Friday, November 4, 2022

Born in Arizona, Moved to Babylonia

Today marks the centenary of Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings. I would have thought this would be more widely celebrated in mass media, given the status of King Tut in the popular culture of the last hundred years. Unless I've somehow managed to miss it, the coverage of this significant anniversary seems to be much more low-key than that which accompanied the "Tut-manias" of the 1920s and 1970s. For good or for ill, there don't appear to be so many trinkets, toys, T-shirts, and posters – or songs – this time around.

More than a decade ago, there was an exhibition of artifacts from Tut's tomb and my family and I got the chance to see them while it was in town. Though the famous gold burial mask was not among the artifacts present, there were plenty of other remarkable items. Looking at them, even behind protective glass, is an amazing experience, especially if you're cognizant of just how old they are. I can only imagine what it must have been like for Carter, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn, and Arthur Callender to have first laid eyes upon them, the first people to have done so in more than 3000 years (aside from some grave robbers). 

In his 1923 book with A.C. Mace, Carter described the experience of opening the tomb in this way:

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.

This is some of what they saw:

The photograph at the top is obviously the original, while the one at the bottom was colorized decades later. I included the colorized version in an attempt to convey some of the wonder Carter and company must have felt upon seeing the antechamber to the tomb and its grave goods. At the same time, the photos also convey a contradictory feeling, a recognition of just how ordinary the scene actually is. Certainly there are many gilt artifacts within but there are also an equal number of relatively mundane things, like unadorned chests, wooden shelves and furniture, and spare chariot wheels. If it weren't for their antiquity, they could almost be the contents of someone's garage rather than the treasures of a god-king from three millennia ago.

I find this all weirdly comforting. Mind you, I get the same feeling when I look on photographs of people from the past, especially from the time shortly after the invention of photography. What sticks with me is the realization – or perhaps reminder is a better word – that people in the past were just people, little different from us, except in the most superficial of ways. They were no better or worse than we are today and I think we do ourselves and them a disservice by looking on the past as either a Golden Age the likes of which we shall never see again or a time of unique ignorance and viciousness that we have somehow transcended. 

For me at least, Howard Carter's discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun a century ago is a bit like those old photographs. It's a reminder that, while the past is a foreign country, that country was populated by human beings who, like us, probably gave little thought to the possibility that the world they knew would one day disappear into the mists of time – again, like us.


  1. Thank you for the reminder. I haven't heard of anything either, but I remember being given a poster of Tut's golden mask by an aunt who visited the Royal Ontario Museum when Tut made his tour through southern Ontario in the early 80's (?).

    1. I have one of those posters too, when the tour went through Las Cruces, New Mexico. Great article.

  2. Wonderful! Thank you James, for the article and the photo.

  3. I rember we saw King Tut in Seattle when I was very very young. It felt like a huge deal at the time.

  4. Wise words. For the most part, people are just people.

  5. My first thought on seeing those pictures was Storage Wars: 18th Dynasty!

  6. That which has been is what will be,
    That which is done is what will be done,
    And there is nothing new under the sun. - Ecc. 1:9
    Great post, James!

  7. I was very fortunate to see the King Tut exhibit in La Brea, California, while I was in 5th grade. The local high school made the trip, and when it didn't fill up offered spaces to the local junior high and then to the top four 5th graders! It was an incredible experience. I still remember staring at the Death Mask in awe of the craftsmanship.

  8. I was lucky enough to see the 1979 San Francisco exhibition that did include the burial mask. It was the very last thing you saw as I recall and even though I was just a grade-schooler it made a profound impression on me.

    Here's an article about it:

    I remember walking around with the (huge) cassette tape player you can see one woman in the article pictures wearing that narrated about the different exhibits.

  9. As the song says, "He's my favorite honky!"

  10. I was in Cairo in the 80s whilst in the royal navy, we only had a days shore leave and when we're got to the exhibition there was a massive queue. Being young stupid and horny we have up and left in search of wine, women and song.
    Such regrets

  11. I do love that Steve Martin song. Always cheers me up.

  12. As far as mass media goes, PBS has a new special for the 100th anniversary called Tutankhamun: Allies and Enemies which premiers Nov 23