Photography and History, The Tutankhamun Excavation


Let’s start with the photo below.banner‘Heat’ is everything in this image. Notice the short shadows: it was taken when the sun was near its zenith on May 14th, 1923. That day, from sunrise until 6 pm, dozens of Egyptian men moved 34 crates containing 89 boxes of objects that had been cleared out of the first room (the ‘antechamber’) of the tomb of Tutankhamun over the previous five months. The tomb lay more than five miles from the Nile, and the objects were due to sail down the river on an Egyptian government barge, destined for the antiquities museum in Ismailiya (now Tahrir) Square. There was only one way to get them there, and that was manpower.

Manpower with some help from a light railway line, the kind of track and wheeled cart system used in mining and construction work at the time. It was a staple of such projects throughout the colonial Middle East and Africa – and in archaeology as well, where the carts were used to move earth and rubble. Segments of track could be lifted and re-positioned to get whatever needed to be moved to wherever it needed to get.

What we see here are men coming up alongside the carts in groups of four, each group carrying a section of rails to add to the front, so the train of Tutankhamun’s tomb goods can continue its slow journey. The tomb’s lead excavator, Howard Carter, had this to say about that journey: ‘the work was carried out under a scorching sun, with a shade temperature of considerably over a hundred [38C], the metal rails under these conditions being almost too hot to touch’.

We often look at photographs to see what they show – or who they show. That’s Carter himself in the white pith helmet, striding towards the front of the railway line. But what about their more subtle qualities? How they make us feel, for instance, and what uncertainties, discomforts, or unexpected textures of history they bring out, whether at first glance or with repeat viewings. Their affective qualities, to use an academic turn-of-phrase. It isn’t just about how such photographs affect us now, but how they affected people at the time. What did photography do? What did it mean to stand there, photographing Egyptian men as they scorched their hands for archaeology – a profession that had gone out of its way to exclude Egyptians, except as cheap labour? Why isn’t this particular photograph as well known as others from the Tutankhamun dig – and why isn’t that hundred-degree heat, and the fundamental contribution of the Egyptian workforce, as much a topic of discussion as, say, how Tutankhamun died or what he looked like?

It isn’t clear who took this photograph – possibly a reporter for the London Times named Alfred Merton, who was embedded with the excavation thanks to his newspaper’s exclusive contract with Carter’s team. It was taken with a handheld camera, a Kodak, perhaps. The film negative, around 6 x 10 cm (2.5 by 4.25 inches), survives in Carter’s personal archive in the Griffith Institute at Oxford University, so whoever took the picture must have passed the negative on to him once the film was developed. Prints were made and circulated too, although as far as I can tell, none were published at the time. Still, photography clearly mattered, from taking the picture to printing it, and from sharing the prints and the negative to numbering and filing everything away.

This blog grows out of the research I’ve been doing for more than two years on the photographic archive from the tomb of Tutankhamun. It gives a taster, I hope, of some of the ways I approach photography in archaeology, and the kinds of questions I think photographs allow us – no, require us – to ask. There aren’t necessarily answers. But asking good questions, and looking for better ones, is always a good place to start. Egyptology could do with more heat, more pressure, to take a harder, clearer look at how it created ‘ancient Egypt’ out of sweat and newsprint, crates and steamboats, and the camera’s equivocal eye.

* Thanks to the Griffith Institute for supplying the image, which is (c) Griffith Institute, University of Oxford.

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