Antiquities and Archaeology
Ashmolean exhibition reveals the real curse of Tutankhamun
Few scholars have researched the boy king's tomb and Howard Carter's archive
By Martin Bailey. Web only
Published online: 22 July 2014
The tomb of Tutankhamun, in the Valley of the Kings, near Luxor, is one of the top attractions in Egypt—so much so that a replica made by the Madrid-based company Factum Arte opened nearby in May to limit the damage caused to the original by visitors. But despite the fame and importance of the tomb, specialists say that its contents have still not been properly studied and catalogued, nearly a century after its discovery.
“The real curse is that too few scholars have devoted attention to the contents of the tomb,” says Paul Collins, the co-curator of “Discovering Tutankhamun”, an exhibition that opens on Thursday, 24 July (until 2 November) at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford.
Collins believes that specialists have shied away from serious study of the boy king’s tomb because he “so quickly became imbued with glamour and mystery” in the public imagination. “It is assumed that we know all about Tutankhamun, whereas we know virtually nothing,” he says.
Collins estimates that detailed descriptions and analyses have still not been published for 80% of the 5,398 objects originally found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. At this rate, it will take centuries to complete the task. According to Jaromir Malek, a retired Egyptologist at Oxford’s Griffith Institute, the failure to publish the tomb’s contents is “one of the best-kept secrets about Egyptology”. (The archive of Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb, is in the institute.)
Nine volumes of “Tutankhamun’s Tomb” were published between 1963 and 1990 by the university’s Griffith Institute, but the series was ended for financial reasons. Since then, there have been a few independently produced books, but no more are currently scheduled for publication.
At the heart of “Discovering Tutankhamun” are Carter’s diaries, journals, object cards, letters and drawings, together with the photographs taken by the archaeological photographer Harry Burton.
Carter was a talented artist, and many of his watercolours will be on show for the first time. His niece donated his material to the Griffith Institute after he died in 1939. Among the exhibits will be Carter’s diary entry for 26 November 1922, in which he wrote the word “wonderful” to describe his first glimpse into the tomb.
Carter numbered each of the 5,398 objects from the tomb, meticulously describing each item on cards. These records, which show where individual items were found and describe their condition, provide an invaluable source. Carter later published a three-volume overview of the tomb, but he died before he could write his planned catalogue of the contents.
The Ashmolean did not request loans from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo because of the shortage of time and the problems of borrowing from Egypt. The overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and the resulting political uncertainty added to these difficulties.
For more on Howard Carter's archive, see The Art Newspaper, July/August issue
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