Lord Carnavon has checked the American, Theodore Davis’ credentials. He has been told that the amateur archaeologist is the most competent of all of the egyptologists. If he says that there is nothing left in the Valley of the Kings, he should be believed. Carnavon has also contacted another archaeologist, the American, Eldon Gorst, and asked him his opinion on the few objects bearing Tutankhamun’s seal, found by Davis. Gorst replies that they are uninteresting trifles.
However, once again, Carter’s communicative fervour sweeps away Lord Carnavon’s doubts.
For Carter, this is the beginning of a grand adventure.
All true adventurers know that adventure is first of all a lot of patience, an interminable search, while waiting for the big day. For Carter, this wait is particularly trying. For four years, from 1908 to 1912, he explores, metre by metre, the region situated to the West of Thebes, on the left bank of the Nile. Not completely in vain. The searchers find a series of objects dating from 1500 years before the present era, among which there is a wooden tablet bearing the account of a war waged by a certain Kamose, who liberates Egypt from the invasion of the Hyksos people. This is a small consolation for Lord Carnavon: Carter baptises the document with the name of his protector; the “Carnavon tablet” enters into the History of Archaeology. Another find: the mummy of a cat. Still only trifles. The 1914-1918 war doesn’t help. Lord Carnavon has to stay in England, the digs stagnate, the egyptologists lack conviction. It is understandable that their minds are not on the job. Carter has succeeded in getting himself mobilised in Egypt, but he lacks means. And when the digs really get under weigh again, in the Spring of 1919, Carnavon’s enthusiasm has once more dwindled. He leaves Carter to work however he wants for another year, but in April 1920, he sends him a comminatory telegramme from London:
“We have wasted enough time in the Valley of the Kings. We must change terrains. Go and dig in the Nile delta, it’s a region where not much has yet been found…”
Carter has no choice but to obey. He installs his camp and his teams of workers in the heart of the delta, at Sakha. And there too, he “scratches” conscientiously, but without finding anything notable… until the day when, right in the middle of the Summer of 1922, the searchers’ camp is invaded by an army of venimous snakes. Cobras, Egyptian sacred animals. Terror takes hold of the fellahs. The cobra… The serpent which is one of the principal emblems of the pharaohs, found on statues, sarcophages, one of the attributes of power, therefore of divinity. Do the gods want to chase the profaners from the delta? The workers murmur, threaten to stop work. Carter finds a magnificent pretext in the incident. He tells Lord Carnavon:
“We can’t stay here. We’ll get nothing more out of the fellahs. Let’s return for one last try in the Valley of the Kings.”
Carnavon is irritated, all these stories of magic are really getting on his nerves. But then, after all, since the digs in the delta haven’t given anything, since the fellahs are afraid, since Carter insists – and after all, there are only a few months left before the concession inherited from Theodore Davis expires – well… Lord Carnavon shrugs his shoulders, with the feeling that he is satisfying Carter’s last whim:
“Go back to your Valley of the Kings. If, by chance, you find something, write to me in London. It’s the hunting season, I intend shooting a few grouse… Have fun!”
The sacred cobras really were instruments of destiny. Without them, Carter would probably never have discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb.
So, Carter and his team are once more near Thebes. But there is very little time left: in less than three months, they will have to leave the Valley of the Kings and renounce piercing the mystery of Tutankhamun, probably forever.
Seized with a sort of fever, the archaeologist accelerates the work. The fellahs move tonnes of earth. Nothing! Always nothing…
Only two months left. Carter doesn’t know what to do. One morning, while he is contemplating a few stone huts in ruins, built two thousand years before, near the tomb of the pharaoh Ramses VI, an idea comes to him. These huts were used by the workers who built the tombs. Digging tools had been found, trifles. Today, they serve to shelter tourists who visit the Valley, the guides have made them part of their circuit. Carter tells himself that, after all, no-one has ever thought of digging under these huts. Inside, yes, but never underneath. And why not? Try that or anything else, at the point where he is…
On 2 November 1922, the fellahs attack the removal of the first stone. Two days later, arriving on the site at the wheel of his old Ford, Carter, as soon as he cuts the motor, is surprised by the unusual silence which reigns around the huts. His fellahs – roughly ten – aren’t working. They are sitting on the ground, on the stones. The archaeologist approaches. No-one moves. He asks what is happening.
Hormuzd, the foreman, the only one who speaks a bit of English, leans nonchalantly on one elbow and tells him that there is something over there under the hut. So, they have stopped. Carter wants to know what sort of “something”. Hormuzd doesn’t know. A stone, a paving stone perhaps. Until they have dug deeper… ?
Hormuzd has only scrupulously followed Carter’s instructions: as soon as a worker hits an object, even apparently of no interest, or as soon as his pick encounters the smallest hole, he must stop and wait until the “boss” has come to look at it himself. This is the rule on all archaeological sites. One blow too many with the pick can wreck everything.
To be continued.