“Discovering Tutankhamun,” an exhibition currently at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford celebrates a remarkable fact. Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon of course discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in 1922. The archive of the excavation was presented to the University of Oxford by Carter’s niece, Phyllis Walker, following his death in 1939. It includes 3,150 record cards and 1,850 black-and-white glass negatives made by Harry Burton, the unsung hero of the excavation, who served as its official photographer. There are also conservation records and thousands of pages of notes.
The archive is kept just next door to the Ashmolean, in the Griffith Institute. (Digitisation of the archive finished in 2012; it’s available at www.griffith.ox.ac.uk.)
As we all know, there have been loads of exhibitions about the finding of the tomb. Millions of tourists have visited the location of the tomb itself, and millions more have seen its contents exhibited, or read books, seen documentaries – or at least the film, The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb (1980, and another for television in 2006), or one of the dozens of mummy-horror movies inspired by it.
The true curse of King Tut, however, is that (as an essay in the Ashmolean show’s catalogue says) “the majority of the objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb have not yet been fully studied.” I hear your sharp intake of breath on reading this. But it took Carter and his team ten years to record, remove and pack the tomb’s contents to send them to Cairo. Fans know that Carter fell out with some of his colleagues before he completed his task, and illness complicated matters. In the end he died seven years after finishing work on the tomb, having published only his three-volume preliminary report, The Tomb of Tut.Ankh.Amen.
In fact, co-curator Liam McNamara told me when he showed me around his Ashmolean show, only one-third of the material has really been appraised and used by scholars.
Progress in dealing with Carter’s finds has always been slow. One hold-up was that the large amount of gold items found meant that there had to be a high level of security at every stage of their study, dispersal and exhibition. Another snag has been the need for assessment of the tomb objects by specialists in fields other than Egyptology. “We hope,” McNamara told me, “that this exhibition will encourage an interest in Egyptology, and help to create the next generation of scholars.”
This is no dry-as-dust show. One of the large rooms contains stuff that reflects the Tut-craze of the 1920s, from fashions to advertising posters for “King Tut Lemons,” with a good helping of some simply sensational jewellery – Carter interpreted by Cartier.