Monday, May 2, 2011

The Tomb of Tutankhamen - Howard Carter & A C Mace

I visited the Melbourne Museum last week to see the exhibition, Tutankhamun & the Golden Age of the Pharoahs. This is apparently the last time the artefacts from Tutankhamun's tomb will leave Egypt and, as I'm unlikely to ever visit Egypt, I had to take the chance to see the treasures. It was an excellent exhibition. I took the audio tour narrated by Omar Sharif, &, as always, this added so much to the experience. I also find the audio tours useful because often the wall panels with information are lit so dimly that I can't read them. It was wonderful to be able to see, in the round, objects I'd only ever seen in books.

The highlight for me, even with all the gold, was a massive granite head of Akhenaten, who may have been Tutankhamun's father. He was certainly the father of Tutankhamun's young wife, Ankhesenamun. Akhenaten is an enigmatic figure who attempted a religious revolution by rejecting the many gods of Egypt in favour of one god, the Aten or sun disc. The art of his reign is also very unusual. Akhenaten & his wife, Nefertiti are often depicted with elongated bodies, long faces & protruding stomachs. The royal couple & their six daughters are often shown in very intimate settings, playing together & worshipping the sun.

Although Akhenaten's religious reforms didn't last, some of the artistic influence is still apparent in the reign of Akhenaten's successor, Tutankhamun. In the exhibition was a gold shrine (it's pictured on the cover of Howard Carter's book above). Tutankhamun & Ankhesenamun are depicted in similarly intimate ways. She kneels before her husband & hands him arrows when he's hunting. Ankhesenamun anoints Tutankhamun with oil. Their postures are relaxed & familiar. We don't know much about Tutankhamun's short reign or their relationship but these images are very touching & suggest that they had a happy relationship.

I've had this copy of Howard Carter's book on the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb on the tbr shelves for quite a while. But, this only proves my point that every book on my overflowing tbr shelves will be read one day when the time is right. Unfortunately I only have Vol 1 of Carter's 3 volume work on the tomb but I also looked through Nicholas Reeves's book, The Complete Tutankhamun, which has also been on my shelves for a very long time. Howard Carter was, of course, the archaeologist who discovered the tomb in 1922. He was working for Lord Carnarvon, whose death from an infected mosquito bite only months after the discovery led to the stories about the curse of the tomb that have kept conspiracy theorists happy ever since.

The story of the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb is like a fairy tale. It was the last season that Carter & Carnarvon were going to dig in the Valley of the Kings. Carter had discovered a few clues that suggested to him that there was still at least one more tomb in the vicinity & he believed that it was the tomb of Tutankhamun, a shadowy figure from the Eighteenth Dynasty. His book was written just a year after the discovery & when Vol 1 was published, Carter had still not penetrated to the burial chamber. So, he had no idea of the richness of the sarcophagus or the beautiful gold mask that has become an iconic symbol of Egypt. Carter begins with a history of the Valley of the Kings, the site of the burials of many Pharoahs, most of them plundered by tomb robbers in antiquity. The wonder of his discovery is apparent as he begins his story,

Let me try and tell the story of it all. It will not be easy, for the dramatic suddenness of the initial discovery left me in a dazed condition, and the months that followed have been so crowded with incident that I have hardly had time to think. Setting it down on paper will perhaps give me a chance to realize what has happened and all that it means.

The initial discovery of a flight of stone steps leading to a tomb was exciting enough. There had been no indication that a tomb was there & the steps leading to a passageway filled with rubble was the first indication that there could be a tomb. When Carter's team removed the rubble & discovered a doorway with intact seals on it, his excitement grows. However, his patron, Lord Carnarvon, is in England so all work stops while Carter telegraphs the news & waits for Carnarvon's arrival. When Carnarvon & his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, arrived, the scene was set for one of the most famous moments in archeology.

Slowly, desperately slowly it seemed to us as we watched, the remains of passage debris that encumbered the lower part of the doorway were removed, until at last we had the whole door clear before us. The decisive moment had arrived. With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left hand corner. Darkness and blank space, as far as an iron testing-rod could reach, showed that whatever lay beyond was empty, and not filled like the passage we had just cleared.... widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle and peered in, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn and Callender standing anxiously beside me to hear the verdict. At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold - everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment - an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by - I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, "Can you see anything?" it was all I could do to get out the words, "Yes, wonderful things."

Apparently, Carter had help writing this account from a novelist, Percy White, & that passage shows the touch of the novelist, but it's still a dramatic & heart-stopping moment. The rest of this volume describes the removal of objects from the tomb, how every object seemed more amazing than the one before. The generosity of other archaeologists & museums is acknowledged as well as the torments Carter suffered from tourists & journalists eager to see the treasures & disrupting his work. It was fascinating to read of the discovery of several of the objects I'd seen in the exhibition & to see the photographs (only in black & white) & read the descriptions.

Carter describes the incredibly painstaking work of clearing this chamber. Objects had been thrown around by robbers as they frantically searched for portable gold objects to sell. One of the most fascinating finds was a bundle of cloth containing eight gold rings. These had been wrapped in the cloth by a robber who had left them behind, maybe he was disturbed. The method of wrapping valuables in a headcloth is exactly the same as Carter had seen in the markets of Egypt in his day. Carter's discipline was remarkable because, across the chamber, guarded by two life-sized statues of the pharoah, was a doorway leading, he hoped, to the burial chamber. Carter & his team painstakingly removed, photographed & documented every object in the chamber before approaching the doorway.

At the end of the book, Carter has cleared the first chamber & broken through this other doorway to reveal an enormous golden shrine. He knows that this part of the tomb is untouched by robbers because the seals are all intact so he knows that the burial chamber with the sarcophagus & mummy of Tutankhamun are within. He can have no idea of what he will find within.

I'm very keen to get hold of the other two volumes of this work now as I feel I'm leaving the story only half-told. Nicholas Reeves's book is a beautiful accompaniment as he describes & illustrates all the treasures of the tomb, but Howard Carter's first-hand account of his work is exhilarating to read.


  1. I loved reading your post. I love all this. The romance and the history of it is still SO intriguing. The amazing qualities of an era that seems so fantastic today. I've visited the Egyptian exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but I've never seen the actual Tutankamun pieces except in my book, THE COMPLETE TUTANKAMUN, which I love to look through.

    I keep Howard Carter's obituary in my permanent files, just to keep touch with the man who discovered these treasures. Wierd, I know, but what the heck.

    I would love to read Carter's own accounts. I think I may have to make the effort to do so.

    Lucky you for being able to see the treasures in real life.

    When I see photos of the inital artifact stuffed room, I can hardly believe my eyes.

  2. It is amazing, Yvette, to read Carter's own account, written so soon after the discovery. Seeing the treasures was also a great experience. I hope you can see the real objects one day. I'd also love to go to Berlin to see the bust of Nefertiti, that's probably more likely than Egypt!