THE VALLEY OF THE KINGS is a place of stark and arid splendour situated to the west of modern day Luxor, ancient Thebes, on the opposite side of the River Nile. Almost every king of the New Kingdom, which included the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth dynasties, was to be buried there. It was the lure of the immense riches with which those ancient pharaohs were laid to rest that served to attract the attentions of all those who have dug at this site, those with and those without official permission. To date excavation work has brought to light 80 or so tombs or pits in the Valley of the Kings but few of these had remained undisturbed by tomb robbers at the time of their "rediscovery".
Howard Carter first set sail for Egypt in October 1891 at the age of 17. Extensive work had been undertaken at Egyptian sites since the turn of the century and Egyptology was considered to be a smart and fashionable thing to be involved in. The son of an artist who divided his time between working for the Illustrated London News and painting prize farm animals and family groups for the landed gentry around the family's country home in Swaffam in Norfolk, young Howard often accompanied his father on visits to local Norfolk landowners who had commissioned him for work. It may have been considered part of his training for the future since Carter himself recorded that "the necessity to earn my living from the age of 15, made me follow up the study of drawing and painting". In any event it was to his father he attributed his training as a draughtsman, a skill which was to be responsible for his journey to Egypt.
Trained by his father Samuel in the basic skills of drawing and painting Carter revealed more than an ordinary skill but he had no desire to take up on a permanent basis the lifestyle of a jobbing artist, he wanted more from life than to sit out his days in the English countryside producing paintings to order. In later life he was to recall: "For a living I began drawing in water colours and coloured chalks portraits of pet parrots, cats and snappy, smelly lap dogs. Although I was always a great lover of birds and animals -- in fact I was brought up with them -- how I hated that particular species known as lap dog." Thus, when the opportunity to travel to Egypt presented itself, Carter leapt at the chance. The Egyptian Exploration Fund was looking for a tracer. Epigraphy, the study of inscriptions, was beginning to be recognised as a valuable tool in understanding the ancient Egyptians and Carter's task would be to use his skills of draughtsmanship to copy drawings and inscriptions completed many centuries before onto paper, so that further research could be undertaken.
After completing a short introductory term at the British Museum, Carter sailed for Alexandria. It was the beginning of an adventure right out of the Boy's Own Story Book for the 17-year-old youth who had never ventured beyond Britain and a humble beginning to what would later become one of the most illustrious...