Sitting uncomfortably

I have written on this blog before about ‘being undisciplined’ – that is, working across and in between academic disciplines. It is harder than it looks, and all the more so when that research takes you to uncomfortable places. Places of deep reflection and self-critique. Places that made me question myself, my education, and my choice of career. Places that keep pushing me to think hard about hard topics and to exemplify, as best I can, ethical practice in my own research, professionalism, and public communication.

It’s also difficult to realize that some of the research I’ve produced, or the ideas that I’ve tried my best to convey, don’t chime with the interests of the discipline in which I trained and worked early in my career (Egyptology as practiced in institutions of ‘the West’ or ‘Global North’). To the extent that my work and that of other historians is read or heard within Egyptology, it can inspire a certain confusion, defensiveness, or disbelief, as if we historians might be making things up or simply aren’t equipped to appreciate Egyptological ways of doing things. I hold fast to the wise advice that valued colleagues have given me over the years: it isn’t my job to make Egyptologists feel comfortable.

Yesterday, at the invitation of an Egyptian colleague, the community engagement specialist and researcher Fatma Keshk, I gave a version of the text below to a conference on the ‘history’ of Egyptology. This isn’t new research on my part, simply an attempt to share some basic ideas and observations with an audience largely comprising Egyptologists of one kind or another. I post it here in case people would like to see the written form and a selection of the images.

Histories of Photography and Egyptology: Research, Voices, Critique

‘There can be no thinking of history that is not at the same time a thinking of photography.’ This statement, from the preface of Eduardo Cadava’s book Words of Light, sums up well the inseparability of photographic technologies and historiography – the writing of history.[1] The study of the ancient past – the very idea of what was ancient – took shape over the course of the 19th century through photography. Without it, there would be no Egyptology, and without grappling with photographs and photographic archives, there is no way to think and write the histories of the field. That is not because photographs ‘show’ history: far from it. As my students are by now used to hearing me say, photographs matter not for what they show, but for what they do; for what photography makes possible, and impossible; and for the ways in which taking, developing, printing, reprinting, enlarging, sharing, mounting, labelling, cutting, folding, losing, copying, copyrighting, reproducing, archiving, digitizing, cataloguing, tagging, and (now, unfortunately) colourizing photographs has – for more than 150 years – created and recreated ideas of knowledge, forged disciplinarity identities, and negotiated social relations, which are also power relations.

Photographs matter, as many institutions of Egyptology recognize. Most major institutes and museums associated with the discipline have sizeable photographic archives, and I have been privileged to work with several of them over the last six years, in the UK, the United States, and Italy. I cannot stress enough how helpful every archive has been and how assiduous in their care and concern for their photographic materials. However, I also cannot help but make this observation: that apart from a handful of state or civic archives, the people I dealt with in each institution were either trained as Egyptologists or were, in effect, administrators with other kinds of knowledge and responsibilities. There was no expertise specifically in the curation, archiving, history, theory, and methodologies associated with photography – all areas for which there is a thriving research- and practice-based international community. This is not unique to Egyptology. It is part of a much wider pattern, whereby photographs are so ubiquitous that they have been overlooked. But it is, I believe, a pattern and a problem found particularly in disciplines used to seeing photographs as data – as direct, empirical evidence of whatever that photograph might show. It is an ingrained habit of not seeing the photograph as a photograph, and of assuming that photographs are unmediated images, glimpses of reality that, in their abundance, somehow capture a past that is total, complete, and comprehensible.

In my talk today, I want to highlight some of the possibilities, and the pitfalls, of working with photographic materials to ‘think’ the histories (plural) of Egyptology, which entails recognizing that photographs and their associated archives contribute in complex ways to the endurance of colonialism and empire in the present – ways that are not articulated explicitly so much as implicitly, in the assumptions, choices, and narratives that accrue around archives. As Will Carruthers discussed in his paper yesterday, archives are not, never were, and never will be neutral. They are uncomfortable places – and so they should be, when we are often dealing with colonial, imperial, racialized and racist practices. Discomfort is a great teacher. Moreover, for many Egyptian, Nubian, and Sudanese researchers, archives can be places of trauma, which makes it all the more inexplicable to me that anyone would see them as places of data extraction. For this reason, I have applied screens, or masks, on a couple of the images I show, and I ask everyone please not to screengrab or otherwise capture my slides.[2]

I used this example to open a talk I gave at a fascinating photography conference several years ago, now published Open Access here, by the Max-Planck-Institut for History of Science, in Berlin.

I’m going to start with one of the pitfalls: it’s this double-page spread from a catalogue of ‘photographic treasures’ published five years ago by the French archaeological institute in Cairo, founded in 1880. I assume that these images were paired based on formal similarities between the two faces they represent, one ceramic, one human. There is no other relationship between them except that they are two of the thousands of negatives in the IFAO archive. At the back of the book, the editors give the dimensions, media, and catalogue numbers of the negatives, and lament the lack of information otherwise available. On YouTube, the book’s publication was announced with a short film soundtracked by vaguely North African- or Middle-Eastern-sounding music, by the same Australian performer whose work featured in the film Gladiator.

Archaeological archives, and their hundreds of thousands of photographs, must be among the most substantial archives formed during the colonial era, yet neither the concept nor any critique of colonialism has managed to stick to them. Archives, and perhaps photographic archives in particular (or most obviously), continue to be seen within Egyptology as direct and unmediated sources of information about a site or an artefact, or as evocations of a golden age. Anyone familiar with thirty or more years of research in photography studies would not have made this pairing, with its obvious overtones of ethnographic objectification. Perhaps the pairing came about from a certain misapprehension that the most fashionable way of studying photographs is through their formal and aesthetic qualities, as works of art. That is certainly one discourse that has shaped histories of photography and especially the collecting of photographs by art museums. Those practices have their own histories: for example, the Paris-based American photographer John Beasley Greene made photographs in Algeria and Egypt in the 1850s which barely circulated at the time, but were re-discovered by the influential Museum of Modern Art curator Beaumont Newhall in the 1970s and became desirable collectors’ items.

My iPhone study shot of a mounted print – perhaps by Harry Burton – based on an 18×24 cm glass negative (TAA 1354); both are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The photograph shows Howard Carter and one of the Egyptian archaeologists who worked closely with him in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Probably taken on October 30th, 1925.

It was also in the 1970s that the work of Harry Burton at the tomb of Tutankhamun was re-discovered, making some photographs that hadn’t been well-known in the 1920s newly famous (like the example you see here). Burton’s work, too, has been talked about as if he were an artist and his images, works of art. But as my own research has demonstrated, that was not how he or his colleagues talked and thought about what he was doing.[3]

If labelling images as ‘art’ isn’t very helpful for understanding photography, neither is the idea that something called ‘archaeological photography’ exists, born out of some scientific impulse in the mid-19th century and developing in an ever-more-perfect form ever since. Take this photograph (above) by Théodule Devéria, an engraver, lithographer, photographer, and Egyptologist at the Louvre, invited by Auguste Mariette, in 1858, to accompany him up the Nile on the Egyptian government steamboat. Where Devéria photographed something we might identify as an archaeological process – a tomb chapel more or less cleared of sand – the resulting image belies the excavation methods that would became standard 30 or 40 years later. In the drifts of sand that run through and behind this doorway, we see the impressions of endless feet treading back and forth. Perhaps in part because the camera made a feature like these footsteps seem more prominent, future archaeologists insisted that features be swept clean.[4] 

Many photographs that wind up in archaeological archives don’t seem to serve the purposes defined for excavation photography by figures like Flinders Petrie. Hence archives feature photographs of clouds (in Petrie Album 8, for instance), natural features, and local life not very specific to fieldwork – yet he (and others) took them, numbered them, and mounted them in albums that were circulated to colleagues, with instructions on how to purchase prints. In another album, its prints unmounted for conservation, we see Petrie photographs of what he called ‘modern’ Egypt: not trains, hospitals, or British military camps, but rural scenes, people he employed, or in an image taken surreptitiously, with a mirror, of two small girls sitting on the ground. ‘The scavengers’ daughters, taken unawares’, Petrie’s hand-scrawled caption reads.[5]

Photographs by Harry Burton, mounted and labelled by him, perhaps in 1924.

People are everywhere in the photographic archives of Egyptology – even when they are not in the photos. Photography is a social act, from the taking of the photograph – who was involved, how do people behave when a camera appears – to the subsequent processes of sharing, or not sharing, the images produced. The photography of objects – like these bead and textile fragments from Tutankhamun’s wardrobe – may seem to be those data sets and information sources for which empirical scholarship longs.

Photographs by Francis and Nora Griffith, mounted in one of six albums associated with the Sanam Cemetery, Sudan, where they worked just before World War 1. (c) The Griffith Institute, Oxford University.

Here are the facts, after all – beads and small finds photographed on a ground glass surface and the negatives, or sometimes prints, afterwards marked up with tomb numbers, find numbers, negative numbers, print numbers, so many numbers that we might start to believe there is safety in them after all. And yet, an Egyptologist who consulted these archives in Oxford for of the Sanam cemetery lamented in a published study, ‘The visual documentation is very poor: only a few photographs were done in the field, thus we have few pictures of the tombs themselves.’[6] There are, in fact, about 600 photographs taken by Francis and Nora Griffith in two seasons of work at the site, which stood near the railway line and military camp associated with the British conquest of Sudan and the imposition of the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. They did photograph burials, bones, and small finds, but they also photographed the surroundings, work in progress, and market day.

Reading their publications, or more recent studies, however, one finds no mention of a series of photographs, in the very same albums, of nine boys from the Shaigia ethnic group of northern Sudan, photographed in their underclothes straight on and in left-facing profile, which, among other things, shows their scarification and exemplifies the ‘type’ photograph of racial science, which dominated European academia at the time.[7] If you are an Egyptologist or archaeologist today, you can study a place called Sanam Cemetery without ever knowing, or at least acknowledging, that such photographs exist.

Photographs perhaps had their biggest impact with the development of halftone printing and the boom in print media in the late 19th century – phenomena that, like photography itself, were global.[8] What would a history of Egyptology look like based on photographs taken by Egyptian photographers, not just the many Egyptians who took photographs on archaeological sites and ran photography studios, but also from personal contexts, like internal tourism, and in the Egyptian press – I have to thank the historian Lucie Ryzova for sending me these images just last month. Working with material like this, or with photographs in Egyptian institutions and family archives, would be a fantastic avenue of research (and I know a couple of people doing this). The point is not to try to write a totalizing, ‘complete’ history of Egyptology (which is impossible, in any case – and that’s not what historians do). One could imagine, instead, the emergence of counter-archives and new narratives to start replacing the tired, teleological histories that are still being written and embraced within the field.

In the past year, I’ve seen two jobs advertised for archival projects in western Egyptological institutions, both of which specified qualifications in Egyptology. I have to wonder, why? My advice to anyone interested in studying and writing histories of Egyptology, or any other discipline, is to look outside that discipline, to fields of study that can give you the tools to do that – history, art history, anthropology, or cultural heritage and museum studies, for instance. Egyptology should be able to understand and reflect on its own histories, of course – and if it did, would find itself, I think, radically changed – perhaps even no longer calling itself ‘Egyptology’.

Print by the Lekegian studio ,ca. 1880, mounted in one of the Tupper scrapbooks compiled in the 1890s, held in the Boston Public Library.
For a study of these albums, see Alison Nordström, “Making a Journey: The Tupper Scrapbooks and the Travel They Describe.” In: Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images, edited by Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, pp. 81-95. London: Routledge, 2004.

I’d like to end with two points – two suggestions, as it were – for working with photographic materials. They build on my earlier observation that photography, and all its permutations, are social and that archives and photographs are never neutral. So, point one: photographs are material objects, and to understand that materiality, one needs a certain technical knowledge and acritical, theoretical apparatus. Photographs come in dozens of material forms, each with its own microhistory, from the studio-produced albumen print we see here, mounted in an American tourist’s album), to the magic lantern slide; the stereograph; glass, film, and paper negatives in a different sizes depending on the kind of camera; Autochromes and other colour transparencies; plus all the associated stuff needed for storing, labelling, and filing such material. These things matter for understanding how an image was taken and what could be done with it, including how it could be shared or circulated. Without that awareness of material forms, histories, and technologies, there’s a levelling effect whereby every photographic image, which we now tend to view digitized on screens, is made identical and flattened out, erasing the considerable differences, even at the same time period, of how photographs were made and used. That’s point one.

Point two brings us back to where I started – to historiography, the writing of history in a photographic age that is now a digital age. I don’t like to speak of photographs as sources for history: they are so much more than that. Understanding their materiality, their means of production and circulation, and their historical distance from us, as well as their contemporary lives, is crucial. Holders of photographic archives have a responsibility not simply to preserve what they have, but to engage with contemporary issues around photographs, archives, and the wider ramifications of photographic research and digitalization. An example, which is a preview of a keynote I’m giving next week: earlier (above), I showed my iPhone study snapshot of a print by Harry Burton, made from a glass negative, only one of which exists, and it’s in New York.

There is a second negative, in Oxford, but it’s a copy negative – a photograph of a photograph. One photograph will look very different depending on such factors, which are then compounded by digitization, often done from glass negatives that are reversed to make a positive. There are numerous processes here, which involve both humans and machines; digitization adds another layer of mediation to photographs – and can further obscure the historicity of the photograph itself.

Digital colourization ignores both the material qualities and historical distance of photographs. It purports to extract information about colour that simply does not exist in monochrome images. Monochrome images do have highlights and contrasts, but that depends on who prints them, and is clearly reduced in the copy negative version. The result is that the 2015 colourization of this image (scroll down at that link to see the one I mean) – based on the digitized copy negative – gives Howard Carter’s skin a range of cream, pink, and tan tones, while the ra’is with him is a near-solid block of brown. Like other colourized images, this one now turns up online, in picture libraries, and in print and social media without the colourization being acknowledged. That should concern anyone who cares about history, photography, and facts.

I hope I have given you some idea of why histories of Egyptology are histories of photography, and why they require appropriate methodologies, knowledge, and expertise from outside Egyptology. Photographs themselves are material and social objects, not direct windows on the past. Without a critical approach, camera work and photographs are too easily instrumentalized in the service of Egyptological myth-making.

Auguste Mariette. Voyage en Haute-Egypte. Cairo: Mourès, 1878, pl. VIII.
Photographer unknown; photogravure by Goupil & Cie

A final example here, a photograph as it was published in high-quality photogravure for a book by Auguste Mariette, who wrote this description of the plate in language typically dismissive of, and patronizing towards, Egyptian colleagues and interlocutors:

‘At the left are two of the little basket-carriers who are the principal instrument of our excavations, and in the middle is Roubi, their boss, whose qualities make him very precious to us. After six years employed by the Museum, this illiterate peasant has seen so many antiquities that he knows them well and knows, to the best of his abilities, how to distinguish them by date; he has searched so many tombs and so many wells, that no one is more able than he is to discover a trace and follow it. Science must owe Roubi a quarter of the monuments that constitute the wealth of the Museum of Boulaq.’

A 2010 biography of Mariette, written by an Egyptologist, reproduced this photograph – but cropped Roubi and the basket boys out of the picture, without any comment at all.[9]

Mine the archives of Egyptology for data, if that’s your idea of what history is. But what better, more robust, and more challenging histories could be written – and are being written – by thinking critically about historiography, and by thinking with photography.


[1] Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: These on the Photography of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. Look out for the forthcoming book – ‘a short primer’, she calls it – by photographic historian Elizabeth Edwards, which engages with Cadava’s ideas (among many others): Photographs and the Practice of History. London: Bloomsbury, forthcoming winter 2021-22.

[2] I highly recommend this article by Temi Odumosu: ‘The Crying Child: On Colonial Archives, Digitization, and Ethics of Care in the Cultural Commons’, Current Anthropology 61 S22 (2020), S289-S302.

[3] In my book Photographing Tutankhamun: Archaeology, Ancient Egypt, and the Archive. London: Bloomsbury/Routledge, 2019.

[4] I discuss this example in a chapter called ‘Archaeology and photography’, which I contributed to The Handbook of Photography Studies, edited by Gil Pasternak and published by Routledge in 2020 – an excellent starting point for photographic research.

[5] It is photograph 438. In my Powerpoint presentation, I placed a rectangle at 10% transparency over the girls’ faces.

[6] Angelika Lohwasser, The Kushite Cemetery of Sanam: A Non-Royal Burial Ground of the Nubian Capital, c. 800-600 BC. London: Golden House Publications, 2010.

[7] There is extensive literature on scientific racism and photography. See, for instance, Amos Morris-Reich, Race and Photography: Racial Photography as Scientific Evidence, 1876-1980. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Talk about dealing with uncomfortable material. I also recommend Debbie Challis, The Archaeology of Race: The Eugenic Ideas of Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

[8] Again, there is extensive literature on this. Two suggestions: Geoffrey Belknap, From a Photograph: Authenticity, Science, and the Periodical Press, 1870-1890. London: Routledge, 2019, and a fantastic article by Simone Natale on the interconnection of photograhic, communication, and transportation technologies in the 19th century.

[9] Amandine Marshall, Auguste Mariette. La bibliotheque des introuvables, 2010. I haven’t yet seen a new version by the same author, perhaps timed for the bicentennial of Mariette’s birth this year.

Water boys and wishful thinking

The BBC documentary ‘Tutankhamun in Colour’ is the most recent television outing for the idea that the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered when a little boy delivering a jar of water accidentally uncovered the first step. Like most accounts of the discovery, the BBC programme also wants to credit archaeologist Howard Carter as a systematic and scientific scholar: we see his gridded map of the Valley of the Kings, and we hear about his plans to clear every square centimeter of it. Despite all that intellectual rigour, and the physical effort of the dozens of Egyptian men and children who cleared the sand and rubble away, this unnamed water boy just happened to stumble across the right spot.

You’d think that Howard Carter might have mentioned this at the time, in his diary, his journal, his correspondence, or the dozens of interviews he gave to the press. Earlier in his career, he’d given credit to his horse for discovering the buried entrance to underground chambers in front of the Deir el-Bahri temple, where he found the statue of an 11th dynasty king named Mentuhotep. [1] Carter also liked telling cute stories to the press. This is a man who posed with his pet canary to illustrate another discovery-related tale that did the rounds, about a previous golden bird whose arrival had supposedly foretold the find – only to meet its end in a cobra’s mouth.

Wace 143b
The reverse side of a press photograph from November 1923, with a caption directing newspaper editors to Carter’s canary story. Courtesy of Rupert Wace Ancient Art.

Let’s jump from the 1920s to the 1970s, when Tutankhamun was reborn. The 1972 ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’ exhibition at the British Museum broke attendance records, made headline news, and earned more than £600,000 in profits, which went to the Unesco campaign to relocate the temples of Philae. Four years later, an even bigger version of ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’ went on tour in the United States. Between 1976 and 1979, it stopped in seven cities, and attracted more than 7 million visitors. What’s more, Tutankhamun reached most of the country’s 218 million-strong population through TV, newspaper, and magazine coverage, while sales of Tut-related merchandise skyrocketed. Unlike the British Museum show, the American tour aimed at generating income for the host museums and for the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. King Tut became big business.

One of the masterminds of the American tour was Thomas Hoving, colourful and controversial director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1978, Hoving published a best-selling book called Tutankhamun: The Untold Story. It raised eyebrows for revealing what had been an open secret in Egyptology, namely that Carter and Carnarvon had entered the tomb’s burial chamber in secret, after they first entered the antechamber in late November 1922. Carnarvon had described the nighttime breach in writing, in an account Hoving saw on file in the Metropolitan Museum; Carter’s biographer, British Museum curator T.G.H. James, found further evidence to back it up. Photographs of the antechamber show how easy it was to conceal the floor-level access hole by propping up a basket lid. [2]

For his book, Hoving also had access to an unpublished memoir by Lee Keedick, the New York-based agent who organized Carter’s successful lecture tour of North America in the summer of 1924. Keedick claimed Carter had told him that what he’d always said – in private and in print – about the discovery of the first step of the tomb, on the morning of November 4th, 1922, wasn’t true. Instead, says Keedick, the step wasn’t under the ancient workmen’s hut that Carter’s team of Egyptian workmen had cleared the previous day. It was a little outside the digging area, and it had been uncovered by a water boy playing at digging in the dirt. Here’s the passage Hoving quotes from Keedick:

‘Gloom had settled over the entire party. The incentive for achievement had almost completely vanished – except for the water boy whose stake was small but whose energy the sun could not penetrate or slacken. Like small, industrious boys emulating their elders he was carrying on, in his play, digging with sticks in the sand, when suddenly he hit a hard surface. He dug furiously and in a few moments had unearthed a stone step. His heart almost ceased to beat. Hastily he covered the step with sand so that the rival archaeologists might not see him, and then ran as fast as his legs would carry him to tell Howard Carter of what he had found.’ [3]

The hidden exploration of the tomb makes it clear that Howard Carter wasn’t a reliable narrator; various autobiographical sketches that he wrote also suggest a tendency to embroider the facts a bit. Charitably, we could say that the discovery of the tomb and the intense activity that followed was such a whirlwind in his life, and had to be told so many times, that we shouldn’t expect all of his accounts to match precisely. To date, I haven’t come across another source from the 1922-24 period that has Howard Carter (or anyone else) telling the water boy tale, but perhaps it’s out there somewhere, in a diary, letter, or newspaper story that I’ve missed. Otherwise, it seems that the water boy first entered the public sphere in Hoving’s book in 1978.

On the back of the American tour’s success in the 1970s, mass tourism to Egypt took off. Every tourist wanted to visit the tomb where it all happened, and while they were exploring other sites on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, they might stop in for cool drink in the shade of the rest house – a simple café – near the Ramesseum temple. The rest house belonged to one branch of a large family from Gurna (or Qurna), as the villages on this side of the river are known. [4] The Abd el-Rassuls were well-known not only among their fellow Gurnawis, but to Egyptologists, because back in the 1880s – yes, Egyptology has a long, if selective, memory – a group of Abd el-Rassul brothers had discovered a cache of royal burials hidden in the cliffs. They sold off several of the treasures before the French-run antiquities service got wind of it. The director of the antiquities service, Gaston Maspero, had two brothers arrested and interrogated (tortured, by today’s standards), until a third brother agreed to show the authorities to the tomb. [5] The point is, if you say ‘Abd el-Rassul’ to most Egyptologists, they’ll probably say ‘tomb robbers’. It’s a slander that stuck to the people of Gurna for centuries.

By the 1980s, a senior member of the family who owned the Ramesseum rest house, Hussein Abd el-Rassul, was regaling tourists about his time working for Howard Carter at the tomb of Tutankhamun. [6] Hundreds, even thousands, of men and children from Gurna worked for Howard Carter and other archaeologists over the years, and many Gurnawis today can trace their family histories to different digs and foreign excavators. At the tomb of Tutankhamun, Howard Carter recorded the names of just four men who worked with him, each of whom was a rais; often translated as overseer or foreman, the title marked them out as responsible, authoritative figures.

Foremen (at back) and other workers at the tomb of Tutankhamun, published in The Sphere, 3 February 1923. I have an inkling that the man at top right may be Ahmed Gerigar, but it’s just a hunch based on glimpses of him (I think) in other photographs and film footage.

The most senior, and probably eldest, of them was Ahmed Gerigar. Under rais Ahmed there was Gad Hassan, whom Carter had known for 20 years, and two men named Hussein: Hussein Abu Awad and Hussein Ahmed Said. In the custom of Egyptian naming patterns, the second and third names of the men aren’t always family names, but the names of each man’s father and grandfather. [7]

Back to sheikh Hussein of the Abd el-Rassuls. At the Ramesseum rest house, the family keep a framed photographic image that comes from the Tutankhamun excavation. The photograph in the frame was taken by Harry Burton towards the end of 1926 or early in the new year. [8] It was published in the Illustrated London News on April 23rd, 1927. Not having examined the rest house image in person, I have no idea of its specific source or format (what it’s printed on, for instance). It’s obvious in photographs of sheikh Hussein holding this framed photo that it’s been enlarged to almost twice the size of the original negative (an 18 x 24 cm glass plate); it’s bigger than the 1920s newspaper print, too.

ILN 1927 page
Illustrated London News, 23 April 1927 – jewellery from the Treasure of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and ‘a living Egyptian boy’.

The Burton photograph shows an Egyptian boy dressed in a fresh white tunic and wound turban, gazing off to the viewer’s left. He’s wearing one of most stunning objects from the tomb, a chest-piece and matching chain of dazzling gold mounted with five scarabs of lapis lazuli and inlaid with carnelian, turquoise, feldspar, and glass. Some 50cm long, the piece was found in an ivory casket in the tomb’s innermost room, dubbed the Treasury, and like all the items from the tomb, it required careful cleaning and repair. You wonder how the boy in the picture felt under the weight of it, and the pressure.

c Greg Reeder 2003
Sheikh Hussein Abd el-Rassul with a framed enlargement of the Harry Burton photograph from decades earlier. Source: Egyptian Streets blog entry, ‘Tutankhamun’s necklaces’, 23 March 2014.

Sheikh Hussein identified himself as the boy wearing Tutankhamun’s necklace in the photograph. Descendants of Hussein, who died in 1997, have since been photographed with a framed photograph of him holding the framed image of the boy wearing Tutankhamun’s necklace; a study of the work that photographs are doing here would fill more space and take me wandering off track just now. Suffice to say that it’s a fascinating example of the alternative archives that can be formed as images circulate out of their ‘official’ roles – but it’s also tricky to untangle, touching as it does on family networks and authority in Gurna over the past few decades. Other descendants of Gurna families who worked on excavations don’t give the Abd el-Rassul story much weight. Perhaps it’s one of their ancestors in the Burton photograph of the necklace-wearing boy, or in dozens of other photographs of the Egyptian workforce, who are never identified by name. Photos, as I often say, aren’t really about what the photograph shows but what a photograph does. Or doesn’t, as the case may be.

When we look at photographs of Hussein with the Burton image that may, or may not, be him, we are supposed to see their physical resemblance and sense a continuity from Gurna past to Gurna present. Hussein elaborated his story to different western journalists and tourists at different times. I’ve only ever read it through their words, not his, so it’s second hand at best, and sometimes third or fourth (I don’t read Arabic and can’t research any sources in that language – but language and translation clearly matter here). The most detailed account I’ve found in a European language is by Francine Marie David, a Swiss writer and photojournalist who was married for a time to one of Hussein’s grandsons. In a 2011 memoir, written in German, she recounts an early meeting with the keeper of the Abd el-Rassul family history, sheikh Hussein’s youngest son Nubi. At Nubi’s alabaster factory (a crucial livelihood in the area, linked to tourism), she asks about the photo of young Hussein wearing Tutankhamun’s necklace. Hussein had told her he was twelve years old at the time – in 1922, he meant, or she assumes – and that he’d had to stand very still while Carter watched and Burton worked. She wants more details. Uncle Nubi pauses for a long time before he speaks: ‘Carter gave him the necklace’, he says. Silence. So where is it, she asks. More silence. She eventually realizes that it’s in the Cairo Museum (and has been, since Carter delivered it there shortly after the photograph was taken). Something doesn’t add up, though David wants it to – especially after her partner tells her even more, revealing the supposed secret that the Abd el-Rassuls had shown Howard Carter where the tomb of Tutankhamun was.

Wace 074f
A Harry Burton photograph from late November/early December 1923, when the wall between the antechamber and the burial chamber of the tomb was taken down. Is that ‘little Hussein’ up top, as one account suggests…? Courtesy of Rupert Wace Ancient Art.

David acknowledges that various versions of the discovery have circulated, from the standard and consistent account that Carter and Carnarvon gave (backed up by diaries, letters, and telegrams), to the tale of Carter’s lucky canary, to the water boy story, which David says Carter told on his American tour in 1924. She doesn’t give a specific reference for this, but she does list the German edition of Hoving’s 1978 book among her source material (where Keedick has Carter telling him the tale in private, not on tour). Enraptured by the idea that her grandfather-by-marriage discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, David goes in search of further family stories – and she finds them, sometimes linked to famous Harry Burton photographs of work in the tomb. Sheikh Hussein’s father is said to be one or other of the two men named Hussein who worked with Carter, and the family identifies rais Hussein as one of the men in the Burton photograph I’ve shown above. ‘Little Hussein’ is in the image too, they say – son of the rais. To my eyes, this boy looks nothing like the boy in the necklace photograph, nor should he: for one thing, the photos were taken three years apart, and for another, there were almost certainly several boys from Gurna who spent their days shifting stones for archaeologists. It makes sense that sons, fathers, and other family relations worked together, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea that there was only one boy involved at any point in the Tutankhamun excavation. Why reduce the efforts of so many to a single emblematic child?

I’m also uncomfortable with the filtering of the Abd el-Rassuls’ voices through western interlocutors, no matter how well intentioned they may be. Other travellers or journalists who met sheikh Hussein picked up the ‘water boy’ story and conflated it with the turbaned boy wearing Tutankhamun’s necklace – or perhaps the Abd el-Rassul family themselves added this twist. A version of the double whammy, attributed to Sonny Stengle, appears ‘adapted’ by Jimmy Dun on a popular Egyptology website. Stengle, Dun tells us, was one of the last people to interview Hussein before his death. Getting to wear Tutankahmun’s necklace gets turned into a reward for the water boy who discovered the first step, and whose face we can now see, celebrity-style, in the Burton photograph.

I first heard the sheikh Hussein boy-in-the-photograph story from American Egyptologists who had worked at Luxor in the 1980s. They thought it was charming – a little suspect, sure, but charming. I find it more unsettling than charming myself, not so much on the basis of its truth (or otherwise), but because Egyptology has started accepting it as truth and publicizing it in print and broadcast media without reference to any written sources or research on the photographs involved. Let me admit that I also feel extremely awkward contesting the Abd el-Rassul tale: some of my research, and the work of scholars I admire (Stephen Quirke and Wendy Doyon, to name just two), has tried very hard to draw attention to archival sources that show exactly how Egyptian contributions to Egyptian archaeology have been overlooked. I would like to see Egyptology – the field in which I originally trained – undertake some serious self-examination of its own history, so this aspect of my research has been important to me.

Here’s one of the things that bothers me about the ‘water boy’ tale: why does Egyptology give ‘discovery’ credit to Egyptians only if they are children or so-called tomb robbers? Quadrupeds show up just as often in the short list of archaeological discoveries that aren’t attributed to white men. I can’t help but wonder, does a photogenic child seem like the ‘safe’ way to acknowledge – and then ignore – the desperate need for more diverse voices and decolonizing approaches within the field? Whatever we know about ancient Egypt has relied on the labour and local knowledge of Egyptians of all ages, any sex, and several ethnicities, almost none of whom the ‘greats’ of Egyptology bothered to identify by anything other than a passing name or patronizing comment. Is one photo, from admittedly the most famous find, meant to patch over this gigantic crack?

Photographs are what make the water boy and jewellery-wearer stories so convincing, you see. They seem to offer proof, although they also show how difficult it is to pin proof down. The ease of copying, shrinking, and enlarging photos helped make photography incredibly useful in all kinds of scholarly endeavours, including archaeology. Photographers like Harry Burton were valued by their colleagues because they could produce the kinds of photographs that archaeology thought it needed. The ‘record’ photograph was supposed to show the pertinent details of an artefact or site, nothing more or less. Ironically, the complicated history of the Tutankhamun archive means that a lot of facts about the photographs have not survived, even as the images themselves have circulated ever more widely (and now as Burton’s carefully crafted monotones have been manipulated into colour).

Unlike the objects from the tomb, which went to the Cairo Museum, the excavation archive and its photographs remained the personal property of Howard Carter. He kept the best set of negatives and gave the extra or less-good shots to Burton’s employer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Carter’s archive was loaned, then given, to Oxford University after his death. When I started research on the photographs in 2015, neither archive seemed to have a clear idea of who owned which negative, on what date different photos had been taken or published, or even the date of different prints (only the New York archive has many prints attributable to Burton, for instance). The photographs didn’t interest most Egyptologists as photographs – only as records of what the photo shows, especially if it shows an artefact, the mummy of Tutankhamun, or a white man who can easily be identified by name.

A failure to think about photographs as historical and material objects has meant that stories like the water boy/jewellery wearer/sheikh Hussein mash-up become more convincing than they might have been if placed under greater scrutiny. Again, this isn’t to denigrate the Abd el-Rassul account, but to ask us to take photographs seriously and to check sources with care. An oral history can be a fantastic primary source, a way to fill in archival blanks – those gaps of history into which so many stories of people living under colonialism and imperialism fell. But the second, third, and fourth-hand accounts through which sheikh Hussein’s story – or Carter’s water-boy anecdote – reaches us aren’t really the same thing, nor do we have any primary source about the jewellery-wearing boy except a photograph whose actual date (late 1926) contradicts what Hussein and his family repeatedly asserted, namely that he was 12 years old when the photo was taken in 1922, the year linked to the discovery. Memories often collapse events together, of course, and birth dates were not recorded with precision until much more recent times. Still, there’s a niggling disparity to account for in this and other aspects of the tale.

It seems to me that what’s more important here isn’t whether or not these stories, and their photographs, are verifiable and ‘true’ – but why we want to believe and circulate them now. A Google search in English suggests that the water boy story has gained considerable momentum since 2014 or 2015, featuring in fairly high-profile and reputable sources like Smithsonian magazine. It appears – as historical fact – in study materials for schoolchildren in England and America, where some California students made an award-winning video about the ‘water boy’. With the ‘Tutankhamun in Colour’ documentary on the BBC this week, the Howard Carter archive in Oxford has now put its own credentials behind the tale as well, with the water jar, not a digging stick, revealing the marvellous first step. The ‘water boy’ features in the current IMG Exhibitions touring show of Tutankhamun objects, illustrated by the Harry Burton photograph of the boy in Tutankhamun’s necklace and the attribution to sheikh Hussein. I wonder if the renewed prominence of the story, or stories, doesn’t go back to an earlier version of that show, staged by essentially the same commercial outfit between 2004 and 2011. The Egyptian Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, who is associated with all those tours, has settled on the water boy story as truth (he has past form with stumbling horse discoveries, too). So far, my searches haven’t found many references to the water boy earlier than 2005, when it was woven into a BBC docu-drama about archaeology in Egypt. I’m cut off from some of my books and notes (and a library) right now, so I may be missing something. Besides which, I’ve learned never to say never where Tutankhamun is concerned. It’s also worth remembering just how many English people claimed some special connection with the tomb, especially around the time of the 1972 British Museum show. I’ve lost track of how many people have been in touch to assure me that their father or uncle or grandfather (it’s always men) was present at the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

I almost regret, now, using one of Burton’s photos of the boy in the necklace for the Photographing Tutankhamun exhibition I curated in the UK in 2017. I chose one of the rejected negatives, where we clearly see the tension in the boy’s clenched jaw. Burton never printed that negative. It’s out of focus, so he wouldn’t have bothered. The exhibition used a digital print (a reversed scan from the glass plate), blown up to double size and shown with a short text that embraced the ambiguity of both the image and sheikh Hussein’s association with it.

Boy panel
Panel from the Photographing Tutankhamun exhibition, held in Lincoln and Cambridge (UK), 2017-18.

An archive like the archive of the Tutankhamun excavation gives us one view, one story, and it’s the story of the British archaeologists, who had the privileges of colonialism and empire behind them. I’d like to think that we can read such archives and photographs both along and against the grain, in order to retrieve something of the experiences, viewpoints, or at the very least, presence of the Egyptians glimpsed within. That’s the optimist in me. The cynic, I’m afraid, sees what’s on TV or the internet, and despairs that thinking differently about Tutankhamun has become a hopeless task. Too many people have too much invested in the heroics of Howard Carter – and little boys look so sweet (and interchangeable) when they are frozen in time. Who needs sources, facts, or evidence when there’s such an easy fix, it seems, to the problem of where Egyptology has come from – and where it would rather not have to go.

Huge thanks to Mahmoud El-Hishash for sharing his family history, checking Egyptian nomenclature for me, and sending some Luxor sun to Newcastle.

  1. I talked a bit about this discovery in my book Unwrapping Ancient Egypt (Bloomsbury 2014), pp. 38-9. You should be able to view the page on Google Books if you don’t have access to a specialist library.
  2. T.G.H. James, Howard Carter:The Path to Tutankhamun (Tauris 2001, first published 1992), pp. 260-4.
  3. Thomas Hoving, Tutankhamun: The Untold Story (Simon & Schuster 1978), pp. 76-7. For his biography of Carter (see note 2 above), James also had access to the Keedick memoir but considered the exact circumstances of the step’s discovery ‘not a matter to be worried about’ (p. 255).
  4. For Old Gurna, which was demolished by the Egyptian government after decades of attempts to protect it, see the community histories at and Kees van der Spek, The Modern Neighbours of Tutankhamun: History, Life, and Work in the Villages of the Theban West Bank (Bloomsbury 2011). I highly recommend Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity (University of California Press 2002), which has a chapter on the heritage politics of Gurna.
  5. I talk about this in Unwrapping Ancient Egypt, pp. 61-9. Link here, I hope.
  6. A French blog, posted in or before 2015, gives some additional images of the Ramesseum rest house and the sheikh. 
  7. In Gurnawi naming practice, Abu Awad designates a member of the Awad family.
  8. As part of my research on the archive, I worked out the sequence and likely dates of all the Harry Burton photographs, using his correspondence, Howard Carter’s diaries and journals, and the dates when some photographs were published. I’m an archival fiend that way. More on this in my book Photographing Tutankhamun.

Camera Men

When I started to work on the history of photography, I was painfully aware of my limited technical knowledge of cameras, lenses, and development processes. I will never be the person to ask for advice about an f-stop.

Fortunately, several photographers who have worked with older camera technology have been generous with their knowledge, helping me understand the basic principles of working a view camera – the type of camera Harry Burton used throughout his career. Ian Cartwright, the photographer at the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford University (and himself an astute observer of Burton’s work), took me through the steps with his own American-made large-plate camera. View cameras consist of a front and rear standard, connected by a bellows. The front standard holds the lens, while the back accommodates the negative holder and the ground glass, an inset plate of frosted glass on which the photographer can see the image the lens will produce, but flipped upside down. The front and rear standards can be adjusted independently of each other, moving up and down; tilting forward and back; or swinging at an angle to the left or right. These movements give the photographer a range of control over the image, especially helpful for ‘squaring up’ straight lines in the photograph when they would otherwise seem to diverge (the edges of a building or a box, for instance). Seductive as it is to think that a camera reproduces what a human eye can see, a camera in fact reproduces what the lens sees, which is not the same thing at all.

A Lincoln-based photographer who collects and uses older cameras – and who visited the ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ exhibition in Lincoln – got in touch via this website to say how much he’d enjoyed it (thank you, Gerard!) and to offer further observations. Since the exhibition used digital scans of Burton’s original glass plates, without any cropping, he could tell that some of the negative holders Burton was using had seen a good bit of wear-and-tear, which had allowed flecks of light to reach the edge of the negative within. This wouldn’t have mattered when Burton printed them, but it became obvious when the negatives were scanned and digitally printed, showing the entire surface of the glass plate. That’s something I would never have known how to explain otherwise. Like archaeology and photography themselves, academic research isn’t a solitary endeavour but a collective effort. Expertise is, potentially, everywhere.

Double-page spread from The Sphere, 10 February 1923, in the University Library, Cambridge University (author’s photograph).

Because Burton – like many photographers – was more often behind the camera than in front of it, only a handful of still photographs show him at work, much less posing with the tools of his trade. What a nice surprise, then, to come across a double-page spread from The Sphere newspaper, kept among a box of archaeology-related clippings that were awaiting cataloguing at the University Library, Cambridge University. The Sphere was a weekly illustrated newspaper in the first half of the 20th century, and the main competitor in Britain to the Illustrated London News. It was to the News that Howard Carter gave preferential access and permission to use Harry Burton’s photographs from the Tutankhamun excavation. But of course The Sphere wanted to cover the story too, using photographs from different sources.

Harry Burton, one of his Egyptian assistants (name unknown), and the Sinclair camera, photographed for The Sphere, 10 February 1923 (cropped from the previous image).


I used The Sphere’s photograph of Burton and one of his Egyptian assistants in a lecture I gave last year at Harvard University, which was made available online. Not long afterwards, I received an email from William Joy, of the Peggy Joy Egyptology Library in Michigan, USA – an incredible resource of published and archival material, run privately and available via high-quality digitization to interested researchers.[1] William had watched my lecture and recognized Burton’s camera straight away, thanks to the distinctive name plate over the lens. He wrote to share the information: Burton’s camera was a Sinclair ‘Una’ model, made by the British firm of James A. Sinclair, headquartered in the 1920s in Haymarket in the heart of London. William could also identify the camera case in The Sphere photograph, made by Westminster Photographic Exchange in Charing Cross Road. Lord Carnarvon used an ‘Una’, too, and examples of this camera model – and sometimes the cases – are today well-represented in museum and private collections, including the National Media Museum in Bradford, England (which also owns Howard Carter’s own Graflex camera).

The Sinclair ‘Una’ with a Westminster case and two dark slides (negative holders). From; many more images available online, too.

That fit perfectly what I’d already discovered about Burton’s and Carter’s patronage of Sinclair for photographic supplies: Howard Carter’s glass lantern slides and photo albums in the Griffith Institute bear Sinclair stickers, and Burton’s correspondence in the Metropolitan Museum of Art sometimes concern orders that needed to be placed for the Museum’s excavations, which Sinclair’s would ship to Egypt for the autumn start of the fieldwork season. I also knew that Burton used Sinclair’s ‘Kine’ camera for moving-picture footage, in part for his work at the tomb of Tutankhamun, but also for other film footage that the Metropolitan Museum used to help promote their work to audiences in New York.[2]

The Sinclair ‘Una’ was a respected model for experienced photographers. It took quarter- and half-plate negatives, so this may be the camera Burton used for those Tutankhamun negatives that survive in half-plate sizes, both metric 13×18 cm and imperial 4 ¾ inches x 6 ½ inches. Sinclair also made cameras that could take negatives as large as 12 x 15 inches, but which would have been adaptable for Burton’s preferred 18×24 cm negatives, if he also sourced his large-plate camera there.

A 1925 catalogue of Sinclair products. From; see link immediately below.

A 1925 catalogue of Sinclair products shows the larger, ‘technical’ camera the firm made – and is a useful reminder of the historical and political context in which the Tutankhamun excavation took place. The Sinclair catalogue proudly declares that it had supplied technical cameras to the UK government’s War Department, ‘His Majesty’s Indian Government’, and ‘The Crown Agents for the Colonies’. The British Empire was in full swing, even if some countries had managed, with considerable struggle, to start tilting away from British control.[3] One of those countries was Egypt, whose government was another Sinclair client.

Transnational connections, and imperial assumptions, informed a trip that James Sinclair himself made to the Sudan and Egypt in 1930. His letters home, kept as a journal of the voyage, are also in the Peggy Joy Egyptology Library, and William Joy shared the text of the journal with me. Sinclair may have left his workplace behind in London, but he took photography with him. There was only one day, towards the end of the journey, when he did not take a photograph. On most days, Sinclair took several, setting out for long walks with his camera, trying to capture what he called ‘records’. The choice of term suggests that, to Sinclair, his photographs were to be factual documents of his experiences – no matter how selective his choice of subjects proved to be.

Sinclair started his journey in Sudan, which was effectively a British possession even though it continued to be called ‘Anglo-Egyptian’ until its independence in 1955. While staying in Khartoum, Sinclair walked for three miles one day, looking to photograph stereotypical scenes of cameras and ‘isolated figures’ of indigenous people. ‘The natives’, as he termed them in the colonial language of the day, did not cooperate to his liking – but he had a right-angled finder on his camera, which allowed him to take photographs without people realizing that they were being photographed. This intrusive practice had been around for decades: W. M. F. Petrie used a diagonal mirror to photograph impoverished Egyptian girls ‘unawares’. The camera did not see with the human eye, but it certainly allowed some humans to exert power over others.

Sailing downstream to Luxor, with a short stay at Aswan, Sinclair reached Luxor in early February and checked in to the Winter Palace Hotel, where Lord Carnarvon used to stay and where the gardens were, wrote Sinclair, ‘magnificent.’ Sinclair, who had assumed that Howard Carter was in Cairo, was happy to run into him at the hotel’s afternoon tea. Carter told Sinclair that he was ‘on strike’ from working at the tomb of Tutankhamun, pending a settlement from the Egyptian government’s antiquities service to reimburse Carnarvon’s widow for the costs of the excavation.[4] He was instead busy with ‘his literary work’ (Sinclair’s words, but the voice of Carter rings true).

Sinclair had found a welcome message from Harry Burton waiting for him at the Winter Palace, and during his stay in Luxor, Sinclair ventured to the West Bank to visit Burton at the Metropolitan Museum dig house. Burton wanted some advice on the Kine camera, and Sinclair stayed on for lunch. In the afternoon, Burton and Sinclair went to visit the tomb of Queen Nefertari, whose famous paintings were already deteriorating. ‘Fortunately,’ wrote Sinclair, ‘Burton has a complete record and his managing to photograph these difficult subjects is a triumph of technical skill.’

James Sinclair had an invitation to lunch at Howard Carter’s house, too, which was ‘nice and cool’ and had insect netting at the doors and windows. Their lunch doesn’t appeal to me – caviar, cold tongue, stewed figs, and lemonade – but afterwards they visited two private tombs and the Ramesseum temple. The tomb of Tutankhamun was closed to visitors that day, so Sinclair missed the chance to see where his cameras had been put to such famous use. At a later date, Sinclair sent Carter a photogravure print of one of his photographs from Khartoum which, with several Sinclair photographs of England, became part of the Howard Carter bequest to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He had more luck in Cairo, the last stop before he headed home to England. In the Cairo Museum (‘a fine building’), Sinclair visited the set of upstairs rooms dedicated to the artefacts from the tomb of Tutankhamun:

Although they were known to me by the photographs we have, I was amazed at the beauty of their workmanship. A photograph may very literally record facts, but it fails to show the spirit animating those facts.

Cameras did much more than ‘record facts’, however, as is obvious in this intertwined tale of Harry Burton’s cameras, Howard Carter’s cold tongue, and James Sinclair’s imperial pilgrimage to Egypt and Sudan. ‘To photograph is to archive a social interaction in time’, as the visual anthropologist Chris Morton has so succinctly put it.[5] Those social interactions were not based on equal exchanges, nor will we necessarily see them in a photographic image – unless we know where, and how, to look.

I don’t know if I’ll ever understand an f-stop. But we should all be trying to understand what it meant to be a camera man (or woman) in colonial- and imperial-era archaeology. Consider the social relationships, historical circumstances, and political contexts in which photographs were made and used, and it just may be that the camera never lies.


[1] I am indebted to William Joy for sharing all his information about the ‘Una’, and other Howard Carter-related nuggets, and for allowing me to read James Sinclair’s travel journal and quote from it here.

[2] For much more detail on Burton’s use of a moving-picture camera, and other photographic practices at the tomb of Tutankhamun, see Chapter 3 of my book, Photographing Tutankhamun.

[3] A good new book on anti-colonial resistance to the British empire, including Egypt, is Priyamvada Gopal’s Insurgent Empire.

[4] This was the point at which Carter finally accepted that the Egyptian government had the right to keep everything from the tomb in Egypt, according to the terms of Carnarvon’s excavation contract. Instead, Carter negotiated a payment of £36,000 to  Carnarvon’s widow, reimbursing her for the costs she had sustained during years of work on the tomb. In effect, the Egyptian government bought what it already owned. Carter funded part of the remaining work on the tomb himself: he had done well financially from his best-selling books on the tomb and from other income sources, including dealing in art and antiquities.

[5] Christopher Morton, ‘Photography, Anthropology Of.’ In The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, edited by Hilary Callan. Malden, MA and Oxford: John Wiley, 2018, p. 12.



What a winter that was. But in the spring sunshine, with the clocks having gone forward in Europe over the weekend, it’s time to think about what’s new, and what’s next.

I still have much more to say about Tutankhamun, never fear. But during the two years or more that I spent researching the Tutankhamun excavation and its photographic archive, I couldn’t help but come across thousands and thousands more photographs embedded in the history of Egyptology and archaeology. Whether mounted into albums or on card, filed in envelopes or stacked in boxes, printed in books or circulated as prints – and whether in the form of negatives or positives – all these photographs tell us just how essential photographic technology was to every academic endeavour from about the 1860s onward.

This is especially true (or especially easy to see) for archaeology and art history, which relied on being able to study objects, sites, and texts at a physical remove, regardless of where that object or text wound up or how accessible, or intact, an ancient site or structure was. Before we get caught up in the idea that photographs are records, that they are direct, uncomplicated images that magically transmit ‘evidence’ for us from the past, let’s remember what visual anthropologists like Christopher Morton have been saying for years: a photograph is the physical trace of a social encounter. In other words, photographs are not so much about what they show but about what kinds of human interactions were involved in their making, viewing, exchanging, storing, scrapping, and, sometimes, publication.

Those are the kinds of questions I’ve asked about the Tutankhamun photographs – and they’re the questions I plan to keep asking of other photographs connected to the study of Egyptian archaeology and art. Not that Egypt is the only relevant field of study, not by a long shot. However, it’s what I know well, it’s what I have a feel for by now, and I know that connections to other geographic spaces and spheres of interests will emerge along the way.


Just one example today, since big new projects are easier to get underway when they are broken down into smaller chunks first. The image above is a plate published in 1878 in a beautifully produced two-volume set entitled Voyage dans la Haute-Egypte. It was written by Auguste Mariette, an archaeologist and museum director who became a public figure in the course of his long career, especially in his native France. Mariette had first arrived in Egypt in 1850, when he was a curator at the Louvre. In 1858, the then-ruler of Egypt, Sa’id pasha, invited Mariette to head up a new ministry that would supervise archaeological work in Egypt, as well as a new national museum to hold the best of the finds. [1]

Twenty years later, Mariette was a pasha himself, as well as a bey (Ottoman titles of honour), celebrated for his many books on ancient Egypt and his famous excavations at Saqqara, where in the 1850s he had identified and cleared the catacombs of the sacred Apis bulls. That fame was why Alexandria-based publisher Antoine Moures – a longtime collaborator of Mariette’s – asked him to create an illustrated guide to the sites of Upper Egypt. [2] There was no better expert to appeal to discerning readers in a decade when tourism to Egypt was booming, especially in the form of a Nile cruise from Aswan in the south downriver to Cairo.

Let’s look more closely at the Voyage and its photographs – and then at this photograph in particular, which appears as Plate VIII in the first volume. Although 1839 is often said to mark the invention of photography (it’s the year in which the Daguerreotype process was registered in France), another 20 or 30 years would pass before any consistency emerged in photographic practices related to ancient artefacts or the new field practices that were then becoming known as archaeology. [3] Using glass plates coated with wet collodion emerged as the preferred photographic process in the 1860s and 1870s, when Mariette was active in Egypt. But printing technology for books and periodicals offered no easy, economical way to reproduce photographs as photographs. Instead, new versions of the photographic image were created using woodcut line engravings or lithography.

That changed with the development of photomechanical processes that could capture the distinctive tonal qualities of a photograph and facilitate repeat printing. The best quality process was the Woodburytype, which exposed a glass negative onto a gelatin-coated substrate, creating a positive image that, once the gelatin dried, could be used in a special printing press. Another process instead exposed the negative onto a steel or copper plate covered with sensitized carbon paper; the plate was chemically etched and used for multiple printings. This is known as photogravure in English (héliogravure in French), and although it had been around more or less since the 1850s, it took off from about 1879, thanks to refinements introduced by Czech artist Karel Klíč.

I’m setting out these (greatly simplified) details to make a point about how much effort and expertise went into printing a book like the Voyage. It’s an effort Mariette himself acknowledged in the preface, thanking his publisher Moures for using les procédés inaltérables (inalterable processes), in order to print the plates – in other words, a version of the Woodburytype. The plates were produced not by Moures in Egypt, but by Goupil & Cie, Parisian art dealers and fine art printers who had access to the specialized technique and equipment required.

Mariette was well aware that normal photographic positives easily faded, and that they were extremely difficult to reproduce in book form. He and Moures had already managed to produce the Album du Musée Boulaq a few years earlier, with photographs by Hippolyte Délie and Emile Bechard (no photographer is credited in the Voyage, but this was not unusual at the time). Hence Mariette’s lament, in the preface to the Voyage, that ‘[p]hotographie, en effet, es un parfait instrument de fidélité et de precision; mais elle a le grave défaut de ne pas durer.’ (Photography, in effect, is a perfect instrument of fidelity and precision, but it has the serious defect of not lasting.)

Mariette was well aware of something else as well, which we can see in Plate VIII and read in its accompanying text – namely, that he owed his archaeological discoveries to local Egyptians who knew the ancient sites and cemeteries so well. I’ve sometimes seen Plate VIII published online or in histories of Egyptology, cropped just to show Mariette posing at the apex of the image, gazing knowingly, even possessively, at the Old Kingdom tomb statue that has been set there for the purpose of the photograph. But scroll up and look at it again: at the bottom left, facing directly to the camera, is an Egyptian man flanked by two young boys, one of whom holds a basket, a sign of the lowliest job in archaeology – moving dirt. None of the Egyptians engage directly with an ancient object in the way that Mariette does.

Yet Mariette tells us exactly who the man was and why he mattered: this is Roubi (in Mariette’s spelling), who had worked with Mariette for six years by this point and to whom, says Mariette, ‘science owes a quarter of the monuments that are the wealth of the Boulaq Museum.’ The praise is tempered by patronizing remarks, no surprise given the racism inherent in colonial archaeology: ‘This illiterate fellah has seen so many antiques that he knows them, and, as best he can, he knows how to distinguish them by their period; he has searched so many tombs and so many wells, that no one is more able than he to discover a track and, what is much more difficult, to follow it.’ [my emphasis]

For all that Roubi earned Mariette’s respect, he was also inevitably constrained by Mariette’s assumption that no Egyptian could know ancient Egypt the way a European could know ancient Egypt. Search the internet or any history of Egyptology and you are bound to find Mariette’s name. Search for Roubi’s, in any script or any spelling, and you will draw a blank.

A photograph is the physical trace of a social encounter. How complicated social encounters are, and how closely we need to look to see what is right in front of our eyes.


[1] You can read more about Mariette and the founding of the Egyptian antiquities service in Donald Malcolm Reid’s excellent Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I (University of California Press, 2003).

[2] The best summary of Moures’ career that I’ve found is his French Wikipedia page, with a list of further sources (all in French).

[3] See Mirjam Brusius, ‘Photography’s Fits and Starts: The Search for Antiquity and Its Image in Victorian Britain’, History of Photography 40.3 (2016), 250-66. On the invention and early development of photography, see Tanya Sheehan and Andres Zervigon (eds), Photography and its Origins. New York: Routledge, 2015; and Geoffrey Batchen, Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography. London and Boston: The MIT Press, 1997. 


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.

Research, Watson-style

I haven’t written here in a few months. Which doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing – I’m always writing, something, somewhere – only that I haven’t had anything I felt I could share in this forum. Life gets in the way, too. Academics aren’t terrible humans, but terribly human.

And being human, we miss things out sometimes. A source we couldn’t track down, a language we can’t read, or a piece of evidence we inadvertently overlooked, like Dr Watson trying to keep up with Sherlock Holmes. When researching and writing my Photographing Tutankhamun book, I kept meaning to spend enough time in London (I don’t live on Baker Street) to go through a newspaper called The Egyptian Gazette. As far as I can tell, the British Library has the only run of this newspaper in the United Kingdom, which surprised me given that it was the main English-language newspaper published in Egypt during the colonial era and throughout the interwar period. Founded by British journalists in Alexandria in 1880, the Gazette is still in print, with Egyptian editors at the helm since the 1952 revolution.

Masthead of The Egyptian Gazette, 1 July 1905 – courtesy of, the website of a history class at Florida State University, taught by Prof. Will Hanley.

The Gazette was the daily paper for the large British community in Egypt, including archaeologists. Tutankhamun photographer Harry Burton referred to the newspaper in some of his letters from Egypt, passing on news to colleagues back in New York. In 1933, for instance, he wrote to Herbert Winlock: ‘According to the Gippy Gazette, Lacau has renewed his contract with the Gov[ernmen]t for another three years. At the beginning of the season it was rumoured that he was going to resign […] but Madame won’t let him!’ Lacau was Pierre Lacau, head of the Antiquities Service in Egypt from 1914 to 1936 – and the man with whom Howard Carter clashed over the fate of the objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb. And yes, ‘Gippy’ is a derogatory diminutive of ‘Egyptian’, a slang that appears elsewhere in Burton’s letters and must have been common parlance at the time. Certainly he felt comfortable using it in his professional correspondence.

To my regret, I never did make it to the British Library to read through The Egyptian Gazette during the 1920s, when it covered the excavation of the tomb and all the legal and political controversy around it. Life got in the way, and I decided that a complete book that relied on other scholars’ use of the Gazette (like the excellent Donald Malcolm Reid) was better than an incomplete book languishing on my laptop. Not ideal, but the best I could do in the circumstances. The list of sources in Photographing Tutankhamun makes it clear which newspapers I did consult, and crucially how I accessed them: namely, by database, on a laptop or as print-outs, from desks in Oxford and Norfolk, and occasionally an armchair by the fire. Research, Watson-style.

Unlike several major newspapers in British and North American cities, the Gazette hasn’t been digitized by scanning it (although an effort to digitize and analyze a single year, 1905, has been undertaken by Prof. Will Hanley‘s students at Florida State University, in a fascinating online project). Instead, it’s kept on microfilm, the medium of an earlier generation of ‘digitization’. If you’ve never used it before, viewing microfilm has its frustrations, and sitting in front of a microfilm reader, scrolling through one roll of film at a time, can be frustrating and hypnotizing, in turns. It is undoubtedly time-intensive work, unless you have a specific date or narrow date range of pages you want to read. Digitally scanned newspapers, in contrast, have searchable text, so as long as you know that Tutankhamun was spelled ‘Tutankhamen’ in the 1920s, you can stick the name into a database search function and work your way through whatever results turn up.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Word searches in a database are time-efficient, but unless you take the time to read the surrounding pages, or the whole issue, of the publication, you miss out on the experience readers at the time had. Knowing that news of Tutankhamun appeared right next to news about the occupation of the Ruhr valley, a flu epidemic, and the Lausanne Conference – all of which were knock-on effects of the First World War – helps put the political context of Egyptian archaeology in focus, which is where it should be. Microfilm takes time, more time than I had for the book project in the end, but for all that it feels far-removed from the physical experience of handling a newspaper, it does give you more of a sense of what a whole newspaper was.


An overlooked aspect of both microfilm and scan-based digitization are the motivations behind the selection of what to record in the first place. An award-winning academic article by Prof. Paul Fyfe, entitled ‘An Archaeology of Victorian Newspapers’ (PDF) details the involvement of intelligence services like the CIA – yes, really – in earlier drives to preserve library material. Microfilm technology, which is a form of micro-photography, itself developed out of intelligence operations. Its potential was then marketed to libraries and record offices, especially after the bombing campaigns of the Second World War made the preservation of printed material (or at least, some printed material) seem an urgent priority. Seventy years later, preserving printed material through technology still seems an urgent priority – but as Fyfe points out, ‘New media is always in the process of constituting itself as new, erasing the legacies of its entanglements and the continuous work of its propagation.’ (Fyfe 2016, p. 546).

In other words, as I often say about photography and archives, there is no neutral source, no innocent image or record. Sometimes the people who were making and using photographs in colonial-era and interwar archaeology reveal more awareness of a photograph’s unreliability than the scholars who treat those photographs today as sacrosanct ‘records’ of immediate facts. To end this post, appropriately, here is a snippet from The Egyptian Gazette, courtesy of my colleague Dr William Carruthers – who has been more assiduous than me about scrolling through microfilm in the British Library. Published Saturday, 17 October 1931, it’s a feature about a book on forensic chemistry, written by Alfred Lucas – one-time head of the Egyptian Government’s analytical laboratory, who dedicated several years to the repair, analysis, and chemical treatment of objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb. ‘Egypt’s Sherlock Holmes’, the headline calls him:

Saturday, 17 October 1931 feature on Alfred Lucas’s book, Forensic Chemistry and Scientific Criminal Investigation.

The article reveals awareness – and anxiety – about how unreliable photographs could be: ‘When dealing with photographs, it should not be forgotten that both negatives and prints are very easily “faked”. Thus a negative may not be the original negative, but a secondary one on which something not on the original has been added or from which something has been omitted, and in the same way the print may have been made from a “faked” original or from a secondary negative.’

Such processes of re-photography were everyday practices, as was the manipulation of negatives or positives, for instance to edit them for publication. If some photographs were more ‘true’, and some negatives more honest, it was because only a community of practitioners accepted a certain range of interference with the image – and rejected anything outside that range. A lot depended on trust. No wonder advice manuals for field photography, or a book on forensics, like Lucas’s here, gave such precise stipulations for taking ‘good’ (trustworthy) photographs.

Elementary, whether you’re a Holmes or a Watson: photographs aren’t facts. They’re photographs. I may have missed out some sources, but I’m confident I got the fundamentals right. And I promise, this very human academic will one day make it to the British Library and scroll through those microfilms myself.

Here are a couple of great books that tackle questions around the reliability of photography, plus something I wrote about re-photography in the Tutankhamun archive:

Geoffrey Belknap, From a Photograph: Authenticity, Science and the Periodical Press, 1870-1890. Bloomsbury, 2016.

Jennifer Tucker, Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Christina Riggs, ‘Photography and antiquity in the archive, or how Howard Carter moved the road to the Valley of the Kings’, History of Photography 40.3 (2016), 267-82.


Imperial amnesia

There’s a pub carved into a corner of the lively market in Norwich, the city where I teach at the University of East Anglia. It’s called The Sir Garnet, its name shortened after a recent refurbishment from The Sir Garnet Wolseley. Sometimes, when giving public talks in or around Norwich, I’ve asked people if they know who Sir Garnet was. No one has ever been able to answer. For all that many people claim to love history – and in Britain, to love British history and British heritage – it’s funny how much history we forget. Or choose to ignore.

Cartoon from the American magazine Harper’s Weekly, 16 September 1882 – General Wolseley complains to ‘that “horrible pasha”‘ that the British invasion has caused Wolseley, ‘an officer and a gentleman in the Queen’s Army’, to miss a dinner engagement in London. Source:

In August and September 1882, Garnet Wolseley’s name was on the front page of every newspaper in Great Britain, because he was commander-in-chief of the British expeditionary force that invaded Egypt, using the Suez Canal as the backdoor for a land invasion to suppress a nationalist uprising led by the Egyptian military leader Ahmed Orabi (also spelled Urabi; he held the honorary civil rank of pasha, too).

The uprising had been rumbling for years, reflecting growing popular resentment of foreign interference in Egypt’s affairs. The British navy had already bombarded Alexandria in July 1882 after a series of riots broke out, aimed against the many European residents of the city – who were associated with preferential treatment and decades of economic exploitation. A full day of shelling, and the fires that followed, destroyed swathes of the city, as documented by Italian photographer Luigi Fiorillo in the days and weeks afterwards. British troops entered and occupied the city as Orabi and his forces fled. In Britain, Prime Minister William Gladstone appointed Wolseley to head an expeditionary force to invade Egypt by land and secure the all-important Canal route. Wolseley’s forces defeated Orabi’s troops at the battle of Tel el-Kebir and soon occupied Cairo. In November, the British Parliament promoted Wolseley to full general, gave him a bonus of £30,000, and made him Baron Wolseley of Cairo and Wolseley. 1
Admiral of the Mediterranean Fleet Edward Seymour (left) and General Garnet Wolseley, photographs pasted into the back page of the Luigi Fiorillo album concerning the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882 and its aftermath. Source: The American University in Cairo, Rare Books and Special Collections Library (link to album page here).

The importance of the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882, which was front-page news for months, is why I suspect Norwich’s marketplace pub got its name that year. Not that Wolseley wasn’t in the news at other points in his long career.* His was a typical colonial officer’s life: from Anglo-Irish (Protestant) origins, he served in almost every outpost of the British Empire, from Burma (Myanmar) to Crimea to Canada, where he ventured to the USA to observe the Civil War there. He met generals on both sides, including William Tecumseh Sherman (born in my hometown), but Wolseley’s sympathies lay with the Confederate side –  he was a big fan of General Lee. From Canada, Wolseley went to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) to suppress anti-British revolts by the Asante people, and from there it was on to southern Africa and Cyprus. Wolseley longed to serve in the ‘jewel in the Crown’, India, but it was not to be. After the successful campaign in Egypt, Wolseley next joined the failed British expedition to try to rescue Gordon, Governor-General of Sudan, at Khartoum, where the Mahdist uprising threatened British (and Ottoman Egyptian) ambitions to control the entire Nile and exploit the mining opportunities of the surrounding deserts and mountains. The relief effort – which used Thomas Cook steamers to carry supplies – arrived two days after Gordon had been killed. Britain would spend several more decades occupying Egypt and trying to subdue the Sudan.

Wait, isn’t this a blog about Tutankhamun, photography, and archaeology? Yes it is, which is why I’m talking about pubs and politics today. Because they all go together. I studied for many years to become an Egyptologist, but as I’ve written about here before, I often question whether I still can, or want to, call myself an Egyptologist. That’s partly because my own research interests and methodological approaches have always drawn on scholarship from other fields, like art history, classical archaeology, anthropology, and critical heritage and museum studies. And it’s partly because the more I’ve worked with and thought about archival sources concerned with Egyptology – like the excavation archive of the tomb of Tutankhamun – the more aware I am of how impossible it is to get to any kind of knowledge of the ancient past without being very carefully attuned to all the layers of recent history that go with it.

I’m just back from the annual colloquium hosted by the British Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan – which this year had as its theme ‘Displaying Egypt’. (You can find the programme and paper abstracts here, and see the hashtag #Displaying Egypt on Twitter for some live tweets and follow-up discussion.) One of the speakers on the last day was an Egyptian Egyptologist, the fantastic Heba Abd el Gawad, who is writing her PhD at Durham University and has worked on several curatorial projects in the UK. At one point in her talk – which was about Egyptians’ riffs on ancient Egypt, via social media – Heba checked to see whether the audience knew who Orabi Pasha was. In the part of the auditorium where I was sitting, the audience was silent – the kind of dead silence I hear in a roomful of students when I realize I’ve just made a cultural reference that isn’t on their radar (Bruce Springsteen lyrics or anything to do with gardening will have this effect, I find.)

But Orabi Pasha, in a room that was mostly full of people studying Egyptology, working in Egyptology, or interested enough in Egyptology to pay the registration fee and spend two days in the British Museum’s lecture theatre, listening to papers about how Egypt has been, or could be, presented in museums? That shouldn’t be the case. There is a fundamental flaw in the teaching and public presentation of the ancient past if the people who want to study and work with that past never learn – never even feel they should learn – anything about the modern circumstances in which more than 200 years of ‘discovering’, collecting, and interpreting that ancient past have taken place. A similar argument can be made for knowledge of the Arabic language: of the six years I spent studying hieroglyphs, quite fruitlessly (I’m terrible with dead languages), I now wish I’d spent the time studying Arabic instead.

My own talk at the colloquium bridges some work that I present near the end of the Photographing Tutankhamun book (going to print next week!) and some new work I’ve been doing, about the planning and impact of the ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’ exhibition held at the British Museum in 1972 and later followed up by an American version.

Photograph of a photograph (my study shot from the British Museum’s Central Archives): Harry Burton’s photographs from the tomb of Tutankhamun, blown up and printed in sepia tones for the record-breaking 1972 ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’ exhibition at the British Museum.

I wanted to make a point about the twin phenomena of imperialist nostalgia and imperialist amnesia.** Because in all the many versions of the touring Tutankhamun show, no mention whatsoever is made of the political context of the find, which you can read more about in this blog by Juliette Desplat at The National Archives. All archaeology was (and is) political. But Tutankhamun played a major role in the diplomatic dance between Britain and Egypt as Egypt tried, not for the first or last time, to determine its own path as a fully-fledged nation-state.

The silence that hung over that part of British and Egyptian history in 1972 (and, frankly, now) seems to me a perfect example of the entrenched amnesia where the colonial and imperial past is concerned – in Britain and elsewhere. If the colonial context of archaeology is mentioned at all within archaeology or Egyptology, it’s often reduced to an adventure story, all ‘discovery’ and ‘disinterested science’, with a dash of gold and glory. No violence, no suppression, no injustice, no economic or political interests at stake. What exactly do British audiences think all those uprisings – from the Gold Coast to India, by way of Egypt and Sudan – were rising up against? It certainly wasn’t Bruce Springsteen lyrics or when to plant broad beans, so why has everyone drawn a blank?

That’s amnesia for you. Which histories do we remember, which histories do we teach in our schools, and which histories do we present in our museums? I’m interested in the subtle, unspoken ways in which photographs reinforce the silence even as they purport to show us history as it really was. Here’s the thing: photographs don’t show us facts. They don’t show us ‘how it really was’. Photographs need to be treated with the same scrupulous care we give to any other historical document.^ Who took that photograph, and how, and where, and why? What happened to it afterwards? What assumptions went into taking it, how many people were involved, in what language did they communicate?

Those are the kinds of questions I’ve asked of the Tutankhamun photographs, for instance. Look again, above, at Burton’s photograph of the ‘untouched’ Antechamber of the tomb, taken in December 1922. That chamber had been opened for almost a month, and rigged for electricity supplied by the Egyptian government for the purpose. At least a dozen people, more likely two dozen, had been in and out, and there were probably three or four Egyptian assistants behind the camera or out-of-shot, working alongside Harry Burton to take the photographs the world was waiting for. That tomb chamber is about as ‘untouched’ as the tea and cake stall at my village’s summer fete last weekend. Because that’s the nature of photography. It needs time, it needs equipment, and it needs a reason and a will. Same goes for Luigi Fiorillo’s photographs of Alexandria after the British bombardment, and for the way they’ve been mounted into an album book-ended by portraits of the main military and political actors (Orabi and the khedive appear in front).

Don’t let photographs compound our amnesia about the colonial and imperial past. They can be so wonderfully deceptive, these images that make us feel like we were there the first time Howard Carter peered into the tomb. At the British Museum colloquium, several speakers spoke about ‘context’, meaning archaeological context, but only two or three of us mentioned colonialism – that is, the historical context in which every collection and museum discussed was formed. Young British men like Howard Carter, or Harry Burton, could go to Egypt to try their luck because a British army was based right in the middle of Cairo, and a British consul-general – Norfolk’s own Evelyn Baring, Lord Cromer – pulled the strings of the government nominally headed by the khedive.

It was Cromer who instituted policies such as banning state-funded education for Egyptians. No wonder it was the Egyptian speakers and audience members at the British Museum colloquium who knew perfectly well who Orabi was. He remains a symbol of Egyptian pride, resilience, and resistance: Orabi came from a modest Egyptian background, rather than the Turco-Circassian class who then dominated the country, but he went on to obtain a university education and lead an uprising that threatened the most powerful empire of the day. What kind of amnesia is the United Kingdom – the origin of that empire – suffering from, if the university students I teach, the public audiences I talk to, and many of the Egyptologists I meet, here on imperial home turf, don’t know this history, and much more besides?

It’s not just knowing history, of course. It’s what you do with it. I asked this question in my talk yesterday: What could Egyptology do with its past other than hang it up on the wall to admire? That’s a rhetorical question, but I hope one day I’ll see some answers.


(*) The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is a great source for figures in British History like Wolseley, but it does require a subscription for full access. Your public library or a university library may be able to help.

(**) Here are two papers I’ve found helpful: Renato Rosaldo, ‘Imperalist Amnesia’, Representations 26 (1989), pp. 107-22 (; the whole issue is devoted to memory and counter-memory), and Robert Fletcher, ‘The art of forgetting: Imperialist amnesia and public secrecy’, Third World Quarterly 33.3 (2012), pp. 423-39 ( Fletcher uses one of my favourite, if frustrating and challenging, works in anthropology: Michael Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative, Stanford University Press, 1999.

(^) See the ever-excellent Jennifer Tucker, in collaboration with Tina Campt, ‘Entwined practices: Engagements with photography in historical inquiry’, History and Theory 48.4 (2009), pp. 1-8 (

Visitor views

‘Simultaneously interesting and uncomfortable.’ That is my favourite comment so far from the guest book that I asked visitors to sign when the ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ exhibition was on at The Collection, Lincoln over the winter months. Guest books aren’t the most reliable way of knowing what visitors thought of an exhibition, of course. For one thing, the people who write something are usually the ones who were most pleased or most interested – or, perhaps, most offended or annoyed, though fortunately no one has indicated anything like that for the Tutankhamun show. Still, it means that comments may skew towards the positive and come from a self-selected audience.

For another thing, some visitors write down things that are irrelevant (‘I love Romania’, ‘Beatles 4 ever I am the Walrus), a bit rude (‘for a good time call…’), or just plain illegible. And although the guest book was in the exhibition room, with a sign clearly stating that it was for the ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ project and giving my contact details, some visitors wrote down more general observations about the museum, including ‘Nice museum’, ‘The Fiskerton log boat was amazing’, and ‘I like the dinasore bones’, the last in a child’s emphatic hand, with three carefully inked exclamation points.

In the sign above the comments book, I told visitors that I was especially interested in hearing from people who had visited the 1972 ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’ exhibition at the British Museum in London – an exhibition that marked the 50th anniversary of the tomb’s discovery and is the subject of my current research. Many visitors obliged, like the woman at the top of the guest book’s first page here:

Guestbook 1

I love the personal detail she remembers – and that she had seen the BBC 4 television documentary about Harry Burton, on which I was a consultant and made an appearance.

But even viewers who had no personal recollections of the 1972 exhibition nonetheless made very personal observations linking themselves to Egypt or Egyptology. One visitor wrote that it made her (from the handwriting) look forward even more to an upcoming trip to Luxor, while a couple recorded in the guest book that they had visited Egypt several times. Others flagged up their own studies of ancient Egypt, from children (like the last entry on the page above) who were ‘doing the Egyptians’ at primary school, to an anonymous comment (see below) that ‘there is much new information here even for an Egyptologist!’, which made me wonder if it had been written by anyone I know.

Guestbook 2

On the same page as the self-identified Egyptologist, there was advice to visit the Swaffham Museum (a few miles up the road from me in Norfolk, in the town where Howard Carter grew up), and a comment saying that it would have been nice to see ‘vintage prints and even glass negatives’, sandwiched between compliments about the show and its contextual material. The negatives, now in Oxford and New York City, are too fragile to travel and would have made this show prohibitively expensive to put on, even if one or two did get permission. Borrowing objects from museums and archives often needs a one-year lead time, conservation approval and treatments, and for the borrower to pay all the costs of shipping, including a conservator or curator to travel with the objects. So, no negatives – but the show is based on new, high-quality digital scans taken from the original negatives and reversed to make a ‘print’, plus I’ve been able to borrow, or buy, ephemera like cigarette cards, postcards, and newspaper articles to show how the photographs were used at the time and for decades afterwards.

What about vintage prints, that is, prints from the time of the excavation, probably made by Burton himself? In the Oxford and New York archives, prints that we can be pretty sure were made by Burton are mounted in albums. The New York set of albums also contain prints made after Burton’s death. Similarly, the Oxford archive has a long wooden storage box – they call it ‘the coffin’ – full of prints, some of which may be by Burton, but many of which date from throughout the 20th century, as photographs were copied, reprinted, and exchanged. The point of this exhibition, and many of the things I’ve written about the Tutankhamun photographs, is that archaeologists themselves weren’t bothered about who made the print. Neither was a photographer like Burton. This wasn’t photography as art. This was photography as a tool. Thus, ‘vintage prints’ can be tricky to identify, and in any case, since they are material, physical objects, they would face the same restrictions and costs when it came to borrowing them for display.

Several people in this guest book, or by email, or in person, have asked me about one particular photograph in the show: the profile view of the head of Tutankhamun’s mummy, which clearly shows that it was removed from his body at the base of the neck. This was done in order to get the mummy mask (with the head still inside) out of the inner, solid gold coffin, where everything had been stuck together by the oils and liquefied resins poured over the burial as part of the sacred rituals that were at the very heart of mummification. Carter and his colleagues then prised the wrapped head out of the mask using hot knives to melt the resin-rich goo. The photographs Burton took of the head propped on the brush handle – on top of what the Cambridge museum technicians have told me was probably a carpenter’s sawhorse – were never meant for publication, and they never were published until the 1960s. They were the kinds of photographs you automatically took of mummies and skeletons in archaeology at that time – and part of the visual language of racial (racist) science, that is, the prevalent idea that human beings could be divided up into races based on physical features, especially of the skull.

Guestbook 3

So I wasn’t surprised that one visitor commented on that photograph in the guest book, and in terms with which I’m now familiar: ‘sacrilege’, this visitor wrote, followed by a (supposed) Egyptian curse that has often been quoted in popular books about ancient Egypt. Other comments I’ve heard or read about that photograph run along similar lines – why detach the head, why treat it this way for photography, and is it something we’d want done to our own bodies?

Yet curators in museums invariably report that Egyptian mummies, especially unwrapped or partly unwrapped bodies, are the most popular part of any exhibition about ancient Egypt. Is viewing ‘the real thing’ easier than viewing a photograph? Is the response people seem to have to this photograph more to do with the fact that we know the identity of this person, this mummified head? A bit of both, I suspect. Given that I debated with myself whether to include the photograph of the mummified head, I’m intrigued and a bit relieved by the reactions. One thing I’ve learned is that putting something on display can more effectively get a point across than hiding it away. Context is everything, though. It’s the information – the text – provided with that photograph that makes the difference, as well as the impact of the photographs that are shown either side of it. In this case, the photograph of the head appears in between profile views of the mask and of two walking stick handles carved in the shape of dark-skinned African men, shown with their arms pinned behind them like prisoners.

That sequence of photographs is making a verbal and visual point about the way ideas of race – and of ancient Egypt – have been created and distributed for decades, even centuries. In the rest of the exhibition, this chimes with another theme that is important to me and my research, namely the role that hundreds of Egyptians, men and women, boys and girls, from every social group, played in the discovery, excavation, and preservation of the tomb and its objects. A couple of visitors in the guest book picked up on this theme, and I’ll end with the comment below about the ‘”hidden” characters’ in the photographs. On purpose, I did not use any of the ‘classic’, heavily staged photographs of Howard Carter, Arthur Mace, or Alfred Lucas working in the tomb. Carter appears only off to the side in one photograph – a group shot of Egyptian politicians visiting in 1926. Instead, the ‘hidden’ workers are the Egyptian archaeologists, basket boys, and camera assistants that our eyes, and our histories of Egyptology, have otherwise overlooked. ‘A real treat for the soul’ – I can’t ask for much more than that.

Guestbook 4



I hadn’t really thought about Tutankhamun, or even photography, for a couple of months while I got on with teaching something else, because that’s how academia works sometimes. But about a month ago, inevitably, Tutankhamun hove back into view. First with new research I’ve been doing on the 1972 British Museum exhibition (which I’ll write about soon), second with plans for the Cambridge version of my own ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ exhibition (which I’ll be starting to install tomorrow morning), and third, just this past week, with the proof version of my book, Photographing Tutankhamun, due out by the end of this year from Bloomsbury. The cover design was agreed months ago, to fit the style of the fantastic ‘Photography, History: History, Photography’ series in which my book will appear.


The proofs I received this week are the text inside – all 280-some pages of it, which will be closer to 300 by the time the index is done. There’s always a pain and a pleasure to this stage: the pain of little errors that have crept in, inconsistencies that escaped even a good copy-editor, or things I realize are my own fault, where I’ve changed my thinking about a phrase or word or idea. But there’s a pleasure, too, in seeing how well the text and images fit together, and in seeing one’s own words really – or almost – ‘in print’, rather than on my laptop screen or my tattered, much marked-up manuscript print-out.

Proof page 1

For me, a frustrated novelist, opening lines matter – and I always, always, write the first chapter first. So the start of Chapter 1, which you see above in the PDF proof, is the first thing I wrote for this book, when I returned to my home in Norfolk after carrying out three months of research in the Tutankhamun archives at Oxford University. I thought I was going to write a pretty straightforward book about how this most famous of archaeological finds, documented by a famous excavator, through a set of famous photographs, told us something about the relationship between archaeology and photography in 1920s Egypt. But somewhere in those archives, I had a little crisis. The kind of crisis that, fortunately, I’m now experienced enough as a researcher to know is a Good Thing. Because it takes some kind of crisis, big or small, to get to the breakthrough that shows you what your work is really about.

When this happens while you’re a student – it happened to me, and I see it happening now to my own students – it feels frightening. Rather than proof of your abilities and ideas, it feels like the opposite: proof that you were never cut out for this kind of work. Proof that all those years of study, of living on very little money (and loans), of patiently explaining to concerned relatives that being an academic is, indeed, an actual job even if no one they’ve ever met does it. All of that can just make the crisis worse. So yes, fortunately, I’d been there before – and was carrying out my Tutankhamun research with the security of a good job and the comforts of a visiting fellowship at All Souls College. That meant I could get out of the archive, have a nice lunch, and think through the crisis and what it meant for my research project.

And here’s what I thought: this wasn’t (just) a book about photography and archaeology in 1920s Egypt. This was a book about archives. About ‘the archive’ in both a very down-to-earth sense (papers, prints, albums, files, letters, documents) and in a more abstract sense, because archives – records – are the foundations of modern society. Creating, storing, filing, and retrieving information lie at the heart of our political, fiscal, and legal systems, not to mention organizations ranging from businesses to cultural organizations. Archives matter because they can give us history from two sides: the side that gets conscientiously recorded and filed away, and the side that slips through. That’s the side that doesn’t make into official accounts; the comments and inclusions (or exclusions) that are meaningful only with hindsight; or the information and images that have been buried, overlooked, or ignored. Archives made it possible for a research team at University College London to create a database of all the people – normal, average people – who benefited financially from the slave trade, for instance. And there are sound reasons why the destruction of archives – as the British foreign office did when it withdrew from one-time colonies – raises such ire, or should.

Maybe archaeological archives, like the Tutankhamun archive, don’t seem likely to yield dramatic new insights into modern history. It’s just ancient stuff, right? That’s certainly how most Egyptologists have used the Tutankhamun records – the ‘just the facts, ma’am’ approach to antiquity, I often call it, because it assumes (like Sergeant Friday in the old Dragnet TV series) that there are some ‘facts’ you can get to without paying much attention to how they’re being told, or by whom. But archaeology in 1920s Egypt was as political as, well, pretty much any archaeology in the Middle East, from the 18th century to the present day. Until now, archaeology has mostly been told from only one, supposedly disinterested, point of view, with firm ‘facts’ as its focus. Once I started to see the Tutankhamun photographs as part of an archive that had its own layers of stratigraphy, in which ‘facts’ were being made (and re-made) before our eyes, I could see the book that I needed – and wanted – to write. I could see my Tutankhamun story.

I’m about half-way through the book proofs now. They’ll be marked up and returned to the production team for corrections, I hope by the end of next week. In the meantime, I have the new exhibition to install, a few talks to give, and other people’s manuscripts to read and comment on as well. Being an academic is, indeed, an actual job – one that had my own parents baffled, though I think my father, who died shortly before I started university, had just about reconciled himself to its possible existence. Once I’d had my little crisis in the Oxford archives, and come home to write that first line and first chapter (‘…the lie to our glimpse of history’), I wanted to acknowledge that part of my own history. My own archive, as it were. That’s when I wrote a dedication page, with which I’ll end this entry. It’s going to be sandwiched between the copyright bumph and the table of contents. Some authors eschew dedications. I sometimes have, sometimes not. For this book, this felt right. Facts? Yes, from my perspective. Proof? Let’s hope so.

Proofs dedication


Being undisciplined

Given that ‘write blog’ has been on my to-do list for more than two months, not keeping up with my to-do list is clearly one way in which I’ve been undisciplined of late. That and descaling my kettle – which is steaming away with some distilled vinegar inside it as I (finally) write this post.

But there’s another way in which I feel undisciplined: having taken three university degrees in archaeology and Egyptology, it’s been a long time since I felt confident or comfortable describing myself as either an archaeologist or an Egyptologist. Sometimes, those do feel like the most apt designations of where I sit in terms of having an academic discipline. Other times, I feel more like a historian or an art historian. After all, I do work and teach in an art history department, and I have spent most of my life looking at, thinking about, talking about, and writing about the past and what survives of it in the present.

One of the many satisfying things about working on the history of photography the past few years has been discovering that many other academics in this field also feel undisciplined. We are employed at, or studying in, a whole range of archives, museums, and research institutes. Many of us are based in university departments designated as history of science, art history, or just plain history, not to mention departments of archaeology, anthropology, Classics, or film and media studies. At conferences, thrilled to find someone else in the world who cares about the colour of 20th-century photograph mounts, we cluster at coffee breaks asking each other not just ‘what do you do?’ but ‘what are you?’ and ‘where are you?’ – as if the rest of the time, we were goslings in a world of ducks.

Nothing wrong with ducks, of course. But it takes a certain kind of perseverance – or stubbornness – to follow an academic path less travelled, for all that the academic world has been talking about ‘inter-disciplinarity’ for a long as I’ve been part of it. Two things happened this past week that reminded me, once again, that much of my current and recent research seems alien, inappropriate, or simply irrelevant to the archaeologists and Egyptologists whom I still think of as my colleagues and my audience. Updating one colleague on my forthcoming Photographing Tutankhamun book inspired her to caution me, ‘Of course, you have to remember that they are archaeological photographs’. It’s not the first time I’ve heard something like that from an Egyptologist – the implication being, I think, that no other critique or consideration of the photographs is possible except as ‘scientific evidence’. Nonetheless, my book spends 100,000 words or so exploring all the other meanings and roles that photography had in archaeology – and I certainly hope that most Egyptologists will read it.

A couple of days later, during a conversation about approaches to teaching, another colleague told me that the history of archaeology isn’t archaeology. Archaeology is method, to this colleague’s mind, and students of archaeology first and foremost need to learn field practices and technical analyses. Then interpretation. Then, maybe on the side, some of the history of archaeological thought. ‘But that’s not archaeology’, this colleague emphasized. Since my own research and teaching argues that you can’t operate in a self-aware and effective way within a discipline unless you understand why it does the things it does, or doesn’t, do, we had reached an impasse. I was outside of archaeology, to her mind. A gosling waddling between neatly squared trenches.

After that conversation, I tried to remember my first classes as an archaeology undergraduate at Brown University. There was a field techniques class in the second semester of my first year, it’s true. Sandbox archaeology, we called it. It’s where I met my first boyfriend. I can use a trowel and a plumb bob, draw a trench section, and even just about draw pottery. But before we were allowed to do field techniques, we had to take a class that introduced us to archaeology through key sites, thinkers, and themes. It wasn’t a critical or theoretical class, not at all, and I would not read or think about the history of archaeology, colonialism, and the Middle East until I picked up an Edward Said book as a graduate student, plucking it from a table for the cover, the price, and the fact that it was in English when I was travelling in Egypt and had run out of Henry James.

More than field techniques and field experience (I have washed my share of potsherds), it was that general ‘introduction to archaeology’ class at Brown that started to give me some sense of being an archaeologist and thinking like an archaeologist. I then became an Egyptologist by virtue of studying hieroglyphs, a core requirement of my master’s degree. By the time I started my doctorate, I had abandoned archaeology and Near Eastern Studies departments to spend time in an art history department, which suited my interests better in many ways – but confused my identity even more. In the end, and with apologies to Edward Said, I wound up with a doctorate in Oriental Studies because it was the closest I could come to studying the art and artefacts that I wanted to study.

For more than ten years now, I’ve been the only Egyptologist employed by an art history department in the United Kingdom – a department that decided more than twenty years ago that archaeology and anthropology were essential complements to more traditional, Western art-based approaches to visual and material culture. It’s been a good fit for me, or at least as good a fit as any. But I’m still not sure what to call myself – nor, I think, are many of my colleagues.

Hence the relief at finding birds of a similar feather in the field of photographic history. The more work I do on the history of archaeology and Egyptology, however, the more convinced I am that it is deeply, even urgently, relevant to the practice of archaeology and Egyptology today. At a photography conference last year, I sat at dinner next to one of my heroes, an art historian who works on representations of the Middle East and the Mediterranean in 19th-century images and thought. Why shouldn’t an art historian work on the history of photography, he said – and why shouldn’t I, an Egyptologist, be able to be an Egyptologist while working on material so foundational to the field as the Tutankhamun excavation photographs? Why indeed.

We’re not the ones who need to change, was his point. It’s the ducks. I think I can quack to that.