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, The Tutankhamun Excavation

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. Continue reading “Camera Men”

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”

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”

Museums and Heritage, The Tutankhamun Excavation

Tutankhamun goes to the fair

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

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

Photography and History, The Tutankhamun Excavation

Tutankhamun’s head


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

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

Photography and History

Photos in the marketplace

I’m not the only photo historian who trawls online auction sites in the name of research, or who can’t pass up a box of old photographs or postcards at an antiques fair. I don’t buy things online very often (especially since discovering how right-wing the owner of one popular auction site is), but now and again, something seems too good to pass up.

This week, I bought a press photograph from 1924:


The front bears the wax pencil marks for the printer to crop the photo to the left, showing just the face of Egypt’s King Fuad. Scrawled out on the right is the white-capped face of the country’s first elected prime minister, Sa’ad Zaghloul. On the back of the photo, a date stamp, more scrawls (‘Wed – City ed.’), and a suggested caption give us a more information about how the photograph was meant to be used:


For about $23, including postage, I’m happy to have bought this piece of history – the history of Egypt, the history of Britain, and the history of the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb – even though Tutankhamun isn’t mentioned. Continue reading “Photos in the marketplace”

Photography and History, The Tutankhamun Excavation


Let’s start with the photo below.banner‘Heat’ is everything in this image. Notice the short shadows: it was taken when the sun was near its zenith on May 14th, 1923. That day, from sunrise until 6 pm, dozens of Egyptian men moved 34 crates containing 89 boxes of objects that had been cleared out of the first room (the ‘antechamber’) of the tomb of Tutankhamun over the previous five months. The tomb lay more than five miles from the Nile, and the objects were due to sail down the river on an Egyptian government barge, destined for the antiquities museum in Ismailiya (now Tahrir) Square. There was only one way to get them there, and that was manpower. Continue reading “Heat”