‘Yes, wonderful things’ is the oft-quoted response Howard Carter gave when, on 26 November 1922, Lord Carnarvon asked if the archaeologist could see anything through a hole in the inner doorway of the tomb of the young king Tutankhamun. These words are what Carter himself committed to print in his published account of the sensational Egyptian discovery. Yet, as a page of Carter’s expedition journal, a more contemporaneous document, suggests, the response may have been closer to ‘Yes, it is wonderful’.
Carter, it appears, was not averse to editing his own words to capture the momentousness of the occasion, which is being celebrated 100 years on in a new exhibition in Oxford curated by Richard Bruce Parkinson and Daniela Rosenow. The documents on view come from the expedition archive held by the University of Oxford’s Griffith Institute, and offer an intimate look at the detailed process of recording and studying objects as the tomb was slowly cleared over the following decade. The careful work in the small, dark tomb – and the exceptional preservation of delicate organic materials like garlands of flowers buried in the 14th century BC – was captured by archaeological photographer Harry Burton.
The staged photograph shown here was taken by Burton on 29 November 1923, a year after Carter first peered into the antechamber of the tomb and recorded in his diary that ‘two strange ebony-black effigies of a King, gold sandalled, bearing staff and mace, loomed out from the cloak of darkness.’ One of these effigies (also known as guardian statues, as they flanked the entrance to the burial chamber) is seen being prepared for transport in a custom-made wooden tray by Carter (holding the packing material on the left) and an Egyptian colleague (on the right). Many Egyptians – including children – were hired for the excavation and carried out essential work, yet most remain nameless in the otherwise abundant archival records.
Once removed from the tomb, the two guardian statues were cleaned and conserved in the laboratory set up in the tomb of King Seti II, before heading to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where they remained for decades along with other finds from the burial of this now famous pharaoh. With the upcoming opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, Greater Cairo, the guardians and their numerous companions will have found a new final resting place.
Tutankhamun: excavating the archive is on view at the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford, until 5 February 2023 (https://visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk). A book presenting 50 of the items on display is available from Bodleian Library Publishing (ISBN 978-1851245857).
IMAGE: © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford.