When news broke in the spring of 1923 of the discovery of the treasure-stuffed tomb of the Egyptian boy king Tutankhamun, the world went mad.
The New York Times correspondent reported slightly irritably from Luxor: “there is only one topic of conversation… one cannot escape the name of Tut-Ankh-Amun anywhere. It is shouted in the streets, whispered in the hotels… there is to be a Tut-Ankh-Amun dance tonight at which the piece is to be a Tut-Ankh-Amun rag.”
A new exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford, Discovering Tutankhamun, reflects the excitement of the discovery by archaeologist Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon – in the last season before the aristocratic patron was about to pull the plug on the funding. What followed was dubbed Tut mania in the United States as Carter slowly emptied the tomb, meticulously recording and conserving each object over 10 years of patient scholarly work.
The discovery sparked a Tutankhamun craze: images of the king or objects from the tomb appeared on jewellery, furnishing fabric, cigarette cards, penknives, biscuit tins and evening gowns. The exhibition includes a pair of kid gloves embroidered at the wrist with the name of Tutenkhamun in hieroglyphs. There was a King Tut dance, a stage magic act starring “Carter the Great”, and Carter sued over a travelling show of replicas from the tomb, which he believed had been copied from his excavation photographs. In 1923 the most famous objects were still to be revealed: the exhibition has Carter’s diary open at the page where, in November 1922, he recorded finding the stone steps leading down into the sandy earth, to the door of a royal tomb with its seals still intact.
A week later he would break through a second door, stick in a candle, and in answer to his anxious patron’s question whether he could see anything, immortally replied “wonderful things”. (Actually the diary reveals that he said “yes, it is wonderful” – an assistant later tidied the passage up for publication, and created the famous quote.) The beautiful solid gold mask which covered the mummified head would not be revealed for another three years. Carter worked so methodically and crankily through the outer rooms of the tomb that many of his assistants only lasted one season.
The archaeologists who created the exhibition are not immune to its glamour: it was a school project on Tutenkhamun when he was 11 that set Liam McNamara on the path to becoming an archaeologist and assistant keeper of Egyptology at the Ashmolean.
The mask, the beds and gem-studded chairs, the carriages and painted boxes and the other treasures are in the museum in Cairo and most are too fragile ever to travel again. Although the exhibition includes loans from the Metropolitan in New York, the British Museum and other collections, its previously unseen treasures are Carter’s own original notes, exquisite drawings, magnificent glass plate photographs, and illustrations he commissioned of some of the most beautiful objects as they were found, before their brilliant colour began to dull. When he died in 1939, worn out and the mammoth task of publishing the excavation still unfinished, his entire archive including more than 3,000 record cards and 1,800 negatives was given to the Griffith Institute in Oxford. The collection was recently placed online, but most of the originals have never been exhibited.
Carter’s meticulous records were recently used to create the replica tomb now on display in Luxor to help preserve the increasingly fragile original.
By then his patron was long dead, launching the enduring legend of “the curse of Tutankhamun”. Fans sent lucky amulets to Carter to protect him, and one sent a telegram urging him to re-seal the tomb and “pour milk oil and wine on the threshold”.
In fact Carnarvon’s health had been perilous for years, not improved by a series of crashes in the fast cars he loved – he had originally gone to Egypt as an invalid to escape England’s winter climate.
In March 1923 he cut the top off a mosquito bite while shaving, and was dead of blood poisoning and pneumonia within weeks.
The present Lord Carnarvon – whose home, Highclere Castle, became Downton Abbey in the television series – attended the exhibition opening and says the curse is nonsense. “Though the lights did all go out in Cairo, and his dog died here at home, at the exact moment he died,” he added thoughtfully.
Discovering Tutankhamun is at the Ashmolean, Oxford, until 2 November
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