Comment: King Tut’s century-long legacy for archeology

The discovery of the pharaoh’s treasures launched ongoing questions of to whom antiquities belong.

By Katrina Gulliver / Special To The Washington Post

A century ago this month, newspapers reported the opening of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, in the Valley of the Kings. It was an archaeological discovery that generated sudden popular interest in Ancient Egypt, aided by newsreels and photos.

While it was a rare moment of celebrity archaeology, it was also a high point of imperial attitudes that echo through today’s debates about ownership of artifacts. The archaeologists who discovered the tomb, containing 5,000 artifacts that had been untouched for thousands of years, represented a culture that felt entitled to claim the discoveries and had even paid for a license to do just that.

For centuries, the morality of taking archaeological discoveries (even human remains) for private collections or public display was never questioned. Today, by contrast, museums in the West are being asked whether they should keep the items in their collections that were acquired through colonial claims. The discovery of Tutankhamen was the beginning of that change.

The Valley of the Kings, which sits on the bank of the Nile opposite Luxor, was the burial place of royals and elites of the Egyptian New Kingdom. It contains 63 tombs and chambers. Although it was known to the various ancient powers who passed through Egypt, Napoleon’s expedition of 1799 drew Western attention to the site, with maps and illustrations of the Valley.

It was a century later that archaeological work was carried out, under a system of concessions. Archaeologists, or their sponsors, would pay the Egyptian authorities for the right to excavate a particular area in exchange for a share of the treasure recovered. The Egyptian Department of Antiquities managed this business, keeping important artifacts but also selling to individual collectors and museums.

George Herbert, Earl of Carnarvon, had purchased the concession for the Valley of the Kings in 1914, but excavation was delayed during World War I. Archaeologist Howard Carter, who had been working in Egypt for decades, was in charge of the dig.

Tutankhamen was a hitherto little-known king who had died in his teens. The team had no idea what they would find. On Nov. 26, 1922, Carnarvon, Carter and Carnarvon’s daughter Evelyn looked through a hole chiseled in the sealed tomb door and caught a glimpse of the precious objects within.

News of the discovery immediately spread around the world. Lord Carnarvon sold exclusive press rights to the Times of London, much to the annoyance of foreign papers. This would be a new age for archaeology, with a global audience following a discovery as it unfolded.

Within a few days, the tourism angle was already in play. On Dec. 3, the New York Times promised that “Thousands of American tourists who are coming to Egypt after Christmas will have an opportunity to view this wonderful cache, the intrinsic value of which is estimated at $15,000,000.”

Egyptian authorities also recognized the magnitude of the discovery. Many ancient objects from Egypt had been taken over the centuries, as mummies were hauled off to Europe, sold as magical cures, ground for pigment or put into museums. The Egyptians wanted to hold on to this collection.

Egyptian nationalists also latched on to Tutankhamen as a symbol of past greatness. Egypt had gained independence that same year, and the legacy of its ancient culture was a focal point of national pride. This was also a rare find because the tomb of a Pharaoh was intact. It represented the discovery of the ages. The government claimed ownership of all the contents of the tomb and refused to let King Tut, as he was nicknamed, and his treasures leave Egypt.

This conflict led to excavation being stalled for over a year, as Carter took the Egyptian authorities to court. Carnarvon had died of blood poisoning a few months after the discovery, with the rights to the concession passing to his widow. His death meanwhile helped to generate the “curse of the tomb,” an urban legend still circulating today that those associated with the dig were struck down by a malevolent force.

The result of the legal fight was that the Egyptian government kept Tutankhamen and in April 1930 paid compensation of £35,000 to Carnarvon’s heirs (equivalent to £2.4 million today). Officially, neither Carter nor the Carnarvon family would get to keep any artifacts, and the collection would remain together. Years later, however, letters would show that he had stolen some items.

The frenzied coverage of King Tut continued for months after the tomb’s discovery, to the point that even the smallest objects got a feature story. “FIND WINE STRAINER IN PHARAOH’S TOMB; Experts Think It Is Greek in Form and First of the Kind Found in Egypt” was a New York Times headline in February 1923. Photos were also published through the decade of Carter looking into the tomb, re-creating the “discovery” moment.

This new age of Egyptology would bring sustained public interest in the world of the Pharaohs and create a heroic role for archaeologists. In Britain, the Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924, which featured pavilions from all over the world, included a of the entire tomb for visitors to see.

Fifty years after the discovery, some of the items were allowed to leave Egypt for a Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum in London. Tutankhamen’s gold and lapis death mask became a familiar icon of Egypt to a global audience. This blockbuster show would take several years — and quite a bit of diplomatic wrangling — to reach the United States. But in its 1976-79 U.S. tour of seven cities, including Seattle, the Treasures of Tutankhamun attracted 8 million people. Its attendance records have not been broken, including 1.25 million visitors at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The success of such public shows also primed a generation for Indiana Jones, the archaeologist hero.

The struggle for control of Tutankhamen’s tomb was a turning point in the treatment of heritage objects and patrimony. For most of the high imperial age, archaeologists had facilitated colonial plunder as their collections and discoveries filled the museums of the West. And some of those objects were legally sold: Egypt’s Department of Antiquities operated a sale room at the Cairo Museum until 1979.

But Egyptians recognized that this legacy was a major asset; one worth holding onto in a global age of tourism. In the decades since, museums in Egypt have presented the history of the Pharaohs for visitors. When several royal mummies were moved last year from the Cairo Museum to the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, they were given a spectacular procession, each with their own carriage, befitting a royal funeral.

Today more museums are returning objects to their places of origin. The Smithsonian, for instance, just returned a collection of Benin bronzes. Other countries, such as India and Cambodia, are claiming back parts of their heritage that have been kept in collections abroad. Debates continue over stewardship, the preservation of objects and who has a right to claim ownership. King Tut brought archaeology onto the front page. The impact of his tomb is still shaping how we keep and make sense of the past.

Katrina Gulliver is a historian and writer.

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