Tensions were already high among the archaeologists, surveyors, and artists of the Archaeological Survey of Egypt in 1891 when an eventful dispute arose on Christmas Eve.
The first season (1890-1891) of the Egypt Exploration Fund’s survey set out to explore monuments along a 25km stretch of the Nile, including the Middle Kingdom cemetery at Beni Hasan, where governors and administrators were buried. Under field director Percy Newberry, surveyor George Willoughby Fraser recorded the architecture and locations of the tombs, while artist Marcus Blackden helped Newberry copy their decoration, and produced colour facsimiles of key details, like the birds from the tomb of Khnumhotep II.
But work was slow, and so funds were found for extra staff, among them 17-year-old artist Howard Carter, for the next season. During this second season, on 24 December 1891, Newberry and Carter were taken to a nearby site by a group of Bedouin. While this was not the tomb of the pharaoh Akhenaten as had been rumoured, it was still an important location: the alabaster quarries of Hatnub described in ancient texts.
They returned to camp at Deir el-Bersha to share the news. But Fraser and Blackden were seemingly not as pleased with the find and mysteriously set off soon after. Five days later, they returned, having surveyed Hatnub alone and recorded the important inscriptions, essentially claiming the site as only theirs to publish.
The fallout was considerable. Neither Blackden nor Fraser (‘Dirty Dogs!’, Carter wrote) were hired again, and Blackden did not go to Amarna to work under Flinders Petrie as had been planned. Carter was sent instead and received training that helped fix his course on a decades-long career in Egyptian archaeology, famously going on to discover the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.
After Amarna, Carter was dispatched to another of the EEF’s projects, the excavation of the mortuary temple of the female pharaoh Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri. Between 1893 and 1899, he was in charge of recording the temple’s fine painted reliefs, assisted by artists including Rosalind Paget. In order to better capture a three-dimensional art form on paper, Carter eschewed the main method used on the Survey of tracing from the walls. The exquisite results can be seen in Paget’s watercolour of bulls from one wall, and Carter’s reproduction of a scene in which Thutmosis I (Hatshepsut’s father) and his mother Seniseneb make offerings to the god Anubis.
It was through this work at Deir el-Bahri, Carter recalled, that he learnt the most about Egyptian art.
Images: © courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society TEXT: L Marchini