BERLIN // Howard Carter, the British archaeologist who discovered the tomb of the Egyptian king Tutankhamen in 1922, cheated the Egyptian authorities in an attempt to get a share of the fabulous treasure, German Egyptologists claim.
Carter, whose sensational discovery in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor is widely regarded as the greatest archaeological find of all time, broke laws by smuggling objects from the tomb out of the country and entering and disturbing the burial chamber without the presence of Egyptian officials, experts in Germany are saying. They say Carter's claim that the 3,200-year-old grave had already been robbed in ancient times was probably a lie designed to circumvent a law that stated that any treasure found intact had to remain in Egypt, but that the contents of a disturbed tomb could be divided up between Egypt and the finders.
Doubts about Carter's methods are not new but the debate keeps resurfacing with the discovery of Tutankhamen artefacts in museum collections around the world. This, Egyptologists claim, suggests that they were secretly brought out of Egypt by Carter or members of his team. One example is an Ushabti, a funerary figure on show in the Louvre that bears Tutankhamen's name and can only have come from the pharaoh's tomb, said Christian Loeben, an Egyptologist at the August Kestner museum in the German city of Hanover. A museum in Kansas City, Missouri, has two golden falcon's heads which, an examination revealed, came from a collar placed around the mummy's neck. There are further examples in other museums.
"All objects from the tomb should be in Egypt, and if they're not in Egypt, they didn't get out legally," Dr Loeben said. The charges that Carter lied about the grave having been disturbed are more recent, and experts claim that his actions did lasting damage to research into ancient Egypt, because it will never be reliably known what the tomb looked like when he found it. Carter said the four chambers of the tomb had been raided shortly after Tutankhamen's funeral, and again 15 years later. He said he had found broken chests, opened alabaster vases and furniture from which precious metal decorations had been torn off.
"The break-in was simulated," Dr Rolf Krauss, a Berlin-based Egyptologist, told Der Spiegel, Germany's leading news magazine, this week. Dr Loeben said: "Carter's claim that the grave had already been robbed doesn't stand up to closer scrutiny. Everything that was needed for a royal funeral was there, nothing was missing. "If I'd been a grave robber I would have taken the really great, exciting objects rather than some oils that supposedly had gone missing from alabaster vessels. I wouldn't have left the golden rings lying next to them."
In the end, the Egyptian authorities, striving for national independence after more than a century of interference from France and Britain, refused to divide the spoils, even though Carter's theory about grave robbers was generally believed. The discovery, in the evening of November 26, when Carter used a crowbar to knock a hole into the stone doorway and held a lantern into the chamber beyond, will always be one of the most breathtaking moments in the history of archaeology.
"Can you see anything?" asked Lord Carnarvon, his financial backer, standing behind him. After what seemed like an interminable silence, Carter replied: "I see wonderful things." He saw animal figures, beds, statues, a small throne of gold, and strange egg-shaped vessels that turned out to contain embalmed meat to sustain the king in the afterlife. That was just the antechamber. The four chambers contained 5,000 objects including furniture, weapons, six chariots, perfume vessels, statues and figurines of gold and alabaster, and jewellery adorned with amethyst, turquoise and lapis lazuli.
The coffin containing the mummy of the boy king was inside a quartzite sarcophagus, and surrounded by four nested, gilded shrines. The exquisite golden burial mask inlaid with semi-precious stones has come to symbolise the splendour and mystery of ancient Egypt. Tutankhamen, who was nine years old when he became pharaoh, is believed to have died around 1323BC aged 18 or 19, possibly from a blood infection following a hunting accident.
The discovery was a worldwide sensation and a triumph for Carter, the cantankerous, obsessive tomb-hunter who had been seeking the grave of the "boy king" for years. Most archaeologists at the time believed there was nothing left to excavate in the Valley of the Kings, the mystical site less than one kilometre long where the Egyptians buried their royalty for some 500 years until the 11th century BC. Some 63 tombs had already been discovered there in digs over the past few centuries, and most of them had already been plundered by grave robbers. Carter, who never went to university and taught himself Egyptian and hieroglyphics, had persuaded Lord Carnarvon, a playboy with a penchant for fast cars and a fascination for the treasures of Egypt, to fund his digs.
Dr Loeben said he did not think Carter took objects out of Egypt with the aim of making a profit, even though he did subsequently work as an antique dealer and agent for museums. "The artefacts would only have become really valuable if he had admitted they came from Tutankhamen's tomb, and he couldn't say that. I would say he took a few things for himself and members of his team and Lord Carnarvon as souvenirs," Dr Loeben said.
But Carter had done a disservice to Egyptology by rearranging items inside the tomb and thereby making it impossible to know what it had looked like in its original state, he said. A little-known document written by a member of Carter's team, Alfred Lucas, in 1947 claimed that Carter knocked a hole into the doorway linking the antechamber to the actual burial chamber, and illegally entered it without waiting for Egyptian officials, Der Spiegel wrote.
He then concealed the hole with a wicker basket and brushwood before closing it with an ancient Egyptian seal to hide his transgression. Despite his supposed cheating, Carter does not appear to have been punished by the legendary Curse of Tutankhamen. While Lord Carnarvon died four months after the tomb was opened, from an infected mosquito bite, Carter lived another 17 years and reached the age of 64.