In Depth

Howard Carter: The Englishman who unearthed Tutankhamun's tomb

Discovery of the 'cursed' pharaoh's burial site is the subject of a new TV drama

Howard Carter made history when he uncovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, famously telling his patron Lord Carnarvon he could see "wonderful things" as he gazed upon ancient treasures that had not been seen for more than 3,000 years.

Carter and co are the subject of a new ITV drama, Tutankhamun, about the legendary archaeological dig that uncovered the resting place of the Boy King, starring Max Irons as Carter. Given that TV costume dramas are renowned for playing fast and loose with historical facts, prepare to nitpick with the real story behind Carter and his Egyptian odyssey…

Carter was born in London on 9 May 1874, the youngest of 11 children, and enjoyed a middle-class upbringing living with his aunts in Norfolk. His youthful interest in antiquities was inspired by the collection of Egyptian artefacts held at the nearby Didlington Hall, owned by the Amherst family.

In 1891, the Amhersts arranged for the 17-year-old Carter to accompany the renowned Egyptologist Percy Newberry to an excavation of tombsCarter proved a natural archaeologist, and continued to work on different burial sites in Egypt until 1899, when he was appointed chief inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Service.

However, his reign was short. In 1905, a group of French tourists clashed with Egyptian tomb sentries in what became known as the Saqqara Affair. "Loyal to his men and forever obstinate, Carter defended their action and refused to apologise", choosing instead to resign, says Archaeology magazine.

In 1907, Carter found a powerful financial backer in Lord Carnarvon, a passionate amateur Egyptologist who agreed to fund Carter's excavations in the Valley of the Kings.

Remarkably, in 1922, the year Carter discovered Tutankhamun's tomb, Lord Carnarvon informed him that this would be his final year of funding after 15 years with no major successes.

On 5 November, Carter was excavating around the site of some huts when he found what he had been looking for – a flight of steps that led to the final resting place of the Boy King. After careful excavation of the steps, on 22 November, Carter made a small hole in the door and peered in by candlelight, with Carnarvon beside him.

As he stared, transfixed, at the glimpses of piled-up treasures within, an impatient Carnarvon asked: "Can you see anything?"

Carter replied with the phrase that would forever be associated with the discovery: "Yes, wonderful things!"

It was "the archaeological triumph of the 20th century", the Daily Telegraph reports, a global sensation that sparked a "craze for Egyptian exoticism" which lasted well into the 1930s. Carter himself retired from field work and became a museum agent and a popular lecturer.

Much has been made of the "curse of the pharaohs", but unlike his backer, Lord Carnarvon, who died of an infected mosquito bite four months after the tomb was opened, Carter seems to have escaped any supernatural revenge – he died of lymphoma in 1939 at the age of 64.

Who is Max Irons?

Max Irons, who plays Carter in ITV's Tutankhamun, comes from excellent theatrical stock – he's the son of actors Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack and the grandson of 1960s film star Cyril Cusack.

Tutankhamun is the 31-year-old's biggest TV role to date, although he has appeared in a number of big-screen films, including Red Riding Hood (2011) and The Riot Club (2014), the film adaptation of Posh. He has also modelled for Burberry and Mango.

Irons was born in London and went to Bryanston School in Dorset before being expelled for having sex with another pupil. He graduated from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2008.

His performance in Tutankhamun has been described as "generally solid" by the Daily Telegraph, which praises his strong chemistry with co-star Sam Neill.

Meanwhile, fans on Twitter have been obsessing over his "devilishly handsome" appearance and the rather interesting moustache he dons for the role of Carter.

Irons told Radio Times: "It's embarrassing. You know, I'm fairly young and I still can't grow a beard. I spent about a month growing that moustache."

Tutankhamun airs every Sunday at 9pm on ITV1.

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