Tutankhamun goes to the fair

A rollercoaster, a water chute, a dance hall, and a Chinese restaurant: what did any of these have to do with the tomb of Tutankhamun? They were all part of the British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley in 1924 and 1925 – where a reconstruction of the tomb’s Antechamber and its treasures (as they were invariably known) could be found at the far side of the 40-acre amusement area.

Elsewhere at the Exhibition, a ‘Palace of Beauty’ sponsored by Pears, the soap manufacturer, featured lovely young women posing as famous ‘beauties’ of the past (Helen of Troy, Nell Gwynne), though I strongly suspect the ‘Palace of Engineering’ did not give visitors a chance to ogle handsome young men playing Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Instead, each part of the British Empire contributed some kind of display, somewhere. Canada, for instance, was particularly proud of its railways.

These combinations of education and entertainment, government and commerce, and British-ness with the rest-of-the-world, may seem a little strange today – but they are the precursors of our own ‘leisure industries’. We probably take for granted shopping malls like the Trafford Centre in Manchester, with its Abu Simbel-inspired food court, or the way zoos and attractions like the Eden Centre use ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ objects and architecture to stage their displays of animals or plants from Africa, Asia, or South America.

But I would argue that that’s the same sort of thing the inclusion of Tutankhamun’s tomb was doing in the British Empire Exhibition almost a century ago. It was part of the day-to-day, taken-for-granted inclusion of ‘the Other’ into what it meant to be British. Most of the rest-of-the-world that you could visit at the Empire Exhibition was British, remember. Hong Kong, evoked by that Chinese restaurant; Canada with its railways; or Bermuda, represented by a reconstruction of Irish poet Tom Moore’s house (‘Walsingham’, he’d called it, after the medieval pilgrimage site in my home county of Norfolk).

In other words, those ‘others’ weren’t ‘other’. They weren’t foreign, not entirely. They were British, too, woven tightly into the fabric and identity of British society despite the revisionist rhetoric of nationalist politics and the right-wing press today. Being a subject of the British Empire had many legal and practical implications, after all, which is why so many troops from what are now India, Pakistan, and other colonies fought and died in both world wars.

At the time of the British Empire Exhibition, Egypt itself wasn’t any longer part of the British Empire – and its relationship to the Empire had always been ambiguous, since until the outbreak of World War 1, it was already part of the Ottoman Empire. Egypt had been granted independence from Britain in 1922, although British administrators still kept a close eye on its internal affairs and still controlled its foreign affairs and the all-important Suez Canal. Rather than an official representation of modern Egypt, then, the reproduction of Tutankhamun’s tomb was a piece of pure entertainment, like the ‘Palace of Beauty’ and the amusement park rides. It proved to be one of the most popular attractions, seen by many of the 27 million visitors the Exhibition attracted over almost two years in west London. Among those visitors were the tomb’s photographer Harry Burton and his wife Minnie, who mentioned their excursion in her diary (see the entry for May 27) – though she doesn’t mention visiting the tomb reproduction. They’d both seen the original in person, practically from the start.

The replicas, many of which are now in the collection of Hull Museums, were made by the firm of architectural sculptor William Aumonier – part of a family of artists active in London in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of them – the reproduction of the hippo-headed funerary couch, representing the protective goddess Taweret – made a spectacular addition to the Ashmolean Museum’s Discovering Tutankhamun exhibition in 2014.

ILN Wembley

Howard Carter wasn’t so convinced. He tried to stop the tomb reproduction from going ahead, by claiming the Aumonier’s work infringed his contract with the London Times, granting the newspaper exclusive rights to Harry Burton’s photographs. But Carter lost his legal complaint. The Wembley reproduction was based on photographs, drawings, and descriptions provided by Egyptologist Arthur Weigall, who had covered the tomb’s discovery for the Daily Mail. Weigall had warned Carter, in a collegial spirit, that Carter was making a mistake by signing the Times contract and behaving arrogantly towards the Egyptian government and press. Carter paid no attention.

As it turned out – and as the Illustrated London News headline above confirms – the Wembley reproduction of the tomb opened just as Carter declared a ‘strike’ in the spring of 1924, when his long-simmering tensions with the Egyptian government and its Antiquities Service reached boiling point. That makes it all the more interesting to think about issues of ownership, both real and abstract. One of the tensions between Carter and the Egyptian antiquities authorities concerned the very copyright in press coverage and photographs that Carter was trying to protect in English courts – but another was the question of whether the Egyptian government would give Carter and the Carnarvon family any of the objects from the tomb under the ‘division’ system that Western archaeologists had come to expect. The question of cultural ‘ownership’ – were do we imagine a find like Tutankhamun ‘belongs’ – adds yet another layer.

That’s why, when I come across old news coverage of the Wembley tomb reproduction like the snippets I’ve included here, I can’t help but wonder about the cultural values and historical assumptions that were at its heart – and whether they still inform Britain’s ideas about its former colonies and protectorates today. Tutankhamun as a fairground attraction? He still makes a popular subject for all kinds of kitsch commercial products and speculative TV documentaries, which seem similar to me. King Tut may be the quintessential symbol of ancient Egypt – but he’s still experienced like the displays in the British Empire Exhibition. A little exotic, maybe, but ‘our’ exotic. Step right up.

Tutankhamun’s head

Mary Beard is the best boss I’ve ever had. She was head of the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge when I worked there for a year. She welcomed me when I arrived, told people to read my then-new book (the first one, The Beautiful Burial in Roman Egypt), and let me get on with my job in the Museum of Classical Archaeology. Heaven.

So like any right-thinking person, I’ve been appalled by the vitriolic attacks made on her via Twitter the past week or two, after she expressed support for the way a BBC educational cartoon – yes, for children – showed a high-ranking Roman family in Britain that included a dark-skinned father and a literate mother. (Read about it in her own words here, plus lots of press coverage and some top-notch science journalism out there in response.) Both a Roman officer from Africa and a Roman woman who could read and write are unusual, but they are not unattested. Besides which, one aim was to show children today that there was diversity in the ancient world. To paint back in some of the people who have been painted out for a long time. Similar things have been done with educational material in the UK and US (maybe elsewhere, too) to ensure that ancient Egypt isn’t white-washed.

Race is a topic that invites powerful reactions, precisely because of the impact it has had and still has in our society. Throw ancient Egypt into the mix, and those reactions multiply. For one thing, Egypt is a place at the root of Judaeo-Christian origin myths: Joseph and his coat of many colours, Moses leading the Hebrews to the promised land. For another, it’s a place with undeniably awe-inspiring ancient remains: it’s hard to top the pyramids, the Sphinx, the colossi of Memnon, all lauded by Greek and Roman writers, and therefore familiar to educated Europeans for centuries now. Lay claim to your ancestors having built those, and you lay claim to ‘civilization’ itself.*

And for a third, Egypt is a place of in-betweenness, or so it seemed from Europe’s vantage point: in between Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, to use modern Western conceptions of those spaces. That makes ancient Egypt ‘unstable’, in slightly fancy academic talk. The unstable things are what everyone’s trying to prop up or topple down, over and over again, a bit like poking a bruise.

If we go back to the 18th century, we can see how race was invented to characterize physical differences between humans, and then developed in a way that supported crippling inequalities based on those perceived differences. One of the least pleasant bits of research I’ve ever done was reading a book called Types of Mankind, written by self-professed Egyptologist George Gliddon and a slave-owning doctor named Josiah Nott. It’s vile in its long-winded justification of racism, but that didn’t stop it going into eight printings in 1850s America. Nor can we dismiss people like Gliddon and Nott as cranks. Race science wasn’t a pseudo-science – a word that might seem to create some safe distance between ‘us’ in the 21st century and earlier scholars who accepted, furthered, and used its core principles. It was the real deal, and every archaeologist and anthropologist trained in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had been trained to understand the ancient past through some version of racial categorization.**

So, inevitably, to Tutankhamun. By the time the mummy was unwrapped – or rather, cut through, scraped away, and taken to pieces – the principles of racial classification were always, always applied to ancient Egyptian human remains. That meant getting a medical doctor to take a series of measurements of the skull and of major bones, too, if the body was dissected or poorly preserved within the wrappings, as Tutankhamun’s was. At the unwrapping of Tutankhamun’s mummy in November 1925, there were two medical doctors on hand to study it, Douglas Derry, professor of anatomy at the Cairo Medical School, and Saleh Bey Hamdi, its former head. Only Derry was credited on the published anatomical report, which duly reported all the skeletal measurements.^

Only two photographs of the head of Tutankhamun’s mummy were published at the time – both with the head cradled in a white cloth, which concealed the fact that it had been detached from the body at the bottom of the neck in order to remove the gold mummy mask. The cloth also conceals all the tools and detritus on the work surface, which is clear on the photographic negatives. They were printed and published cropped to the head itself with the cloth around it, as you see here:

From ILN
Left profile of the mummified head of Tutankhamun, photograph by Harry Burton (neg. TAA 553), as published in The Illustrated London News, 1926.

(Personal disclaimer here: I really, really hate publishing photographs of mummies, especially unwrapped mummies, mummified body parts, and children’s mummies. I’ve done it here to make a larger point about the visualization of race – and I know these images are already circulating out there. Still, uneasy about it.)

Anyway, of the two photographs that Howard Carter released to the press and used in his own book on Tutankhamun (volume 2), there were two views, one to the front and one to show the left profile, as you see above. But photographer Harry Burton took several more photographs of the head after a little more work had been done on it – and after it had been mounted upright on a wooden plank, with what looks the handle of a paintbrush used to prop up the neck. None of these photographs were published in Carter’s (or Burton’s) lifetimes, and I don’t think they were meant to be. But clearly, from their perspective, having photographs of the head was crucial. It’s also telling that while some of the photographs show the head at near-profile or three-quarter angles, most stick to the established norms of racial ‘type’ photography: front, back, left profile, right profile.

Version 2
Print, possibly from 1925, of a photograph by Harry Burton, from neg. TAA 553, (c) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Above, an example of one of the near-profile or three-quarter angle views. As far as I can tell, this was first published, at a size even smaller than the image here, in Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt’s English-language book Tutankhamun (George Rainbird 1963) – with the paintbrush handle carefully erased. (Here, you just get my iPhone reflection.)

Version 2
Print of a photograph by Harry Burton, from neg. TAA 1244, (c) The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The paintbrush handle has been masked out with tape.

It wasn’t until 1972 that most or all of the photographs of the mummy, including its head, were published in a scholarly study by F. Filce Leek, part of the Griffith Institute’s Tutankhamun’s Tomb monograph series. That included the left profile above, where masking tape was applied to the negative before printing – again, to remove the paintbrush handle.

These different stagings of the head of Tutankhamun’s mummy matter, likewise the way the photographs did or didn’t circulate, or what adaptations were deemed necessary to make them presentable for publication. Clearly, that paintbrush handle was deemed inappropriate in some way in the 1960s – just as in the 1920s and 1930s, when Carter was still writing about the tomb, he must have deemed it inappropriate to show that second set of photographs at all.

And what do they show us, these photographs? The face of Tutankhamun? The race of Tutankhamun? Or something else? Carter didn’t explicitly discuss race when he described the mummy’s appearance: he didn’t have to, because there was already a code in language to distinguish more ‘Caucasian’ bodies from more ‘Negroid’ ones (to use the most common terms deployed in late 19th-/early 20th-century archaeology). ‘The face is refined and cultured’, so the Illustrated London News reported in its 3 July 1926 edition, almost certainly closely paraphrasing or directly quoting Carter. Placed underneath the cloth-wrapped left profile (the first photo I showed above), text and picture together made it clear enough to the paper’s middle-class readers that Tutankhamun was an ancient Egyptian of more Arab, Turkish, or even European appearance than sub-saharan African. The mummy’s sunken cheekbones seem high and sharp, and the crushed nose in profile looks high-bridged and narrow.

What really interests me here, though, is what we don’t see, because we still take such photographs, and drawings, and CT-scans, and 3D reconstructions, for granted: images like these have race science at their very heart, going right back to the 18th century.^^ So when I see a photograph like this – and there are thousands of them in the annals of archaeology – I don’t see Tutankhamun, and I certainly don’t see anything refined or cultured about mummified heads. I see the extent to which the doing of race had worked its way into pretty much every corner of archaeology, especially in the archaeology of colonized and contentious lands like Egypt. Why take these photographs? I assume that in 1925, it was inconceivable not to, just as it was inconceivable not to unwrap the mummy, not to take anatomical measurements, and not to detach the head from the body and pry it out of the mask.

Pictures matter, photographs matter, and the way we use photographs and talk about photographs, those matter too. In the book I’ll be publishing next year on the photographic archive of Tutankhamun’s tomb, I go into more detail about this particular set of photographs of the mummified head. But given the controversy over race, skin colour, and DNA in Roman Britain that flared up recently, I thought I’d get back into blog writing with this example.

In our image-saturated age, we need to be even more careful about how we use historic images like these photographs. Don’t look at what they show in the picture. Look instead for what they show about the mindsets and motivations behind the taking of the picture. The legacies of race science are still with us – and if, as archaeologists, historians, or Egyptologists, we want a wider public to understand those legacies, we need much more vocal and more critical work on the history of Egyptology and the visualization of the ancient dead.


* I talk a bit about the problem with the word ‘civilization’ in a book called (yes, the irony) Egypt: Lost Civilizations (Reaktion 2017). Scott Trafton does a fantastic job talking about how African-Americans perceived ancient Egypt in the 19th century – sometimes as their own place of origin, to take pride in a chapter of African history, but sometimes as a place of slavery, to be rejected in the struggle against slavery. His book is called Egypt Land, and I learned a lot from it. Great cover, too.

** For how race infused the study of archaeology, see Debbie Challis’s excellent The Archaeology of Race (Bloomsbury 2015), and for its impact on the study of ancient Mesopotamia, I can’t recommend Jean Evans, The Lives of Sumerian Sculpture (Cambridge UP 2012) highly enough.

^ On this exclusion, see Donald Malcolm Reid, Contesting Antiquity in Egypt (American University in Cairo Press 2015), pp. 56-8.

^^ My take on this, with lots of further references: ‘An autopsic art: Drawings of “Dr Granville’s mummy’ in the Royal Society archives’, Royal Society Notes and Records 70.2 (2016), Open Access here. There’s a vast literature on photography and race, especially in visual anthropology but also history of science/medicine. Two good starting points: Deborah Poole, Vision, Race, and Modernity (Princeton UP 1997) and Amos Morris-Reich, Race and Photography (Chicago UP 2016 – talk about having to read some stomach-churning stuff for research…).