Aug 16, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

Howard Carter, Archeologist Who Discovered Tut’s Tomb, FInally Proven to Have Stolen Artifacts From It

Most good mummy movies begin with an archeological team opening an Egyptian tomb for the first time and one member, while no one is looking except millions in the movie audience, stealthily grabs an item and stashes it away to be sold for a profit or used in some nefarious plot. That item inevitably triggers a mummy’s curse which carries the plot for 90 minutes until it is either returned or destroyed while the guilty party belatedly confesses, dies or has their face melt off – or all three. The perpetrator in a mummy theft case in the news this week has been dead for decades, but the revelation that he stole something from a mummy’s tomb can still make headlines worldwide because the mummy in question is King Tutankhamun and the thief is Howard Carter, the archaeologist who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. While many have long suspected Carter pilfered some tomb items for himself, it has never been proven. Now, in the 100th anniversary year of the discovery, a new book provides “dead proof” that Carter stole from the dead boy king. Do mummy curses get passed down through generations? Would that make a good movie plot?

A movie? This is my good side.

“He certainly never admitted it. We don’t have any official denial. But he was locked out of the tomb for a while by the Egyptian government. There was a lot of bad feeling, and they thought he was stealing things.”

In an interview with The Guardian, Bob Brier, author of "Tutankhamun and the Tomb that Changed the World", sets the stage for revealing the definitive evidence he uncovered to prove what Egyptians suspected for 100 years – that Howard Carter was less than honest in his inventory of the massive number of fabulous and priceless artifacts he helped remove from the tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor and transport down the Nile to Cairo to be displayed in the Egyptian Museum.

For those not up on their Tut tomb history, Howard Carter began his search in 1915 and discovered it in November 1922. The tomb managed to survive untouched because the entrance to a larger tomb was built on top of it, hiding its entrance. By February 1923, the team had carefully cleared the entrance and in front of Egyptian officials, museum representatives and reporters, the seal was broken. A total of 5,398 items were found in the tomb, including a solid gold coffin and the famous face mask, and it took Carter 10 years to catalog the items. While this certainly sounds like Howard Carter followed the rules of a reputable archeologist, especially that part about not breaking the seal until there were witnesses present, many people accused him of secretly breaking the seal beforehand, removing items for himself, and then expertly resealing it.

“He certainly never admitted it. We don’t have any official denial. But he was locked out of the tomb for a while by the Egyptian government. There was a lot of bad feeling, and they thought he was stealing things.”

According to Brier’s exclusive interview with The Guardian, the rumors began almost immediately after the discovery. Not just Carter but other members of the team were suspected of stealing artifacts and jewelry that were sold after their deaths – for some that could have been soon enough to be included in the ‘curse of the mummy’ deaths, as eight of the people present at the opening of the tomb died within 12 years of the event. Carter himself was suspected of stealing a life-sized wooden head of Tutankhamun that packed in a crate and never mentioned in Carter’s inventory of items taken from the tomb, nor in his list of items taken from the antechamber leading to the entrance. Carter’s alibi was that the wooden head had been discovered in the rubble in the descending passage and thus not qualified to be on either list. While that may have been true, Brier points out that like his colleagues, a number of artifacts were sold on the Egyptian antiquities market after Carter’s death that “clearly came from the tomb.” In addition, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and other museums have eventually confirmed that items in their possession have been identified as coming from Tutankhamun’s tomb and returned them to Egyptian officials. However, none of that is solid proof that they were taken by Carter.

What has finally fingered Howard Carter as a Tut tomb thief is a letter found in a private collection written to Carter by Sir Alan Gardiner, an English linguist and philologist who was regarded as one of the leading Egyptologists of the first half of the 20th century. Carter respected Sir Alan’s expertise enough to hire him to translate hieroglyphs found in Tut’s tomb – a ‘philologist’ is an expert in written and oral languages. Sir Alan was indeed an expert … he was also honest. As part of his payment, Carter gave Gardiner a ‘whm amulet’ used for offerings to the dead and assured him that it was not from the tomb.

“The whm amulet you showed me has been undoubtedly stolen from the tomb of Tutankhamun. I deeply regret having been placed in so awkward a position. I naturally did not tell Engelbach that I obtained the amulet from you.”

Gardiner had shown the amulet to Rex Engelbach, the British director of the Egyptian Museum, who immediately recognized that it matched other amulets found in Tut’s tomb and had come from the same mold. According to Bob Brier, this is the smoking gun or smoking amulet that would have held up in a court of law. Fortunately for Howard Carter, Gardiner kept the secret to himself, although he kept a copy of the letter as well. Brier thinks Carter would have lost in a battle of integrity with Gardiner.

Howard Carter never admitted to any Tut tomb skullduggery and died in 1939 of lymphoma seemingly unrelated to a mummy’s curse. That wouldn’t make for a good ending to a mummy movie, but it sounds like it was a good reason for Bob Brier to write a book on Howard Carter and the real story about the treasures of Tutankhamun.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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