Photography and History, The Tutankhamun Excavation, Writing


My book, Photographing Tutankhamun, was officially published two days ago with Bloomsbury Academic in the UK and United States, and the American University of Cairo Press, for sales in Egypt. It marks a beginning and an end: the beginning for the book, to go out into the world and see what people make of it, but an end, for me, of a project I’ve lived with for more than four years now.

I have already spotted two typographic errors (both of which I know I corrected in the proofs…), plus a word changed by a well-meaning proofreader, which ruins a little joke in the acknowledgements. I think I should have done a clearer job of signalling which of the Burton-photograph figures is scanned from a negative, and which from a print. And as I’ve written about here before, I’m also aware of the sources I didn’t have the time, or language skills, to consult, not to mention those that only came to light when it was too late to add them – I plan to write something soon here on camera models, for instance.

Alternative Tut cover

But research has to end somewhere, just as 2018 is about to end, too. Apart from the year (2015) in which I did the bulk of the archival research, it’s this past year that has been the most Tutankhamun-intensive. This was the year of revising and installing the exhibition at the University of Cambridge, plus going through the book copy-edits and two sets of proofs. The year also took me back to the United States to see more of Harry Burton’s work in the Egyptian department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and to deliver a public lecture at Harvard University. The audience held some new faces (a great-nephew of Howard Carter’s came up afterwards to introduce himself), plus familiar ones, including colleagues from Brown University and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

There was one face who was especially familiar – an old friend from high school, who’d made the journey in part to visit his son, studying in Boston, and in part, he told me, for the pleasure of seeing someone he knew back in the day, now giving lectures at Harvard. This friend and I had spent endless hours sitting opposite each other in class, thanks to teachers’ love of alphabetized seating plans (my last name with an R, his with an S). His homework advice helped me get through four years of math classes, and he was the only thing that made sense in our computer programming class – something he went on to excel in professionally, while I went off to study Egyptology.

At the end of high school, I wanted a new beginning, far away and in a subject no one really thought would lead anywhere (‘Make sure you have typing skills to fall back on’, was one former teacher’s advice.) Egypt had grabbed me already in primary school, as we watched a film strip on Ancient Egypt that hummed in the projector, never quite in sync with the sonorous tape-recorded accompaniment. It must have been produced in conjunction with the ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’ exhibition, the original ‘blockbuster’ museum show that toured the United States from 1976 to 1979. One of the coloured squares of celluloid, shimmering on the pull-down screen, showed something that mesmerized me: a little gold coffin that had held some of the internal organs taken from Tutankhamun’s body.

Harry Burton’s photo of one of the four canopic ‘coffinettes’, all given the number 266g by Howard Carter. This is a low-resolution scan after a modern print, so it doesn’t do Burton’s work, or the object, justice (neg. P1165 in the Griffith Institute, Oxford University; 18x24cm glass plate).

Made of hammered sheet gold inlaid with hundreds of pieces of coloured glass and semi-precious stones, there are four of these mini-coffins, each near-identical and stunning. They have become the poster-boys for more recent touring exhibitions of the Tutankhamun finds. It wasn’t anything particular about Tutankhamun that grabbed me back in that darkened classroom, nor anything about the mummification process with its removal and wrapping of the lungs, liver and spleen, intestines, and stomach. It was the sheer, resounding beauty of the thing – that and the fact that it looked like nothing I had ever seen before.

Life, like a research project, has its unexpected turns. An educational filmstrip takes one person off the beaten track (for my hometown) to a career in academia, while a classroom kitted out with Commodore TRS-80s (yes) takes another person into a career in programming. Schooldays feel like they are full of beginnings, which is one thing I like about working to the rhythm of an academic, rather than a calendar, year. But life, like a research project, confronts us with endings, too. That old friend died, far too young, the day after Christmas, making this dark time of year all the darker. He was proud of me, he wrote to me after we’d caught up, too briefly, after my lecture only a few weeks ago. Proud of me: it sounded so simple, the way he put it, just as everything sounded simple when he helped with math homework.

And yet, how little we tell ourselves, or each other, that simple thing. What’s the first thing I said above about my book? Its weaknesses. Harry Burton, too, was often critical about his work in the letters he sent back to his employer in New York. Not false modesty, either – insecurity, bashfulness, or perhaps a legacy of having pulled oneself up by the proverbial bootstraps. ‘Impostor syndrome’ in 2018-speak.

I’ve always preferred fresh starts to anticlimactic endings, and certainly to tragic ones. Nonetheless, before rushing into pastures new, it’s as well to pause and weigh up the past, for good or ill. The things done well, for all their tiny flaws. The things not said that should have been. The lives cut short, whether in New Kingdom Egypt (Tutankhamun was 18, before anyone goes gawping at his mummy) or this past week in a hospital ICU. Pause, until something beautiful flickers in the light or hums and hovers just behind, waiting, willing, for you to start. Again.

2 thoughts on “Endings”

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