Howard Carter’s description of the antechamber of Tutankhamun’s tomb, as he pushed open the door for the first time on 29 November 1922, conjures up the wonder that the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford hopes to recreate in its current exhibition. Jill Glenn went along...
Egypt is easily accessible today, a mere five hours away by air – but back in 1922 it took a full two weeks by land and sea to travel from England. For George Herbert, Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, a man who had long been keenly interested in archaeological investigation, the journey that he took in November 1922 may have lasted a fortnight but must have felt like a lifetime.
Lord Carnarvon had been back in this country while his excavation team in the Valley of the Kings on the River Nile made its final attempt to locate something worthy. He set out from his home, Highclere Castle in Newbury, Berkshire, in response to an exciting telegram from his lead archaeologist, Howard Carter. ‘At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley,’ telegraphed Carter, ‘a magnificent tomb with seals intact; re-covered same for your arrival; congratulations.’
The finding of the entrance to the tomb had been a long time coming; Carnarvon had been funding excavations in Egypt on and off since 1907, and Carter had been his man on the ground for all those years. It’s a tribute to his relationship with his patron that he found within himself the strength of character to refill the newly discovered staircase with rubble – and wait. On 24 November, a mere 18 days later (Carnarvon left England almost at once) they cleared the stone steps and revealed a plastered doorway, on which they could see seal impressions that identified King Tutankhamun as the occupant…
In addition to the life and style of the man himself, Discovering Tutankhamun at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, pays attention not just to the artefacts found within his tomb, but also to the people behind the process of discovering it and presenting it to the world: Carter and Carnarvon, of course, but also the rest of the team, whose specialisms – art, archaeology, botany, engineering, philology and technical drawing – gave the project gravitas. Key to the process was the work of photographer Harry Burton, an Englishman loaned to Carter by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, whose wonderfully detailed pictures are considered some of the finest archaeological photographs ever produced.
Clever use of these, easily life size, on panels and doorways throughout the exhibition, demonstrates the fascination exerted by the discoveries. There’s a picture of the crowds (tourists and journalists) milling around the tomb’s entrance watching the removal of the artefacts, that is particularly evocative. Burton’s shots were taken on a large format ‘view camera’, and developed in a small empty adjacent tomb, converted into a darkroom, but the complexity of the process and the inadequacy of the surroundings are in no way reflected in the beautiful images.
The tomb of King Seti II, nearby, was pressed into service as a little laboratory in which scientists Arthur Mace and Alfred Lucas carried out impressive preliminary conservation work before the objects were packed up and transported by boat to Cairo. Without their input, Carter estimated that as little as ten per cent of the haul would have been fit for public display.
There’s a great sense of the teamwork that took place, with even the lesser known members accorded their credit – although one of Burton’s shots that shows Carter examining the tomb along with ‘an unnamed assistant’ does flag up that there were members of the workforce not considered important enough to be recorded for posterity. It’s sad that we don’t know the names of the Egyptians who worked on the excavation alongside the westerners who had come in to take charge.
Another photo, again lifesize, shows the excavation team at lunch… at a table set up in the tomb of Ramesses XI. It’s impossible to imagine such laxity today – but the evidence is there before us in a shot taken by Lord Carnarvon. Don’t think, though, that this demonstrates a lack of professional standards. A modern archaeologist might cringe at the sight, but they’d be hard pushed to criticise Carter’s disciplined approach to the excavation as a whole.
Carter was an excellent draughtsman and he kept faith with the artefacts he found by his meticulous drawings: things of beauty in their own right, as well as accurate representations of the treasures in the tomb. In total, 5398 objects were found, each accurately notated and often drawn in this wonderful detail. It’s astonishing to learn, however, that 3,780 of these have not yet been properly studied. There’s a future career opportunity here for the children careering quietly around the exhibition, apparently absorbed in completing the quiz sheet that the Ashmolean has thoughtfully provided. These intimate explorations of life and death three thousand years ago still exert a powerful fascination today – as powerful, in fact, as they did in the 1920s when it gripped the public imagination like nothing before. The Times newspaper paid £5000 to Lord Carnarvon for exclusive access to the tomb and rights to supply the world’s press with news and photographs. It was an unusual deal by the standards of the day, and it generated fury, especially in the Egyptian press.
One of the most entertaining sections of the exhibition is that which deals with Tut-mania. In the 1920s, the unprecedented economic growth led to the mushrooming of mass media and the notion of celebrity really began to come in to its own. Even dead Pharaohs could be celebrities. Clothing, jewellery, popular songs (there’s a very catchy ditty by Billy Jones & Ernest Hare playing in the background), novels and advertising campaigns were all inspired by King Tut – or Old King Tut, as they liked to call him, for the analysis that revealed him to be only 17-19 years old had not yet taken place. Nowadays we’re prone to refer to him as a young king, even a boy, but that’s inaccurate too. He may have still been in his teens, but he was, by Egyptian standards, an adult – married, the father of two unborn babies, and venerated by his people.
Section of the replica painted box by Nina de Garis Davies
(c) Griffith Institute, University of Oxford
The exhibition includes a wonderful reconstruction of the painted box, the first item to be taken from the tomb on 27 December 1922, with its side panels showing Tutankhamun as warrior and hunter. It took three weeks to empty it of the king’s clothing, including robes decorated with gold and faience sequels, and a leopard-skin cloak. The copy of all four sides of the box was painted in 1935 by specialist Egyptologist illustrator Nina de Garis Davies, and her techniques and skill reproduce the colours and the texture of the original very faithfully. Items like this are precious in their own right, and as close as we can get to the real things. The famous gold funerary mask that was used on the poster of the 1972 British Museum Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition, for example, is now considered too fragile ever to leave Egypt again.
Although it’s coming up for one hundred years since Carter and Carnarvon pushed open the door of Tutankhamun’s tomb for the first time, there’s a vivid immediacy to this well-conceived and cleverly thought through exhibition. It’s very cerebral, of course, but it appeals on a visual and emotional level as well. There’s something intensely pleasing about sitting down in front of a huge photograph of the tomb to listen to Howard Carter, recorded in 1936, recalling his experiences. It wasn’t until 28 October 1925 – nearly three years after the door to the main tomb was uncovered – that the solid gold lid was finally lifted from the third coffin (Tutankhamun’s body was encased in a series of three human-shaped coffins, nested like a set of Russian dolls; the middle coffin was shrouded in linen and covered in garlands of flowers) and the king’s mummy revealed. There were some 150 amulets in the wrappings. It’s not surprising that Tutankhamun’s name is now synonymous with all that was glorious about ancient Egypt.
Discovering Tutankhamun is beautifully curated and beautifully designed: the low light and natural colours create just the right environment in which to appreciate the artefacts on show. It brings together objects, photographs and archive material from leading collections – some not seen in public before – to tell the story of the search for the tomb, to honour the painstaking recording of its contents and to highlight the research that continues – and that is still to be begun – into illuminating Tutankhamun and his world. It’s a thrilling story of archaeological discovery, showing its impact on both scholarship and popular culture. Long live Tut-mania…
‘Discovering Tutankhamun’ continues
until 2 November. For more information: