Photography and History

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.

Continue reading “Sitting uncomfortably”
Photography and History, The Tutankhamun Excavation

Water boys and wishful thinking

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. [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.

Continue reading “Water boys and wishful thinking”

Photography and History


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. Continue reading “Beginnings”

Photography and History, The Tutankhamun Excavation, Writing

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.

Continue reading “Research, Watson-style”

Museums and Heritage, Photography and History, The Tutankhamun Excavation

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. Continue reading “Imperial amnesia”

Photography and History, The Tutankhamun Excavation, Writing


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. Continue reading “Proof”

Photography and History, The Tutankhamun Excavation, Writing

The machete stage

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

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