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Peeling Back the Messy and Myriad Layers of Tutankhamun’s Discovery

Thorough and rewarding, Christina Riggs’s Photographing Tutankhamun illuminates the reasons behind our fascination with one of Ancient Egypt’s most famous tombs.

The cover of Christina Riggs’s Photographing Tutankhamun: Archaeology, Ancient Egypt, and the Archive (image courtesy of Bloomsbury Visual Arts)

“Tut-mania” seems eternal. At this very moment, “treasures” from the tomb of Tutankhamun are on a world tour, currently on display at London’s Saatchi Gallery (or were until the institution’s closure in light of the ongoing pandemic). This exhibition, like many before it, presents the story of the excavation of the pharaoh’s  tomb as an eternally appealing one: the combination of the romance of discovery and the methodical progress of scientific work. In reality, though, archaeology is messy: Discovery is never quite so adventurous and progress never quite so straightforward.

Highlighting the messiness behind the romantic tale of Tutankhamun’s discovery is a central theme of Durham University historian Christina Riggs’s Photographing Tutankhamun: Archaeology, Ancient Egypt, and the Archive (Bloomsbury Visual Arts). At the heart of the book are the more than 3,400 photographs taken by Harry Burton, a highly respected photographer. These included photos of the tomb, of the rich finds within it, and of Tutankhamun’s mummy itself. But Riggs also looks at the many other types of images of Tutankhamun: photos taken by the press, by tourists and other visitors, photos on postcards and cigarette cards, and more.

Harry Burton, “Untitled [Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon (the excavation sponsor) opening the Burial Chamber],” February 16, 1923 (image courtesy Heidelberg University Library)

Readers looking for a straightforward tale of the excavation and Burton’s photographs might be disappointed. Photographing Tutankhamun is an academic book, written primarily for an academic audience. In places its style and parade of archival details can be overwhelming to a non-specialist reader; they were for me at times. Riggs has already addressed some of the problems with the tale of the tomb’s discovery and the display of the finds in more popular formats elsewhere, and for some, her other writings may provide a better introduction. But the analysis in Photographing Tutankhamun is thorough and rewarding.

Riggs is careful to highlight the connection between archaeology and its political context. This work is crucial for understanding the undercurrents of archaeology, yet is routinely ignored in tales that emphasize the supposed objectivity of the scholars. Here we see the discovery of the tomb by a British- and American-led team fitting uneasily with the mood in Egypt at the very moment of independence; the change in governments in relation to interruptions in the excavation of the tomb by Howard Carter (its discoverer) in 1923-4; the plans for the first international tours of material from the tomb as Egypt’s socialism transitioned toward capitalism in the years around Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death. As Riggs makes clear, archaeology and heritage are a prime form of cultural diplomacy.

Those political realities heavily influenced the portrayal of the excavation as it happened. For European and American archaeologists in Egypt and their audiences back home, ancient Egypt was a timeless treasure — one that couldn’t be entrusted to modern Egyptians. Egyptian officials were slighted, and ordinary Egyptians typically ignored. An integral part of the excavation team, Egyptian workers were routinely treated as marginal and secondary, an issue not only of race but of class. Riggs demonstrates how the photographs emphasize that marginal stature: Egyptian workers are routinely photographed in subservient positions, while the British and American team members are shown in command, the literal images of the heroic archaeologist. As Riggs makes clear, however, we can glimpse the true complexity of the situation if we just look more closely at the images. Then we can begin to see how Egyptian and Western team members worked together in close quarters, quite literally supporting each other.

Unknown photographer, “Thoueris couch being taken out of the tomb [Howard Carter and a ra’is (Egyptian foreman) carrying a hippo-headed couch out of the tomb].” from Carter and A. C. Mace, The Tomb of Tut.Ankh.Amen, volume 1 (1923) (image courtesy the Internet Archive)

We might expect that Burton’s photographs were highly influential in the history of archaeology and photography — and some of the book’s introductory language leads us to think so — but what Riggs demonstrates instead is how much Burton worked in already established conventions. Burton’s attempts to use a movie camera were limited by both lighting in the tomb and restrictions imposed by Carter. He also took few color photographs, as black and white was seen as more  appropriate for scientific work. Through this lens, we come to see Burton as simply another archaeological photographer, however skilled he may have been. This surprised me at first, as I was expecting to see Burton’s photographs play a much more groundbreaking role in the history of the field. But this image of Burton fits with Riggs’s goal of puncturing the aura surrounding the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

There is one way in which the Tutankhamun photographs were heavily innovative and influential: the flood of images in the press and other popular formats was something entirely new for the field of archaeology. The eyes of the world remained fixated on the Valley of the Kings for years, and Burton and many other photographers were there to meet the demand. The abundance of photographic images coincided with the rise of the ability to mass reproduce them. This simplified Tut, removing him from his ancient context, and making him more like his audience in Europe and America. Whereas a few “primitive” objects from the tomb were treated as precursors of modern Egyptian items, most were seen as echoing Western luxury items, or everyday household goods. Tutankhamun and his queen became the perfect domestic couple. (Riggs’s analysis is particularly sharp here.) Through these photographs, audiences could project both romance and fantasy onto the ancient past and the riches of Tutankhamun onto their own lives. In the end, Riggs suggests provocatively, this may be the secret to why Tut-mania is eternal.

Photographing Tutankhamun: Archaeology, Ancient Egypt, and the Archive (Bloomsbury Visual Arts, December 2018) by Christina Riggs is now available on Bookshop.

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