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

May 24, 2019

‘The goddess of the marshes’, from the tomb of Khnumhotep II, was painted by Carter in 1895 (Illustration from Christopher Naunton: “The Archaeological Survey” in: The Egypt Exploration Society - the early years (London, 2007): 67-93).

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.”

Documentation method

From December 1893, Howard Carter was in charge of the epigraphic operation at Deir el-Bahari. However, there is some confusion amongst scholars as to the precise methods he used in copying the wall scenes.

Dr R. A. Caminos, himself a renowned epigrapher of the Egypt Exploration Society in the second half of the twentieth century, reports on Carter’s methods based on information received from Sir Alan Gardiner and Mrs. Nina M. Davies, 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, who was a most distinguished Egyptologist and epigrapher at the British Museum, writes on the other hand:

“The finished drawings, from which the published plates were reproduced, are still in existence, and a close inspection has revealed no trace of any grid. Carter did use guide lines and one or two other ‘mechanical devices’ to assist him in laying out his sheets, but the bulk of the drawing was done freehand. They are all finished in soft pencil at twice the scale of the published plates.”

Also, “contemporary confirmation that Carter’s method involved essentially the copying by eye and hand of what was on the wall is contained in the report given to the Annual General Meeting of the Egypt Exploration Fund by the Honorary Secretary on 26 October 1894: ‘Mr. Howard Carter’s pencil drawings are exact copies of the scenes portrayed on the walls of the temple, and are being reproduced in half the original size direct from the pencil drawings.’”

In Carter’s own words: “I tried many expedients; but they resolved in this simple solution: To first observe the fundamental laws of Egyptian Art; how it eliminates the unessentials; to copy that art accurately and intelligently with honest work, a free hand, a good pencil, and suitable paper.”

Visual example(s)

Queen Senseneb, Thothmes I, and Offerings presented to Anubis.

Plate 29. Shrine of Anubis.

Plate 19. Hatshepsu (sic) bringing a square and an oar to Amon.

Plate 25. Hatshepsu (sic) (erased) between Nekheb and Harmakhis.

‘Hoopoe in sont-bush’, from the tomb of Khnumhotep II, painted by Carter (Illustration from Newberry, Percy E.: Beni Hasan IV: Zoological and other details from facs. London, 1900).

What we like

  • Carter’s intention as an epigrapher was to copy and render on paper what he saw on the wall, as realistically as possible, and in the condition it existed at his time.
  • Regarding the color plates, faded or smudged painted areas are faithfully presented in his drawings, as well as the different hues of paint used by the ancient artists. Cracks and damaged areas are rendered in an almost photographic quality.
  • Carter treated the material as artwork, therefore, regarding the color plates in the publications (especially in the Beni Hasan volumes), his emphasis was not only on accuracy, but also in artistic quality.
  • The line drawings also show a wealth of detail. Carter’s careful representation of patterns and small details is especially evident on Plate 25, mostly regarding the ureus-frieze on top and the vulture spreading its wings above the now-hacked-out queen.
  • Plate 19 is a wonderful example of how to faithfully render relief as a line drawing on paper. Carter applied sun-and-shadow conventions in the representation of the figures and the text; and with toning he suggests the different shades of color, particularly in case of the frieze and the feathers of the falcon. The thin lines of the building blocks and the marks of scraping give extra texture to the drawing. 

Additional reading

Unless noted otherwise, the plates shown in this article are from Naville, Edouard – The Temple of Deir el Bahari Part 1: The north-western end of the upper platform. Egypt Exploration Fund, London, 1895; 


Naville, Edouard – The temple of Deir el Bahari (Part 2): The Ebony shrine, northern half of the middle platform. Egypt Exploration Fund, London, 1896, both of which, as well as all related volumes, can be downloaded from the University of Heidelberg’s website.

The article is based on James, T. G. H. – Howard Carter, The Path to Tutankhamun. London: Taurus Parke Paperbacks, 2000, which can be purchased through Amazon US.

Précis and commentary by Júlia Schmied

1 comment(s)

Laurence W Lance

Oct 26, 2022

Many years ago, I made a living as an aeronautical design draftsman. The point being is that I well understand the fine points of draftsmanship, including both accuracy and fine attention to detail and to line quality. Carter's work is absolutely first rate in every possible respect. His control of line is proof of his superior skill. There is much to see here and even more to study and to admire.

Oct 27, 2022

Dear Lawrence, thank you very much for your comments and reading digitalEPIGRAPHY! We are in complete agreement about Carter's artistic excellence! DE is about to release a new article detailing his work as an artist and commemorating his discovery of king Tut's tomb! Stay tuned for more, and thank you very much for your interest!

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