The forgotten Egyptians who helped to find Tutankhamun

A new exhibition is bringing to life the workers without whom the boy king's tomb might never have been discovered

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In the year that Egypt secured its independence, the discovery of the 3,000-year-old tomb of one of its ancient rulers, the boy king Tutankhamun, was portrayed as a triumph for the colonial old guard.

The uncovering of remarkable treasures in 1922 was the culmination of a five-year hunt funded by a British aristocrat and led by an obstinate English excavator who were propelled to international stardom by the find.

The efforts of dozens of Egyptians who were central to the greatest event in archaeological history were largely sidelined in the official record. But a new examination of photos and documents from the archive of the leader of the expedition, Howard Carter, has cast new light on the role of the Egyptian foreman and dozens of workers whose efforts were crucial to its success.

“The excavation was not achieved by a solitary heroic English archaeologist, but by the modern Egyptian team members, who have so often been overlooked and written out of the story,” said Richard Bruce Parkinson, a professor of Egyptology at the University of Oxford.

Carter’s own diary and documents fail to shed light on how the hidden steps to the vault were revealed. His own diary records a scribbled single line on November 4 1922: “First steps of tomb found.”

Carter’s non-academic background and love of a far-fetched yarn has led to various theories — few of them backed by the official records.

Researchers say it was likely to have been a team effort — the melding of local knowledge and Carter’s own obsessive hunt for a missing tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.

The discoveries it yielded were remarkable. The tomb was small and hastily repurposed for a king of minor historical importance who died before his time, aged about 19, but remains the only royal burial from ancient Egypt to survive largely intact.

It took a decade to remove the 5,000 objects inside, a process recorded by the celebrated Harry Burton, who was known as the “Pharaohs’ Photographer” for his work recording expeditions in Egypt.

These photos and Carter’s papers provide an insight into the work of local labourers in discovering and collecting the treasures.

Carter names, and thanks, four Egyptians in his papers, but Burton’s pictures show how many more were involved.

“Even today, absolutely nothing would work without the Egyptians and Egyptian team members,” said Dr Daniela Rosenow, the co-curator of a new exhibition Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive. “We can see in his images, he employed about 50 additional local workmen and dozens of children, which was standard practice in those days.

“The European archaeologists wrote their diaries and journals, but most of the Egyptians probably couldn't read or write.

“What they did was go home in the evening and tell their families what they had seen. At least with the photographs, we can assess their contribution and see what really, really vital role they played in the excavation.”

Carter, the son of an artist, had no formal archaeological training, and relied on the Egyptian workforce to understand the landscape and spot where a rock had been cut by ancient hand as he hunted for the lost tomb.

Compared with many of his upper-class colleagues of the time, he was a staunch defender of his Egyptian staff. He was fired from a previous job for defending Egyptian guards during a dispute with a group of western tourists who wanted access to a restricted site, said Prof Parkinson.

Among those he thanks in his papers is his foreman Ahmed Gerigar, who organised the dozens of workmen. But archivists have been unable to put his name to a photo in the archive and little is known about him or his fellow workers.

Their place in the archaeological pecking order is starkly illustrated in a photograph taken by Lord Carnarvon, the backer of the project, at a lunch of experts brought in to examine the preserve the finds.

The seven men seated around a table are all white and western. Two Egyptians were present, but they were waiters plucked from a luxury hotel in Luxor to serve the men their lunch.

Lunch in the tomb of Ramses XI. Photo: The Bodleian Libraries/University of Oxford

Other photographs showed the reality for many of the local Egyptian workers, who were hired for the hardest tasks such as moving the packaged treasures from the Valley of the Kings on the first stage of the 400-mile journey by barge to Cairo.

In May 1923, that involved 50 workmen working for 18 hours over two days moving 34 crates five miles to the nearest river in temperatures that reached over 38ºC in the shade. They laid short stretches of track and pushed the loaded trucks before starting the whole process again.

Moving crates from the Valley of the Kings by rail. Photo: The Bodleian Libraries/University of Oxford

But the archive also shows Egyptians inside the tomb working alongside Carter as trusted and essential members of the team, even if they do not get the recognition that they deserve.

“I think the archive shows how important they were for all of the work that was done excavating in Egypt. But it also reveals the inequalities,” said Prof Parkinson.

“We have photographs of them working together, but we can't match the names to the photographs.

“So while there was respect, it was very much within a very colonial context. But seeing faces and knowing their names were not recorded … I think that is really heartbreaking.

“It's going to be very difficult to reclaim those lost histories, there's so little written evidence. And I think that's where the photographs really come into their own because they can imply a whole world of information. It's just the names, we don't have the names.”

The centrepiece of the exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, England, is a picture of an Egyptian boy wearing a necklace recovered from the tomb.

Photograph of an Egyptian boy wearing a heavy jewelled necklace from the tomb. Photo: Griffith Institute/University of Oxford

It is one of the rare photographs of a member of the Egyptian team centre-frame taken by the colonial adventurers within the portfolio. Others mainly capture Egyptians working alongside or helping with the project — but usually in the shadow of the English archaeologists.

“Our archive was created by the English excavators. And it only tells one part of the story,” said Dr Rosenow. “If you have a look into the boy's face, you can clearly see a much more complex human reaction. You can feel that he is literally feeling the weight, the physical weight of this necklace, but also the weight of the past on his shoulders.”

His identity remains unknown even though a number of people have since come forward to claim the young man was a relative.

Despite the apparent inequalities between the English and local workers on the dig, newly-independent Egypt, which had been occupied since 1914 as a British protectorate, was at least able to keep the treasures on its soil.

Attitudes were changing after the widespread looting of antiquities by British forces during the previous century. The papers show that Carnarvon envisaged seeing recovered artefacts on display in England.

In a letter in the same month as the initial discovery, he wrote to a fellow Egyptologist in the UK about the discoveries.

“There is enough stuff to fill the whole Egyptian section upstairs of the B.M. [British Museum],” he wrote. “I imagine it is the greatest find ever made.”

But a pre-independence agreement he signed meant that anything recovered by the team from an intact tomb remained the property of Egypt.

The discovery just months after Egypt became independent meant that Tutankhamun became an icon of that campaign. The stunning gold funerary mask that was laid on the face of the mummified body was celebrated as the face of a nation with roots 3,000 years in the past.

Visits to the site — and photographs of the work in progress during the decade of work — were jealously guarded by the British-led team and Egyptians accused Carnarvon of exploiting the site for his own commercial gain. Carnarvon’s death a few months later from an infected mosquito bite was seized on by a hostile local press with sensational stories that he had been struck down by an ancient curse for breaking into the tomb.

The raw politics of the dig halted the work for almost a year in a dispute over access to the site. The photos also show significantly more local officials present during the highly-sensitive autopsy of the body carried out by the Egyptian, Dr Saleh Bey Hamdi, the head of the government school of medicine in Cairo.

The official committee observing the first incision. Photo: The Bodleian Libraries/University of Oxford

During the course of the tomb’s clearance, the newly-independent government ensured that the treasures would go on display at a museum in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Most have been moved to the $1 billion Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza, which could open to coincide with the centenary of the discovery of the Tutankhamun tomb in November to bolster the vital tourism industry of the country.

“Egyptian independence happened just a few months before the discovery of the tomb,” said Dr Rosenow. “It massively shaped this new nationalist idea and they were very proud of Tutankhamun.

“His face, his funerary mask, become the icon of this newfound nation and they were extremely proud of him.”

Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford runs until February 2023

Updated: April 21, 2022, 8:20 PM
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