Howard Carter’s discovery of the ancient Egyptian tomb belonging to King Tutankhamun sparked global fascination in 1922, and it has continued to command public interest over the last 100 years, but the ‘golden’ stories of the burial and its excavation are not quite as straightforward as is often thought. The spectacular objects from the tomb have been showcased in Egypt and around the world, but the new exhibition at the Bodleian in Oxford offers a different perspective, featuring a carefully curated selection of 150 items from the archive of the Griffith Institute, most of them from Carter’s own personal collection. This archival material, which includes original photographs, letters, diaries, plans, drawings, record cards, and more, tells the story of the tomb’s discovery through the eyes of individuals who were on the ground, and presents a more nuanced picture of events.
A royal burial
On a spring day c.1320 BC, the young King Tutankhamun was buried in a small tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The tomb’s rooms were filled with funerary equipment ranging from spectacular pieces of craftwork from the royal court to more personal objects, such as small-scale furniture made for the child-king when he came to the throne as a boy, a lock of his grandmother’s hair, and the mummified bodies of two of his prematurely born, unnamed daughters. Following several days of complex ceremonies, the mummified king, in his multiple gold coffins and stone sarcophagus, was placed inside a series of gilded shrines in the burial chamber at the heart of the tomb, which was then sealed up. Objects from the funerary ceremonies were placed in the outer rooms, before the whole tomb was sealed from the outside and marked with Tutankhamun’s name.
The officials responsible were probably relieved to have the process finished with: the unexpected death of the young king at 19 years old meant that a small pre-existing tomb had to be hastily repurposed, even requiring some of the steps to be cut away and the doorway enlarged so that the elaborate funerary goods could fit inside. Even then, however, the stressful royal burial process was not quite complete. Soon after, robbers broke into the tomb on at least two occasions. They failed to reach the burial chamber, so the king’s body remained undisturbed, and officials were able to clear up most of the mess in the outer rooms, but signs of the rocky burial process are still evident in details such as the finger marks left in ointment vessels by the individuals attempting to steal their contents, preserved inside the resealed tomb for centuries.
A dramatic discovery
The tomb remained untouched from the end of the 14th century BC until 4 November 1922, when the rock-cut stairs leading down to the door were discovered by members of the Egyptian workforce employed by Howard Carter. Carter was working on behalf of George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who had been granted a concession to excavate in this area of the Valley of the Kings. They had been working here since 1917 without any major discoveries, and by 1922 Carnarvon was on the point of giving up. Carter convinced him to attempt one final year of excavation – a decision that was richly rewarded just days into the new season.
On the discovery of the sealed tomb, Carter immediately telegrammed Carnarvon. Three weeks later, he arrived from England, and on 26 November they got their first look inside the tomb. This moment has gone down in archaeological legend, but the archive reveals that several details were revised over time. Carter’s first record of the event, written in his journal the next day, already had a consciously dramatic style, but when he published the first volume of his book in 1923, he embellished the narrative further. His response to Carnarvon’s question, ‘Can you see anything?’ transformed from ‘Yes, it is wonderful’ to ‘Yes. Wonderful things.’ Significantly, the later account excludes the Egyptian rais (foremen) who were present for this moment.
Following the initial opening, the tomb was discovered to consist of four rooms – referred to by Carter as the Antechamber, the Annexe, the Burial Chamber, and the Treasury – each filled with a wealth of artefacts, all of which had to be carefully documented before they could be removed. It was a slow and painstaking process – the Annexe was so full of objects that the team had to work suspended in slings – and it was not until three months later that the team could even enter the burial chamber containing Tutankhamun’s body, although a letter written by Carnarvon to English Egyptologist Alan Gardiner at the time of the tomb’s opening references a plan to ‘peep into the walled chamber’ unofficially, a scheme that Carter later denied.
Removal and recording
In total, the clearing and recording of the tomb and its contents took ten years, and required an international team of experts, including a large Egyptian workforce. Among the Egyptian team members were several skilled rais: chief foreman Ahmed Gerigar, and his colleagues Gad Hassan, Hussein Abu Awad, and Hussein Ahmed Said, as well as 50 local workmen, and dozens of children. The importance of these Egyptian team members has been downplayed consistently in the official accounts: the rais were named and thanked in Carter’s publications, but otherwise the Egyptian team members were rarely named and their contribution was almost entirely excluded from the records. The curators of Tutankhamun: excavating the archive hope that the exhibition will bring these individuals back to the foreground through their presence in photographs, despite their absence in the written accounts.
Early in the project, Carter and Carnarvon realised that their photographic skills would not be sufficient for the task at hand, so they asked for the loan of Harry Burton, a photographer from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s nearby Egyptian expedition. Burton ended up working on Tutankhamun’s tomb throughout the whole excavation, 1922-1932, and was key to the recording process. Using a nearby tomb as a studio in which to develop his glass-plate negatives, he produced over 3,000 shots, many of them of greater quality than high-resolution digital photographs. This collection of images makes up an integral part of the archive, and was central to the documentation of the excavation and the artefacts, as well as bringing the project to life in a spectacularly vivid way.
Once all of the objects had been numbered and photographed in situ, they were carefully wrapped and removed for conservation. In a lab set up in the tomb of King Seti II, Arthur Mace and Alfred Lucas cleaned, analysed, and conserved each item, recording all treatments in Lucas’s conservation logbook. Carter remarked that without their interventions, ‘not one-tenth of the many hundreds of objects would ever have reached the Cairo Museum in any reasonable form of condition’. After conservation, the objects were carefully documented through individual photographs and record cards containing descriptions, dimensions, and drawings. Carter also created a detailed plan of the tomb after it had been emptied.
By the time of the discovery, new laws in Egypt had put an end to the colonial practice of removing archaeological artefacts from the country. Consequently, the contents of the tomb became the property of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which remained their permanent home until the creation of the new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza, opening soon. At the end of each archaeological season, the conserved artefacts were packed into crates and transported to the museum. This process involved the use of a Decauville railway system, which consisted of short stretches of portable track that could be constantly reassembled as the cars were pushed forwards, in order to avoid the bumpy desert roads. At the end of the 1923 season, 50 Egyptian workmen spent 18 hours over two days moving that year’s 34 crates the five miles down to the river, in temperatures of over 38°C. From here, they were loaded on to a barge that took six days to travel more than 400 miles to Cairo.
The discovery caused a media sensation around the world, prompting everything from touching fan mail, such as a letter to Carter from a 6-year-old boy congratulating him on his discovery, to exploitative commercial and marketing ventures like the ‘Tutoom’ board game, and stories about a ‘curse’ prompted by Carnarvon’s death in April 1923. This sensational addition to the mythology was spread by a hostile press, upset that Carnarvon had granted exclusive rights to stories and photographs from the excavation to The Times earlier that year.
Tutankhamun became a symbol of national identity in Egypt, as the discovery came at a crucial moment in Egyptian history, just after the country had formally achieved independence. Although most official publications were written from a highly Eurocentric perspective, a set of poems by Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi, published in 1930, highlighted the significance of the young king for modern Egyptians: ‘Tutankhamen has returned his authority to our sons’.
While the objects from the tomb remained in Egypt, Carter retained the rights to all of the records of the excavation. He completed a best-selling preliminary three-volume account of the discovery, but did not manage to finish his planned six-volume academic publication before his death on 2 March 1939. He bequeathed most of his estate to his favourite niece, Phyllis Walker, and in 1945 she donated his whole archive to the Griffith Institute, the centre for Egyptology at the University of Oxford, which was founded in 1939 and still plays an important role in the study and teaching of Egyptology at the university today.
The archive represents an important source of knowledge about Tutankhamun’s tomb, preserving details of lost archaeological contexts and objects that have not survived the last century, as well as revealing more about the social context and realities of the excavation. Tutankhamun: excavating the archive highlights the humanity of both the modern and the ancient people who worked on the tomb – particularly the Egyptian names and voices that are missing from the archive – and the complexity of the archaeological project that uncovered it, encouraging visitors to reconsider this famous discovery 100 years later.
ALL IMAGES: The Griffith Institute, University of Oxford, 2022, unless otherwise stated.
Details Tutankhamun: excavating the archive Address: Bodleian Libraries, Broad Street, Oxford, OX1 3BG Open: until 5 February 2023 Website: https://visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/event/tutankhamun-excavating-the-archive
Further reading Explore the Griffith Institute’s archives online at www.griffith.ox.ac.uk. Find out more about the Egyptology programme at the University of Oxford at www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/courses/oriental- studies/egyptology.