There were many people, Egyptian and foreign, that were involved in the discovery and excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamen, which was a lengthy process that spanned across ten years and was as much an archaeological event as it was a political and scientific one. Let’s get acquainted with some of the key characters that shaped this monumental moment in contemporary human history.
A longtime friend of Howard Carter, Arthur “Pecky” Callender, was a British-born railway engineer employed by the Egyptian Railway Service. He had a personal but novice-level fascination with ancient Egypt and had employed his background in architecture and engineering in service to the Egypt Exploration Fund and several other foreign expeditions in Upper Egypt since his arrival in the country in the 1890s. Following his retirement from the Railway Service in 1920, Callender became more involved in Carter’s work in Luxor, specifically his search for the tomb of Tutankhamen.
After Carter’s team discovered the Steps leading to the tomb on November 4, 1922, Carter invited Callender to assist in the excavation. According to Carter’s journal, Callender joined on November 10 and played multiple critical roles in the excavation until 1926, including oversight during Carter’s short trips back to Cairo, installing electric wiring to light the tomb, and developing pulley systems to aid in removing some of the larger objects such as Tutankhamen’s golden burial shrines.
Arriving in Egypt as a teenager in 1891, Howard Carter employed his artistic talents to work as a draftsman for the Egypt Exploration Fund, first at Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt and later at Deir al-Bahari in Luxor. As time went on, he gained hands-on experience with excavation, making him a regular face in Egyptology circles in Luxor. In 1899, he was appointed Chief Inspector for the Egyptian Service des Antiquités, but left the Service just five years later following a professional dispute. He made a living as an antiquities dealer and artist until 1909, when he met and was subsequently employed as an archaeologist by the wealthy British aristocrat, Lord Carnarvon.
The pair spent several years excavating in Asasif in Luxor and Tell al-Balamun in the Delta until they were able to apply for the concession to dig in the Valley of the Kings in 1914. Carter’s sights were set on finding the tomb of little-known pharaoh Tutankhamen and in November 1922, his tireless search paid off with the discovery of the first steps of the King’s tomb. Carter oversaw the excavation, conservation, and transport of the tomb’s objects to Cairo until the completion of work in 1932. In 1924, Carter’s concession to the tomb was briefly revoked by then-Minister of Public Works, Morcos Hanna Pasha, in response to legal action from Carter that sought to limit oversight of his work by the Egyptian government and secure his claim to half the tomb’s objects.
Saleh Bey Hamdi
A medical doctor by training, Saleh Bey Hamdi was one of two doctors - the other being Douglas Derry - tasked with unwrapping and examining the mummy of Tutankhamen in November 1925, under the supervision of Howard Carter, Pierre Lacau, and other officials. His invitation to participate in the examination of the mummy was likely due in part to his close friendship with Carter and his well-known reputation in both medical and administrative circles in Egypt, having served as the head of the Cairo Medical School, the director of the Quarantine Service in Alexandria, and as an under-secretary of state in the technical office of the Ministry of Public Hygiene.
From November 11 to 19, 1922, Hamdi and Derry worked together to remove Tutankhamen’s wrappings and measure his mummy, ultimately determining that his age of death had been at roughly 18. Hamdi was a co-author of the report that detailed these findings and was provided to both Carter and Lacau as documentation of the first-ever examination of the King’s mummy.
Morcos Hanna Pasha
An established lawyer who served as President of the Egyptian Bar Association for five consecutive terms beginning in 1919, Morcos Hanna Pasha was also a secular nationalist at heart. Hanna was one of the founders of the Wafd Party alongside his longtime friend Saad Zaghloul Pasha, who later selected Hanna to serve as the Minister of Public Works when he was elected Prime Minister in 1924. Hanna’s rise to Zaghloul’s cabinet of ministers was not without its sacrifices: upon Zaghloul’s exile by the British in 1919, Hanna and several other members of the Wafd Party were imprisoned in Cairo. Hanna’s seven-year sentence was ultimately reduced to eight months following social and political pressure. In his role as Minister of Public Works, Hanna oversaw the Service des Antiquités and Carter’s work in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Hanna was concerned by the lack of Egyptian access to the tomb and oversight of Carter, which came to a head when he stopped a private visit of the tomb that Carter had arranged for the wives of his foreign colleagues living in Luxor. Carter responded by suing the Egyptian government for interference and to assert his interest in keeping half of the tomb’s objects. Hanna responded in kind by revoking Carter’s concession to work in the tomb, a move that was hailed by the Egyptian public and solidified him in popular memory as the protector of Tutankhamen.
George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon
More commonly known as Lord Carnarvon, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, was a British aristocrat who became close friends with Howard Carter following their introduction in Egypt in 1909 and later sponsored the search for Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Carnarvon was an amateur explorer, having first begun visiting Luxor during the winters to enjoy the weather he was quickly drawn to the field by his desire for discovery and to increase his personal collection of Egyptian antiquities.
Following the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen, Carnarvon signed an exclusive media deal with The Times of London, giving them priority access to photographs and information about the tomb and its contents. This move angered Egyptian and international press alike, and created substantial pressure on Carnarvon and Carter as they and their team were dogged by information-hungry press. Carnarvon would not live to see the full results of his sponsorship of the work in the tomb; falling severely from an infected mosquito bite that resulted in his death by pneumonia and blood poisoning on April 5, 1923. The work in the tomb continued to be funded by his wealthy widow, Almina Victoria Maria Alexandra Wombwell, until 1930 when she was effectively ‘bought out’ by the Egyptian government.
A French Egyptologist and accomplished philologist, Pierre Lacau served as the director of the Egyptian Service des Antiquités from 1914 until his retirement in 1936, whereupon he returned to France. During his time as director of the Service, Lacau oversaw Carter’s work in the tomb of Tutankhamen on behalf of the Ministry of Public Works, but their relationship was anything but friendly. The two men regularly butted heads as Lacau increasingly aligned himself with the growing nationalist shift in the Egyptian government - most notably manifested in his decision to roll back a previous law that had allowed foreign explorers and archaeologists to divide and keep half of any antiquities they discovered.
At the order of the Minister of Public Works, Morcos Hanna Pasha, Lacau stopped Carter from entertaining a group of his colleagues’ wives in the tomb of Tutankhamen, an act that caused Carter to react in anger and abandon his post in the tomb. Lacau seized the opportunity to portray Carter as reckless and as having legally violated the terms of his concession, which ultimately kicked off the series of events that saw Carter lose his access to the tomb for just under a year in 1924.
British chemist Alfred Lucas moved to Egypt in 1897 and was initially employed at the government’s Salt Department. His fascination with Egyptian archaeology began following a post at the Geological Survey Department, which led him to join the Service des Antiquités as a chemist in 1923. He remained an employee of the Service until his death in 1945.
Following the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, Lucas was assigned to assist Carter with the conservation and care of the tomb’s objects. In his makeshift laboratory located in the nearby tomb of Sety II, Lucas dedicated himself to cleaning, treating, repairing, and packing the thousands of objects from the tomb for transport to Cairo. Lucas’s commitment to the work in Tutankhamen’s tomb was ongoing until the final objects were moved to Cairo in 1932.
Tasmanian-born British archaeologist, Arthur Mace, got his start in Egypt by working for his distant cousin, renowned Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, at the site of Dendera in Upper Egypt. He quickly proved himself to be adept at the conservation and care of fragile objects and joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 1906, working between New York and on-site at the museum’s mission in Lisht in northern Egypt. In December 1922, following the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen, Mace was loaned to Carter by the museum to provide much-needed support to Carter’s team.
Mace primarily worked alongside Alfred Lucas in the conservation and treatment of objects from the tomb, but also supported Carter in other ways. Mace was the co-author of Carter’s first volume about the excavation, The Tomb of Tut-ankh-Amen, and regularly assisted Carter in removing some of the most delicate items, such as Tutankhamen’s burial shroud, from the tomb. Although he only worked with Carter until 1924 - having to leave Egypt that year due to problems with his health - in the short time they worked together Mace became one of Carter’s closest friends and confidantes.