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Volume 32, Number 6November/December 1981

In This Issue

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The Last Survivor

Written by John Lawton
Photographed by Tor Eigeland
Additional photographs courtesy of Ashmolean Museum and Richard Adamson

If you want my opinion," said Patricia West, a nurse at the home for disabled servicemen, "you're both nuts." By "both" she meant Richard Adamson - last survivor of the expedition that discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamen 59 years ago - and myself.

Mrs. West had a point. For Adamson and I intended to return together to Egypt's Valley of the Kings to defy - and thereby prove - the legendary "curse" of the exhumed Pharaoh, which has allegedly claimed the lives of 40 people.

As the only survivor of the famous edition, Richard Adamson would obviously be tempting fate by returning to the tomb. But there were real hazards to be considered too; Adamson, 80 years old and a diabetic, had recently lost both legs. To go to Luxor he would have to go in a wheelchair.

In addition to defying the "curse," I also hoped that in returning to the tomb after nearly 60 years Adamson might possibly recall some forgotten evidence in the current controversy surrounding the greatest archeological discovery in modern history. Did British archeologist Howard Carter wait for the official opening to enter the burial chamber of Tutankhamen? Or did he, as is now claimed, break in secretly to satisfy his curiosity? And, on the way out, help himself to one or two of the tomb's treasures?

And finally - since 1981 was the United Nations' International Year of Disabled Persons - we hoped to prove that disability did not automatically bar the determined from making even the most difficult of journeys.

The return of the last survivor was the result of a short item in a weekly newspaper in Richmond, England, casually identifying Adamson as the last living survivor of the expedition that found Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922.

I was astounded - and skeptical. Particularly when a perusal of several King Tutankhamen books - including Carter's definitive work - showed no trace of any "Adamson?" He was not mentioned in any index. There was not a single photograph.

On the other hand, it was too tempting an item to pass up, so I went to see Adamson - and was quickly persuaded. For one thing, Adamson has given 1,500 lectures on the subject throughout England - and had been the guest of Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace twice - in 1968 and again in 1971 - and once discussed the discovery with the Prince, he says, "from eight in the evening to three a.m." Then there was the fact that one author, Barry Wynne, said that Lady Evelyn - one of those present at the opening of the tomb - had confirmed that she had known Adamson at Luxor. Not to mention his trunkful of clippings, letters and photographs about King Tut.

Mostly though, it was Richard Adamson himself. Though he cheerfully admits that he doesn't seem to exist in any records of the expedition, he insists that he was there. "I was only a policeman after all. But I did guard that tomb for seven years"

So, as soon as we could get an okay from the Royal Star and Garter, the home for disabled servicemen, Richard Adamson, for the second time in his life set off for Egypt with me and Mary Lally, an Irish nurse who, we hoped, would counter the "Curse of Tutankhamen" with the "luck of the Irish."

The son of a Yorkshire tailor, Adamson saw action as an infantryman with the Duke of Wellington's regiment at the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in the First World War, and later was transferred to Istanbul where the British Empire was supervising what was left of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. There, Lance Corporal Adamson played a small role in history; he arrested Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish army officer who organized the defeat of Allied forces at Gallipoli, and who became the father of modern Turkey.

At the time, Ataturk was simply under suspicion; the British thought he might be fomenting a revolt. When Adamson and his squad spotted him in a car on his way to Istanbul, therefore, they decided to question him. "We stopped his car as he was approaching Istanbul and I asked him to accompany us to headquarters," recalls Adamson. "He was very polite and ordered his followers to hand over their guns. I don't know what happened at headquarters, but they eventually let him go."

By then, however, the British were also facing serious trouble in Egypt and Adamson found himself "volunteering" to join the ranks of the Military Police in Cairo. Three weeks later, wearing the distinctive red capband of the police regiment - and the stripes of a full corporal—he boarded a crowded troop ship and set sail for Port Said.

Adamson's second trip to Egypt could not have been more different: a non-stop, five-hour, British Airways club class London-Cairo flight, on which he was tended to by Mrs. Lally, pampered by smiling airline hostesses, and, in Cairo given the red-carpet treatment by the Hilton hotel: rooms complete with fruit, flowers and a view of the Nile.

Driving into Cairo from the airport, Adamson said it seemed like only yesterday that he had patrolled the city's streets. He easily picked out landmarks, even in the dark, reeled off street names like a Cairo taxi driver, and regaled us with his exploits as a young military policeman 60 years before.

On his first, lone patrol in Cairo, he said, he got lost, and a search party had to be sent out from Bab al-Hadid Barracks to find him. Friday nights, he recalled, were the worst, when British and Indian troops went on a ritual pay-day spree and the entire military police force had to be turned out to control them.

As such rough-and-tumble duties did not appeal to him, Corporal Adamson was more than happy to be transferred to the more sedate atmosphere of the British High Commission, where he met, for the first time, George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon and the wealthy patron of Carter's so-far-fruitless search for the tomb of Tutankhamen—and where he became involved in dangerous "special duties," which eventually led to his assignment with Carnarvon's expedition.

One of these duties was to escort a young Egyptian student named Hassan 'Ali, who was on trial - and later convicted and hanged - for hurling a hand grenade at the prime minister, Nessim Pasha. Later he also served as a bodyguard for Court President General Lawson during the so-called "Cairo Conspiracy Trial" of leaders of the nationalist opposition Wafd Party. That assignment, Adamson recalled, led to his transfer. "Your face is too familiar for your own good," General Lawson said when the trial ended. "I think it would be better if you were posted away from Cairo."

Two days later his name appeared on Regimental Orders to the effect that Corporal Adamson is promoted to the rank of acting sergeant and is to proceed immediately to Luxor and report to Mr. Howard Carter, c/o Lord Carnarvon's expedition, Winter Palace Hotel.

Back then, the trip to Luxor, 400 miles south of Cairo on the east bank of the Nile, was a long train ride. For us it was a fast flight and an uneventful trip except when four helpful Egyptian passers-by spontaneously whisked Adamson, wheelchair and all, right over the hood of a parked car blocking our path. "That wouldn't have happened in England," gasped a surprised Adamson.

Adamson soon got used to such spontaneity. Although Egypt has none of the special facilities that disabled persons enjoy in the West, there were always plenty of willing hands to hoist Richard up and down steps, through revolving doors, in and out of taxis, on and off planes and boats and, had he wanted it, onto the back of a camel at the Pyramids.

Now and then there were problems. On the Nile ferry there was trouble with the owner when over-eager helpers dismantled a door on the boat to squeeze Adamson's wheelchair through. And we made a less-than-graceful entrance to the Old Winter Palace Hotel at Luxor; we took the freight elevator rather than try the sweeping stone stairs. But to Adamson this was nothing new. When he arrived at the Winter Palace the first time, at the end of October, 1922, his travel-stained soldier's uniform and battered holdall raised so many eyebrows among the wealthy guests that the management quickly hustled him to a "room at the back."

In 1981, however, it was Adamson who was the celebrity and the rest of the guests package tourists, so he got a large suite overlooking the Nile, and that night, sitting in the time-worn bar, he again began to reminisce. "There was a fight in here one night involving Lawrence [of Arabia]. An Egyptian was stabbed, but it was all hushed up. Lawrence was always getting into fights. He couldn't stand losing. Used to cheat at everything. He even cheated Lord Carnarvon at billiards," Adamson said disgustedly.

The billiard table has long since disappeared, the manager said, and the whirling roof fans have been replaced by modern air conditioning, but the rest of the hotel, with its high ceilings, marble corridors and floors strewn with oriental carpets, remains basically the same as it was when, the next morning, Sergeant Adamson first met Howard Carter.

Carter was in a somber mood. In six years of searching, the British archeologist had laboriously turned over almost every square meter of the sun-scorched canyon by hand - an estimated 200,000 tons of rubble - and it had been for nothing. "Six full seasons we had excavated there, and season after season had drawn a blank," wrote Carter bitterly in his three-volume account of the discovery. "We had worked for months at a stretch and found nothing, and only an excavator knows how desperately depressing that can be; we had almost made up our minds we were beaten and were preparing to leave."

In fact, Carter said, the reason Sergeant Adamson had been sent to Luxor was to collect and take back to Cairo some surveying equipment the expedition had borrowed from the army. The bulk of their supplies had already been removed; the labor force - bar a six-man clearing up party - had been paid off; and Lord Carnarvon had returned to Highclere Castle, in England, leaving Carter to pack up and, if he had the time, explore one more area.

That area - the only spot in the valley that Carter had not yet investigated - included the foundations of a small group of workmen's huts near the entrance of the tomb of Ramses VI - and Carter, a systematic man, had decided to spend his last days probing beneath the huts. Adamson, he said, must stay until this was completed, and together that morning. they left the Winter Palace to go to the valley.

They must have looked an odd pair: a tall young man in military police uniform, and the stocky middle-aged archeologist, who, making no concession to the climate, wore a three-piece suit, a bow-tie and a Homburg hat. They crossed the road to the river bank and descended a rickety wooden catwalk to the quay. Here they boarded a ferry boat and crossed to the west bank of the Nile, where a team of donkeys was waiting at the top of a long flight of stone steps to take them to the Valley of the Kings.

Today, the method of reaching the valley from Luxor remains basically the same - with a few variations for a man in a wheelchair. We avoided the wooden catwalk, for example, by sliding Adamson down the steep sandy bank to the water's edge, myself and two others acting as human brakes. After much argument with the boatman, who wanted to put Richard on the open bow, we managed to get him safely inside. Unfortunately, getting out the other side of the ferry on the west bank of the river proved impossible—until someone wrenched the sliding cabin door right off its rollers, giving us just enough room to squeeze Adamson and his wheelchair through.

The tremendous crash brought an irate boatman running and we had to pay for the door to calm him. Then we carried Adamson up the steps from the quay and, at the top, ran a gauntlet of taxi drivers, each trying to pull the wheelchair towards his own taxi. I resolved the contest by selecting a minibus, and we drove away leaving the drivers scuffling while a policeman tried to restore order.

Soon we left the narrow strip of lush green farmland bordering the Nile, plunging abruptly into barren, bone-dry hills. The still air grew hotter and hotter as we wound our way up a rock-strewn gully that suddenly opened up into a sort of amphitheater hemmed in by towering sandstone cliffs. Here, with the highest peak in the Theban hills standing sentinel - like a natural pyramid above them - 30 pharaohs were buried.

The Valley of the Kings today is neat and orderly, with signposted pathways leading to the different tombs, and an air-conditioned rest house, where visitors can escape the oven-like heat, but when Sergeant Adamson first arrived in 1922 it was quite different. It was, Adamson said a scene of desolation, littered with piles of excavated debris and with no shelter from the scorching sun save two small tents and a larger marquee.

"You will sleep here," Carter had told Adamson, ducking under the rolled-up flaps of the marquee. There were rush mats on the floor, two stretcher-like cots and a trestle table. "What about food?" gasped the astonished young sergeant, who had assumed he would be staying in Luxor. "I'll have some sent up to you," was Carter's curt reply, leaving Adamson wondering whether he wouldn't prefer the risks of Cairo. His first impulse, he said, was to start walking back to Cairo.

Later, though, he relaxed and began to question Carter about his search of the valley. "Have you worked here long, sir?" Adamson asked. "On and off for 20 years," was the matter-of-fact reply.

He had come to Egypt, Carter went on, when he was 17, the most junior member of the Egyptian Exploration Fund, a private organization linked to the British Museum. A water-colorist, his job was to record the paintings, reliefs and inscriptions in the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Despite his lack of formal schooling, Carter learned archeology and Egyptology quickly, and at the age of 25 was appointed inspector of the monuments in Upper Egypt, with headquarters in Luxor.

Ever since his arrival in Egypt in 1890, it had been Carter's ambition to dig in the Valley of the Kings. But it was not until 1914 that Lord Carnarvon, for whom he was then working, received the long-awaited authorization from the Egyptian Antiquities Department. Though previous expeditions, including one sent by Napoleon, had already combed the valley, Carter was not convinced that it had given up all its secrets; no one, he pointed out, had yet found the tomb of Tutankhamen, the boy king, who reigned from approximately 1334 to 1325 B.C. and died at the age of 18 under mysterious circumstances.

This was not blind faith, Carter said. Three pieces of evidence - all unearthed at' the beginning of the century by American archeologist Theodore Davis - indicated that the tomb was somewhere in the valley. One was a faience cup bearing the name of Tutankhamen that Davis found under a rock; another was a cache of large jars containing what Davis dismissed as "rubbish," but which later proved to be remnants of the Pharaoh's funeral feast; and the third was a small pit tomb containing fragments of gold foil bearing the name of Tutankhamen. On that basis, Davis claimed he had actually found the missing Pharaoh's tomb, but Carter, considering the pit tomb "ludicrously inadequate" for a king's burial, stubbornly insisted that Tut's tomb was still to be found.

"Like to see inside one of the tombs?" Carter asked his unwilling guest as they finished off their packed lunch. "Very well, sir," was the grudging reply. Taking the torch that the archeologist handed him, Sergeant Adamson followed Carter down a long, straight passage into the bowels of the earth. It was, Carter said, the tomb of Ramses VI.

To the ancient Egyptian, Carter explained, it was a matter of vital importance that his body should rest inviolate in the place constructed for it. It was also essential to a mummy's well-being that it should be fully provisioned for every need. But the very magnificence of the monuments and outfits with which the kings provided themselves for their "after life" were their undoing, and within a few generations at most the mummies were disturbed and their treasures stolen.

The early pharaohs tried hard to thwart tomb robbers; they built huge mountains of stone over their tombs to protect them, plugged the entrances with huge granite monoliths, constructed false passages and contrived secret doors. But in every case the tomb robbers surmounted the difficulties set to baffle them, and by the beginning of the 18th dynasty there was hardly a pharaoh's tomb in the whole of Egypt that had not been rifled.

The pharaohs then decided to place all royal tombs within a very restricted area where maximum security could be provided; 30 kings of the 18th and 19th dynasties were buried in a desolate, steep-sided canyon on the west bank of the Nile opposite Luxor, once the ancient pharaonic capital of Thebes.

For a time the mummies remained relatively secure, but then under the feeble monarchs of the 20th dynasty, cemetery guardians became lax and corrupt, and again wholesale looting of the tombs took place.

Throughout those troubled times, however, there was no mention of Tutankhamen and his tomb - which was why Carter believed that not only was it still there, but, more important, was still intact. "Strange sights The Valley must have seen, and desperate the ventures that took place in it," wrote Carter. "One can image the plotting for days beforehand, the secret rendezvous on the cliff by night, the bribing or drugging of the cemetery guards, and then the desperate burrowing in the dark, the scramble through a small hole into the burial-chamber, the hectic search by a glimmering light for treasure that was portable, and the return home at dawn laden with booty"

Ironically, that scene is a scene strangely similar to the one that Carter, long considered the most reputable of archeologists, now stands accused of taking part in himself - in another book on the famous discovery: Tutankhamen: The Untold Story by Thomas Hoving, former head of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Hoving's book adds still another version to a long list of King Tut accounts. According to Sergeant Adamson, for example, the King Tut drama began to unfold during the afternoon of November 3,1922. Having resigned himself to his enforced stay in the valley, and inspired, somewhat, by Carter's stories of tomb robbers and treasure, the young sergeant decided to explore his new surroundings. He was making his way along a narrow path 30 feet above where Carter's Egyptian workmen were clearing away the foundations of the laborers' huts, when suddenly he heard a shout.

Attracted by the buzz of excitement, Adamson picked his way down the steep slope to where the Egyptians had unearthed several large boulders. But seeing no reason to get excited over a few boulders, the young soldier went back to his tent and the workmen covered them up.

The next morning, though, when Carter arrived and found his men not working, he asked Adamson what had happened. "Nothing, sir," replied the sergeant, "They did find some boulders but then they covered them up." On hearing this, Carter ordered them to uncover the boulders again and found, beside one of them, a large stone step. Looking back, Adamson now says: "The workmen knew they had found something. They also knew Carter was leaving and that they could come back and claim the credit themselves."

Carter's own record makes no mention of this. "Hardly had I arrived next morning (November 4)," he wrote, "than the unusual silence, due to the stoppage of the work, made me realize that something out of the ordinary had happened, and I was greeted by the announcement that a step cut in the rock had been discovered underneath the very first hut to be attacked. The manner of cutting was that of the sunken stairway entrance so common in The Valley, and I almost dared hope that we had found our tomb at last."

Yet another version is given by Hoving in Tutankhamen: The Untold Story. Quoting Lee Keedick, who organized Carter's subsequent lecture tour of the United States, Hoving says a small boy, whose job it was to carry water for the workmen, discovered the step while playing in the sand, covered it up again so the others would not see it and ran, as fast as his legs would carry him, to tell Carter what he had found.

All the versions, however, agree that from that moment on, excavation proceeded at a feverish pace, and that, as basket after basket of rubble poured out of the pit, more steps were disclosed. Even Sergeant Adamson found himself picking up a shovel to prevent sand from falling back into the hole, and that night, on Carter's instructions, he did his first guard duty over the tomb. Little did he know as he sat out the night on the steps that it was to be his job for the next seven years.

Work progressed even more rapidly next day, and towards sunset, at the level of the 12th step, the top of a sealed doorway was revealed. At this point Carter ordered his workmen to refill the stairway and roll the flint boulders back into place, until he could recall Lord Carnarvon to Luxor. "Had he dug a little further," says Adamson, "Carter would have saved himself three weeks of uncertainty, for a few inches below where he had stopped digging was a perfect impression of the seal of Tutankhamen" - the king he most wanted to find.

On November 6 Carter sent Lord Carnarvon the following telegram: "At last have made wonderful discovery in The Valley; a magnificent tomb...; re-covered same for your arrival; congratulations."

In England, Carter's cable was opened by Lord Carnarvon's daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, who, later, was to tell Adamson of her serious misgivings over her father's return to Egypt. According to Adamson's recollection, Lady Evelyn said that Lord Carnarvon, a believer in spiritualism, was with a medium when Carter's telegram arrived and, when he returned home, went straight to his bedroom, without reading the cable or even saying goodnight. Anxious to discover the cause of his unusual behavior, Lady Evelyn spoke to the medium, who told her that "the spirits" had warned Carnarvon never to return to Egypt.

Despite this warning, Lord Carnarvon - when he read Carter's cable next day - insisted on returning as soon as possible to Luxor. Lady Evelyn in turn, insisted on going with him and on November 23 they arrived in the valley and excavation of the tomb was immediately resumed.

By the afternoon of the 24th, the entire staircase, 16 steps in all, had been cleared, allowing them to examine the sealed doorway. They were elated at finding the seal of Tutankhamen, but their hopes were quickly dampened by the discovery that the door had been penetrated twice - apparently by tomb robbers - and re-sealed.

Finally, though, on the morning of the 25th, they removed the door, and saw before them a narrow passageway filled with rubble and, more evidence that the tomb had been plundered, broken jars and vases and numerous fragments of smaller articles. That in itself was exciting, but on the afternoon of the 26th, at the end of the 30-foot passage, they found a second doorway - once again with clear signs of opening and re-closing - and Lord Carnarvon, says Adamson, could not contain his excitement.

Lord Carnarvon had taken up "digging" during enforced winters in Egypt - prescribed by his doctor following a serious motoring accident - and had later become addicted to archeology; eventually he spent the equivalent of $500,000 on the search for Tutankhamen. He was not, however, a professional like I Howard Carter, who outwardly, at least, stayed calm and meticulously collected and recorded each of the delicate fragments found in the passage. Instead, Adamson said, he became increasingly excited, as, at last, they were ready to breach the second door.

It was, of course, a highly dramatic moment; behind that door lay the answer to all their questions. Slowly and carefully Carter made a hole in the upper left hand corner of the door and peered through.

"At first," says Carter, "I could see nothing, but presently, as my eyes became accustomed to the light, details of the room emerged slowly from the mists, strange animals, statues, and gold - everywhere the glint of gold. I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously 'Can you see anything?' it was all I could do to get out the words, 'Yes, wonderful things'." Probing the chamber again with his flashlight, Carter picked out yet another sealed doorway on the right hand wall flanked by two sentinel statues. "The explanation," wrote Carter, "slowly dawned upon us. What we saw was merely an antechamber. Behind the guarded door were other chambers. We were but on the threshold of our discovery."

Finally, their minds reeling from what they had seen, they re-closed the hole, locked the wooden grille that had been placed over the first doorway, and rode back to Luxor - leaving Sergeant Adamson to guard what we now know were priceless treasures, and wondering what was behind the third door. Had the tomb robbers succeeded in opening the third door too? If so, what were their chances of finding the king's mummy intact? "I think," wrote Carter later, "we slept but little, all of us, that night."

Which is probably true. But not, according to Thomas Hoving, for the reasons Carter gave. "Their lack of sleep had nothing to do with these questions, for they had already obtained the answer to most of them. Carter's published account of his first examination of the antechamber and its contents is highly deceiving - it is a lie."

If they "slept but little... that night," alleges Hoving, it was because they "... spent practically the whole of it physically inside the tomb, penetrating even into the Burial Chamber, moving objects around, and disguising their entry..." Quoting unpublished materials in the Egyptian Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hoving says that rather than re-sealing the peephole, Carter enlarged it so that first Lady Evelyn, the smallest in the party, then Lord Carnarvon and Carter, and finally Carter's American assistant, Pecky Callender, could squeeze through.

The four intruders, says Hoving, "darted from one treasure to the next like scavengers... dimly realizing how close to the feeling of the ancient thieves were their emotions," and "feeling that they should keep looking over their shoulders, lest they be caught." Carter, Hoving goes on, was dismayed to discover that the third sealed door had also been penetrated, and was consumed by the desire to find out if the burial chamber, which he assumed lay beyond, had been plundered. Prying loose some of the stone blocks that had been used to re-seal the doorway, Carter, followed by Lord Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn, squeezed through. Before them stood the doors of a great blue-and-gold shrine, bolted but not sealed.

Carter drew back the two ebony bolts and the great doors swung open, revealing the doors of yet another shrine. To Carter's great relief, the seals of the inner shrine were not broken, indicating that at this stage the cemetery guards had discovered the tomb robbers and the king had not been disturbed. Their curiosity satisfied, the intruders withdrew, re-closing their entry holes behind them. They took with them, says Hoving, a magnificent perfume box Carter found between the first and second shrines, and a beautiful alabaster chalice from the antechamber.

Because Hoving was head of one of the world's greatest museums, and because he seems to have documented everything, his views would seem to be beyond dispute. Nevertheless, Adamson totally disagrees.

"Impossible," says Adamson. "They could not have spent the whole night in the tomb without me knowing it. I slept at the top of the Steps all night. Anybody going in or out would have had to have stepped right over me." And as for breaking into the burial chamber, Adamson says, they could never have reached it without first moving hundreds of objects crammed into the antechamber. "You couldn't move a step in there," he insists.

Indeed, Adamson, normally a pleasan easy-going man, was visibly angry at the suggestion that Carter took the perfume box and the chalice. "I was the only person to stay with Carter during the entire period of excavation. He was abrupt and liable to be quarrelsome. But he was the most correct man I ever knew. It was lucky for the world that it was Carter who discovered the tomb; if someone else had found it things would have been different. He always said to me: 'These treasures belong to Egypt and should stay in Egypt.'"

On the other hand, still another source - Lord Carnarvon's half-brother Mervyn Herbert - says the earl and his daughter did enter the burial chamber before its official opening on February 16, 1923.

In his diary, which is available at the Ashmolean Museum of the Oxford University Library, Herbert says that while driving to the opening ceremony "Porch (Lord Carnarvon's family nickname)... whispered something to Evelyn and told her to tell me. This she did, under the strictest promise of secrecy. Here is the secret. They had both already been into the second chamber! After the discovery they had not been able to resist it - they had made a small hole in the wall (which afterwards they filled up again) and climbed through. The only others who know anything about it are the workmen." In describing Lord Carnarvon's reactions - in front of Egyptian officials and prominent archeologists at the official opening - Herbert added: "Porch, poor old fellow was nervous, like a naughty schoolboy, fearing that they would discover a hole had already been made."

Hoving, apparently, overlooked Herbert's disclosures; in the introduction to his book, published in 1978, Hoving says that "in all the accounts (of the discovery) published up to now" the facts of the break were omitted. Actually the extracts were disclosed in 1972, six years earlier, by a British author named Barry Wynne, in a book entitled Behind the Mask of Tutankhamen - in which Adamson collaborated with Wynne and attempted to verify it. He says he sent a copy of her alleged confession to Lady Evelyn asking for her comments. She replied: "Having read the enclosed very carefully, I have no recollection at all of this incident happening."

To complicate it still further, my research turned up information that does not fit any of those versions. No one - not Hoving, not Carter, not Lady Evelyn in her letter, nor Herbert in his diary - mentioned that the Times once ran an article by Lord Carnarvon himself openly admitting that Carnarvon, Carter and Lady Evelyn entered the ante-chamber - but not the burial chamber - on the night of the discovery.

In that article - published December 11, two weeks after the discovery - Lord Carnarvon describes their first view of the treasures through the peephole and then goes on to say, "we enlarged the hole and Mr. Carter managed to scramble in." After enlarging the hole still further, he says, "we went into the ante-chamber to examine the treasures more closely/' But, he adds, they resisted the urge to break down the "tantalizing wall" leading to the burial chamber because "it would have been harmful and almost impossible to do before clearing the first room of its contents and we must possess our souls in patience until this is done"

So what did happen?

Richard Adamson, the only survivor of those who were there, insists that Carter was not involved but Dr. I. E. Edwards, former Head of the Egyptian antiquities department at the British Museum, tends to go along with the version written by Lord Carnarvon and published in the Times— on the grounds that it would be logical behavior on making such a discovery. He also said he thinks it "likely" that Carter would have at least poked his head into the burial chamber simply to ascertain that there would be something to show the Cairo officials if they came, but at this distance, it is impossible to determine precisely what did happen in what sequence.

And does it really matter?

After all, it was Carter who found, and preserved for Egypt some 5,000 priceless items found in the tomb, including the 22-pound gold mask, countless other statues, chalices, earrings and necklaces, and of course, the coffin: 2,448 pounds of pure gold worth, at 1981 prices, more than $13 million. Could he - and Lord Carnarvon, who put up $500,000 of his own money to finance the search - really be excited by one small chalice and a tiny box?

Furthermore - though this has been overlooked - Lord Carnarvon and Carter had a perfect right to enter the tomb. As Foreign Office records show, articles of the "authorization to excavate," an agreement between the Director General of antiquity services and Lord Carnarvon signed on April 18,1915, unequivocally gives them that right: "To the permittee himself [Carnarvon] shall be reserved the privilege of opening the tomb or monument discovered and of being the first to enter therein."

In any case, Lord Carnarvon didn't live long enough to enjoy their triumph; in March, just four months later, he was bitten by a mosquito as he left the tomb and the next day, while shaving, nicked the bite with his razor. As a result, the infection spread, blood poisoning set in, followed by pulmonary pneumonia of which, on April 6,1923, in Cairo, he died.

In the 1920s, of course, death from pneumonia was common. Nevertheless, newspapers around the world began to attribute Lord Carnarvon's death to a "curse" from the tomb when, it was reported, all the lights in Cairo went out and Lord Carnarvon's pet terrier suddenly howled, rolled over and died at Highclere Castle in England 4,000 miles away - both at the same moment that Lord Carnarvon died.

Not everyone accepted the story of the curse, but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, acclaimed creator of Sherlock Holmes, did - publicly. And even skeptics began to wonder when an investigation showed that there had been an unexplained power failure in Cairo that night.

Around the world, as a result, fear spread swiftly. In England hundreds of people packed up antiquities and souvenirs from Egypt and sent them to the British Museum, and in the United States several politicians went so far as to demand an investigation of mummies in various museums to determine whether they presented any medical danger to the public.

In 1930, the "curse" hit the headlines again when Lord Westbury committed suicide following the sudden death of his son, Richard - who had served as Carter's secretary during the opening of the tomb - and when a young boy was run over and killed by Lord Westbury's hearse enroute to the cemetery.

The story was revived still again when two archeologists, one from the Louvre, the other from the Metropolitan, both died - reportedly right after visiting the tomb. In 1967 the press trotted it out still again when the man who had signed the contracts to send King Tut exhibits to Paris was hit by a car and died - as the treasures were being packed - and when a leading antiquarian was killed just after leaving the exhibit. In 1972 Dr. Gamal Mehrez, director of the Egyptian Antiquities Department, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage as the Tut treasures were being packed for an exhibition in London.

In all, some 40 deaths have been attributed to the "curse of Tutankhamen," and as we struggled to get Adamson and his wheelchair down the steps to Tufs tomb I couldn't help thinking it was an ideal time for the pharaoh to strike again. The steps and the passageway plunge at a 45-degree angle into the earth and with only two of us able to get a proper grip on the chair, one slip that day and Adamson could have hurtled down the whole flight.

Adamson, however, was not perturbed. "The curse," he says, "is absolute rubbish."

According to Adamson, the story of the curse started when a British newspaper reported that a curse - on all who entered - had been found inscribed on the entrance to the tomb. In fact, says Adamson, although curses were inscribed on some Egyptian tombs to deter thieves, none whatsoever was found in that of Tutankhamen. But Carter decided not to deny the newspaper report, says Adamson, because, as Carter put it: "It will do wonders for security if this thing gets around."

Furthermore, Adamson says, of the 40 people said to have been killed by the curse, many of them had never been in Egypt at all and only seven had anything to do with the excavation. There was, for example, Colonel Aubrey Herbert, who never visited the tomb, but was confused with his brother Mervyn (author of the apparently incriminating diary). Then there was the workman in the British Museum, said to have fallen dead while labeling objects from the tomb, when, in fact, the museum had no such objects in its collection.

Certainly Tutankhamen took no revenge on Howard Carter, who died in 1939 of natural causes at the age of 66, or on Lady Evelyn Herbert, who lived, until 1980, to the ripe old age of 82, or, for that matter, Adamson himself.

But what of Adamson? Couldn't the loss of his legs be due to the curse? "I lost them," the old soldier says categorically, "through the curse of war, and no other curse." His doctors confirm that he had to have his legs amputated in the mid-seventies because of damage caused to his arteries by gas poisoning in the First World War - before he ever went to Egypt.

Despite his disability, Adamson remains irrepressibly cheerful and not at all self-conscious. In Egypt he amused himself by asking startled shoe-shine boys for a shine, and enroute cracked up the cabin crew by demanding a pair of in-flight slippers like everybody else. Only once during our trip did he get even slightly ruffled: when over-zealous ground staff at Cairo airport tried to put him on a stretcher to carry him off the plane. "I don't need that damn thing yet," he exploded.

That certainly seemed true. Although confined to a wheelchair, Adamson, at the time we began to discuss the discovery, was traveling all over Britain giving lectures on Tutankhamen - and donating the fees to the Royal Star and Garter Home.

As a consequence, Adamson has achieved a degree of fame. When word got around the Old Winter Palace Hotel at Luxor, he was inundated by questions from fellow guests, and one Italian tour group, who recognized him from a recent appearance on Italian television, asked him to tell them of his experiences.

In his talks, Adamson tells how, following the discovery of the tomb, he was seconded by the army to the expedition as security officer, a job he held until 1930 when the last of the 5,000 treasures had been removed from the tomb and shipped to Cairo. For almost seven years, he says, he patrolled the area -unobtrusively dressed in ordinary clothes, his revolver hidden, an umbrella on his shoulder to ward off the sun - and slept each night in the tomb itself along with the mummified pharaoh.

Was he ever frightened? "Not really, but it was a little creepy down there." Particularly disconcerting, he says, were the two life-sized statues that stood guard, one on each side of the door to the burial chamber. Carter told him that these were the Royal Kas, refuge for the pharaoh's soul during mummification and within which, it was believed, the pharaoh still lived. "I'd have got a right fright," says Adamson, "if I had woken up one night and found the blighters bending over me."When the antechamber had been cleared, Sergeant Adamson moved his army camp bed into the burial chamber, sleeping right next to Tutankhamen's priceless coffin.

Adamson, by then, was not alone. The Government Antiquities Guard and a detachment of Egyptian soldiers watched the valley around the clock, and Sergeant Adamson, locked in the tomb, could throw a switch by his bed and activate a flashing red light above ground in case of emergency.

It was lonely, of course, but Adamson whiled away his vigil by playing opera records on an old gramophone that Carter had provided. The operas, he said, also served another purpose. "The scratchy strains of music coming from the tomb were enough to scare off any robbers."

Returning to his past last April, after nearly 60 years, was a visibly moving experience for the old soldier. At first, he was confused by the changes made in the meantime - the dividing wall between the antechamber and burial chamber has been removed and replaced by a railed platform - but soon got his bearings. "Right there," he said, pointing to the space between the giant quartzite sarcophagus and the wall of the burial chamber, "that’s where I had my bed." And for a few moments he sat there in the narrow passage, lost in thought, his head bowed, his eyes half closed and saying nothing.

Unfortunately, King Tutankhamen's tomb is one of the great tourist attractions in Egypt and so, unaware of what was happening, backed-up crowds behind him began to protest the delay. As a result, Adamson, the last survivor of an expedition that spent 15 years finding and excavating the tomb, was allowed less than five minutes in it. Adamson, however, did not complain. "I never dreamed," he said, "that I would ever come back again for even such a brief visit. Thank you very much for bringing me."

I didn't complain either. We had proved that it was possible for a disabled person to make a singularly difficult trip without excessive difficulty. We had defied the "curse" of Tutankhamen and it did appear, as Adamson had said, to be "rubbish." And though we hadn't conclusively proven why and under what circumstances the tomb was entered, we didn't, at the end, mind at all. Somehow, in the dim interior of the tomb, it no longer seemed to matter.

John Lawton is a regular contributor to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 10-21 of the November/December 1981 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1981 images.