Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive is a riveting retelling of the boy king’s unearthing in which the Egyptian men and boys who have been persistently overlooked take their place in the history books Image Credit: Shutterstock

Picture the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, in 1922, and I’d hazard it’s a blur of Brylcreem, panamas and waistcoats that leaps to mind.

We know the look of Howard Carter and his close circle arguably better than any other archaeologists in history. As treasure-seekers and adventurers, they animate one of the most sensational stories of the modern age, which has been told from the start in the manner of breathless popular fiction, and as a British triumph.

It appears, however, that this isn’t altogether true. Painting Carter and his team (which included his patron, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon) as principal characters has done the Egyptians whose knowledge, skills and labour were equally crucial to the excavations, a terrible disservice.

Now an exhibition at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, seeks to get closer to the truth. Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive is a riveting retelling of the boy king’s unearthing in which the Egyptian men and boys who have been persistently overlooked take their place in the history books.

Fictions, and a tendency to polish the facts, began to mass around the excavation from the start. Not least, the words that Carter uttered when he first stuck his head inside the burial chamber, breathing in its 3,300-year-old, warm and still resin-scented air. His pocket diary notes that he said, “It is wonderful”. Only, by the time the anecdote appeared in print, it had been buffed to “Wonderful things!”. There’s also the small matter of a curse – certain death for anyone who disturbed the tomb – which, though Carter himself called it “tommy rot”, has continued to thrill people since.

A new exhibition at the Bodleian Library, Oxford , seeks to commemorate the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, while also wanting to interrogate it Image Credit: Shutterstock

“Nearly all of the stories that have gathered around Tutankhamun endorse a golden age of colonial archaeology,” says the Egyptologist Dr Daniela Rosenow, who has co-curated the exhibition. “While we want to commemorate the discovery of the tomb, we also want to interrogate it.”

Rosenow is archive curator at the Griffith Institute, the centre for Egyptology at Oxford University, where Carter’s records of the Tutankhamun excavation – including his hand-drawn plans, beautifully illustrated and annotated record cards, pocket diary and about 3,500 photographs taken by the dig’s official photographer, Harry Burton – were donated by Phyllis Walker, Carter’s niece, following his death in 1939. These form the core of the Bodleian exhibition. Where the role of the Egyptians is concerned, it is Burton’s photographs that are the smoking gun.

Unlike the Carter and Carnarvon-focused images that were released at the time (and have been used since), the wider set shows Egyptians involved in every stage of the excavation: removing rubble, opening the sealed doorways (the four burial chambers were one inside another, like a Russian doll), brushing dust from the artefacts, even conducting the post-mortem.

“These were very skilled people, who specialised in this kind of work and could meet the many daily challenges of an excavation,” Rosenow explains. “Often they were from the same families, taught by fathers or grandfathers, and they knew the terrain they were dealing with intimately, like a brain surgeon knows a brain.”

In his publications, Carter did name – and thank – his four Egyptian foremen: Ahmed Gerigar, Gad Hassan, Hussein Abu Awad and Hussein Ahmed Said, but again, they are never identified in the photographs, nor have researchers at the Griffith been able to find any detail of their lives. “They are invisible,” says Rosenow. “These people did not write diaries like Carter; many couldn’t read or write at all. They probably went home each evening and told their families what they’d seen, but those stories are lost.”

We also know the name of the Egyptian doctor who conducted Tutankhamun’s nine-day post-mortem and unwrapping (some 150 amulets and other objects were discovered in the layers of bandages) in 1925. He was Dr Saleh Bey Hamdi, and even though he was the former director of the Government School of Medicine in Cairo, he was required to perform the dissection with Douglas Derry, a (British) professor of Anatomy. Only Derry was credited on the published anatomical report.

Will we ever hear their voices? That the answer is probably no, is perhaps the real curse.

The Daily Telegraph

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