This Week in History: Discovering King Tutankhamun’s Textiles

On November 4, 1922, in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, British archaeologist Howard Carter found steps that he believed will lead to the tomb of King Tutankhamun. On November 5, Carter sent a cable to Lord Carnarvon in England, his mentor, asking Carnarvon to come to Egypt as quickly as possible. Here’s the needlework connection to these dates:

Howard Carter kept on. On November 26, 1922, he made the “tiny breach in the top left hand corner” of the entrance to the tomb; Lord Carnarvon was at his side. King Tutankhamun’s burial chamber was officially opened on February 17, 1923. In addition to treasures made of gold, furniture, food, wine, and sandals, textiles abounded. According to the article “Forgotten Riches of King Tut: His Wardrobe” by Brenda Fowler in the July 25, 1995, issue of The New York Times, “Among the many textiles are 145 loincloths, 12 tunics, 28 gloves, about 24 shawls, 15 sashes, 25 head coverings and 4 socks, which had separate places for the big toe so that they could be worn with the 100 sandals, some worked in gold.” Vicki Square’s article “Yes, Wonderful Things: Howard Carter & the Discovery of King Tut’s Tomb” in the Spring 2015 issue of Knitting Traditions delves into Howard Carter’s life, his connection to Lord Carnarvon, and his amazing discovery.

King Tutankhamun

Gold mask of Tutankhamun from the Egyptian excavation. Photo by iStock / Getty Images Plus.

Here is an excerpt from Vicki’s article:

  • The Valley of the Kings in Egypt’s desert sands lies a few miles west of the Nile River opposite ancient Thebes, the seat of the empire at its zenith. Tomb raiders plundered treasures from these royal burial sites almost as soon as they were filled to the brim with golden treasures, but the tombs themselves are a magnificent testimony to a powerful and artistically brilliant culture.
  • Considered wild and inaccessible, organized archeological digs in the Valley only began in the nineteenth century, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, most experts believed that all secrets had been yielded. One man held tenaciously to another opinion—Howard Carter.
King Tutankhamun

English Egyptologist Howard Carter (1874–1939, right) walks with the patron of his research, archaeologist and 5th Earl, Lord Carnarvon George Herbert (1866–1923), at the Valley of the Kings excavation site, Egypt. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

  • Carter, the youngest of eight children, was born on May 9, 1874, in Kensington in London. His creativity was heartily encouraged by his two unmarried aunts with whom he lived in provincial Norfolk during his youth. His father and grandfather were successful painters who catered to Victorian England’s love for its dogs and horses. When his father painted a portrait of a well-known Egyptologist, Carter’s interest was sparked.
  • In 1890, when he was just seventeen years old, he went to Egypt for the first time as a draughtsman to sketch artifacts with the Egypt Exploration Fund. He assisted Percy Newberry in excavating Bani Hassan, the gravesite of a princess of Middle Kingdom Egypt. He later spent a season working with Flinders Petrie, the father of scientific excavating technique, at Amarna.
  • From 1894 to 1899, Carter worked with Edward Neville at Deir el Bahri, the massive tomb complex of Egypt’s first female pharaoh, Queen Hatshepsut. In 1899, he achieved the esteemed position of first chief inspector in the Egyptian Antiquities Service, resigning in 1905 because of a dispute. Hard and lean years followed, with Carter scraping a living through watercolor painting and as a dealer in antiquities.
  • In the early years of the twentieth century, to prevent the Valley from becoming a battlefield of rival archeologists, the Egyptian government granted an exclusive concession each year to excavate there. A wealthy American named Theodore Davis had held the concession for a number of years, making three small discoveries during that time, until he felt that nothing remained to be found and relinquished the concession in 1914. Howard Carter persuaded Lord Carnarvon, George Herbert, Fifth Earl of Carnarvon of Highclere Castle in England, to be his patron. Carter’s steadfast belief that the tomb of King Tutankhamun was yet to be found had its roots in a hypothesis offered by H. E. Winlock, the director of the Metropolitan Museum’s excavations at Thebes. Winlock examined a cache of pottery jars sealed with Tutankhamun’s seal containing linen wrappings and other items connected with ancient Egyptian funerary rites, and might imply the presence of a nearby tomb. This fueled Carter’s already soundly developed theory of where Tut’s tomb might be found.
  • Carter did not just “stumble upon” King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Yet, he almost missed his chance. Lord Carnarvon’s enthusiasm for supporting Howard’s archeological pursuits had waned in the post-World War I years. With little to show for his investment, Lord Carnarvon had summoned Carter to Highclere to tell him he was not going to renew the concession. One last season, Howard asked. The Earl relented, and it was to be the most important season of all.
King Tutankhamun

Golden sandals of King Tutankhamen. From his tomb. 1323 BC. 18th dynasty. New Kingdom. Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images.

  • At the beginning of November 1922, Howard Carter and his approximately fifty workmen uncovered a staircase beneath a row of huts a mere fifteen feet (4.6 m) from the entrance to the tomb of Ramses VI. A professional to his core, Howard sent a cable and awaited Lord Carnarvon’s arrival. The passage was cleared to reveal a sealed doorway, into which Howard drilled a small hole in the upper left corner. Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” “Yes, wonderful things . . .,” Howard Carter said. These famous words rocked the archeological world then, and continue to stand for one of the most amazing finds in excavations.
  • Howard Carter was forty-eight years old. He spent the next ten years cataloging the 5,000 artifacts, photographing them, but sketching them as well, knowing that “photographs don’t always tell everything.” In his later years, he was working with museums, touring, and lecturing on his life’s work. He died in Albert Court, Kensington, London, England on March 2, 1939, at the age of sixty-four.
King Tutankhamun

Howard Carter. May 8, 1924. National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Vicki Square cross-trains her knitting passion with drawing, painting, and writing. Contributor to many knitting books and magazines, she is the author of The Knitter’s Companion (1996. Deluxe ed. with DVD, Fort Collins, Colorado: Interweave, 2010).


Download the Spring 2015 issue of Knitting Tradtions to read Vicki’s entire article. Vicki designed the Egyptian Desert Tee as her companion project to her article on Howard Carter and the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Vicki took inspiration from the clothing worn by ancient Egyptians and the need for light-weight clothing under “Egypt’s pitiless sun” for her tee that’s suitable for both men and women. Download the individual pattern for this stand-out linen shirt.

And now to Lord Carnarvon. Downton Abbey fans will recognize the name—Lord Carnarvon’s ancestral home—Highlcere Castle—was the setting for Downton Abbey, the beloved PBS show. Over the years, PieceWork has published several special issues; among them are Knitting Traditions and The Unofficial Downton Abbey Knits. In addition to 27 projects to knit, The Unofficial Downton Abbey Knits 2013 has a fabulous article (“The Life and Times of Highclere Castle”) on the history of Highclere Castle and its display of Egyptian artifacts collected by Lord Carnarvon.

After all these years, the life and times of King Tutankhamun and the intrepid archaeologist Howard Carter continue to amaze and fascinate. And for the needleworkers of the world, it’s about way more than the gold—it’s also about the linen tunic with an embroidered panel and the scores of other textiles that were discovered.

—Jeane


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