fairly consistent, albeit with adjustments and corrections to allow for different contexts. Most of the time, we tend to behave quite predictably. ‘Quite’ is the operative word because when it comes to humans absolute consistency cannot be guaranteed but, nevertheless, statistically the chances of the same reaction provoked by a similar situation are high. People, of course, change their attitudes and behaviour throughout their lives and it is essential to bear this in mind; the further away we move from the given chronological point for which we have the required data, the less secure the prognostication.

The P2p-121 analyses decisions taken on previous occasions and suggests probable actions and behavioural patterns in situations about which we either do not know enough or those which may be purely fictitious, of the ‘what would he have done if’ variety. It might be said that the P2p-121 imitates our own thinking and emotional reactions in the same way the working of a chess program resembles a top chess grandmaster’s analysis. And, like a good chess program, it does it much more quickly and efficiently. The P2p-121 can, therefore, be interrogated, or interviewed if you wish, just like a living person, as long as you are able to provide it with the required data on which its analysis can be based. There is a further refinement incorporated into the P2p-121: the visual element. If contemporary images of the ‘interviewed’ person are available, it is possible to create the impression that one is watching a recorded meeting with questions and answers.

In my dream, I fed into my P2p-121 every word Howard Carter is known to have written or uttered between 1891, the year of his arrival in Egypt, and 1939, the year in which he died. I used his diaries, his unpublished ‘biographical sketches’ (with some caution since Carter was prone to judicious editing of his life), his correspondence, and his publications. I set the place as 49 Albert Court, London, and the date of our interview as 1938, a year before his death. When the P2p-121 was powered up and Carter’s image appeared on the screen I was shocked to see how unwell he looked, a poor reflection of his former dapper self. But his waspish thinking was as sharp as ever.

Q: “Good morning, Mr Carter, I am very grateful to you for your precious time and for allowing me this interview about the tomb of Tutankhamun, the greatest discovery ever made in Egypt. I know that you have spoken about it many times, that you have written a three-volume work, ‘The Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amun’, and lectured about it on many occasions. I wish to apologize but I want to take you back some fourteen years, to 1924.”

HC: “Ah, 1924. I do not really understand why you want to remind me of that awful time. Wouldn’t you like to talk about something more agreeable?”

Q: “I am sorry but it is not my intention to pry into the details of any of the problems you had in your relations with the Egyptian Government and the Egyptian Antiquities Service at that time. I just want to establish the exact circumstances of the discovery of the lotus head.”

HC: “That one! But I have explained it all in writing and have nothing to add. Sometimes I wish we had never found the wretched thing. I think you are wasting my time.”

Q: “Mr Carter, I would be extremely grateful if we could summarise all that one can say about the head and its discovery, just to avoid any uncertainty and dispel any misunderstanding. Please correct me if the following is wrong. You had your disagreement with the authorities early in 1924 when you stopped all the work in the tomb and posted the famous note about it in the Winter Palace Hotel on 13 February. Shortly afterwards you left Egypt for England in preparation for your American lecture tour. In your absence, the Egyptian Government set up a special commission, headed by the Director General of the Antiquities Service, Pierre Lacau, the task of which was to make an inventory of all the items found in the tomb. On 30 March 1924, the members of the commission found the lotus head, with apparently no record relating to its discovery, in royal tomb No. 4, that of Ramesses XI. It was in an unmarked wooden crate that originally contained wine supplied by Fortnum & Mason Ltd., of 181 Piccadilly, London. Some members of the commission became very excited and alarmed with this discovery and an opinion was voiced that you tried to conceal the head and possibly planned secretly to dispose of it. In your very brief note written on the card for this item you remark, rather bitterly, ‘was sent to Cairo as evidence of my want of integrity’. Can you please clarify several things for me? First of all, why was it found in royal tomb No. 4 and not in tomb No. 15, which was used as an official storeroom for objects found in Tutankhamun’s tomb?”

HC: “I would have thought you would have come better prepared and worked this one out for yourself. The head was found in the debris filling the descending corridor connecting the staircase to the antechamber. This was cleared mainly on 25 and 26 November, just before we broke through the second sealed doorway in the presence of Lord Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn, later in the afternoon on 26 November. Various small objects were found during the removal of the debris and to these I gave numbers ranging from 5 to 12. Each of these numbers covered more than one object except for the lotus head, which received number 8. If you consult the plan of the corridor you will see precisely where it was found: not far from the antechamber doorway and quite close to the south side of the corridor. At that time, tomb No. 15 was not yet made available to us as a storeroom so we kept these finds in another royal tomb, No. 4, of Ramesses XI, which we had had at our disposal during our previous work in the valley and which we now used for taking breaks from work and for having our lunches. The head was by far the most attractive item found in the debris in the corridor and Callender and I spent some time assembling the fragments of plaster which had fallen off it and restoring it as best we could. But our work on it had not been completed by the time we opened the antechamber on 26 November, when the real magnitude of the discovery and our task became apparent. Time was now at a premium and we somehow never got back to the definitive recording, photographing and treatment of the head and the other items found in the corridor. The head remained in its box in tomb No. 4 until it was found there by the commission.”

Q: “And why a Fortnum & Mason crate, a packing-case from one of the most expensive shops in London?”

HC: “My dear man, if you spent just a little time at an excavation you would realize that all kinds of packing material are used by archaeologists, and I assure you that Fortnum & Mason’s crates, in which some of our provisions had come, were first class for storing objects. I understand that Harrods cases are just as good.”

Q: “Yes, I see, class tells. Now, forgive me for being blunt about this, but can you assure me that you never entertained any idea of keeping the head for yourself? And why did not you show it or mention it to Rex Engelbach, the Chief Inspector of the Antiquities Service, while you were not so reticent about the other small pieces found in the corridor? And you do not even record the discovery of the head in your diary entries for 25 and 26 November, something which I do not understand at all.”

HC: “Look, my friend, all this was before we even got a glimpse of what was inside the tomb. The head was found in all that rubbish filling the tomb’s corridor and one could argue that it was an object discarded in antiquity. It was certainly in a different class from all that small stuff scattered over the floor of the corridor. If there was going to be any division of the finds in the future in 1922 we still could expect a share of the finds I am sure that Lord Carnarvon would not have objected to having it in his collection. He certainly deserved something for spending so much money over many years with relatively little reward; but I assure you categorically that I personally had no use for the object beyond that. I do not recall the exact circumstances of showing Engelbach the finds; maybe the head had already been kept separate while undergoing treatment.”

Q: “I see. Sorry to press you on this point, but you did not include a picture of the head in the first volume of your ‘The Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amun’, published in November 1923, well before all the fuss made by the commission. As a matter of fact, you did not even mention it in the text of the book although you list in some detail the other things found during the clearance of the corridor. The head only appears in volume iii, published ten years later, in 1933. Why? This makes you an easy target for those who believe that you tried to hide it.”

HC (somewhat disconcerted and irritated): “Look, my man, the objects found in the corridor, including the head on a lotus, were left in a kind of limbo in tomb No. 4, forgotten in the scramble that followed the opening of the tomb. If the head was intended as a kind of memento from me for Lord Carnarvon, and I stress if, then this could no longer have been the case after his death on 5 April 1923. So why would I have kept it in tomb No. 4 until it was found there by the commission a year later? Lacau, Engelbach and the Keeper of the Egyptian Museum, Edgar, tried to smooth the situation with the commission by suggesting that the head did not come from the tomb of Tutankhamun at all and that I had bought it from an antiquities dealer for Lord Carnarvon’s collection a year earlier. That just was not on. Do you really think that if that had been the case I would have been so obtuse as to bring it to the excavation and keep it together with objects found in the corridor of the tomb?”

Q: “Yes, I fully understand. But tell me, Mr Carter, how do you explain that the head was, according to you, found in the corridor, and not in the tomb? How did it get there?”

HC: “It must have been abandoned there by robbers who, as you know, penetrated the tomb on at least two occasions in antiquity.”

Q: “But robbers were not after beautiful objects or works of art and surely they would not have picked it up inside the tomb just for its artistic appeal and then changed their mind as they were leaving the tomb?”

HC: “Haven’t you noticed that Tutankhamun’s ears are pierced? But where are the earrings? It seems quite likely that the robbers removed the whole head from the tomb but then wrenched off the gold earrings and threw away the head, for which they had no further use, as they were leaving the tomb.”

Q: “Yes, that makes sense. But why did the necropolis officials who tidied things up after the robbery not put the head back in the tomb?”

HC: “The head perhaps was not noticed until the time when the corridor was being filled with debris to prevent another robbery. By then it was too late because the doorway into the Antechamber had already been sealed, so it stayed there until we found it.”

Q: “Many thanks, Mr Carter, for all these explanations.”

So that is the interview that, in reality, never took place. I cannot, of course, be absolutely certain that my P2p-121 got everything right or that my recollection of my dream is perfect. I must admit that my worries have not been completely dispelled. Howard Carter was a complex man, a maverick and possibly a slightly flawed character but, given his position and the context of his time, a brilliant and a principled archaeologist. He remained his own man no matter what the consequences. Without his dogged determination the greatest discovery in the history of Egyptian archaeology would never have been documented in full, and for this we shall always remain in his debt.