Tutankhamun’s Last Guardian
The young Pharaoh has gripped peoples’ imagination and changed lives. Desmond Zwar looks at the career of the man who claimed to have spent seven years living in the tomb, guarding it while Howard Carter examined its contents.
At the end of the day just before Christmas 1968, a visitor was ushered into my office at the Daily Mail. A small man with a round head topped by white hair. He was clutching his hat and apologizing for being ‘a trouble’. He arrived from the lift, seventy-ish, in threadbare black suit. He didn’t want to be a bother, but he had just come from being with Prince Charles at Cambridge University. Richard Adamson explained that back in 1922 he had been in Luxor, Egypt with archaeologist Howard Carter, and he needed an important photograph he had taken at the time; he wondered if our newspaper could help?
Mr Carter had been picking over the last area he was to dig in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings; searching for the boy king, Tutankhamun’s tomb. I was at the time, a 23-year-old; I’d been a policeman in Cairo, well ... more than a policeman really.
Well, what was he?
He looked uncomfortable. He had actually been involved in ‘security work’ in Cairo, infiltrating the Wafd Party which was attempting to overthrow British rule in Egypt.
I had passed on information which led to the arrest of 28 Egyptians – four of them sentenced to death and the rest jailed. I was a marked man, and it was deemed advisable to send me away from Cairo.
The ‘authorities’ had bundled him off by train to Luxor to join Howard Carter and his patron, Lord Carnarvon, in the Valley of the Kings. Carter had agreed to employ the young military policeman to type up his notes on the daily dig.
Adamson now told me he had just come from an audience with Prince Charles, and the Prince had been so fascinated by what he had told him that he had extended a scheduled one hour’s chat to four. Now Adamson had been invited to take part in a film to re-enact the discovery in the Valley of the Kings. This was why he was seeking my paper’s help. ‘I would like to get my photographs back from Cairo.’ There were ‘some hundreds’ of his photographs the Egyptians were still keeping in the Cairo Museum; a collection officials were apparently reluctant to acknowledge even existed.
Why did he want his old pictures?
One picture is historic: it is a box-camera snap I took and showed to Carter the day before he uncovered the passageway to Tutankhamun’s tomb. Just after I took the photo, the Egyptian workers covered over again what was later shown to be a step. I had photographed it.
Was this man in fact claiming that it was his own alertness and shrewdness that led to the tomb’s actual discovery?
Well, shrugged my visitor, that step was the first leading down to the tomb, and had he not taken the ‘snap’ and shown it to Carter, the deadline for the expiration of the dig licence would have passed, and Carter would have departed – after years searching -- empty-handed.
He explained that he had taken this ‘snap’ on November 3rd, 1922, almost the eleventh hour, he said, of Carter’s exclusive digging rights in Egypt. Armed with an old John Bull box camera, Adamson had been ‘pottering about’ taking snapshots of the excavations, having his film developed each night at the Winter Palace Hotel in nearby Luxor.
While he was ‘pottering about’, he recalled, he had noticed three Egyptian diggers uncover what looked like a large boulder near some workmens’ huts.
I then saw them quickly cover up the boulder with rubbish they had taken from another spot, and start digging in a different direction.
But before they successfully hid what they had uncovered, the alert Adamson photographed it.
The next morning, Mr Carter arrived on the site at the usual time. There was only a short time of the concession left. ‘Well, there’s not far to go now,’ Mr Carter said, and went on with what he was doing.
For seven backbreaking years, his health failing, Carter had tried, and he believed failed, to discover the last link in the pharaohs – the tomb of the boy-king Tutankhamun (1333-23 bc) which he believed was somewhere in the arid valley.) Carter, said Adamson, had crouched down in the sand and had drawn a line with his finger showing how far they were going to excavate. He said to Adamson: ‘Then we’ll level all this up.’ Adamson replied:
‘Sir, what about these funny stones? There, with all that rubbish that has been put on top of them. They are about 50 yards away – I can pinpoint them. Here, I’ve got photos of them.’Carter studied the photographs. He then said: ‘We’ll have to uncover this lot again.’ He called the Arab workers over and ordered them to do it. There was a bit of an argument. The ghaffir (foreman) didn’t want to do it. But Carter insisted, and they uncovered the stones. Carter took his coat off, and I took off mine, and we got right down to it to examine them. It was a step I had found! There was one underneath it and one underneath that. Carter stood up. ‘These are no boulders. We’ll need some help.’
I said: ‘You’ll get no more help tonight, Sir.’‘Right,’ said Carter. ‘We’ll carry on ourselves until it gets dark.’
Together they scraped sand and rubbish away from six steps. The next morning, starting at dawn, they uncovered another ten. Facing them now was a door.
Carter was obviously excited. He said to me: ‘I think we’ve reached what we are looking for.’
Carter wrote later in his own account of the discovery:
It was clear by now, beyond any question, that we actually had before us the entrance to a tomb. Hardly had I arrived next morning (November 4th) than the unusual silence, due to the stoppage of work, made me realise that something out of the ordinary had happened. I was greeted by the announcement that a step cut in the rock had been discovered underneath the very first hut to be attacked.
This was Carter’s only admission that another person could have been accountable for perhaps the world’s most important archaeological find. Adamson told me it referred to him. He went on:
We found a passage-way, Then we came to a door. We uncovered it and found another passage, leading right. The passage was covered with plaster, but some of it was of a different texture. Somebody had been there before us. We removed this and it took about half an hour. Then we came to rubble, all boulders and wood.Carter then decided to cover up our entry and cable Lord Carnarvon to return to Egypt. He did, and on November 23rd our party of six once more uncovered the passage-way.
First Mr Carter made a small hole at the top of the door and inserted a lighted candle to test the purity of the air for any foul gas. Lord Carnarvon, myself, Mr A.R. Callender, Mr. Rex Englebach, the Chief Inspector of Antiquities, and Lady Evelyn Herbert, Lord Carnarvon’s daughter, watched during a tense silence as Howard Carter picked up a torch and looked inside – it was a moment I can never forget.Eventually Lord Carnarvon called out: ‘Can you see anything, Howard?’
The reply was, ‘Yes. Wonderful things! Wonderful things!’He stepped down and handed the torch to Lord Carnarvon who peered into the hole for almost a minute. Eventually the torch was handed to me. I looked inside. I don’t know what I expected to see, but most certainly the sight took my breath away. As I moved the torch around, details came into view.
There was a room, about 25ft by 30 ft and as I shone my torch inside, everything seemed yellow. I thought at first that the lens must have been dusty to give off this yellowish look. Then I realized what I was looking at was gold.There were three large couches in the form of animals. It was uncanny. All around, in a state of haphazard confusion, were chests, vases, shrines, chariots and thrones ... everywhere the glint of gold. Gleaming eyes were picked up by the torch and they glowed frighteningly in reflection.
The centre couch, a hippo god, had eyes that glared right back at you, about three feet from the torch. It was just as if the thing was alive, and I drew back. I think I looked for perhaps half a minute before I handed the torch back.One had the feeling as if we were in the presence of someone who, although dead, was alive and watching. You seemed to inherit the belief of those long-dead Egyptians; that they do not die, but live on in the spirit of their Gods and ancestors.
The sight the party was taking in had not been seen since 1,350 years before the birth of Christ. Then it was time to break through to the inner chamber. It was protected by two life-size sentinels in black, overlaid with gold; upon their heads the Royal emblems of the sacred cobra and vulture. Carter took a few minutes to remove stones and make a gap large enough to squeeze through. He was confronted with two massive doors of an outer shrine. The workers prised open the ebony bolts and the double-doors fell open. Inside was the Burial Chamber.
Adamson said he first saw a chair, studded with gold. It had a servant figure carved on it, offering the King the conventional wish of devotion: a million years of life.
A sad touch in a tomb of a king who had died at the age of 18 and there, jewelled and golden, was his throne, and on it a scene showing him seated on a chair while his young queen anointed his body with oil from a jar. There was a collection of household implements; the king’s shields and spears, his great fan of ostrich feathers, sceptres, walking-sticks and trumpets made of silver.
Above the intruders’ heads, a dozen boats waited as if ready to sail down the Nile as a flotilla.
It was almost a year later that, in the burial chamber itself, the excavators uncovered the greatest treasure of all: four gold shrines containing a sarcophagus and a nest of three coffins, the last fashioned from solid gold. Adamson continued his tale:
Because consecration liquid had been poured over the mummy, it was stuck fast in the coffin, heat from primus lamps filled with paraffin had to be used before the Mummy could be removed. Over the head and shoulders was a golden mask. The mummy was lying at an angle in the coffin, evidently it had been tilted when lowered and the consecration liquid had set and kept it in that position. When the wrappings on King Tutankhamun were finally removed, one could only stand and gaze, bereft of thought, action or words.
Adamson was silent for a while.
That scene has rarely been out of my mind over the years. To look upon the features of one who had lived so many centuries ago, to see him as a civilisation, long since departed had seen him, and to know you are looking on the face of an actual pharaoh of Egypt who had ruled so vast an empire long, long ago, was incredible. Around his neck and across his breast, his wife and mourners had placed a collarets made of cornflowers, lilies and lotus. They were dead and withered, but after 3,000 years still had a trace of colour. The face appeared to be looking back at you, mockingly, eyes partly open. There was a scar on his left cheek.
The bandages were extremely fragile and crumbled at a touch. All fingers and toes had been bandaged separately and gold sheaths placed over each one. Gold sandals were on the feet. Some resinous material had been used to plug the nostrils, partly open the eyes and pushed between the lips. The skin was a greyish colour.
Adamson was ordered, he said, to remain at the scene ‘for a few weeks’ to guard the treasures as they were catalogued and removed from the tomb. He was to stay for seven years.
I transcribed the interview with Adamson and sent the pages to him at his home in Portsmouth, asking him to mark any alterations he wished to make. He made just two insignificant changes.
In some of our interviews Adamson, politely but with some rancour, said he felt he had been ‘conveniently forgotten’ by Howard Carter, even though he had spent all those years down in the tomb helping Carter collate and index the treasures.
Each evening, he said, when the day’s digging was over and Carter and his team had gone back across the Nile to Luxor, the 27 shillings-a-week corporal would get out his folding camp bed, his sheets and two blankets, and settle down for the night.
There really wasn’t a need to take the army bed down into the tomb, there were already 12 or 15 similar beds down below. They might have been 3,000 years old, but they were in excellent condition. Their design was no more crude than the bed I was using.
Adamson remembered settling down in the eerie tomb, reading by a light from a generator and playing his wind-up gramophone.
I was never scared. I had a direct field telephone link with Carter and I could get through to him immediately in an emergency. But it was odd; I was a single British soldier guarding the most valuable and incredible treasure the world had ever seen.
There was also a series of trip-alarms, bells and wires which would have awakened the whole of Luxor if there had been an attempt by thieves. They probably believed the tomb was guarded by a whole regiment!
Once an alarm bell did shrill loudly in the night. Adamson woke and grabbed his revolver. ‘Who is it?’ he called out, his voice reverberating through the chamber.
It was Carter, he couldn’t sleep and had come over for a chat. Earlier that day he’d asked me if I wanted someone with me, because the mummy had just been opened. I think he came to see if I was alright.
Around the archaeologist and the soldier stood golden chariots, funerary furnishings, beds, chairs and household ornaments their jewels burning in the light like flames.
One bed was hinged and folded like a camp cot; others were massive gilded affairs, decorated with animal gods to protect the sleeper. There were handsome chests and caskets made of oak and inlaid with gold, gemmed with fine stones and filled with the Pharaoh’s clothing, his household linen and personal treasures. There were chairs with lion feet and with curved backs; folding stools with legs shaped like the necks and heads of geese. There were daggers with sheaths that were works of art, headrests and writing material. A small pair of linen gloves was found that could be worn today; each finger was outlined in tiny golden stitches.
Carter and his team had become so familiar with the objects and their owner that 3,000 years melted away and they found themselves speaking in the present.
Be careful with that bowl he’s been using,’ he’d tell his workers. ‘Put it over there where he’s got his chairs.
Adamson said he thought nothing of tucking into 3,000-year-old bread with Egyptian cheese for supper at night. ‘They’d had it restored in the testing laboratory and it tasted just like normal, unleavened bread.’
One day he had sneaked a taste of a reconstituted sediment found in a gold and alabaster drinking cup, discovering it was wine. ‘We dipped a feather into it and it tasted like mead.’
I asked him if it didn’t seem ungrateful that he was never mentioned other than being referred to as ‘a European in the party’?
Oh no. I was a nobody, Carter might well have found the steps himself. I lay no claim to discovering the tomb. There were other people in the team who did far more than I did, and Carter did not allude to them in any way.Because the Egyptian team were the same diggers that had been used by other expeditions for this work, they knew this was something different. As they were going towards the exit of the tomb they were deliberately covering it all up. There were only two more days to go, and Carter could never have gone back; but the Egyptians would have come back.
I asked Mr Carter, ‘Do you think they knew what that stone was, Sir?’ He said, ‘Yes. Those diggers are no fools. They knew what they’d found.
Adamson had collaborated with author Barry Wynne for a book and film Behind the Mask of Tutankhamen (1972). He had also appeared on television and given a lecture tour, giving his recollections of the tomb and his part in its discovery. He said the British Museum had loaned him a necklace owned by Queen Hatshepsut to display during his talks.
Then his health began to deteriorate, diabetes eventually leading to the amputation of both legs at the hip. He nevertheless gave lectures, including at Roedean girls’ school, Oxford University, the Egyptian embassy and London’s Festival Hall. He lived at the Royal Star & Garter Home in Surrey, where he was photographed with Princess Alexandra who was listening rapt to the last survivor of the Carter Expedition.
Elaine Edgar, who became Adamson’s closest friend in his last years, wrote a book about him A Journey Between Souls (1997). She explained that some people always doubted his story. In all the references to the discovery of the tomb there was nothing about Adamson in any index; no photograph at the tomb with him in it. Nor was there any sign of the vital photograph of the step.
In 1981, when he had almost reached eighty and the year before his death, Richard Adamson had a visit from another journalist, John Lawton. Though initially sceptical, Lawton was impressed by listening to Adamson’s own account, and going through his ‘lecture suitcase’, crammed with photographs and documents. Finally convinced, he told Adamson that Aramco World, for whom he worked, was prepared to fly them both to Egypt; it would be Adamson’s first return to the Valley of the Kings since he had departed from guarding the tomb.
Lawton was to write of the ten-day trip: ‘Adamson and I intended to return together to Egypt’s Valley of the Kings to defy – and thereby disprove – the legendary ‘curse’ of the exhumed Pharaoh.’ … But there were real hazards to be considered too; Adamson, eighty years old, would have to go in a wheelchair
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 them with his exploits as a young policeman sixty years before. Lawton wrote:
According to Sergeant Adamson the King Tut drama began to unfold during the afternoon of November 3rd, 1922. 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.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.
This coincides with the story Adamson had told me -- except Adamson failed to tell Lawton about taking his famous photograph. Under the circumstances, an extraordinary omission! Lawton went on:
Returning to his past last April, after nearly sixty 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.
In 1991 I contacted Zahi Hawass, then Director General of the Giza Pyramids, at the Cairo Museum, and asked him what he made of Adamson.
Adamson was a photographer. His photos are not now in Cairo Museum but in England. As a matter of fact some people in the US are arranging for a reprinting of these archives. We have photographs in the Cairo Museum of the opening of the tomb, but not of the actual discovery. All of these are in England.
More recently, though, Hawass has been much more sceptical about the existence of any photographs that Adamson might have taken.
The most voracious doubter of Richard Adamson’s story was Chris Ogilvie-Herald, co-author of Giza: The Truth and Tutankhamun: The Exodus Conspiracy. Ogilvie-Herald was adamant that the man was a fraud. But he had to prove that Adamson had made the whole story up.
Adamson had simply studied all that had been written about Tutankhamun, said Ogilvie-Herald, copied documents and embraced their contents as his own experience. He used copies of official photographs as his own. In fact in the ‘seven years’ spent down there ‘guarding the Tutankhamun treasures’, Richard Adamson was actually back in England working as a motor mechanic, a bus driver and a bus conductor.
He argued that Adamson never explained what he was doing in Egypt between October 1920 and October 1922, when he supposedly joined Carter. And that,
There is not one mention of him in any of Carter’s original notebooks and diaries, and nothing in the writings of any his team members or even the newspapers. He is also absent from any photographs taken by Burton, Carter, Carnarvon or the press.
Ogilvie-Herald obtained a copy of Adamson’s marriage certificate, which showed that he married on December 24th, 1924, at Portsea, in Hampshire.
This firmly places him outside Egypt after the discovery, but he could have been given leave to marry and returned after his honeymoon. However, it did raise questions as to where and when he met his future wife and how he could have courted her whilst living alone in an isolated Egyptian valley. But the birth certificates of Richard Adamson’s sons prove beyond a doubt that Adamson was lying about his role in guarding Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Adamson’s first son was born on the December 23rd, 1925, and his certificate reveals his father’s occupation as ‘Motor Mechanic’. The second was born was on August 21st 1927 and the occupation of the father is given as ‘Tram Conductor’. The third boy was born on the January 13th, 1930 and Adamson’s occupation is recorded as ‘Bus Conductor’. All three record that Adamson was living and working in the ‘County of Portsmouth’ in England. A further birth certificate of his last-born son, dated 1937, gives Adamson’s occupation as ‘Corporation Motor Bus Conductor’.There is no doubt Adamson served in the British army. There is no evidence he was ever in the Military Police or attained the rank of Sergeant. His marriage certificate records his rank in 1924 as Lance Corporal. The following year he left the armed forces for a civilian life in England. There is no evidence Adamson was ever in Egypt, let alone in the Valley of the Kings.
So there you have it: a humble bus conductor from Hampshire who managed to fool hundreds, if not thousands, of people into believing his fantasies were real.
Adamson himself died in 1982. The British Museum has no record of any necklace belonging to Queen Hatshepsut, or any other similar antiquity, bring loaned to Adamson for his lectures, and says such a loan would have been most unlikely. So I phoned Adamson’s grandson. What was his reaction to the doubters? He told me:
The Tutankhamun story has been in our family for years. As kids Grandad used to tell us about it. But we weren’t that interested … it wasn’t a major thing to us. When he was doing his lectures I was about nineteen or twenty. He had lost his legs and I used to take him around to different locations. One was at the Portsmouth Guildhall, where 2,000 people filled the hall, and I watched from the lighting box up on the roof.To say his part in the tomb’s discovery never happened is just unbelievable. I got hold of his old suitcase in 1995, and went through it. A lot of it went to a museum in Chichester which has since closed down. It was all pictures taken in the tomb, around the tomb. But nothing about the uncovering of steps.
In 1982, when Grandfather died, Father and some of his brothers went to the Star & Garter Home and found a lot of his stuff had already been taken away. They don’t know where it went or who took it. He had forty-odd grandchildren. I am just one of them. I would help if I could. But we have not found the elusive photograph yet.
John Lawton, who took the journey to Egypt with the older Richard Adamson, and spent ten days helping him in and out of aircraft and vehicles, deserves the last word:
Richard Adamson’s recollections were too detailed and his reactions on our return to Egypt together too genuine for his story to be false.It is possible, however, that he did embellish his role in the discovery and subsequent excavation of the tomb. This would only be human, particularly as he got older.
TUTANKHAMUN IN LONDON, 1972
It doesn’t seem possible that it was three and a half decades ago when the ‘Boy King’ appeared in at the British Museum. The exhibition was the fruit of years of careful negotiation by Dr I.E.S. Edwards, then Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities in the Museum. Madame Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt had previously negotiated a Tutankhamun exhibition for Paris in 1967, and Dr Edwards opened discussions for a London show with Dr Sarwat Okasha, Minister of Culture in Cairo, in February of that year. Negotiations were difficult, and a cultural exchange was mooted which would involve the Royal Ballet going to Cairo; Dr Magdi Wahba, Director of Cultural Relations, also insisted that Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev would make a private appearance in Cairo – a tall order to arrange with the Arts Council and the Foreign Office in exchange for Tut!
Thirty-two pieces from the tomb had been shown in Paris (insured for £7 million) – how many pieces would London be able to arrange?
The Egyptian government was adamant that the Paris exhibition would not transfer to London. Internal dissension amongst the Trustees did not help. But, a stroke of luck intervened. Denis Hamilton, Editor-in-Chief of The Times and Viscount Montgomery had been in Cairo as guests of President Nasser discussing arrangements to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein. Previously Hamilton had spoken about a possible London exhibition with Dr Edwards. Montgomery and Hamilton had lunch with President Nasser, and Hamilton referred to Edwards’ recent trip to Cairo requesting the exhibition. ‘Yes’, said Nasser. ‘I turned it down’. Hamilton asked why, to which Nasser replied, ‘Oh, I don’t know. I just felt like it. It can go.’
The ramifications of the discussions were described in Dr Edwards’ autobiography, From the Pyramids to Tutankhamun: Memoirs of an Egyptologist (Oxford, 2000). Suffice it to say that Edwards triumphed. His wish had been that the exhibition should come to London before his retirement in 1974, and it did, appropriately in 1972 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of the tomb.
A government indemnity covered the insurance. Profits were to be devoted to saving monuments and temples on the island of Philae, near Aswan. Dr Okasha had spoken in terms of some £15 million being needed for this. The Egyptians had not been happy about the French exhibition, as they considered funds had been squandered. The high politics that went on behind the scenes over the years were incredible.
Ultimately, the exhibition arrived in London. Great security and secrecy was involved transporting the fifty objects, amongst them the gold death mask of Tutankhamun – the icon of the exhibition. Sadly, it is not coming in 2007 as it is now deemed too fragile to travel.
It was decided to use the Museum’s recently vacated Ethnographic galleries on the first floor, and they were strengthened to take the anticipated numbers of people. Margaret Hall, Head of the Museum’s Design Office, designed the exhibition to show the objects shrouded in semi-darkness to give the effect of the tomb. From the first day – and it was a wet one – on March 29th, 1972, people queued on the streets around all four sides of the Museum, and then around the flower beds in the internal courtyard. Often the wait to enter was over four hours; notices were posted informing the queues how long they had to wait, or whether they might not get in by closing time. The throughput time for the exhibition was estimated at 45 minutes. Spending so long queuing, and then shuffling slowly through the darkened exhibition galleries, meant a number of people missed seeing the final rooms as they were overcome, exhausted, and fainted so they had to be carried out by first aid staff.
Was it all worth it? Certainly it was. Admissions were 1,656,151; 450,000 copies of the catalogue were sold, and 306,000 copies of the Summary Guide. The presentation of the Tutankhamun exhibition in London in 1972 was the culmination of many years of hard negotiation and diplomacy by Dr Eiddon Edwards, and the apogee in the career of a quietly reserved yet brilliant Egyptologist.
Peter A. Clayton, FSA
- Hawass, Zawi Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs (Thames & Hudson, 2007)
- Booth, Charlotte The Boy Behind the Mask: Meeting the Real Tutankhamun (Oneworld, 2007)
- Darnell, John Coleman and Manassa, Coleen Tutankhamun’s Armies (John Wiley, 2007)
Desmond Zwar spent five years working with Rudolf Hess and his American jailer Col. Eugene Bird on The Loneliest Man in the World. His Adamson interviews appear in his memoir The Queen, Rupert and Me.
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