Photography and History, The Tutankhamun Excavation, Writing

The machete stage

I wrote to a colleague the other day, telling him that I was at the machete stage with the manuscript of my next book, Photographing Tutankhamun. He understood. It’s the stage where you go back through the manuscript you’ve been working on for (in my case) almost two years and realize that you’ve written too much, or put things in the wrong order, or come up with something that might sound nice, or be interesting, but that just doesn’t take your argument forward. So, the machete has to go through the jungle of words. In case there are any treasures among all the greenery I’ve cut back, I keep a file called ‘junked’ for each chapter (or article or story) that I’ve ever written, for as long as I can remember. But I confess, I rarely look at those files. They hang around on my laptop, probably a little relieved to be set free from my cutting and pasting, my deleting and ‘undo’-ing, or my staring at them until it’s time for a coffee break.

Sometimes I have to put the machete down for a day or two, when I reach an unexpected clearing in the manuscript: a place where I’ve failed to write the bit that is clearly needed for the sake of the argument, perhaps because I forgot what the argument was at that point, went for a coffee, and decided (ever the optimist) that it would sort it itself out while I got on with the rest of the chapter. Today was a day that mixed both: I had to take the machete to a few hundred words that trailed off into notes, leaving a big clearing where I could try out a different example and come at the problem from a different direction. A thousand words later, while the messy world went on around me, I think the new direction works.

But I wonder what to do with this particular pile of greenery: it was my attempt to write about the strange case of the ‘head on a lotus’, Object 8 in Howard Carter’s list of the objects he found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, supposedly in the order he found them. Except that these first few items were among, under, or (in a tight space) on top of the rubble that packed the corridor between the sealed and re-sealed doorways to the tomb, cleared in haste and with the objects recorded at some later point. The carved and painted wooden head has a record card, like the objects were meant to, and it is in  Carter’s hand. But it has only the briefest of descriptions, with no measurements given, and it is written in a heavy black ink that differs from the finer pen and ink he used on other cards in this sequence of numbers.

At the bottom of the card for Object 8, his defensive ‘Note’ goes some way to explaining the discrepancy: ‘Was removed from magazine no. 4 by representatives of Egyptian Government and sent to Cairo as evidence of my want of integrity. Hence the head was much damaged.’ In February 1924, Carter declared a unilateral ‘strike’, furious at having to seek permission from the Egyptian antiquities service for decisions at the tomb, for instance over which visitors (of his choice) he could accommodate or which visitors (of the government’s choice) he had to accommodate. Tensions had been simmering for months, and Carter had behaved with an arrogance that did not go over well in the new political landscape: the antiquities service was still run by a French archaeologist, Pierre Lacau, but from 1922, Lacau answered to an Egyptian – yes, an Egyptian, the minister for public works. In February 1924, that minister was Murqus Hanna, who was a member of the governing Wafd party and had long campaigned for Egyptian independence: he had been tried, unsuccessfully, by the British for treason after the uprisings of 1919. It was in part as a result of those uprisings that in 1922 Britain gave Egypt limited self-rule, which included control of its own domestic affairs. It was not what the Wafd and other nationalist movements wanted, but it was better than nothing. It was a step towards independence in a country that Britain had occupied by force for 40 years.

So, what does this have to do with Object 8, the head on a lotus – an object that became such a star on the American tour of Tutankhamun’s treasures in the 1970s that you could buy porcelain reproductions of it in museum gift shops. The reason Carter took umbrage on the record card is that after he walked off site, and Hanna and Lacau withdrew his permission to work at the tomb, the antiquities authorities discovered a Fortnum and Mason crate with this head tucked inside, at the back of a tomb (KV4) that had been used mostly for lunches on site those first two seasons – hence the presence of a crate from the Piccadilly grocers who supplied British victuals to the every corner of the empire. What was such a striking object doing there? Would it really have been forgotten about, when other objects from the corridor – alabaster vases, wine skins, pottery cups, a scarab, fragments of several objects – hadn’t been? Or had it been discovered in the tomb and secreted away? It didn’t look good for Carter. I still think it doesn’t look good, to be honest, but I wondered if the photographs of Object 8 might help pin down the date that it was actually recorded by Carter and his colleagues at the site.

If it was one of the first finds, then according to the recording system Carter used, the odd head, so unlike anything seen before (or since) in Egyptology, should have been among the first things in line. The system entailed several stages: an object was noted on the record cards, usually by Carter, then sprayed with wax (the standard conservation method of the day) by Arthur Mace or Alfred Lucas, and finally photographed by Harry Burton. The men started off using a slim notebook to try to track progress, although the speed and pressures of the work – and the attention from tourists and the press – meant they pretty quickly abandoned that. Whatever Object 8 was (the notebook only gives numbers), it has an ‘x’ in the column marked ‘brought to KV15’, since KV15, the tomb of Seti I, was the tomb the antiquities service gave over to Carter for storage and work space, including photography.

Burton did take photographs of the head-on-a-lotus, but not in 1922, 1923, or 1924. He can only have photographed it in the Cairo Museum, where the Egyptian antiquities officials took it in March 1924, and where Burton was a regular visitor. He often took photographs on request, for his colleagues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Nothing in the correspondence I’ve read from Burton mentions him photographing the head; perhaps it was something best not spoken about, or perhaps the occasion to mention it in writing just didn’t arise. Burton took between 8 and 10 photographs, all on large-plate (18×24 cm) glass negatives. One of them made the front page of the Illustrated London News on May 23rd, 1931: ILN 23-v-31 lotus head on cover. Tutankhamun was still a cover star.

My photograph (and iPhone), all materials copyright the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – who kindly let me spend a week in 2015 consulting their Burton photographs and archives.

I started writing about those photographs because I’m interested in the choices Burton made about positioning works of three-dimensional sculpture in front of the camera (you can see scans made from modern prints of his pictures at this Griffith Institute link). The head-on-a-lotus is the only Tutankhamun object he photographed with such a pale background behind it, and the most subtle of lines between the background and the covered surface on which the head sits. It’s a photograph clearly taken in a controlled situation indoors, perhaps with electric light, in contrast to the the reflected sunlight, and sheltered outdoor setting, in which he photographed Tutankhamun objects at KV15. Most of the glass negatives are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, since Carter gave them a share of the Tutankhamun negatives off and on; they also inherited 500 more after his death. Still more of Burton’s Tutankhamun negatives are in Oxford’s Griffith Institute, which received most of Carter’s records after his death – but the two glass negatives they have for Object 8 are copies carefully made, I imagine by Burton himself, by re-photographing a print. It gets even more complicated than that, once you start trying to track down which negative was where, at what point between 1931 and 1951, when the Met and the Griffith had an exchange of prints and negatives to try to even out their parallel collections.

None of this was getting me any closer to the argument I wanted to make about how the posing of certain objects helped make them look more like ‘sculpture’ as it was understood in Western art, that is, real art, fine art, treasures worthy of being reproduced in porcelain for museum gift shops. The photographs do tell that story (I think), but they started telling another story as well – a story about cover-ups (perhaps), colonial privilege (almost certainly), and copying photographs (definitely), and that story was getting in the way. The split in the side of Tutankhamun’s head, if that’s who it is, doesn’t come from a blade, thank goodness, just a split in the wood as it dried out over centuries, somewhere in his tomb. The machete, I took to my writing. I gave my faltering paragraphs and notes their own ‘junked’ file. Maybe I’ll revisit them, one day.

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