Egypt: The discovery that stunned the world

In 1922, Harry Burton is widely recognized as the greatest archeology photographer in the world. Like Carter, he is an English country boy of humble origins. Burton sets up a makeshift darkroom in a nearby tomb. His photos contribute to making discovery and excavations a global media event.

In a world desperate for entertainment after the horrors of World War I, the new power of the media unleashes a wave of Egyptomania. The child-king becomes a star of popular culture.

Tut (short for Tutankhamun in English) can be found on California lemons, collectible cigarette pack cards, and even a board game – little metal archaeologists, riding donkeys, search for treasure. songs like Old King Tut are jazz-age hits, to which women dance wearing cobra-shaped headdresses and kohl eyeliner evoking the eye of Horus.

Egyptian symbols pervade art deco. Hieroglyphs and cartouches invade clothing, wallpaper and upholstery. Adorned with gods and sphinxes, papyrus columns and fake funerary frescoes, Egyptian-themed cinemas are opening in some 50 cities across the United States.

When Lord Carnarvon returns to England, he is received at Buckingham Palace in private audience by King George V and Queen Mary, so impatient are the royal couple to hear from Tutankhamun. Carnarvon yields to London Times exclusive rights to the current story for £5,000 and a percentage of future sales. The agreement enrages Egyptian journalists and the international press, whose reporters must scramble to unearth the slightest scrap of information.

It is in Tutankhamun’s homeland that the fervor is most intense. Egyptians flock to the Valley of the Kings in droves to see the excavations. Schoolchildren perform plays celebrating the young pharaoh, with props inspired by Burton’s photographs. Political leaders and poets hail the sovereign as a national hero.

“It reminds them of their past greatness, analyzes historian Christina Riggs, and what their new nation, freed from British tutelage only a few months ago, could accomplish in the future. »

The return to the world of Tutankhamun is considered by the Egyptians as a message from their glorious past. The writer Ahmad Chawqi, an icon of Egyptian independence, addresses Tutankhamun in his poems as the spiritual leader of the Egyptian people: “Pharaoh, the time of autonomy has come, and the dynasty of arrogant lords has passed . From this day forward, in every country, foreign tyrants must relinquish their dominion over their subjects! The Egyptians also claim sovereignty over their laws and their economy, but also over their antiquities.

Archeology and the British Empire have long been closely linked. Indeed, major excavations are funded by museums, universities and wealthy European and North American collectors, like Lord Carnarvon. Donors expect to receive back up to half of the antiquities discovered, in keeping with the decades-old tradition of sharing.

But Egypt’s new rulers were quick to insist that all of Tutankhamun’s treasures were national heritage and should remain in Egypt. “The decision of the new Egyptian government to keep the Tutankhamun collection in Egypt was an important declaration of cultural independence,” explains Egyptologist Monica Hanna. This is the first time that we Egyptians have started to have control over our own culture. »

A second discovery major takes place in February 1923. Carter punches a hole in the wall of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber, brandishes a flashlight, and peers through it. “An incredible view is revealed by its light, he would later write, a solid gold wall. »

In reality, this golden wall is part of a large golden structure – or funeral chapel. This houses three other chapels and a quartzite sarcophagus. And in the sarcophagus – Carter will find out later – are three mummified coffins, nested inside each other.

Lord Carnarvon joins Carter in the tomb for the long-awaited opening of the burial chamber. But, less than two months later, the fifth Earl died of a mosquito bite which became infected, causing blood poisoning and pneumonia.

His sudden disappearance generates rumors and many fanciful newspaper articles that the mummy’s curse is said to bring death or misfortune to those who disturb the pharaoh’s resting place. Undeterred, Howard Carter continues the excavations. He is now supported by Lord Carnarvon’s widow, the Dowager Countess Almina Carnarvon. But when the Egyptian authorities began to take a more active role in the excavations, Carter stopped the work in protest. This pushes his new supervisors to forbid him access to the tomb. Nearly a year passed before he could return – not without him and his protector renouncing any claim to Tutankhamun’s grave goods.

Work will resume in 1925. Carter focuses on one objective: to dissociate the nesting coffins. The colossal task requires high technicality. The inner coffin is solid gold and weighs 110 kg. Inside are the mummified remains of Tutankhamun. An incredible golden mask covers his head and shoulders. This artefact will become the symbol of Egypt’s proud past. However, the man behind the mask is not going to reveal his secrets right away.

Egypt: The discovery that stunned the world