How Egypt has been written out of the Tutankhamun centenary story

The discovery of the tomb is commonly told as a tale of superhero foreign archaeologists - but is it time for a decolonialist revision?

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One hundred years ago, Howard Carter uncovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun.

The November 4 centenary of that find will be celebrated around much of the world with books and seminars, exhibitions and documentaries.

But away from the limelight and the fanfare, the countdown has fuelled a conversation on long-debated subjects related to Egyptology.

Those topics include ownership of the narrative on Egypt’s ancient civilisation, the decolonisation of Egyptology and the need to produce a more inclusive and equitable account of those involved in archaeological excavations.

Washington exhibit transports visitors to Tutankhamun's Ancient Egypt

The Beyond King Tut exhibit's exit leaves visitors with a distinctly 'National Geographic' visual.

The significance to Egyptology of the 1922 discovery — arguably the world’s greatest archaeological find — cannot be overestimated, chiefly because the contents of the tomb, unlike most other royal tombs, were found intact, providing a wealth of material for scholars seeking to piece together details of life in ancient Egypt.

The blue-and-gold mask found in the tomb became a global symbol and the unrivalled representation of Egypt's ancient civilisation.

It transformed Carter, an English archaeologist who died in 1939, into an international household name and the quintessential colonial adventurer, with the magnitude of his find matched only by the size of the vast empire he was born into.

Carter, however, is viewed by his apologists as a typical product of his time, growing up in an England that ruled a sprawling empire.

When he discovered the tomb in 1922, Britain was still holding on to that empire, but its wholesale exploitation of its colonies, including Egypt, was beginning to be seriously challenged for the first time in centuries.

Fast forward to 2022 and the man once the empire's star son is cast in a less-than-flattering light.

The debate goes beyond the scope of his discovery, tackling post-colonial issues that are relevant more than half a century after most British colonies, including Egypt, became independent.

That Carter's name is the only one widely associated with the discovery is a contentious point — while his professional integrity is another.

“Egypt is totally missing from King Tut’s story,” said Heba Abd El Gawad, an Egyptian heritage and museum specialist at University College London. “We get totally dismissed and disenfranchised from the story. In fact, we are totally dismissed from the whole narrative of ancient Egypt.

"We are only mentioned, blamed actually, when artefacts are damaged, but rarely when a new and significant find is made.

“They view us as ‘Egyptianised’ rather than the native inhabitants of Egypt. They look at our civilisation as one without a specific owner. They look at us in the West as no more than the caretakers of ancient ruins and artefacts, but who have no claim to them as their own."

Carter's ascent to becoming the archetypal white European adventurer began when his fascination with Egyptology sent him to Egypt at age 17. The years he spent there searching for Tutankhamun’s tomb yielded excavation and documentation techniques that are highly valued and relevant to this day.

As his discovery of the 3,300-year-old tomb of a "boy king" — who died aged 19 about 1333BC after a decade on the throne — is celebrated, it has not shielded Carter from the scrutiny to which his legacy is now subjected.

A recent book by prominent Long Island University Egyptologist Bob Brier, Tutankhamun and the Tomb that Changed the World, cites evidence that purports to confirm allegations that have for years swirled around Carter's name — that he stole artefacts from the tomb.

“But now, there’s no doubt about it,” Brier told London's The Observer earlier this year.

Also questioned is Carter being accorded the sole credit for the discovery ― British members of his team are rarely included in praise, while Egyptians who worked for and provided him with invaluable local knowledge on where and how to dig hardly get a mention.

“The [tomb] discovery 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 history,” Egyptologist Richard Bruce Parkinson of the University of Oxford recently said.

His comments were released to coincide with the opening in England this year of an exhibition dedicated to the Egyptian workers who, many are convinced, made the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb possible.

In today's Egypt, authorities are at pains to emphasise the role played by Egyptians whenever a find is made. When a discovery is the exclusive work of Egyptian archaeologists, the mood at the government news conference that follows is celebratory.

Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist from the American University in Cairo, came to the defence of Carter. She says his discovery gave Egypt and the entire world an invaluable gift.

“I am not a fan [of Carter's], but I am fed up with people throwing mud at somebody just because he’s white,” Ms Ikram said. “Archaeology is an international discipline.”

The tomb’s discovery had unlikely political ramifications in Egypt, resonating with the country's political activists of the time. They saw it as a rallying cry to continue pressing demands for an end to British rule and as a source of additional energy to establish a new and modern Egyptian identity.

The country’s prominent politicians at the time — their national pride bolstered by the discovery — broke with standard practices and insisted the artefacts stay in Egypt and not be shared with Carter and his aristocratic English backers.

“There is a great deal of talk about decolonising the narrative on Egypt’s ancient civilisation,” said Amina El Bendary, an associate professor of Islamic and Arab studies at the American University in Cairo.

“Research and scholarship on Egypt’s civilisation is published in many languages, but those in English receive much more attention and, in the view of many, carry more weight.

“I feel that what happens in our universities and schools is isolated from what is going on abroad. Similarly, westerners don’t read enough of what is being published here.”

Egyptology struck roots in Egypt in the 1940s and 1950s despite the earlier emergence of local pioneers, although Egypt has not always jealously guarded its pharaonic antiquities as it does now.

The country allowed the sale and export of ancient artefacts well after independence from Britain in the 1950s.

In the 1960s, Egypt's nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser gave temples, obelisks and statues to several western nations to show his gratitude for their help in saving ancient monuments in the south of the country.

Updated: June 02, 2023, 11:15 AM