Update, December 2022: Please see my book Treasured: How Tutankhamun Shaped a Century (Atlantic Books 2021, paperback 2022) for a little more information that I was able to dig out on the ‘water boy’ story – which a Boston Globe reporter tried to track down already in April 1924, linking it to a young man from the Girgar family (also spelled Gerigar or Gorgar). Ahmed Girgar was the senior Egyptian archaeologist (ra’is) on the Tutankhamun excavation. My point remains the same: the photograph taken by Harry Burton, of young Hussein Abd el-Rasul wearing one of Tutankhamun’s necklaces, has come to have a life of its own in the past 10 to 20 years, making a ‘cute kid’ story out of a much bigger problem, namely, archaeology’s erasure of Egyptians’ essential and wide-ranging roles in knowledge production about the ancient past.
Original blog entry starts here:
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.  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.