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Today, 90 years ago on 26 November 1922, a small group gathered in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt at the entrance to a tomb after five years of excavating. They waited as archaeologist Howard Carter painstakingly chiselled an opening through the sealed door. Initially he could see nothing in the flickering candle light, but he described how as his eyes adjusted to the light:
â€˜the details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and goldâ€”everywhere the glint of goldâ€¦ Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, â€œCan you see anything?â€ It was all I could do to get out the words, â€œYes, wonderful thingsâ€.â€™
That day transformed our knowledge of ancient Egypt forever. Despite being a hastily arranged burial for a relatively minor king who died in his teens, the contents of the tomb â€“ over six hundred objects, ranging from thrones and chariots to game boards and underwear â€“ was one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time, an unparalleled time capsule from 14th century BC Egypt.
The discovery of Tutankhamunâ€™s tomb fuelled many Egyptologistsâ€™ early interest in the subject, including one of our former curators, Cyril Aldred, a notable Egyptologist who served from 1937â€“1974. While still at school, he met Howard Carter, who tested him on his Egyptological knowledge and was sufficiently impressed to introduce him to the great Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie. Carter urged Petrie to take the young man on excavation with him, but Aldred was deterred when Petrie requested that his father contribute to financing the excavation! Despite this initial set back, Aldred had a long and influential career in Edinburgh.
When I arrived as the new curator of the Ancient Mediterranean at the National Museum of Scotland just one month ago and started exploring the incredibleÂ ancient Egyptian collectionÂ here, I felt something akin to what I imagine Howard Carter must have felt.
Knowing how famous Tutankhamun is today, it is hard to believe that a hundred years ago he was almost completely unknown, even to Egyptologists. Very few occurrences of his name had been found before the discovery of his tomb, but it is possible that an object in our collection may have been amongst the very earliest â€“ a bright blue bezel finger ring stamped with the throne name of Tutankhamun. It is known to have been in the collection of the National Museum of Antiquities in 1900 (the National Museum of Antiquities later merged with the Royal Scottish Museum, to form what is now National Museums Scotland). This suggests that it was amongst the objects brought back from Egypt in the 1850s by the Scottish antiquarian and early archaeology pioneer Alexander Henry Rhind. Rings like thisÂ are thought to have beenÂ produced because the divine nature of the kingâ€™s name held magical, protective qualities.
One of the discoveries that led Howard Carter to find Tutankhamunâ€™s tomb was a find made ten years earlier by Theodore Davis of another tomb in the Valley of the Kings, KV58, which contained gold foil, probably from a royal chariot, and faience furniture knobs decorated with the name of Tutankhamunâ€™s successor Ay. Davis mistakenly ascribed this tomb to Tutankhamun and declared â€˜I fear that the Valley of the Tombs [i.e. the Valley of the Kings] is now exhaustedâ€™. Rarely has anyone been proven more wrong! Moreover, it was these objects that suggested to Carter that Tutankhamunâ€™s tomb must be nearby.
National Museums Scotland has an object very similar to those first furniture handles found by Davis. It is made from a glazed ceramic composition called faience, decorated with Tutankhamunâ€™s throne name, and would have originally adorned an elaborate, decorated wooden box. All of the beautiful wooden boxes from Tutankhamunâ€™s tomb have very similar handles.
In addition to these small finds, the museum also holds two somewhat mysterious statue heads, which certainly date roughly to the era of Tutankhamun, but over which scholars have debated for decades. Cyril Aldred wrote that he and Bernard V. Bothmer of the Brooklyn Museum had argued over the head â€˜for years without reaching finalityâ€™.
Both heads are made of granite and wear the royalÂ nemesÂ headdress and have been variously identified as Tutankhamun; an elderly Amenhotep III, Tutankhamunâ€™s grandfather; Ay, Tutankhamunâ€™s vizier and immediate successor, and Horemheb, Tutankhamunâ€™s general who succeeded Ay as king.
Their hooded eyes and deep furrows from the nose to the downturned mouth are strongly reminiscent of late Amarna art and I can certainly see the resemblance to other statues identified as Tutankhamun. Further research is required, but it is important to remember that royal statues were never intended as portraits and were executed by different artists, so definitive attribution is unlikely. Many scholars have had different opinions on who our mystery pharaohs areÂ â€“ what do you think?
In over three thousand years of history, ancient Egypt was ruled by hundreds of kings; to the untrained eye, they may often seem undistinguishable in their idealised representations, but their stories are more varied and extraordinary than might be imagined.Â In my new book, written to accompany the British Museum UK touring exhibition Pharaoh: King of Egypt, I explore many of these fascinating stories through the fabulous objects in the British Museumâ€™s collection, from beautiful gilded palace tiles to a papyrus account of royal assassination. The aim of both the exhibition and the book is to juxtapose the ideals of kingship with the more complex realities faced by Egyptâ€™s rulers.
For example, Amun-Ra, king of the gods, was frequently invoked by the Egyptian kings who sought to align themselves with him, but no one could have imagined the many ways in which his name would be used by the pharaohs over the centuries: Hatshepsut, who declared herself the first female king (not queen), told of her own birth as resulting from an assignation between her mother and Amun-Ra in disguise as her father; the kings of Nubia (ancient Sudan) justified their invasion of Egypt as a rescue mission for Amun-Ra, who they alleged was no longer being properly honoured in his own country; Alexander the Great sought out the oracle of Amun-Ra at Siwa Oasis where the god (or his nervous priests) acknowledged the Macedonian conqueror as his son.
The book has been a joy to write, but it actually almost never happened. The plan for the exhibition had always been to focus on creating an open online catalogue so we could offer free access to further object information, which is exactly what we did and you can visit the online catalogue here. It was only just as the exhibition was opening that BM Press broached the possibility of creating of a small affordable illustrated book to accompany the exhibition. The objects themselves are so stunning, from the huge wooden tomb guardian statue of Ramses I to the most delicate gold jewellery of the Middle Kingdom, that the prospect of working further with them was very appealing. In some ways the late start proved quite useful because it offered the opportunity to explore in the book some of the great stories that hadnâ€™t made it into the exhibition.
For example, almost everyone knows of the boy-king Tutankhamun and the incredible discovery of his tombâ€™s treasures, but fewer will be familiar with the confusion over royal succession after his untimely death. Having died barely out of his teens, Egypt was left without a royal heir to inherit the throne, his only two children having been still born and interred with their father. Itâ€™s recorded that Tutankhamunâ€™s widow wrote in her desperation to a foreign ruler, the Hittite king: â€˜My husband died. I do not have a son. But, they say, many are your sons. If you would give me one of your sons, he would become my husbandâ€™. But the Hittite prince never made it to his coronation. En route to Egypt, the Hittite prince was murdered and Tutankhamunâ€™s vizier Ay took the throne instead. Ay performed the traditional ceremonies usually carried out at the pharaohâ€™s funeral by his son, thereby smoothing the path to his succession. Over and over through ancient Egyptian history, the ideals of kingship were used to help soften the much harsher realities of ancient life and maintain stability and power.
While the exhibition consists of 14 sections ranging from royal titulary to temple building, family life to war iconography, my approach for the book was to condense these into a simpler framework of five chapters, each one exploring a key aspect of the kingâ€™s duties and mythologized roles, and how different the reality often was from the ideal:
â€˜The son of Raâ€™, supposedly descended from the gods, but often crowned through circumstance, conspiracy or invasion
â€˜The Lord of the Two Landsâ€™, responsible for maintaining order and the unity of Upper and Lower Egypt, though their failure sometimes plunged the country into civil war
â€˜He who builds the mansions of the godsâ€™, serving as high priest, building templesâ€¨, or rather taking the shortcut of reusing older monuments
â€˜A champion without compareâ€™, a warrior-king, supposedly protecting Egypt from her enemies, but being conquered in turn just as often
â€˜Lord of Eternityâ€™, when the pharaoh was buried and thought to become one with the gods, after which he might subsequently be worshipped, maligned or forgotten
Each chapter is lavishly illustrated with brand new colour photographs and introduced by two quotations, one framing the idealised vision of the pharaoh in a particular role, the other presenting a starkly different view, to give the ancient Egyptians a chance to speak for themselves in their own words.
For the final chapter, â€˜Lord of Eternityâ€™, a quotation from the poem The Tale of Sinuhe illustrates the mythological beliefs surrounding the death of the king and the manner in which his subjects were expected to honour him:
The God ascended to his horizon; the Dual King Sehotepibre, mounted to heaven, and was united with the sun, the divine flesh mingling with its creator. The palace was in silence, hearts were in mourning.”
In reality, deceased kings could generally expect to be treated much more harshly, as this account by tomb robbers in the Amhurst Papyrus demonstrates:
We stripped off the gold which we found on the noble mummy of this god. We found the royal wife likewise and we took all that we found on her too. We set fire to their inner coffins.”
I hope that the book Pharaoh: King of Egyptwill be an enjoyable introduction to ancient Egyptian kingship and some of the amazing objects in the British Museumâ€™s collection (and it’s onlyÂ Â£9.99!). For those in the UK who havenâ€™t yet seen the exhibition, itâ€™s currently on at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until 14 October, after which it will be in Glasgow from 3 November 2012 â€“ 24 February 2013, and finally Bristol from 15 March â€“ 9 June, 2013.
As most of youâ€™ll have noticed from the Google doodle posted today, May 9th 2012 is the 138th birthday of Howard Carter, the archaeologist celebrated for discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun. While many know him for that achievement, his original training was as an artist and some of his most notable work may actually be the incredible artistic records he produced, some of which may be viewed here.
While other Egyptologists such as Champollion and Petrie were famed for their scholarly advances, Carter superseded them in the public imagination with a discovery borne out of perseverance and a bit of luck. The discovery undeniably advanced our understanding of ancient Egypt massively overnight, and the vast range of objects in such a hastily assembled, minor kingâ€™s tomb is but a hint of what would have been discovered in the tombs of the greatest kings of the New Kingdom. The discovery has inspired future generations of Egyptologists and archaeologists, and the objects themselves have contributed to our understanding of everything from ancient Egyptian flora and clothing toÂ boatsÂ andÂ furniture.
Recording and removing the objects from the tomb took Carter 10 years, and with this sheer volume of objects, the finds are still being published today. It has been estimated that if publication continues at the present rate, it will be another 200 years before thorough records and studies of the finds are made!Â Luckily the Griffith Institute Archives in Oxford, which Iâ€™ve written about previously more fully here, has digitized the thousands of record cards, photographs, and diaries from the excavation and made them publicly available online. This important endeavour has taken fifteen years and I highly recommend exploring the site if you havenâ€™t already!
It may be that the populist appeal of the tombâ€™s â€˜treasuresâ€™ and often sensationalist slant to the endless media interest have put off some scholars from working more on the Tutankhamun objects. Nevertheless, research continues today on the objects, and in addition to Joyce Tyldesleyâ€™s recently published general interestÂ book, publications in the past few years includeÂ works on the various chairs and seating furniturefound in the tomb,Â Tutankhamunâ€™s footwear,Â and DNA testing performed on his mummy.Â Further research on the chariots found in Tutankhamunâ€™s tomb will be presented at the First International Chariot Conference in December later this year.
Despite these advances, last year, the legacy of Carterâ€™s discovery was threatened by the looting of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The followingÂ video of a powerpoint presentation from the second seminar of the World Wide Archaeology Commission in cooperation with the Egyptian MuseumÂ shows which museum cases were broken into and, using before and after photos, demonstrates the extent of the damage to the objects, the restoration process, and the final result.Â Although some of the stolen Tutankhamun objects were recovered, many remain missing today.
Archaeology is fundamentally a destructive process and it is only through keeping thorough records that we can hope to make sense of what we discover about our past. Howard Carter’s initial involvement in Lord Carnarvon’s search for Tutankhamun resulted from his recommendation as an assistant to ensure proper archaeological recording. The best way to protect and preserve the objects of Tutankhamunâ€™s tomb for the future is to continue to pursue their careful study and publication and share our knowledge with all.
A recent BBC Radio 4 programme â€˜Ghost Musicâ€™, which I was involved with, resurrected an old recording of even older musical instruments- the 1939 broadcast of trumpets over 3,300 years old, discovered in the tomb of the ancient Egyptian king, Tutankhamun. These instruments are the only two surviving trumpets from ancient Egypt.
The haunting sounds which were produced in the recording have been almost overshadowed by both the infamous story of accidental shattering of the silver trumpet, and the recent theft of the copper or bronze trumpet from the Egyptian Museum and its miraculous recovery.
The shattering of the silver trumpet destroyed hopes of fully understanding its construction, and it was a shock when the one intact trumpet surviving, which could still offer further information to its making, was stolen. Nor had there been the opportunity to undertake scientific analysis of the trumpetâ€™s material; we still do not know its metallic composition and whether it is made of copper or bronze. Thankfully it was found and hopefully will be studied further in the future.
The story of the playing of the trumpet and the disastrous accident that befell the silver trumpet is told in this video:
Various stories have been told about the accident, but it has been said that it occurred when the bandsman, Tappern, attempted to force his modern mouthpiece into the ancient instrument. The use of this modern mouthpiece presumably detracted from the accuracy of the sound produced in the recording, significantly altering their sound from the original. Modern mouthpieces include a semi-spherical cup, which maximizes resonance and enables the playing of a greater range of notes, while the trumpets were originally fitted with just very simple metal rings, purely to make their playing more comfortable rather than produce any effect on the sound.
The trumpets were actually first played several years before the famous BBC recording, by a Professor Kirby, head of the Music department at Johannesburg, when he visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Kirby was able to produce three notes but said he doubted whether the highest note was ever used as it required considerable effort, while the bottom note was poor in quality. It is possible that only the middle note was ever used. The trumpet was a military instrument, presumably used not only to rally troops but also communicate. Playing rhythmic patterns on a single note could have served as a military signal. These signals could have been further diversified by using two trumpets of different pitches, which could be why Tutankhamun was equipped with two different trumpets. Trumpeters were referred to using titles such as â€˜trumpet speakerâ€™ and â€˜caller on the trumpetâ€™.
Kirby suggested that the recording mislead listeners and music critics: â€˜What was infinitely worse was that for the broadcast the military trumpeter, finding as I had done that he could get only one good note out of each instrument, fitted his own modern trumpet mouth-piece into each of the ancient instruments in turn, thus completely altering their nature, and enabling him to blow brilliant fanfares quite alien to the sounds head by the Egyptian soldiery of antiquity, and thus misleading listeners-in, including one of the leading London music criticsâ€™.
The trumpets were initially discovered in 1922 in the tomb in the Valley of the Kings by Howard Carter. The initial records by Carter made can be read online thanks to the Griffith Institute Archive.
Tutankhamunâ€™s silver trumpet was found in the burial chamber, lying under a calcite lamp wrapped in reeds. The copper or bronze trumpet was found in the antechamber, inside a hinged wooden box in front of the lion couch, which was stuffed full of bows, arrows, walking sticks, as well as the kingâ€™s undergarments (!). Confusion prompted by the presence of the military equipment meant that the bronze trumpet was initially identified as a mace.
Tutankhamunâ€™s trumpets are both decorated with a square panel on the bell depicting the royal names in cartouches, and the gods Amun, Re-Harakhti, and Ptah. On the bronze trumpet, these deities are joined by the king. These three gods were among the chief deities in Egypt, but it may also be significant that they were also the figureheads of key army divisions, highlighting the instrumentsâ€™ military role. Nevertheless, their funerary significance is also apparent. The silver trumpet was originally decorated with a lotus flower design, although this was partly erased to make way for the panel. So were the wooden stoppers for both trumpets. The lotus was a frequent funerary motif, a powerful symbol of rebirth, and as such may have been intended to aid the kingâ€™s resurrection.
Howard Carter wrote of finding the silver trumpet in his publication of the tomb: â€˜Beneath this unique lamp, wrapped in reeds, was a silver trumpet, which, though tarnished with age, were it blown would still fill the Valley with a resounding blast. Neatly engraved upon it is a whorl of calices and sepals, the prenomen and nomen of Tutankhamun, and representations of the gods Re, Amen, and Ptah. It is not unlikely that these gods may have had some connexion with the division of the field army into three corps or units, each legion under the special patronage of one of these deitiesâ€”army divisions such as we well know existed in the reign of Rameses the Great.â€™
Tutankhamunâ€™s two trumpets are the only ones that have survived from ancient Egypt. Previously, there was also thought to be a trumpet in the Louvre Museum. It too was â€˜playedâ€™ by a scholar investigating ancient Egyptian trumpets and subjected to various tests, such as an oscilloscope, however it was later revealed to actually be a the lower part of a stand or incense burner! Other instruments are well-known from Egypt though, including harps, single and double flutes and other reed instruments, lutes, lyres, sistra (rattles), and clappers.
The drum was the other key military instrument. A wonderfully engaging late 17th Dynasty text tells of a man named Emhab, who practiced his drumming skills until he was invited to audition against another contestant for a position with the army, beating his rival by drumming seven thousand â€˜lengthsâ€™ (a â€˜lengthâ€™ is presumably a technical term, possibly referring to a rhythmical phrase). Emhab joined the army and drummed on many royal military campaigns, until he was rewarded by the king himself.
The royal trumpeter who played the king’s trumpets, in either a ceremonial or military context, is unknown to us today. Although the 1939 BBC recording of the trumpets may have been technically inaccurate, it offers a chance to connect with ancient experience, sound, and emotion that has captivated many people. In the past, Iâ€™ve written about experimental and experiential archaeology and how much we can learn from ancient practices and experiences, such as playing Egyptian board games, making flint tools, or listening to ancient poetry. The BBC recording may be the only chance we will ever have to hear the sound of ancient Egypt trumpets; the possibility of further damage in sounding the originals is too great, but it may be possible to make accurate replicas one day. However, even if we can never truly replicate the trumpetsâ€™ sound again, the Egyptians left us an almost equally moving impression of their wondrous sound. In the tomb of the fan-bearer Ahmose at Amarna, there is a unique representation of a marching army. The scene depicts the figures in the normal ancient Egyptian arrangement of registers (one might say similar to the strips in a comic book), but its key feature is the unusually evocative element of an empty register, stretching out before the lone figure of a trumpeter. Surrounded above and below by marching troops of soldiers, he holds his trumpet to his lips while the empty space before him suggests the loud, clear notes of the blast echoing forth. It is a beautifully poetic use of empty space, symbolizing the powerful but unseen effect of the trumpetâ€™s sound, still resonating across the millennia.
A total of 54 objects make up the list of objects missing from the museum in Cairo, which can be downloaded from the SCA website in PDF format. Sadly the objects include, in addition to those already announced, a number of Amarna statuettes, a fan and trumpet of Tutankhamun’s, sixteen Late Period bronze statuettes, and eight pieces of jewellery.
Two trumpets were discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb, one of silver, and one of gilded bronze. In an experiment to attempt playing them, the fragile silver trumpet was shattered but later restored. The bronze trumpet survived, but it is now missing from the Egyptian Museum. On youTube, you can listen to the remarkable BBC recording of the sounding of trumpets, and hear T.G.H. James read an account of the story behind the recording.
In other news, Dr. Zahi Hawass has posted his in absentia address to the UNESCO convention against illicit trafficking of cultural property. The event celebrated the anniversary of UNESCO’s ‘Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Currently ratified by 120 States, it marked the first international recognition of the fact that cultural goods are not goods like any others’. The event was intended ‘to review the history of the Convention, appraise its achievements, its strong points and its weaknesses’. Dr. Hawass was due to speak at the event, but did not attend, instead sending his remarks:
In these dark days, when some of our most important sites are suffering from the depredations of the looters and opportunists who are taking advantage of the current power vacuum, we call upon the international community for help. The antiquities department has issued lists of antiquities known to be missing from the Egyptian Museum and from storage magazines that have been robbed; we call upon you to help us circulate these lists and watch out for these pieces should they appear on the black market. As we struggle to restore order to our sites, we call upon you for ideas and support, which we will welcome gladly.
The new Minister of Antiquities is reported to be Dr. Alaa Shaheen, the Dean of the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University. He has made a statement saying that protecting museums and addressing the problems of recent archaeology graduates will be his priorities. His personal website can be visited here.
Luxor Times is reporting that 12 of the objects stolen from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo have been recovered after the thieves were caught by police and armed forces trying to sell the items.
The objects are 7 statues, 5 bronze statues and 1 limestone statue beside 5 necklaces, one is golden and the others are made of faience and coloured glass.
Ahram Online reports that the Ministry of Antiquities has released the results of an inventory carried out at the Tell El-Faraein storehouse in Kafrul Sheikh in the Delta and 27 objects are known to be missing:
He explained that the missing objects included 20 bronze coins from the Roman and Islamic eras, a limestone relief engraved with a Greco text, a statue inscribed with a hieroglyphic text and four clay pots.
The storehouse at Tel El-Faraein was looted last week, when an armed gang tied up its guards and succeeded in entering the storehouses. Some of the ministry guards escaped, and caught four gang members red-handed. A list has been sent to the prosecutor for investigation.
The article also states ‘The office of minister of state for antiquities affairs is still vacant as no one has been appointed to succeed Hawass’, suggesting that reports of Dr. Alaa Shaheen accepting the post may be incorrect.
Today on the programme ‘From Our Own Correspondent‘ on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service, Christine Finn reports from Abydos on witnessing the damage done by the extensive illicit digging ongoing there and interviews a number of locals. It will be live on the World Service and online at 16:32 GMT this afternoon and again on Radio 4 on Saturday at 11:30 GMT. It is not available online yet, but should soon be uploaded to BBC iPlayer here.
Also, further information on the UNESCO missions to Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya can be found here.
UPDATE 30th March 10:40am:
According to the Egyptian cabinet on Twitter, Dr. Zahi Hawass has been reappointed Minister of Antiquities by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf.
Ahram Online reports that a further five objects have been recovered of those missing from the Cairo Museum. The objects found are the bronze seated statue of Bastet (CG 38998), the bronze seated Osiris (JE 17914), the bronze statue of Neith (JE 30324), the bronze sceptre of Ankhusiri (JE 91488), and one of the two missing bronze Apis bulls, sadly damaged (most likely TR 184.108.40.206). Dr. Zahi Hawass tells about how they were reportedly found after attempts to sell the objects in the famous market in Cairo, Khan el-Khalili:
These five pieces were found yesterday with three of the criminals who broke into the museum. They took the five objects to Khan el-Khalili in order to sell them. A man at the bazaar told the criminals that he would pay 1500LE for the pieces. The looters said that the pieces were from the museum and worth much more than that price. After this, the man informed the police who apprehended the criminals. The five objects are bronze pieces dating to the Late Period: a scepter, a statue of an Apis Bull, a seated statue of Bastet, a statue of Neith, and a statue of Osiris. There are 37 objects still missing from the museum, but I am confident that they will be found soon.
Dr. Hawass also has news about further unauthorized building on ancient sites at Dashur and Abusir, with Ahram Online reporting that the UNESCO delegation were ‘upset’ by what they had seen. Apparently there reports state that there have been ‘500 encroachments during the past two months’.
The nation of Egypt has now embarked on a brave new beginning, achieved through passionate but peaceful demonstrations by people throughout the country. However, amidst scenes of celebration in Tahrir Square, sad news has emerged from the museum that is situated there. The Minister of Antiquities Dr. Zahi Hawass has now released the news that there have indeed been a number of objects stolen from the museum and that De Morgan’s magazine at Dashur has also been looted.
So far, this is the list of stolen objects that has been released (I will add to the photographic record as I am able to):
1. Gilded wood statue of Tutankhamun being carried by a goddess
2. Gilded wood statue of Tutankhamun harpooning. Only the torso and upper limbs of the king are missing
3. Limestone statue of Akhenaten holding an offering table
4. Statue of Nefertiti making offerings
5. Sandstone head of an Amarna princess
6. Stone statuette of a scribe from Amarna
7. Wooden shabti statuettes from Yuya (11 pieces)
8. Heart Scarab of Yuya
It is extremely sad, as these are extraordinary works of art of great historical significance. These particular objects all relate to a particular period of Egyptian history, roughly 1390-1322 BCE, that has particularly resonated with people over the past century. The tomb of Yuya and Thuja was one of the first great discoveries of an almost intact burial, echoed again by the even greater discovery of the tomb of their great-grandson Tutankhamun. Both significantly advanced our understanding of ancient Egypt. Akhenaten’s religious, political, and artistic revolution changed Egypt forever and continues to fascinate and inspire today.
Now we must hope to mobilize the world’s awareness of these objects to be alert to their possible movement or sale. I will try to outline soon some of the current discussion on potential avenues available to thwart the trafficking of stolen Egyptian objects. In recent days, people around the world have been inspired by the spirit of the Egyptian people. No one can now doubt that they are capable of great achievements now, in the past, and in the future. Insha’Allah, the stolen objects will be recovered soon, but until then, people around the world who love Egypt will surely be willing to offer whatever help they can.
1. Gilded wood statue of Tutankhamun being carried by a goddess, photo by Paul Lombardo
2. Gilded wood statue of Tutankhamun harpooning. Only the torso and upper limbs of the king are missing, photo by Frank Rytell
3. Limestone statue of Akhenaten holding an offering table, photo by tutincommon
4. Statue of Nefertiti making offerings, not identified yet
5. Sandstone head of an Amarna princess (potentially one of those pictured here), photo by Glenister 1936
Many of the Amarna princess heads are carved in quartzite. There is at least one in red sandstone though, Cairo JE 44871. There is supposedly a photo of it in Borchardt, Ludwig, Ausgrabungen in Tell el Amarna 1912/13, in: Mitteilungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft 52, 1913, pl. 21. I don’t have library access today, but will get look it up tomorrow, unless anyone else can get a hold of it.
6. Stone statuette of a scribe from Amarna (a possible candidate, a statuette of a scribe and Thoth, 14cm tall
7. Wooden shabti statuettes from Yuya (11 pieces), photo by sergiothirteen
8. Heart Scarab of Yuya(?), photo from Quibell, The Tomb of Yuaa and Thuiu, 1908, pl. 49.
The entry for this scarab is linked in the bibliography to what seems to be a completely different scarab in Theodore Davis’ The Tomb of Iouiya and Touiyou (London, 1907), a scarab is depicted in the painting reproduced here in plate 43 and described on page 33 as: “Scarab-amulet in green beryl with head chipped, and inscribed with the chapter of the Heart from the Book of the Head. It bears the name of Touiyou.”
Heart Scarab of Tujya, photo from Davis, 'Tomb of louiya', pl. XLIII
The first scarab seems the much more likely candidate, but I’m still not sure, and I hope that we can clarify this soon. If anyone has suggestions or comments about the identification of these objects, please comment below or email me!
It is still not known what was taken from Dashur. There was previously a report from Nicole Kehrer of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin saying their storage facility was broken into and looted and it sounds like the De Morgan magazine may be different from this.
It is odd that the Akhenaten sculpture was initially announced as being damaged and the Tutankhamun harpooning statue was only briefly mentioned, but both are now known to be stolen. Is it just a coincidence that all of the objects announced as stolen are very famous? Were no other less well-known objects taken? It is possible that there may be more sad news in days to come.
UPDATE: 14th Feb, 4pm:
In a strange but welcome turn of events, Dr. Zahi Hawass announced that Yuya’s heart scarab and one of the shabtis has been found in the grounds of the museum, just a day after the announcement of the theft, which occurred over two weeks ago. The report also states that Dahshur was looted for the second time on Sunday.
It was also announced in Ahram Online that an inventory of the recently looted Dashur magazine revealed eight amulets had been stolen. It is not clear whether the inventory is complete or whether this is the full extent of the theft, but that seems doubtful, especially since it has now been targeted twice.
It is also worth noting that there have been various accounts on Twitter, including photos, of protests going on outside the Cairo offices of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, and a new army presence there.
UPDATE: 15th Feb, 11:20pm:
In an interview on CNN, Zahi Hawass stated that in addition to finding Yuya’s heart scarab and one shabti in the grounds of the museum, the goddess section of the statue of Tutankhamun being carried by a goddess has also now been found. However, the figure of Tutankhamun remains missing. The video doesn’t allow embedding, so please click here to view.
UNESCO has released a statement from their Director-General Irina Bokova calling for increased vigilance from national and international authorities, art dealers and collectors following the reports of thefts from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and other sites throughout the country.
CBS also featured an interview with Dr. Hawass downplaying the thefts from the museum:
In light of recent events, I have been meeting with the heads of the sectors of the Ministry of Antiquities with a view to addressing and solving the issues raised by those who have voiced concern outside our building in Zamalek. We want to work with these young people to satisfy their demands, and work out the best way to do so. An announcement will be made on Wednesday concerning this.
Yasmin El Shazly, who works at the Egyptian Museum, posted this statement to the Restore + Save Facebook group, asking for patience with the museum and their ongoing work:
As someone who works for the Egyptian Museum, I have been resisting the urge to respond to all your concerns, since we are still in the process of assessing the damage that happened. All I can say is that you have to understand that we just had a revolution. Most staff members had very limited access to the museum until very recently, since the museum was under the responsibility of the army. It is a very difficult time for all of us, and you cannot imagine the amount of stress we are under. Dr. Zahi was appointed minister in a very critical time. We ask for your patience and cooperation and I assure you that Dr. Zahi Hawass and Dr. Tarek El Awady will provide all the information you want in due time.
UPDATE: 17th Feb, 11:40am:
The New York Times (via Kate) has two articles reporting that the beautiful limestone statue of Akhentaten holding an offering table was found in the rubbish near Tahrir Square by a boy whose uncle was a professor at the University of Cairo. The condition of the statue is not mentioned, but it is a huge relief that it has been found, especially when it could quite easily have been lost amongst the discarded rubbish. Dr. Hawass says: â€œWe are going to look inside all the garbage that they collected from Tahrir Square to find the rest of the objects.â€
According to Ahram Online, “Sabry Abdel Aziz, head of the Pharaonic Sector of the Ministry of State for Antiquities Affairs, reported on Thursday that the tomb of Hetep-Ka, in Saqqara, was broken into, and the false door was stolen along with objects stored in the tomb. In Abusir, a portion of the false door was stolen from the tomb of Re-Hotep. In addition, many magazines also suffered break-ins: magazines in Saqqara, including the one near the pyramid of Teti, and the magazine of Cairo University all had their seals broken. In an attempt to compile full reports of what is missing, a committee to determine what, if anything, is missing from these magazines has been established”. Further looting was prevented in Tell el Basta and a tomb in Lisht, but “there have also been many reports of violations of archaeological sites in the form of the illegal building of houses and digging.”
According to Rossella Lorenzi, a journalist for the Discovery Channel, the SCA press release also stated that all “Pharaonic, Coptic, Islamic, and modern sites would reopen to the public on Sunday, 20 February 2011.”
Here is an image of the false door of Rahotep from Abusir, from which a section has been stolen, illustration from Miroslav Barta’s article ‘The Title Inspector of the Palace during the Egyptian Old Kingdom’ in Archiv Orientalni 67 (1999), 1-20:
UPDATE: 18th Feb, 10:45am:
Kate at KV64 has posted a Blue Shield report from a number of the sites that had been reported as looted and the news seems fairly positive. I have not had a chance yet to review the report fully or their collection of site photos and would welcome anyone who wants to comment on them. Kate says:
In summary the museum at Memphis has not been looted as previously reported. As suspected, there was widespread digging at Abusir but it was shallow and is not believed to have disturbed the archaeology. The news from Dashur and Saqqara is less good and there has been forced entry into tombs and looting of magazines. The very good news is that tombs and reliefs show no sign of damage, although today’s report from the SCA show that some items stored within tombs were taken. It wasn’t possible to enter every tomb: this was a flying visit and some tombs are bricked up for their protection. As I have said before, over the next few months these will need checking. Nonetheless that tombs which were inspected were undamaged is highly encouraging. That includes the unique Pyramid Texts in the Unas Pyramid which very surprisingly wasn’t even entered by the looters.
Zahi Hawass’ latest blog update shows the Akhenaten statue being returned relatively undamaged, the offering tray having been broken off but found within the museum.
Statue of Akhenaten after its return to the Egyptian Museum, photo by Ahmed Amin)
Dr. Hawass also confirms the Ministry of Antiquities statements about looting: “At Saqqara, the tomb of Hetepka was broken into, and the false door may have been stolen along with objects stored in the tomb. I have arranged for a committee to visit the tomb this coming Saturday to compare the alleged damage with earlier expedition photos. In Abusir, a portion of the false door was stolen from the tomb of Rahotep. In addition, break-ins have been confirmed at a number of storage magazines: these include ones in Saqqara, including one near the pyramid of Teti, and the magazine of Cairo University. I have created a committee to prepare reports to determine what, if anything, is missing from these magazines.”
A video from the French press agency AFP shows the Mesehti model boat and Nubian soldiers (at the 1:32 mark) and the cartonnage of Tujya (at mark 1:44) have been restored and are already back on display.
Other videos put online after journalists were given a tour of the museum include a BBC video report from inside the museum and a Russian news video showing footage from the museum.
Devastating footage from Al Jazeera posted on Twitter and Flickr now shows significant damage and destruction in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Some of these images can be found at thesesites. The footage appears to show wooden statues from the tomb of Tutankhamun with the gilded figure of the king ripped from the smashed bases. Images below show the statues in their original state, and their current condition:
Gilded statue of Tutankhamun hunting on a papyrus skiff
Gilded statue of Tutankhamun astride a panther
Middle Kingdom models of daily life and their have been smashed. The damage on the famous army of Mehseti doesn’t seem to be too severe thankfully, but other beautiful models are broken and strewn on the floor.
Soldiers of Mehseti, Asyut, 11th dynasty
It is an incredibly sad state of affairs as we await news of the full extent of this destruction of history.
UPDATE: I’ve now identified the smashed wooden boat as also belonging to the tomb of Meseti at Asyut (Cairo 4918). It’s one of the largest model boats in existence, measuring over 1.5 metres, and it dates to approximately 2000BC, so over it’s 4000 years old. Very sad.
Here’s a photo of it from it’s original publication back in 1913, but you can also follow this link to see a photo of it as it looked in the museum.
UPDATE: Watching the actual video footage of the museum from Al Jazeera, I regret to say that I think you can spot at the 1 minute mark (see a screen capture and the video itself below), footage of another destroyed statue of Tutankhamun, one of the two statues depicted below (photos care of the Griffith Institute Archive‘s Tutankhamun collection). Amendment, Jan 31st: it appears that these gilded sandaled feet also belong to the panther statue. See update from Jan 31st, 11am below for further info.
For a colour photo of these statues, see these photos from the blog of Richard Seaman.
ANOTHER UPDATE, 30th Jan 12pm:
In the comments, Tamakazura has correctly identified the gilded open work cartonnage case shown on Al Jazeera as belonging to Tjuya, mother of the great Queen Tiye and great-grandmother of Tutankhamun. Below you can compare a photo from The Complete Valley of the Kings, p. 176 and the still from Al Jazeera. The case was placed directly on Tjuya’s body, so it is doubtful that it could have been removed without damaging her mummy. This suggests that the two mummies mentioned by Dr. Zahi Hawass as being beheaded and severely damaged may be those of Yuya and Tjuya. Aiden Dodson has been able to confirm that the case was displayed separately from Tjuya, so her mummy has not been damaged. They are important historical figures as well as two of the best preserved mummies from ancient Egypt, so it would indeed be tragic if this is true. I hope that the incredible burial assemblage found with them, one of the most celebrated discoveries in Egyptology, has not suffered also.
Also, in this Al Jazeera report, Dr. Zahi Hawass, comments on the damage at the museum:
UPDATE, 30th Jan 2pm:
The gold fan head featured in the Al Jazeera footage appears to be a fan belonging to Tutankhamun. Here is a photo from the original excavations courtesy of the Griffith Institute- the fan in question is on the far left- and a screen shot of the fan lying in the museum. At least it appears that only the shaft has been broken off and the decoration has been left intact.
Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, has confirmed damage to at least one statue of Tutankhamun. I fear it may be more, but I hope that Dr. Hawass is correct that the damage is minimal. At least his comments are reassuring about the current security situation at the museum, as well as some inspiring words for the Egyptians who attempted to protect the museum.
UPDATE, 30th Jan 4:30pm:
Zeit Online (in German and translated into English) has posted an interview with Wafaa el-Saddik, the director of the Egyptian Museum up until very recently, who says that 13 cases have been smashed, some objects have definitely been stolen, the looting of the museum was an inside job by guards and police, and that the museum in Memphis has also been looted. UPDATE, 30th Jan 5:30pm: Dr. Zahi Hawass has posted a statement on his own blog. He confirms the destruction of one of the Tutankhamun panther statues. I should also clarify concerning the Tutankhamun statues that have been smashed, that each of them belongs to a pair of statues, and one can only hope that the statues’ twins have survived the damage. See below for images from the wonderful Griffith Institute of the statues as they were found in situ in the Valley of the Kings:
I should also mention that this Al Jazeera screen capture shows a soldier uprooted from the great model army of Meseti, from Asyut, which I mentioned above. At least four of these figures appear to have been torn from the 4000 year old model.
UPDATE, 31st Jan 11am:
In the comments, Mellady mentions that two of the gilded Tutankhamun statues, which are mentioned above shown wearing the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt (the ones *not* on the papyrus boat or the panther), are probably still on tour in the USA with the ‘Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs’ tour. You can see photos of the statues in questions on at these exhibition links. The exhibition was just in New York until January 17th, 2011, and it’s due to open again in St. Paul, Minnesota on February 18th, 2011. If you factor in the time needed to move the objects and set up the new exhibition space, they must be in one of those cities. I have contacted the exhibition organisers to see if I can confirm this. This would suggest that the broken sandalled feet shown in the Al Jazeera footage belong to the figure of Tutankhamun from the panther statue.
Other objects shown in the footage but difficult to specifically identify appear to include a smashed shabti figurine, a bronze statuette of the Apis bull, a travertine calcite (alabaster) vessel, faience jewellery, and a faience hippo figurine from Lisht. The large wooden statue shown in the screen capture below comes from the Meseti boat model. Another model figure shown in the footag, kneeling and armless, also appears to be from the same model.
There are worrying reports of archaeological sites and museums around the country being targeted but no concrete information as of yet. Nevertheless, I am still inspired and awed by the valiant efforts of ordinary Egyptian citizens taking a stand to protect the heritage of which they are so proud. For whatever damage has been done, it’s possible that it could have been much worse without their help. My focus on this site is on the artefacts because that is what I’m best able to comment on, but my thoughts are with the Egyptian people.
UPDATE, 31st Jan 1:40pm:
Via Kate Phizackerley: there is now a photo, purportedly from the Associated Press, showing two damaged mummy heads, posted on this site. I’m not sure about the source of this photo, but the mummies don’t look particularly like Yuya or Tjuya. It’s possible that severe damage has may them harder to identify, or we could be dealing with different individuals. Also, Dr. Zahi Hawass has reportedly been appointed to the new government position of Minister of Antiquities, and Gaber Asfour has been named Minister of Culture.
UPDATE, 31st Jan 2:50pm: According to Egyptologist Aidan Dodson, the damaged mummies are very unlikely to be Yuya and Tjuya: ‘the gold mummy-cover of Tjuiu was not actually on her body any more… Both mummies were inside their coffins – the photo of Tjuiu shown earlier was from an old display of 1910.’ UPDATE, 31st Jan 3:50pm:
Raw video footage that has emerged on youTube
UPDATE Jan 31st, 11:20pm:
There are a number of reports out there, from various people such as an Egyptian antiquities inspector and Professor Miroslav BÃ¡rta, suggesting that there may have been a fair amount of damage at Saqqara & Abusir. However, we don’t have much concrete information yet. Dr. Hawass has stated that while tombs have indeed been broken into, nothing has been taken damaged. Vincent Brown’s Talking Pyramids site has a very good compilation of all these reports. In terms of following future stories about the archaeological situation in Egypt, Kate Phizackerley has set up a database of information on sites and museums.
UPDATE Feb 1st, 12:45am:
In the comments, Nicko kindly directed me to some new AP photos of damage in the Egyptian Museum. The two new images appear to show a smashed and emptied case in the foreground with a few gilded canes and sticks lying on top. In the background, you can see the display of chariots and off to the right, the huge golden shrines of Tutankhamun. National Geographic now has a higher resolution version of one of the photos, which shows that Tut’s gold fan mentioned above is also lying on top of the case. A large number of staff, canes, and sticks were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, shown in the following photos from the Griffith Institute Archive, and it is possible that some these are shown in the images.
I would also like to thank everyone who has contributed to the discussion in the comments and I’m sorry I haven’t had the time to reply to all your remarks!
UPDATE Feb 1st, 9:40pm:
Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities, released another statement earlier today stating that 288 objects stolen from the magazine in Qantara have been returned. [Considering the magazine reportedly contained 3000 objects, this may not be the best news] He says that 70 objects in the Egyptian Museum suffered damage, including the Tutankhamun panther statue, but it should be possible to repair them. He notes that most of the damage was done because the looters couldn’t see what they were doing in the dark. He says that all other museums and sites are now safe, being guarded by the army and also local Egyptians.
An excellent article at The Art of Counting has reports from a number of Egyptologists. The article states that Maarten Raven, an Egyptologist at the Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, says that the Dutch excavation projects at Saqqara have been looted and destroyed. Richard Wilkinson at the University of Arizona says that the army and neighbourhood watch groups are protecting sites on the west bank at Luxor. Carol Redmount at Berkeley states: â€œMme Nadia visited El Hibeh today and said the site has been looted, but should be okay from now on as they are expecting guards to be in place. I also heard that Ihnasya el Medinah had been hit. The Beni Suef Museum is safe.”
UAE newspaper the National also has varying reports about possible damage at Abusir and Saqqara. A rather sensationalist article in the British tabloid the Sun has reported extensive damage at Abusir and in the magazine in Qantara. Overall, there are very worrying reports, especially from Saqqara and Abusir, but also reassurance about many other sites.
The Facebook group Egyptologists for Egypt has posted the following information: ‘From our Senior Guide. A Sakkara inspector told him that in the last few days Sakkara has been ransacked. Maia is destroyed and even the reliefs in the burial chamber have been hacked out. There is mass digging around the Unas area in particular. The inspector could not get as far as the Teti area as he was threatened with guns but the mastabas will have suffered the same fate. A black day (via P.Allingham).’
This information does not make it clear whether the tomb referred to is that of Maia, wet nurse of Tutankhamun, or that of Maya, the Overseer of the Treasury and Overseer of Works under Tutankhamun. I originally assumed because of the spelling that it was more likely to refer to the lady Maia, but I should stress that with very little information so far, we cannot really be sure. Because of the comments on the damage by the Dutch Mission it seems more likely that Maya’s tomb is the one that has been hit. I’m posting information about both tombs below until we can get any further news. Either way, the reports are true, then it seems that artefacts from that particular period of Egyptian history have suffered especially.
Dr. Maarten Raven, the Field Director of the Dutch Mission, has posted this statement: ‘There are various reports circulating on the internet about widespread looting in Saqqara and Abusir. However, we would like to stress that so far we have not been able to obtain any confirmation of this, except the following. On Saturday 29 January our restoration architect in Cairo told us that his contractor at Saqqara confirmed the looting in Saqqara. On Sunday 30 January the SCA Director of Saqqara told us that the site of the Dutch expedition has been involved in the looting. He would or could not give further details, and that is still the current situation. We have so far been unable to establish direct contact with people who know more.’
I suggest following the Egyptological Looting Database for further updates on the Saqqara.
Photo of a tomb relief depicting Maia and the young Tutankhamun
UPDATE Feb 2nd, 11pm:
No further news of sites being attacked today, hopefully this is a good sign, but there have been a few note-worthy posts on the Facebook group Restore + save the Egyptian Museum, which I’d recommend following for updates directly from Egyptologists, some relayed from the field. I’m posting screen captures of them below: another report of Saqqara looting, a pledge by Dr. Salima Ikram in Egypt to gather further info about sites, and an impassioned plea from Tahrir Square by a member of the group. Also, the IAE has posted this statement and Dr. Mark Lehner, director of the Giza Plateau Mapping Project, is still planning to head out to Egypt next week.
Dr. Zahi Hawass has posted another statement reassuring everyone about the safety and security of the museum and other sites, and has uploaded photos from the museum showing the heavy security in place. Dr. Hawass also expresses his frustration with reports of damage elsewhere, which he insists is not true, including Saqqara. I hope he will understand that the only reason everyone is concerned about possible damage is because of our love for Egypt and its incredible antiquities. The photos on Dr. Hawass’ site also include a new image of one of the damaged mummies’ heads (still unidentified) and the broken vitrine with the fan and canes.
Update: Feb 4th, 1am:
A news update from the Dutch excavation team at Saqqara:
‘Thursday 3 February 14:00 – A reliable source in Cairo (who had this directly from one of the SCA inspectors at Saqqara) confirmed that the Czech magazine at Abusir and the Cairo University magazine at Saqqara have been looted. No confirmation could be had about private tombs. Apparently doors have been forcibly opened but whether reliefs have been taken is not clear. The inspectors themselves have not yet had access to all parts of the site.’
A story from the Times of Algeria posted by Kate says that two pharonic statues were found in the possession of four individuals who have now been arrested. There are no images or further details so the identification of the statues might not necessarily be accurate.
As an Egyptologist, I understand from first-hand experience how captivating Egyptian culture can be, and I find it interesting to contemplate the ways in which Egyptomania seized upon the minds and imaginations of people in the 19th and early 20th centuries and manifested itself in art, architecture, and advertising ranging from the absurd to the sublime. It spread throughout the Western world and beyond, from Europe and North America to Russia and South Africa. There are certainly numerous examples of the craze in London (see my Egyptological map of the city), but some other interesting examples have been featured on the internet lately.
Bonhams’s recently had an Egyptian Revival sale and the pieces that were auctioned can all be viewed on the site here. Some wonderful pieces are actually directly inspired by real Egyptian artifacts, for example this chair modelled on the chair of Sitamun from the tomb of Yuya and Tuya as pictured here, while others provide comedy value with their extravagant over-blown design and heavy-handed interpretations of Egyptian design that bear little resemblance to their supposed origins.
I also stumbled across a very interesting article, purely by chance, mainly about the Egyptian-inspired movie theatres of the United States but also touching on the history of Egyptomania itself. The entire article by Bruce Handy of Vanity Fair is well-worth reading, but the most gripping description is perhaps that of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater and its spectacular role in the very first ever movie premiere. Back in 1922, before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, when Hollywood was just a sleepy stretch of orchards dotted with a few fledgling movie studios and the joke was that ‘cannonball could be fired down Hollywood Boulevard any time after nine at night and never hit a soul’, it was decided that a movie theatre would be ‘the perfect anchor for commercial development. And not just any movie theater: it would be one of the most spectacular the world had ever seen’.
As Handy states:
‘On October 18, 1922, with newspaper ads promising that â€œevery star and director in the motion picture industry will be there,â€ Graumanâ€™s Egyptian Theatre was unveiled in all its pharaonic splendor, playing host to the world premiere of Douglas Fairbanksâ€™s Robin Hood.
Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Steve Minor
It was a hell of an evening. The newly installed Hollywood Egyptian Theatre Symphony Orchestra played the overture from Aida. Speeches were given by Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse Lasky (one of the founders of the studio that would become Paramount Pictures), and the mayor of Los Angeles. Fairbanks, of course, was in attendance, as was his wife, Mary Pickford, along with John Barrymore and the Talmadge sisters, all of whom had strode down a long red carpet, which had been laid over the theaterâ€™s extended courtyard and was flanked by crowds of gawkers and photographers. It was, literally, the original Hollywood premiere. “First night audience rivals Paris in styles”, bragged one Los Angeles paper. “Greatest gathering of kind in Hollywood history”, trumpeted another, describing â€œa jam of people and motor cars â€¦ extending in all directionsâ€ while â€œthe picture stars were wildly greetedâ€ and numerous photos taken of the â€œkaleidoscopic human spectacle.â€
The theater was its own kind of kaleidoscope, a riot of hieroglyphs and cenotaphs, animal-headed gods and winged scarabs, bas-relief sphinx heads and a gilded sun-disk ceiling. Even the bathrooms featured what one critic described as â€œfascinating Egyptian decorations done in the soft reds, blues, and yellows in which this early nation delighted.â€ The screen itself, one of the interiorâ€™s few unadorned surfaces, was framed by four pillars, decorated like papyrus plants and topped by a pair of massive, heavy-looking lintels seemingly awaiting only the fulfillment of an ancient mummyâ€™s curse to tumble down and seal the auditorium in the dust and gloom of millennia. Earlier theaters had had Egyptian elements, but this was ancient Egypt given the full, unabashed Hollywood treatment…
Art and Archaeology declared in 1924 that Graumanâ€™s Egyptian â€œis not made up of grotesque statues, sphinxes, pyramids, and meaningless signs in lieu of hieroglyphics, but is a replica of real Egyptian art and architecture.â€
For a second opinion, [Bruce Handy] asked Richard A. Fazzini, an Egyptologist at the Brooklyn Museum who is also a passionate scholar of Egyptomania, to look at photos of various Egyptian theaters, including Graumanâ€™s. He praised the accuracy of many of that theaterâ€™s â€œplayfulâ€ design elements, but noted, â€œNothing in Egypt ever looked like that as a whole.â€ He pointed to the decoration of the theaterâ€™s massive lintel: â€œA winged scarab flanked by whatâ€”swans? No, that doesnâ€™t work. A winged scarab maybe, but not flanked by swans. I donâ€™t know if they had swans in Egypt, but they didnâ€™t appear in the art really”.’
Grauman’s ignited a vogue for Egyptian-themed theaters in America and in the 1920s some four dozen were built ‘bringing the glories of the Nile to exotica-poor locales such as Brooklyn, Denver, Seattle, Indianapolis, Houston, Milwaukee, and Ogden, Utah’.
Detail from Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. Photo by Steve Minor
But why did the movie industry in particular seize upon Egyptomania so enthusiastically? The main reason is the obvious coincidence of timing between the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the birth of cinema. As Handy notes: ‘Of negligible import as a pharaoh, Tut nevertheless enjoys one of the ancient worldâ€™s highest Q ratings, right up there with Jesus, Mary, Cleopatra, and the first two Caesars. The discovery also unleashed one of the Westâ€™s greatest waves of Egyptomania… Filmmakers, then as now not immune to popular taste, released Tut-ankh-Amenâ€™s Eighth Wife and Tut-Tut and His Terrible Tomb, both in 1923. Tin Pan Alley staked its own claim with â€œOld King Tut Was a Wise Old Nut.â€’ However, I think there were several other reasons why Egyptian design became so popular a style for movie theatres and they lie in the nature of the movie industry at the time, how Egypt was perceived and what it represented to people.
Movies were a way of transporting people, allowing them to use their imaginations and escape. Ancient Egypt had already been a popular subject for early filmmakers with five features about Cleopatra alone made between 1908 and 1918. Ancient Egypt was exotic and mysterious; by designing theatres in Egyptian styles, the cinemas themselves became fuel for the imagination, pure escapism in architecture. With cinema in its early stages, studios and theatres wanted to convince people of the industry’s stability and potential for success and longevity. What better association to make than with the eternal land of pyramids and temples? Also, the image Hollywood has always cultivated for itself is one of opulence, and it seems hardly coincidence that the first glamorous red carpet parade happened at the opening of Grauman’s Egyptian Theater, with its rich Egyptian style decor suggesting all the golden wealth of the ancient civilization that Hollywood wished to emulate. Using the motifs of Egyptian design was more than just an architectural fad, they could be used to convey a message to audiences and contribute to the image Hollywood studios wished to present.
Handy also discusses why Egyptian themes were so popular with early America as a nation:
‘Nineteenth-century America clasped ancient Egypt especially close to her bosom. â€œThe Egyptian style,â€ writes the historian Blanche Linden-Ward, â€œcaptured the imagination of arbiters of American culture intent on finding new symbols representative of their nation. Many Americans in the 1830s equated their country with Egypt, another â€˜first civilizationâ€™ â€¦ They nicknamed the Mississippi the â€˜American Nileâ€™ and gave the names of Memphis, Cairo, Karnak and Thebes to new towns along its banks.â€ Perhaps the most famous example of our forebearsâ€™ Egyptophilia, aside from the Great Seal, is the Washington Monument, a 555-foot-tall obelisk that was designed in 1836 (though not completed until 1884). Another proposed monument, serious enough to be entertained by Congress, would have entombed the father of his country pharaoh-style in a giant pyramid, which demonstrates the pitfalls of modeling a fledgling republic after a millennia-old monarchy, at least when it comes to questions of official taste.’
Although Washington didn’t get a pyramid from Congress, according to theater historian David Naylor, the flamboyant movie exhibitor Grauman gave him an even more bizarre memorial in his second downtown theatre, the Metropolitan: ‘a sphinx with the head of George Washington on a pedestal beside the lobby staircase. The quote near the base of the sphinx read, “You cannot speak to us, O George Washington, but you can speak to God. Ask him to make us good American citizens”‘.
Although Graumanâ€™s Egyptian Theater has been restored and is currently the home of the American Cinematheque, of the 40 to 50 Egyptian theatres built in America in the 1920s, only a handful survive.
The sad thing I find is that I can no longer imagine an Egyptian revival of such magnitude ever taking place again, or at least not one that would be taken seriously and valued for the elegance and energy of its design. The media, movie-industry, and disappointingly even the way Egypt and its treasures are promoted, have all contributed to some people’s view of Egypt not just as a stereotyped land of gold and mummies, but have also added tacky, over-the-top, crude, and laughable overtones to the way it’s perceived. Sadly some of the crasser examples of Egyptomania can also be said to have contributed. Despite the general public’s fascination with Egypt, their exposure is superficial, with few people able to tell the difference between crude inaccurate Egyptian-style reproductions and the real artistry of the originals.
As the author of the aforementioned article, Bruce Handy, similarly notes:
‘Most of us have gleaned whatever knowledge we have of ancient Egypt from popular culture, whether Boris Karloffâ€™s The Mummy, Elizabeth Taylorâ€™s Cleopatra, Victor Buonoâ€™s King Tut on the old Batman show, Steve Martinâ€™s novelty song â€œKing Tutâ€ (in which the boy king moves from Arizona to Babylonia, where he owns a â€œcondo made of stone-aâ€), or Brendan Fraserâ€™s frantic Mummy remakes. Indeed, judging from these sources, youâ€™d be forgiven for thinking that ancient Egyptâ€™s was the silliest civilization that ever existed’.
None of this is going to be changed anytime soon, if Egypt continues to be presented in a way that aims to appeal to the lowest common denominator with sensationalism rather than aspiring to a more informed representation. Commercialism feeds people’s misconceptions of Egyptian culture in an attempt to cash in and sadly one of the most disappointing examples of this happening is connected to what should be an opportunity to educate people.
I think the marketing for the Tutankhamun exhibit at the O2 buys too much into stereotypes, trying to sell it on gold, gold, and more gold, and raising false hopes of seeing the famous death mask, rather than helping people see that viewing more domestic objects can actually give us more insight into the life of the boy king. I’ve even heard that the gift shop features a tissue box in the form of the famous mask, where the tissues come out of the nostrils! But I shouldn’t really judge until I’ve seen it myself. I’m planning to visit it at the end of March, and when I do I’ll let you know what I think of it.
I believe that it’s possible to harness the interest in Egypt inspired by Hollywood and the media, and use it as an opportunity to introduce people to the real Egypt. Though exciting action and glittering gold can glamorize Egypt, it remains that this fascinating culture has intrigued people since ancient Greek and Roman times and will continue to in spite of the misleading publicity it gets. For those willing to actually take a close look at the objects and monuments or read about them will realize that it can be even more thrilling to pierce the veil of mystery that shrouds the *real* Egypt and to delve into the lives of the people who created this astounding civilization.
A blockbuster exhibition of the treasures of Tutankhamun and other ancient Egyptian artefacts from the Cairo Museum has been travelling the world recently. However, the one thing that everyone wants to see, one of the most iconic artworks of all time, will not be on display.
The last time Tutâ€™s treasures travelled, almost thirty years ago, the tour inspired the kind of Egyptomania that had not been seen since the discovery of the tomb itself in 1922. It had a huge impact on many people. Although it happened before I was even born, my mother still has the King Tut mugs that she had bought at the exhibition in Toronto and my godmother was able to give me the newspaper clippings about it that she had saved, perhaps because of some mysterious prescience of my future passion but more likely just because it was widely acknowledged as the most exciting exhibition of the era. The current tour is enjoying huge success, smashing attendance records, and raising a huge amount of badly needed money for the museums in Egypt.
It is due to visit the former Millennium Dome in London in November and is generating a lot of interest already. A couple of months ago, when I was in the British Museum with one of the curators, random staff members kept stopping us to ask about the exhibit! Unfortunately, everyone seems incredibly let down when they learn that the famous golden death mask will not be a part of the exhibition as it is too fragile to travel. Iâ€™ve even heard people wonder why anyone would bother to go! While it IS disappointing, Iâ€™d prefer NOT to see it rather than risking destroying one of the most precious artefacts in the entire world. Itâ€™s an extra incentive to travel to Egypt itself and there will be lots at the exhibition that will make up for itâ€”the tomb was overflowing with beautiful objects, and the tour will bring attention to the many treasures that are often overlooked, as well as other non-Tut items too.
But while Egypt is not allowing the death mask to travel, in the meantime, it is demanding that other museums around the world send famous Egyptian objects back to their homeland. Zahi Hawass is asking to borrow the Rosetta Stone and the bust of Nefertiti, among other items. And while some museums are planning to acquiesce, the Berlin Museum is refusing, stirring up a furore in Egypt.
Although a number of Germans are actively supporting the loan, the Berlin Museum is using the same argument that the Egyptians used for keeping Tutâ€™s death mask from travellingâ€”it claims that the Nefertiti bust is too fragile to travel. This could quite possibly true. However, Zahi Hawass is not convinced and is threatening to declare the bust stolen property and start legal action to have it returned to Egypt permanently.
I think that the loan concept is an incredibly good one, allowing Egyptians the opportunity to see the objects without asking museums to give up their prize attractions, and I really hope that all the requests can be honoured. The politics of the whole situation are incredibly complex though, and what with the famous Elgin Marbles controversy, it is possible that Berlin fears that the Egyptians would attempt to keep the bust for good if they handed it over. Apparently, the British Museum isnâ€™t afraid of this though and it taking the request for the Rosetta Stone under serious consideration.
Loaning artefacts is a good compromise between Egypt and the museums, but I hope that people respect that the safety of the treasures themselves should not be compromised for the sake of this project.
A short while ago, I had the privilege of being given a tour of the Griffith Institute Archives here in Oxford by its director, Dr. Jaromir Malek. It is one of the most renowned Egyptological archives in the world and it houses among many other things, all the personal papers of Howard Carter, the excavator of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
It seemed almost as chilly as outside when we ventured into the archive room, which is constantly kept at 18 degrees to preserve the fragile documents it houses, but as I glanced up at the famous portrait of Carter, that Iâ€™d seen reproduced many times in books, hanging on the wall, I knew that there were many â€˜wonderful thingsâ€™ to come.
You can see them for yourself on the Griffith website here. Also, check out some of the other links Iâ€™ve included and take a look at the amazing resources the Griffith has made available online.
Excavation reports are a key feature of the Griffith’s collection. It is important that the archive stores every recorded detail of an excavation, since the importance placed on different archaeological evidence varies over time and it is always possible that new discoveries may be made from old records. The most famous excavation papers at the Excavation reports are a key feature of the Griffith’s collection. It is important that the Griffith are those of Howard Carter and the legendary discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, which have not been fully published yet. However, the Griffithâ€™s remarkable website, entitled ‘Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation’, allows most of these records to be accessed on the internet and offers an in-depth behind the scenes look at the dig. Itâ€™s most fortunate that theyâ€™re being digitizedâ€”the Griffith calculated that if publication continued at the present rate, it would be another 200 years before the records were all made publicly available!
Here you can read the transcripts of Carter’s diaries and journals which document everything from the excavator’s thoughts at the initial find, to the tomb’s momentous unveiling, through the long, hard years of actually recording and cataloging all its contents.
The first hint of the discovery of the tomb appears as a simple jotting in Carter’s appointment diary. The small book has Lett’s No. 46 Indian and Colonial Rough Diaries 1922 written on the front and inside, the entry from Saturday, November 4 only has the scribble ‘First steps of tomb found’, indicating Carter’s unawareness of the momentousness of his find. The entry from Sunday, November 5 states, ‘Discovered tomb under tomb of Ramses VI. Investigated same & found seals intact’, by which time Carter would have realized that he was dealing with the thrilling prospect of an unknown but undisturbed tomb.
Most people who are familiar with Egyptology and archeology will be familiar with the legendary words that Carter is said to have uttered upon his first glimpse of the golden treasures of the tomb. Lord Carnarvon is said to have anxiously pressed Carter as to whether he could see anything, to which Carter is said to have replied, ‘Yes, wonderful things.’ However, an entry from a more detailed journal by Carter dating to Sunday, November 26th suggests that those words *might* simply be pure legend, embellished for the purposes of Carter’s book. The entry is beautifully descriptive: ‘It was sometime before one could see, the hot air escaping caused the candle to flicker, but as soon as one’s eyes became accustomed to the glimmer of light the interior of the chamber gradually loomed before one, with its strange and wonderful medley of extraordinary and beautiful objects heaped upon one another. There was naturally short suspense for those present who could not see, when Lord Carnarvon said to me `Can you see anything’. I replied to him Yes, it is wonderful.’
Whatever phrase was actually uttered by Carter, the wonderment he must have experience was fully justified. The treasures of have captivated generations, myself included, and they are one of the main reasons I decided to study Egyptology when I was just six years old. Their breathtaking workmanship was first documented by the professional excavation photographer Harry Burton, whom Carter borrowed from Met with the agreement that the museum could get doubles of the all the negatives. Itâ€™s remarkable that Burton achieved such stunning quality photographs simply taking them outside against the backdrop of a white sheet. They donâ€™t take â€˜em like they used to anymore. An enormous gallery on the site features all of Burton’s wonderful photographs:
The excavation was a Herculean task, the work of simply clearing the tiny tomb and cataloguing all the objects taking over 5 years, the records consisting of roughly 3000 cards and 2000 photographs. While the excavation is often portrayed as a one-man show starring Howard Carter, a number of the great Egyptologists of the age volunteered their services. Looking at the card records for object number 91, Tutankhamunâ€™s famous throne, Alfred Lucas (best known for his milestone Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries) did restoration work for the object using celluloid cement, and the renowned Sir Alan Gardiner (of Gardinerâ€™s Grammar fame) recorded the inscriptions. Much of the excavation work was aided by Percy Newberry and Arthur Mace.
One of the photos in the collection, taken perhaps by Lord Carnarvon, shows some of these Greats of Egyptology actually luncheoning inside the tomb of Ramesses XI! Seated from left to right in the photo are J. H. Breasted, Harry Burton, Alfred Lucas, Arthur Callender, Arthur Mace, Howard Carter and A. H. Gardiner. This remarkable array of individuals sounds rather more like the gathering that an Egyptologist today might dream up if asked which famous people, dead or alive, one would invite to a dinner party! Iâ€™m not sure the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt would allow anyone to have elaborate picnics in any of the tombs anymore though!