Monday, March 2, 2009

The finding of Tutankhamun

Howard Carter, the archaeologist who is credited with discovering the Egyptian tomb of Tutankhamun, died 70 years ago today. Thanks to the Ashmolean Museum and Griffith Institute, in Oxford, diary entries made by Carter in 1922 when discovering the Tutankhamun tomb are freely available online.

Carter was born in Kensington, London, in 1874, the youngest son of an artist, and while still a teenager began studying inscriptions and paintings in Egypt. For much of the 1890s, he worked as a member of the Egypt Exploration Fund, directed by Édouard Naville, at the Hatshepsut temple of Deir el-Bahri, on the west bank of the Nile opposite Luxor. In 1899, he joined the Egyptian Antiquities Service, as chief inspector of antiquities for Upper Egypt, and then for Lower Egypt. In 1905, though, he resigned following a dispute between Egyptian site guards and some French tourists.

In the next few years, George Herbert, the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, became interested in Egyptian antiquities and agreed to finance some archaeological work. It was agreed with the Egyptian Antiquities Service that Carter should take charge of the Carnarvon-sponsored excavations. They began at Thebes, and then moved to the Delta region, but in 1914 Lord Carnarvon secured a concession to excavate in the Valley of the Kings.

There were many delays to the excavations due to the First World War; and then, subsequently, in the years after the war, Lord Carnarvon became increasingly frustrated at Carter’s lack of excavation success. However, in October 1922, Carter - literally - struck gold by finding the now-famous tomb of Tutankhamun. In Wikipedia’s article on Carter, the tomb is described as ‘by far the best preserved and most intact pharaonic tomb ever found in the Valley of the Kings’.

After completing the excavations, Howard Carter retired from archaeology and became a collector of antiquities, though he did visit the US in 1924 to give a series of lectures. He also visited Luxor often, and could be found at the Winter Palace Hotel, sitting by himself in willful isolation, says a short biography of Carter hosted by the Minnesota State University. He died in Kensington on 2 March 1939, 70 years ago today.

Carter was not a literary diarist, but he did keep an excavation diary, and this is held by the Griffith Institute, which is part of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, which itself is part of Oxford University. The text of the diary is available (on the Ashmolean Museum or Griffith Institute web pages). Here are two entries, one from the day that Carter first discovered the tomb, and the second from the day three weeks later when Lord Carnavon had arrived and the tomb was opened.

Saturday, November 4.
‘First steps of tomb found
At about 10am I discovered beneath almost the first hut attacked the first traces of the entrance of the tomb (Tut.ankh.Amen) This comprised the first step of the N.E. corner (of the sunken-staircase). Quite a short time sufficed to show that it was the beginning of a steep excavation cut in the bed rock, about four metres below the entrance of Ramses VI’s tomb, and a similar depth below the present level of the valley. And, that it was of the nature of a sunken staircase entrance to a tomb of the type of the XVIIIth Dyn., but further than that nothing could be told until the heavy rubbish above was cleared away.’

Sunday, November 26.
‘Open second doorway - about 2pm - Advised Engelbach
After clearing 9 metres of the descending passage, in about the middle of the afternoon, we came upon a second sealed doorway, which was almost the exact replica of the first. It bore similar seal impressions and had similar traces of successive reopenings and reclosings in the plastering. The seal impressions were of Tut.ankh.Amen and of the Royal Necropolis, but not in any way so clear as those on the first doorway. . .

Feverishly we cleared away the remaining last scraps of rubbish on the floor of the passage before the doorway, until we had only the clean sealed doorway before us. In which, after making preliminary notes, we made a tiny breach in the top left hand corner to see what was beyond. Darkness and the iron testing rod told us that there was empty space. Perhaps another descending staircase, in accordance to the ordinary royal Theban tomb plan? Or may be a chamber? Candles were procured - the all important tell-tale for foul gases when opening an ancient subterranean excavation - I widened the breach and by means of the candle looked in, while Ld. C., Lady E, and Callender with the Reises waited in anxious expectation.

It was sometime before one could see, the hot air escaping caused the candle to flicker, but as soon as one’s eyes became accustomed to the glimmer of light the interior of the chamber gradually loomed before one, with its strange and wonderful medley of extraordinary and beautiful objects heaped upon one another.

There was naturally short suspense for those present who could not see, when Lord Carnarvon said to me ‘Can you see anything’. I replied to him ‘Yes, it is wonderful’. I then with precaution made the hole sufficiently large for both of us to see. With the light of an electric torch as well as an additional candle we looked in. Our sensations and astonishment are difficult to describe as the better light revealed to us the marvellous collection of treasures: two strange ebony-black effigies of a King, gold sandalled, bearing staff and mace, loomed out from the cloak of darkness; gilded couches in strange forms, lion-headed, Hathor-headed, and beast infernal; exquisitely painted, inlaid, and ornamental caskets; flowers; alabaster vases, some beautifully executed of lotus and papyrus device; strange black shrines with a gilded monster snake appearing from within; quite ordinary looking white chests; finely carved chairs; a golden inlaid throne . . .

Our sensations were bewildering and full of strange emotion. We questioned one another as to the meaning of it all. Was it a tomb or merely a cache? A sealed doorway between the two sentinel statues proved there was more beyond, and with the numerous cartouches bearing the name of Tut.ankh.Amen on most of the objects before us, there was little doubt that there behind was the grave of that Pharaoh. . .’

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