Remembering Howard Carter at Swaffham Museum

Howard Carter is surely the most famous archaeologist in the world, following his discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun and its ‘wonderful things’ in 1922. The small market town of Swaffham in Norfolk is the birthplace of both his parents, the place he grew up in, and first learnt about Egyptology. 

Howard Carter (HC) was born in Kensington, London on 9 May 1874, the youngest son of Samuel John Carter, and Martha Joyce Carter (née Sands). His father was an artist who worked for the Illustrated London News, and many of his 11 children inherited his artistic flair, with at least 3 working as artists. Despite being born in Kensington (and dying there, in 1939, aged 64), most of Howard’s childhood was spent in Swaffham. Because of ill health, he was probably educated at home. The family lived with his paternal grandfather, a gamekeeper. In Norfolk, his father found work painting horse and pet portraits for the gentry, and Howard (HC) would accompany him. From the age of 15, HC was earning his living by drawing animal portraits. One of the families they both worked for were the Amhersts of Didlington Hall, Brandon. They had at the time the largest private collection of Egyptian artefacts in the UK (mainly acquired from Flinders Petrie). This fascinated HC. It was through Baron and Lady Amherst's connections with leading Egyptologists that HC went to work in Egypt as an archaeological illustrator, aged just seventeen. By 1899, he was Chief Inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Service. In 1907, he started to work for Lord Carnarvon, right up to the world famous discovery of November 1922, and beyond. Sadly the Amhersts went bankrupt; the house was sold in 1910 & the collection auctioned off. Didlington Hall was demolished in 1952 due to extensive damage and neglect during the war, when it was requisitioned by the army.

Carter Connection

However, Swaffham has not forgotten its most famous inhabitant. The local museum, which I was able to visit in August 2018, has five galleries showcasing various aspects of local life: the social history of the area (industry, agriculture), local pre-history and Anglo-Saxon heritage, as well as temporary exhibitions. My particular reason for visiting the museum was ‘The Carter Connection’, a gallery exploring HC’s link with the town, and showcasing HC’s achievements. The gallery contains genuine artefacts relating to the Carter family, and 16 Ancient Egyptian objects on loan from the British Museum, including 4 from the reign of Tutankhamun, c.1336-1327 BCE (all the tomb treasures stayed in Egypt). The most impressive of these is a brass bowl inscribed with the pharaoh’s throne name Nebkheperure (Lord of manifestations is Ra). There is also a blue glazed kohl tube bearing his throne name, and two rings; one inscribed with Tutankhamun’s name, the other with that of his wife (and half-sister) Ankhesenamen.

Bronze Bowl

The gallery usually hosts local school groups, as well as providing outreach services, and there are a wide range of child-friendly posters and hands-on activities available. For example, on one board, entitled ‘Can you make a mummy?’, strips of card are to be re-arranged: get the stages in the process of mummification in the right order, and the mummy picture will also be arranged correctly (or vice versa!). A useful timeline poster sets important events in Ancient Egypt and Egyptology against what was happening at the time in Britain.

Gallery view

However, the most memorable installation, for adults and children alike, is a replica entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb: press a button and you hear Carter describing the moment he saw the sarcophagus for the first time…the dark space lights up to show a representation of the burial chamber!

The museum was redeveloped with European funding from 2004-2007, and is an excellent example of how a small local venue can bring history alive to children and the wider community.

Practical Information

Mondays - Fridays 10am - 4pm (last entry 3.30pm);Saturdays 10am - 1pm (last entry 12.30pm).

Entry charges for 2020: Adults £3 / Young person under 18 yrs £1 / Family group of four £7.

A museum shop and tourist information office are also on site.

Swaffham is situated 30 miles west of Norwich on the A47.

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Dulcie Engel

I was born in London, and studied French & German at Bristol University, before taking a Masters and PhD in linguistics at Reading University. During my professional career, I taught and published research on French, linguistics and English language at various universities, including Wolverhampton, Swansea and Queens Belfast. I have lived in Swansea since 1994.

I have always been a keen traveller and museum visitor, and since retiring early, I have volunteered at the Egypt Centre Swansea (from April 2014), where I am a gallery supervisor. I specialise in giving tours to adult visitors. During this time I have carried out research on the languages and writing systems used in Ancient Egypt, on various objects in our collection, as well as the history of collecting, and the use of Ancient Egyptian themes in literature (especially Dylan Thomas) and architecture.

I have published articles on these themes in the Egypt Centre Volunteer Newsletter (of which I am now associate editor) and in Inscriptions, the newsletter of the Friends of the Egypt Centre (see I also contribute book and museum reviews. I have given Egyptian themed talks to the Swansea Historical Association, Swansea University Egyptology research group, the Friends of the Egypt Centre, Egypt Centre volunteers and visitors, Norwich U3A, and other local associations.