The Epigraphic Work of Howard Carter

Nov 23, 2022

Written by Júlia Schmied, Egyptologist, Blockyard Assistant at the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

The Valley of the Kings, watercolor by Howard Carter, 1914

We would be remiss if digitalEPIGRAPHY did not commemorate Howard Carter in some way on the 100th anniversary of discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun, one of the most important milestones in the history of both Egypt and Egyptology. The next installment of our Evolution of Epigraphy series is therefore dedicated to his exceptional but lesser-known achievements in epigraphy.

Howard Carter, an Englishman born in Kensington in 1874, began his career in Egypt at the age of 17, when, in 1891, he was first appointed artist for the Beni Hasan Mission of the Egypt Exploration Fund.

The Beginnings

Howard Carter as a young man (Image from McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture website)   

Howard Carter’s father, Samuel John Carter was a successful artist based partly in London and partly in Swaffham, Norfolk. He specialized in painting animals and was the principal animal illustrator for the Illustrated London News in 1867-89. He kept large animal pens at his London residence for study purposes and encouraged his son, whom he had been training in the basic skills of draughtsmanship, to draw at an early age. When in Swaffham, Samuel John carried out commissions for the local gentry and land-owners. One of the estates he visited, sometimes with his young son, was Didlington Hall, the country seat of Mr. William Tyssen-Amherst. The Amherst family had strong literary and antiquarian interests  , and they possessed a notable library and a substantial Egyptian collection. 

[1] Lady Amherst wrote a popular account of Egyptian history called Sketch of Egyptian History from the earliest times to the present day, published in 1904. The eldest Amherst daughter Mary, who married Lord William Cecil, even conducted excavations in Egypt in the early years of the twentieth century: the tombs she uncovered at Aswan were known as the “Cecil Tombs” for many years.

A frequent visitor of this splendid collection was budding Egyptologist Percy Newberry, who had been working for the recently founded Egypt Exploration Fund. For young Carter, who had already been engrossed in natural history, visiting a house with such an extensive interest in ancient Egypt must have been stimulating. He later wrote that the Amherst collection ‘arroused [sic] my longing for that country – for the purity of her blue sky, her pale aërial hills, her valleys teeming with accumulated treasures of Age’. (T.G.H. James, 1992, p. 12.) His acquaintance with the Amhersts and Newberry proved fateful, for when the opportunity presented itself in 1891, it was them who felt confident in recommending Carter for work in Egypt to the Egypt Exploration Fund.

The Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF) had been founded in 1882 by Amelia Edwards and Orientalist Reginald Stuart Poole for the purpose of conducting surveys and excavations in Egypt and publishing the results in annual volumes for both subscribers and the general public. The Fund received considerable financial support from private individuals for its Nile Delta excavations, which were led by Swiss archaeologist Édouard Naville and British Egyptologist William Flinders Petrie respectively. As concerns grew over the decaying state of Egyptian monuments, a new branch of EEF called the Archaeological Survey was established in 1890 at the urging of prominent British Egyptologist Francis Llewellyn Griffith in order to protect and record antiquities throughout the Nile Valley and Delta.

Beni Hasan

The Survey’s first season began in November 1890 under the directorship of Percy Newberry and civil engineer George Willoughby Fraser, focusing on a series of First Intermediate Period tombs at the Middle Egyptian site of Beni Hasan. At first Royal Academy student Marcus W. Blackden was hired for a few months to paint details and colored hieroglyphs at the tombs. Carter would join the team the following season. 

As preparation for his first Egyptian employment, he spent the summer and early autumn of 1891 at the British Museum studying under the supervision of Francis Ll. Griffith the drawings of Egyptian antiquities made by artists and travelers in the early 19th century. The collection of Scottish explorer Robert Hay was of special interest to him since they included scenes and inscriptions from the tombs at Beni Hasan and Deir el-Bersha, where the EEF’s expedition would be working next.

Red-Backed Shrike from the 12th Dynasty tomb of Khnumhotep III at Beni Hasan. (Watercolor by Howard Carter, Newberry, Percy E.: Beni Hasan Vol. 4.: Zoological and other details from facs. London, 1900)

Carter joined Newberry’s team, which also included Fraser and Blackden, and another new artist called Percy Buckman, at Beni Hasan in early November 1891. Initially he was to help Newberry with the inking of his tracings.

Newberry’s method of copying the wall paintings in the tomb chapels was the following: “Sheets of tracing paper were hung down the length of the decorated surfaces, with some overlap, and the scenes were traced in soft pencil. The same technique was used for those few parts where carved relief replaced straight painting, mostly on the jambs of doorways and some dado inscriptions. These tracings were then rolled up and brought back to London at the end of the season to be inked in… Figures of men and animals, etc., were filled in solidly in black.” (T.G.H. James, 1992, p. 25.)

However, as Thomson writes, “the scenes were so covered with soot and grime that small but significant details beneath the tracing paper were missed”. Furthermore, “the artists also tended to regularize the hieroglyphs, copying what they thought should be there rather than what was actually on the walls.” (Thompson, 2015, p. 53.)

It did not help that the inking was often done in England by draughtsmen who had never seen the original murals. During the publishing, the scenes were reduced to one-twentieth of their original size, which resulted in further loss of detail.

Carter would later note that the Survey’s method of recording the figures and hieroglyphs “failed to capture anything of the sense of the artistry of painters responsible, treating the wall instead merely as media for conveying information.” (Naunton, 2020, p. 198.)

The team however also produced a series of watercolors (now in the archive of the Griffith Institute) to capture the fine details of the wall scenes. In these the artists could express their artistic talents and observation skills a lot more freely, and the paintings introduced “welcome flashes of brilliant colour amongst the otherwise black and white images in the book”  .

[2] The Middle Kingdom Tombs at Deir el-Bersha: Reconstruction of tomb wall-scenes using watercolours from the Griffith Institute Archive.


The results from the four Beni Hasan tombs Newberry’s team had worked on were published in four volumes.  And even though, judged by subsequent standards, the drawings don’t do justice to the original wall-paintings, Newberry was a pioneer in recording the monuments with an accuracy that has never been achieved before. Decades later James H. Breasted wrote to Newberry from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, saying “Your reference to the old days of the Archaeological Survey, beginning with Beni Hasan on a budget of £500, arouses very interesting memories and makes me realize more fully than ever the debt which we owe to you and that entire group of a generation ago who began the task of adequately recording the surviving monuments of Egypt.” (Thompson, 2015, p. 54.)

[3] P. E. Newberry, Beni Hasan, I-IV (London, Kegan Paul, Trench, Tubner & Co., Ltd., 1893–1900).


Deir el-Bersha

Pl. XV. Transport of the Colossus, Inner Chamber, Left Hand Wall, (Line drawing by Howard Carter, P. E. Newberry, El Bersheh I, London, 1895)

Three workmen carrying a large block of wood. Tomb of Djehutihotep, Deir el-Bersha (Watercolor by Howard Carter. The Griffith Institute, University of Oxford)

During the Survey’s second season in 1891-92, Newberry extended their operations south to Deir el-Bersha to record the tombs of the Nomarchs of the 15th Nome. The tomb of Djehutihotep, a Nomarch of the Hare Nome during the 12th Dynasty, was the most important and best preserved tomb of the site. Carter was tasked with the tracing of its famous scene in which a seated colossus is being transported on a wooden sledge from the alabaster quarries at Hatnub. Although Carter still used some of the copying methods preferred by Newberry, including the tracing paper which he disliked, he had more freedom to record the scene than he had at Beni Hasan. He also partook that summer in the inking of the drawings brought back from El-Bersha. The improvements in visual clarity and detailedness of Carter’s drawings in the resulting publication mark them very different from and superior to those attributed to Newberry  .

[4] P. E. Newberry, El Bersheh I (London, 1895), pl. XV.

Carter’s original watercolors from the Survey’s missions were later displayed in London and Manchester in 1893.

Meanwhile serious division had developed between the participants of the Archaeological Survey during the course of its second season, which pitted Fraser and Blackden against Newberry and Carter.  In the end, the animosity had resulted in Blackden leaving the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF), which, ultimately, turned out to be beneficial for Carter’s future career. To wit, Blackden was to be trained as an excavator for the Fund under Flinders Petrie, but following his departure, it was Carter who joined Petrie as his apprentice at the Amarna excavation.

[5] For a brief account of the Hatnub incident, see T.G.H. James: “The discovery and identification of the Alabaster Quarries of Hatnub,” in CRIPEL 13 (1991): 79-80.


William Flinders Petrie was the first person to do systematic archaeology at El-Amarna. He was granted access only to the town site, because the tombs were already being excavated by the Antiquities Service. The seventeen-year-old Carter joined Petrie in the winter of 1891-92 and was assigned to work at the Great Temple and a number of houses in the main town.  Although he was employed as an artist, it was in Amarna under Petrie that Carter gained his first experience at archaeology: “Petrie’s training during those months of hard work transformed me, I believe, into something of the nature of an investigator – to dig and examine systematically.” (T.G.H. James, 1992, p. 42.)

A sketch made by Howard Carter in the Royal Tomb at El-Amarna, published in The Daily Graphic on March 23, 1892.

During their time at El-Amarna, Petrie took Carter with him to visit the newly discovered royal tomb of Pharaoh Akhenaten. He made a few sketches there, which were to be published in The Daily Graphic on March 23, 1892, accompanying Petrie’s article on the tomb. These were to become the first Egyptian drawings to be published by Howard Carter, and the first to convey the uniqueness of Amarna art to the public.

Deir el-Bahari

Pl. XXXIX. The hawk of lower Egypt, Shrine of Anubis (Painting by Howard Carter, É. Naville, The temple of Deir el Bahari Part 2, London 1896.)

Pl. LXVII. Queen Aahmes, Middle Colonnade, Northern Wall (Painting by Howard Carter, É. Naville, The temple of Deir el Bahari Part 3, London 1898.)

Howard Carter was still only nineteen in 1893, when the Egypt Exploration Fund began clearing and recording the Deir el-Bahari temple of Hatshepsut under the directorship of Swiss archaeologist Édouard Naville. Carter was employed to document the wall reliefs of the great temple, and he joined the excavation for its second season in December 1893. The scenes of the temple were carved in the finest raised relief, with painted details preserved on the walls. Carter was to supervise the whole documentation process, and, for the first time in his brief career, he was given freehand in choosing the method for his epigraphic documentation. The resulting six magnificent folio volumes would become his greatest epigraphic achievement.

There is, however, some confusion amongst scholars as to the precise methods he used in copying the wall scenes, which we have briefly touched upon in a previous   here at digitalEPIGRAPHY.

The Temple of Deir el Bahari – The epigraphic work of Howard Carter

Project description

Early in his career, from 1894 to 1899, Howard Carter worked with Édouard Naville at Deir el-Bahari, where he recorded the wall reliefs in the temple of Hatshepsut. His exceptional epigraphic achievement is contained in the six-volume publication, The Temple of Deir el Bahari, by the Egypt Exploration Fund.

Decorative program

When Édouard Naville began his operations at Deir el-Bahari in 1893, the “debris from occupations extending over more than two millennia, overburdened by rock and shale fallen from the crumbling cliffs, buried the Hatshepsut temple in places to a depth of many metres. Test diggings, mostly of a random nature, carried out in the preceding fifty years, had revealed parts of the original temple, but had left the site archaeologically so disturbed that Naville saw his task firstly as one of clearance rather than excavation… In the second place, a full record was to be made of the temple decorations, and the plan of the whole complex determined. The reliefs… were of the highest interest, and executed in the fine, precise, sensitive low relief carving characteristic of royal monuments of the middle reigns of the Eighteenth Dynasty. From earlier probings it also seemed likely that substantial remains of colour had survived on the walls.” Continue to article

Dr R. A. Caminos, himself a renowned Egyptologist and epigrapher of the Egypt Exploration Society in the second half of the twentieth century, reports on Carter’s methods based on information received from eminent English Egyptologist Sir Alan Gardiner and Nina de Garis Davies (one of the most significant artists to record wall paintings in Egypt) as follows: 

“He made tracings of the surfaces to be recorded, transferred them to heavy drawing paper on a smaller scale by means of a grid of reducing squares, and finally pencilled or, more often crayoned in his reductions, performing all these operations in situ with constant reference to the originals; meanwhile Naville would meticulously check and collate Carter’s results with the monument itself at every state of the process.” (T.G.H. James, 1992, p. 60.)

T.G.H. James writes on the other hand that a careful examination of the original drawings, which are preserved at the Griffith Institute, reveal no trace of any grid. “Scenes and inscriptions were drawn directly in front of the wall at a scale of one third full size. Pencils of different weights were used, and the pencil drawings, after checking by Naville and correction, were then reproduced without being inked in. The collotype method of printing was used, and reductions to one-fifth or one-sixth of the size of the original walls were made. Collotype was best fitted to preserve the quality of the original drawing. When handled properly collotype provides the least intervention between the artist's work and the printed page.” (T.G.H. James, Howard Carter's Epigraphic Creed, p. 341.)

Pl. XVI. Hatshepsu (sic) and her mother Aahmes making offerings to Amon, Niche in funerary chapel, Southern wall (Drawing by Howard Carter, É. Naville, The temple of Deir el Bahari Part 1, London 1895.)

Carter himself has left no precise account of the methods he had used in copying the wall scenes. But he did later express his disdain towards tracing, and the need to combine accuracy with artistic quality in epigraphic recording:

“I felt that if I attempted to copy the scenes sculpted upon the walls of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple by the prevailing system of tracing, the essential charm of those beautiful reliefs would have vanished in my copy.” (Naunton, 2020, p. 204-205.)

“When reproducing an ancient art, let us by all means be accurate, and employ every kind of mechanical aid to obtain that objective; but let that mechanical aid be our assistant, not our master.” “I could never understand the axiom: "Mechanical exactitude of facsimile copying is required rather than freehand or purely artistic work".... But why purely artistic work should necessarily be inaccurate I fail to fathom.” (T.G.H. James, Howard Carter's Epigraphic Creed, p. 340-341.)

Indeed, Carter did use rulers and guidelines, and other conventional drawing instruments such as the setsquare to ensure the accuracy of his drawings. “He was meticulous in small matters, drawing lines to ensure regularity of signs and groups of signs. Once the principal features of a scene were placed precisely on his sheet of drawing paper, he could begin the drawing itself, using eye and hand, trained in the skills of draughtsmanship.” (see ibid, p. 341.)

Pls. XIII-XV. Queen Senseneb; Thothmes I; Offerings presented to Anubis; Niche in the chapel of Thothmes I, North Wall (Painting by Howard Carter, É. Naville, The temple of Deir el Bahari Part 1, London 1895.)

Naville was largely satisfied with Howard Carter: “He certainly has much talent, his drawings are very good, and in this respect I do not think we could have a better artist,” he wrote to the Fund. “His copies when reproduced in colour or in black will make very fine plates. But he is rather slow, and at the rate he is going at the end of the season we should not have plates enough for the first number of the work on Deir el Bahari. Therefore I did not hesitate to ask for a second artist.” (T.G.H. James, 1992, p. 65.)

To speed up the documentation process, three successive assistants were hired to aid Carter in his work at Deir el-Bahari, all trained artists: first his brother Vernet Carter, then Percy Brown and Charles Sillem. All three followed Howard’s methods of copying, and the resulting drawings are remarkably homogeneous. The documenting of the wall scenes continued into 1899 (although the final volume of the publication did not appear till 1908), until Carter left the service of the Egypt Exploration Fund.

New challenges

During his time at Deir el-Bahari, Carter had in effect become Naville’s deputy in almost all matters, besides being an artist. He was tasked with sorting fragments and repositioning them on the walls. Occasionally he was supervising the workmen in moving debris and remains, and he oversaw small construction and engineering tasks. He was also employed as the photographer of the team, which lead him to realize the importance of photography in archaeology. Carter was now 25, fluent in Arabic, and not only a talented artist and draughtsman but also a skilled archaeologist. And he felt ready to take his career in a new direction - a decision that was to become significant not only for Howard Carter, but also for the progress of Egyptology.

The opportunity arose in early 1900, when he was appointed Chief Inspector of Upper Egypt under the returning director of the Antiquities Service, the French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero. Based in Luxor, he was to supervise all archaeological sites in the Upper Nile Valley and oversee the conservation and reparation work, as well as the future protection of endangered monuments. Most of his work concentrated around the Theban Necropolis: he organized conservation work at the Ramesseum, had iron gates fitted at several tombs to keep unwanted visitors (including antiquities hunters and illegal dwellers) outside, and had electric lights installed at six tombs in the Valley of the Kings. He also oversaw conservation in the Ptolemaic-Roman temples of Kom Ombo and Edfu, and in the temple of Philae, which became partially submerged by the building of the first Aswan Dam. He also had electric lights installed at the temples of Abu Simbel.

The Temple of Hatshepsut, watercolor by Howard Carter, 1899.

Carter’s main interest lay in archaeology though, and as Chief Inspector he finally had the opportunity to conduct his first excavation. The site he chose he came upon by accident. He was still working at the Hatshepsut temple, when one day in November 1898 he went riding near Deir el-Bahari. His horse stepped into a small hole, stumbled, and threw its rider to the ground. Looking at the hole, Carter saw traces of stonework, and concluded that there might be a tomb underneath. The area, however, lay outside the concession of the EEF; so, it was not until his appointment as Chief Inspector that he could return to investigate the site further.  

The subterranean chamber he came upon, later known as the Bab el-Hosan, Gate of the Horse, contained a very well-preserved seated statue of king Mentuhotep II, founder of the Middle Kingdom, accompanied by an unnamed, empty wooden coffin. The find was probably a ritual deposit associated with the nearby temple-complex of the same king. Carter’s discovery was not unsignificant, and it showed that he could conduct a large-scale excavation, yet he was disappointed having hoped to find a royal tomb. So, with the financial aid of wealthy American businessman Theodore M. Davis, he moved his operations to the Valley of the Kings. In January 1903 Carter discovered the tomb of Tuthmosis IV (KV 43) at the eastern side of the valley. Then he explored KV 20, the burial place of Tuthmosis I, which his daughter Hatshepsut later adapted for herself.

Carter remained in Luxor while he conducted his excavations, but in the autumn of 1904, as was previously agreed, he transferred to the Lower Egyptian inspectorate. His posting turned out to be short lived, however. An incident involving a group of French tourists at Saqqara  led him to resign from the Antiquities Service in October 1905. Disillusioned, Carter abandoned archaeology for a while and returned to Luxor.

[6] During an evening in January 1905, a group of drunken French tourists broke into the official house at Saqqara. They smashed furniture and attacked the Egyptian staff, injuring one of them seriously. When Carter arrived at the scene, he ordered the French to leave. They refused and attacked his guards. Carter then allowed the guards to defend themselves. The indignant French later lodged a complaint at their consulate (for an account of the incident, see Chapter 5: The Saqqara Affair, in T.G.H. James, 1992. ff. 112).


A bowl in the shape of a falcon, drawing by Howard Carter (CG 3426-3587; Friedrich Wilhelm von Bissing, Metallgefässe, Vienne, 1913).

During the next three years, Carter mostly devoted himself to his artistic work. He served as a guide for tourists for a living and, already as early as 1899, he painted watercolors of local monuments when he had the time. He painted landscapes, copied tomb-scenes, and often drew and painted from nature, especially birds. He would sell the results or give them as gifts to friends and patrons. He also accepted commissions for archeological work. He contributed drawings for the publications of German Egyptologist Friedrich Wilhelm von Bissing, made color illustrations for the excavations of Theodore M. Davis, and, commissioned by Newberry for the Marquis of Northampton, painted the scene of pigs treading in grain from the tomb of Nebamun. In 1916, he was hired by Sir Alan Gardiner to draw the scenes of the Opet festival in the colonnade hall of Luxor temple depicting the annual journey of the Theban triad from Karnak to Luxor temple. The finished drawings are now held in the archives of the Griffith Institute in Oxford, together with most of his professional records.

It was not until 1909 that Carter would take up archaeology again. Arranged probably by Gaston Maspero, he joined the Earl of Carnarvon on his excavations in Thebes. In the years that followed, they would uncover together a number of important tombs in the Theban Necropolis  , among them of course, most famously, the Tomb of Tutankhamun, discovered on the afternoon of November 26, 1922.

[7] Carnarvon’s and Carter’s work in the Assasif and Dra Abu’l-Naga was published in: The Earl of Carnarvon and H. Carter, Five Years’ Explorations at Thebes: A Record of work done 1907–1911, (London, 1912).

Carter’s Legacy

Howard Carter in 1923. (Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

For Carter the most important feature of Egyptian art was the “grace of line,” as T.G.H. James so fittingly phrased it in Howard Carter's Epigraphic Creed (1992, p. 339). Throughout his career as an epigrapher, Carter’s aim was to combine accuracy with artistry in representing ancient Egyptian reliefs and paintings – something of a novelty in his time, but a principle that the Epigraphic Survey has taken to heart and strived to perfect in their documentation methods ever since.

“Egyptian paintings and bas-reliefs are being copied for archaeological and Egyptological purposes more and more every day,” he writes, “and the majority of these copies are supposed to embody the principles, but they embody not one of them, merely serving, as far as measurement and notice of accident go, as accurate caricature, and bringing that ancient art into dishonour, by leaving out its soul. Why is this? Because the laws of dependence upon noble design, construction, form and beauty have not been perceived nor taken into account by the copyists.” 

[8] James, T.G.H. “Howard Carter's Epigraphic Creed,” in Sesto Congresso Internazionale di Egittologia: Atti, Turin: Tipografia Torinese (1992), p. 342.

The remarkable drawings Carter produced at Deir el-Bahari, which established his reputation as an artist-draughtsman, the drawings of the Opet Festival scenes in Luxor temple, which, sadly unpublished, are believed to be his finest, together with his equally important but lesser-known achievements prior to 1922, bear testimony to the fact that his legacy in Egyptology rests on much more than just the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Additional Reading

James, T.G.H.: Howard Carter: The Path to Tutankhamun (Kegan Paul International, London, 1992).

James, T.G.H. “Howard Carter's Epigraphic Creed,” in Sesto Congresso Internazionale di Egittologia: Atti, Turin: Tipografia Torinese (1992), 339-344.

Naunton, C.: Egyptologists’ Notebooks: The Golden Age of Nile Exploration in Words, Pictures, Plans, and Letters (Getty Publications, Los Angeles, 2020).

Thompson, J.: Wonderful Things II: The Golden Age: 1881-1914 (The American University in Cairo Press, 2015)

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