At the heart of the golden age of Egyptology stands archaeologist Howard Carter a talented artist with a keen eye for beautiful objects and the good fortune to excavate the tombs of a number of kings in the Valley of the Kings including the semi-intact tomb of Tutankhamun with it's beautifully preserved objects.
The head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities Dr. Zahi Hawass has praised Howard Carter for his work on the tomb though a series of great men took part in the excavation including the Metropolitan Museum of Art expedition photographer Harry Burton who's photo's of the excavation are now famous.
The problems really started in the early 1920's during a dispute between Howard Carter and the head of the Egyptian antiquities service Pierre Lacau who suspected that Carter and his financier Lord Carnarvon were smuggling out objects from Tutankhamun's tomb believing that the contents of the tomb belonged to them and not Egypt's antiquities service.
During the dispute an Egyptian inventory commission was sent to the Valley of the Kings to inspect the site and found in the excavations dining hall, there in a wine box the commission discovered a small wooden head of the boy king emerging from a blue lotus seeming to confirm the suspicion of the Egyptian authorities that all was not on the up with the excavation and the head was taken immediately to the Cairo Egyptian Museum.
The 1978 bestseller "Tutankhamun The Untold Story" by the late director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Thomas Hoving brought forward the knowledge that within the Metropolitan museum as well as the Brooklyn museum were objects from that tomb including gold and silver coffin nails and rosettes from the pall from over the second shrine which was destroyed during the excavation.
The matter of "pocket objects" being smuggled from the tomb is likely though both Carter and Carnarvon may have felt the objects belonged to them. When one looks around at the artifacts pointed out by Mr. Hoving one sees well-preserved works of art belonging in quality to the royal workshops and being listed as in the Carnarvon collection before 1923 not a huge detraction to the obvious question including a small ivory gazelle and an ivory whipstock shaped as a running horse.
In Brooklyn, we find still more wonderful objects but for me, it is the excellent served writing palette of princess Meketaten in the Metropolitan which is complete with its brushes and perhaps most exemplifies the issue of objects that potentially have had their provenances washed away for personal ownership?
Curious is the idea that Howard Carter found a similar ivory palette but made for princess Merytaten in Tutankhamun's tomb interesting that Meketaten's palette is listed as in the Carnarvon collection prior 1923 and Howard Carter found Merytaten's palette in Tut's tomb. What are the odds that two well-preserved palettes for two of Tutankhamun's sisters would come in contact with the Carter/Carnarvon connection at approximately the same time as the excavation of the tomb is taking place?
So if Carter/Carnarvon were pocketing objects from Tutankhamun's tomb (KV62) then what is to say the aforementioned ivory gazelle is not actually from the rubble of Amenhotep III's (WV22) tomb which Howard Carter also excavated or KV 20 the tomb of Hatshepsut or KV43 tomb of Thutmosis IV which he also cleared? If he practiced the activity of pocket collecting in Tutankhamun's tomb then it seems a given that this was probably already a practice he used in past excavations?
Curious to know if the missing parts of the ivory gazelle are in any of these tombs rubbish material whether left at the scene or collected, perhaps the gazelle was a cherished childhood possession of Hatshepsut?
Howard Carter was a man of great fortune who played a large part in the early days of modern Egyptology. His excavations of the early twentieth century would be the envy of any Egyptologist today however his corpus of objects found and excavation reports of any of his excavations need re-examining in the future to winnow out any lost provenances that can potentially be recovered from Carter's records and his associate's records including Lord Carnarvon and his associates.
An examination of the career of Howard Carter may yet reveal an ugly and well-known practice by him which will more than likely have altered a number of his discoveries for worse.
On the tenth of November 2010, the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced that it would be restoring nineteen small objects to the Egyptian government that is believed to have come from Tutankhamun's tomb via the Carter/Carnarvon connection.
Thomas Hoving, Tutankhamun The Untold Story, ISBN 0-671-24305-5
I.E.S. Edwards, The Treasures of Tutankhamun, catalog #19, Penguin Books, 1977, ISBN 0 14 00.4287 3
The Metropolitan Museum of Art