Blog

Tutankhamun’s head

Mary Beard is the best boss I’ve ever had. She was head of the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge when I worked there for a year. She welcomed me when I arrived, told people to read my then-new book (the first one, The Beautiful Burial in Roman Egypt), and let me get on with my job in the Museum of Classical Archaeology. Heaven.

So like any right-thinking person, I’ve been appalled by the vitriolic attacks made on her via Twitter the past week or two, after she expressed support for the way a BBC educational cartoon – yes, for children – showed a high-ranking Roman family in Britain that included a dark-skinned father and a literate mother. (Read about it in her own words here, plus lots of press coverage and some top-notch science journalism out there in response.) Both a Roman officer from Africa and a Roman woman who could read and write are unusual, but they are not unattested. Besides which, one aim was to show children today that there was diversity in the ancient world. To paint back in some of the people who have been painted out for a long time. Similar things have been done with educational material in the UK and US (maybe elsewhere, too) to ensure that ancient Egypt isn’t white-washed.

Race is a topic that invites powerful reactions, precisely because of the impact it has had and still has in our society. Throw ancient Egypt into the mix, and those reactions multiply. For one thing, Egypt is a place at the root of Judaeo-Christian origin myths: Joseph and his coat of many colours, Moses leading the Hebrews to the promised land. For another, it’s a place with undeniably awe-inspiring ancient remains: it’s hard to top the pyramids, the Sphinx, the colossi of Memnon, all lauded by Greek and Roman writers, and therefore familiar to educated Europeans for centuries now. Lay claim to your ancestors having built those, and you lay claim to ‘civilization’ itself.*

And for a third, Egypt is a place of in-betweenness, or so it seemed from Europe’s vantage point: in between Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, to use modern Western conceptions of those spaces. That makes ancient Egypt ‘unstable’, in slightly fancy academic talk. The unstable things are what everyone’s trying to prop up or topple down, over and over again, a bit like poking a bruise.

If we go back to the 18th century, we can see how race was invented to characterize physical differences between humans, and then developed in a way that supported crippling inequalities based on those perceived differences. One of the least pleasant bits of research I’ve ever done was reading a book called Types of Mankind, written by self-professed Egyptologist George Gliddon and a slave-owning doctor named Josiah Nott. It’s vile in its long-winded justification of racism, but that didn’t stop it going into eight printings in 1850s America. Nor can we dismiss people like Gliddon and Nott as cranks. Race science wasn’t a pseudo-science – a word that might seem to create some safe distance between ‘us’ in the 21st century and earlier scholars who accepted, furthered, and used its core principles. It was the real deal, and every archaeologist and anthropologist trained in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had been trained to understand the ancient past through some version of racial categorization.**

So, inevitably, to Tutankhamun. By the time the mummy was unwrapped – or rather, cut through, scraped away, and taken to pieces – the principles of racial classification were always, always applied to ancient Egyptian human remains. That meant getting a medical doctor to take a series of measurements of the skull and of major bones, too, if the body was dissected or poorly preserved within the wrappings, as Tutankhamun’s was. At the unwrapping of Tutankhamun’s mummy in November 1925, there were two medical doctors on hand to study it, Douglas Derry, professor of anatomy at the Cairo Medical School, and Saleh Bey Hamdi, its former head. Only Derry was credited on the published anatomical report, which duly reported all the skeletal measurements.^

Only two photographs of the head of Tutankhamun’s mummy were published at the time – both with the head cradled in a white cloth, which concealed the fact that it had been detached from the body at the bottom of the neck in order to remove the gold mummy mask. The cloth also conceals all the tools and detritus on the work surface, which is clear on the photographic negatives. They were printed and published cropped to the head itself with the cloth around it, as you see here:

From ILN
Left profile of the mummified head of Tutankhamun, photograph by Harry Burton (neg. TAA 553), as published in The Illustrated London News, 1926.

(Personal disclaimer here: I really, really hate publishing photographs of mummies, especially unwrapped mummies, mummified body parts, and children’s mummies. I’ve done it here to make a larger point about the visualization of race – and I know these images are already circulating out there. Still, uneasy about it.)

Anyway, of the two photographs that Howard Carter released to the press and used in his own book on Tutankhamun (volume 2), there were two views, one to the front and one to show the left profile, as you see above. But photographer Harry Burton took several more photographs of the head after a little more work had been done on it – and after it had been mounted upright on a wooden plank, with what looks the handle of a paintbrush used to prop up the neck. None of these photographs were published in Carter’s (or Burton’s) lifetimes, and I don’t think they were meant to be. But clearly, from their perspective, having photographs of the head was crucial. It’s also telling that while some of the photographs show the head at near-profile or three-quarter angles, most stick to the established norms of racial ‘type’ photography: front, back, left profile, right profile.

Version 2
Print, possibly from 1925, of a photograph by Harry Burton, from neg. TAA 553, (c) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Above, an example of one of the near-profile or three-quarter angle views. As far as I can tell, this was first published, at a size even smaller than the image here, in Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt’s English-language book Tutankhamun (George Rainbird 1963) – with the paintbrush handle carefully erased. (Here, you just get my iPhone reflection.)

Version 2
Print of a photograph by Harry Burton, from neg. TAA 1244, (c) The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The paintbrush handle has been masked out with tape.

It wasn’t until 1972 that most or all of the photographs of the mummy, including its head, were published in a scholarly study by F. Filce Leek, part of the Griffith Institute’s Tutankhamun’s Tomb monograph series. That included the left profile above, where masking tape was applied to the negative before printing – again, to remove the paintbrush handle.

These different stagings of the head of Tutankhamun’s mummy matter, likewise the way the photographs did or didn’t circulate, or what adaptations were deemed necessary to make them presentable for publication. Clearly, that paintbrush handle was deemed inappropriate in some way in the 1960s – just as in the 1920s and 1930s, when Carter was still writing about the tomb, he must have deemed it inappropriate to show that second set of photographs at all.

And what do they show us, these photographs? The face of Tutankhamun? The race of Tutankhamun? Or something else? Carter didn’t explicitly discuss race when he described the mummy’s appearance: he didn’t have to, because there was already a code in language to distinguish more ‘Caucasian’ bodies from more ‘Negroid’ ones (to use the most common terms deployed in late 19th-/early 20th-century archaeology). ‘The face is refined and cultured’, so the Illustrated London News reported in its 3 July 1926 edition, almost certainly closely paraphrasing or directly quoting Carter. Placed underneath the cloth-wrapped left profile (the first photo I showed above), text and picture together made it clear enough to the paper’s middle-class readers that Tutankhamun was an ancient Egyptian of more Arab, Turkish, or even European appearance than sub-saharan African. The mummy’s sunken cheekbones seem high and sharp, and the crushed nose in profile looks high-bridged and narrow.

What really interests me here, though, is what we don’t see, because we still take such photographs, and drawings, and CT-scans, and 3D reconstructions, for granted: images like these have race science at their very heart, going right back to the 18th century.^^ So when I see a photograph like this – and there are thousands of them in the annals of archaeology – I don’t see Tutankhamun, and I certainly don’t see anything refined or cultured about mummified heads. I see the extent to which the doing of race had worked its way into pretty much every corner of archaeology, especially in the archaeology of colonized and contentious lands like Egypt. Why take these photographs? I assume that in 1925, it was inconceivable not to, just as it was inconceivable not to unwrap the mummy, not to take anatomical measurements, and not to detach the head from the body and pry it out of the mask.

Pictures matter, photographs matter, and the way we use photographs and talk about photographs, those matter too. In the book I’ll be publishing next year on the photographic archive of Tutankhamun’s tomb, I go into more detail about this particular set of photographs of the mummified head. But given the controversy over race, skin colour, and DNA in Roman Britain that flared up recently, I thought I’d get back into blog writing with this example.

In our image-saturated age, we need to be even more careful about how we use historic images like these photographs. Don’t look at what they show in the picture. Look instead for what they show about the mindsets and motivations behind the taking of the picture. The legacies of race science are still with us – and if, as archaeologists, historians, or Egyptologists, we want a wider public to understand those legacies, we need much more vocal and more critical work on the history of Egyptology and the visualization of the ancient dead.

NOTES

* I talk a bit about the problem with the word ‘civilization’ in a book called (yes, the irony) Egypt: Lost Civilizations (Reaktion 2017). Scott Trafton does a fantastic job talking about how African-Americans perceived ancient Egypt in the 19th century – sometimes as their own place of origin, to take pride in a chapter of African history, but sometimes as a place of slavery, to be rejected in the struggle against slavery. His book is called Egypt Land, and I learned a lot from it. Great cover, too.

** For how race infused the study of archaeology, see Debbie Challis’s excellent The Archaeology of Race (Bloomsbury 2015), and for its impact on the study of ancient Mesopotamia, I can’t recommend Jean Evans, The Lives of Sumerian Sculpture (Cambridge UP 2012) highly enough.

^ On this exclusion, see Donald Malcolm Reid, Contesting Antiquity in Egypt (American University in Cairo Press 2015), pp. 56-8.

^^ My take on this, with lots of further references: ‘An autopsic art: Drawings of “Dr Granville’s mummy’ in the Royal Society archives’, Royal Society Notes and Records 70.2 (2016), Open Access here. There’s a vast literature on photography and race, especially in visual anthropology but also history of science/medicine. Two good starting points: Deborah Poole, Vision, Race, and Modernity (Princeton UP 1997) and Amos Morris-Reich, Race and Photography (Chicago UP 2016 – talk about having to read some stomach-churning stuff for research…).

 

Photos in the marketplace

I’m not the only photo historian who trawls online auction sites in the name of research, or who can’t pass up a box of old photographs or postcards at an antiques fair. I don’t buy things online very often (especially since discovering how right-wing the owner of one popular auction site is), but now and again, something seems too good to pass up.

This week, I bought a press photograph from 1924:

s-l1600

The front bears the wax pencil marks for the printer to crop the photo to the left, showing just the face of Egypt’s King Fuad. Scrawled out on the right is the white-capped face of the country’s first elected prime minister, Sa’ad Zaghloul. On the back of the photo, a date stamp, more scrawls (‘Wed – City ed.’), and a suggested caption give us a more information about how the photograph was meant to be used:

s-l1600-2

For about $23, including postage, I’m happy to have bought this piece of history – the history of Egypt, the history of Britain, and the history of the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb – even though Tutankhamun isn’t mentioned.

Britain allowed Egypt to hold parliamentary elections for the first time in 1923, a few months after the discovery of the tomb. The most significant nationalist party at the time, the Wafd, won by a landslide and its leader, Zaghloul pasha, became prime minister. Zaghloul was an elder statesman of the Egyptian independence movement, a former minister of education whom the British had arrested and deported in 1919, when uprisings against the British occupation erupted in Egypt. Zaghloul’s release from exile, and his return to Egypt in 1921, spurred confrontations between Egyptian political factions and with the British. From his home in Florence, photographer Harry Burton wrote to his boss, Albert Lythgoe, in the Egyptian Department of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art: ‘The Egyptian question is as far away from a solution as ever. A great fuss was made over Zag[h]loul’s return at first, although just before I left Cairo I heard that he had entirely lost his head […]’.*

Zaghloul had not lost his head – his temper, perhaps, since he was deported again and allowed to return only for the elections his party won. When Howard Carter’s feud with the antiquities service and the ministry of public works exploded in February 1924, Zaghloul spoke eloquently in defense of his ministry’s actions, throwing Carter’s claim of working only in the scientific interest right back at the Englishman: ‘Howard Carter does not have the right to lock tombs that are not his. In fact, the interest of science forbids this kind of behaviour’.**

But 1924 would prove to be a bad year for Zaghloul, too. On November 24th, General Sir Lee Stack, head of the British army in Sudan, was shot and killed in Cairo, the latest in several acts of violence and reprisals that marked the birth of the new, not-quite-independent Egypt. This time, Britain demanded compensation and a change of course from its former protectorate – hence the resignation of Zaghloul and his cabinet. Zaghloul died three years later, still a national hero for all that he had accomplished and all that he represented. Streets and statues in Cairo and Alexandria commemorate Zaghloul, who is buried in a pharaonic-style mausoleum opposite his house in Cairo, itself a museum in his memory called the Beit al-Umma, ‘The House of the People’.

If I were a newspaper editor in 1924, I’d have tried to make sure both Fuad and Zaghloul made it into the picture, or if I had to choose between the two, I’d have picked Zaghloul’s ‘country casual’ look over Fuad’s waxed moustaches and starched collar. Call me a lower-case republican. At least newspapers were covering the story: International Newsreel Photo was part of William Randolph Hearst’s news agency in the 1920s, so this was intended for the American press. The news angle on the story is a British one, admittedly, but it goes into Egyptian politics at the national level in a way I rarely see in any of the British and American newspapers I read. Not to mention that it’s an episode of British history forgotten by, well, any person or university class I’ve ever mentioned it to in Britain, other than historians specialized in that era.

One more connection to Tutankhamun: Stack and his wife had visited the tomb on November 22nd, 1923. Carter showed them around on what was an important occasion, given Stack’s position. Also part of the delegation that day were the governor (mudir) of Qena province and the mayor (mamur markaz, ‘head of the district’) of Luxor. Some archaeologists and Egyptologists think politics has nothing to do with them, whether that’s politics in the past or the politics of today. But this single photograph and its backstory show how and why politics is everything in Egyptian archaeology. And everywhere, since politics even has to do with the use of online auction sites. This was photograph I just couldn’t pass up. I’ll donate money elsewhere to salve my conscience.

Notes:

* Letter from Burton to Lythgoe, 28 April 1921, on file with Burton’s correspondence in the archives of the Department of Egyptian Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

** The quote – and further discussion of the situation – is from Elliot Colla’s superb book, Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity (Duke University Press, 2007), page 206.

The machete stage

I wrote to a colleague the other day, telling him that I was at the machete stage with the manuscript of my next book, Photographing Tutankhamun. He understood. It’s the stage where you go back through the manuscript you’ve been working on for (in my case) almost two years and realize that you’ve written too much, or put things in the wrong order, or come up with something that might sound nice, or be interesting, but that just doesn’t take your argument forward. So, the machete has to go through the jungle of words. In case there are any treasures among all the greenery I’ve cut back, I keep a file called ‘junked’ for each chapter (or article or story) that I’ve ever written, for as long as I can remember. But I confess, I rarely look at those files. They hang around on my laptop, probably a little relieved to be set free from my cutting and pasting, my deleting and ‘undo’-ing, or my staring at them until it’s time for a coffee break.

Sometimes I have to put the machete down for a day or two, when I reach an unexpected clearing in the manuscript: a place where I’ve failed to write the bit that is clearly needed for the sake of the argument, perhaps because I forgot what the argument was at that point, went for a coffee, and decided (ever the optimist) that it would sort it itself out while I got on with the rest of the chapter. Today was a day that mixed both: I had to take the machete to a few hundred words that trailed off into notes, leaving a big clearing where I could try out a different example and come at the problem from a different direction. A thousand words later, while the messy world went on around me, I think the new direction works.

But I wonder what to do with this particular pile of greenery: it was my attempt to write about the strange case of the ‘head on a lotus’, Object 8 in Howard Carter’s list of the objects he found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, supposedly in the order he found them. Except that these first few items were among, under, or (in a tight space) on top of the rubble that packed the corridor between the sealed and re-sealed doorways to the tomb, cleared in haste and with the objects recorded at some later point. The carved and painted wooden head has a record card, like the objects were meant to, and it is in  Carter’s hand. But it has only the briefest of descriptions, with no measurements given, and it is written in a heavy black ink that differs from the finer pen and ink he used on other cards in this sequence of numbers.

At the bottom of the card for Object 8, his defensive ‘Note’ goes some way to explaining the discrepancy: ‘Was removed from magazine no. 4 by representatives of Egyptian Government and sent to Cairo as evidence of my want of integrity. Hence the head was much damaged.’ In February 1924, Carter declared a unilateral ‘strike’, furious at having to seek permission from the Egyptian antiquities service for decisions at the tomb, for instance over which visitors (of his choice) he could accommodate or which visitors (of the government’s choice) he had to accommodate. Tensions had been simmering for months, and Carter had behaved with an arrogance that did not go over well in the new political landscape: the antiquities service was still run by a French archaeologist, Pierre Lacau, but from 1922, Lacau answered to an Egyptian – yes, an Egyptian, the minister for public works. In February 1924, that minister was Murqus Hanna, who was a member of the governing Wafd party and had long campaigned for Egyptian independence: he had been tried, unsuccessfully, by the British for treason after the uprisings of 1919. It was in part as a result of those uprisings that in 1922 Britain gave Egypt limited self-rule, which included control of its own domestic affairs. It was not what the Wafd and other nationalist movements wanted, but it was better than nothing. It was a step towards independence in a country that Britain had occupied by force for 40 years.

So, what does this have to do with Object 8, the head on a lotus – an object that became such a star on the American tour of Tutankhamun’s treasures in the 1970s that you could buy porcelain reproductions of it in museum gift shops. The reason Carter took umbrage on the record card is that after he walked off site, and Hanna and Lacau withdrew his permission to work at the tomb, the antiquities authorities discovered a Fortnum and Mason crate with this head tucked inside, at the back of a tomb (KV4) that had been used mostly for lunches on site those first two seasons – hence the presence of a crate from the Piccadilly grocers who supplied British victuals to the every corner of the empire. What was such a striking object doing there? Would it really have been forgotten about, when other objects from the corridor – alabaster vases, wine skins, pottery cups, a scarab, fragments of several objects – hadn’t been? Or had it been discovered in the tomb and secreted away? It didn’t look good for Carter. I still think it doesn’t look good, to be honest, but I wondered if the photographs of Object 8 might help pin down the date that it was actually recorded by Carter and his colleagues at the site.

If it was one of the first finds, then according to the recording system Carter used, the odd head, so unlike anything seen before (or since) in Egyptology, should have been among the first things in line. The system entailed several stages: an object was noted on the record cards, usually by Carter, then sprayed with wax (the standard conservation method of the day) by Arthur Mace or Alfred Lucas, and finally photographed by Harry Burton. The men started off using a slim notebook to try to track progress, although the speed and pressures of the work – and the attention from tourists and the press – meant they pretty quickly abandoned that. Whatever Object 8 was (the notebook only gives numbers), it has an ‘x’ in the column marked ‘brought to KV15’, since KV15, the tomb of Seti I, was the tomb the antiquities service gave over to Carter for storage and work space, including photography.

Burton did take photographs of the head-on-a-lotus, but not in 1922, 1923, or 1924. He can only have photographed it in the Cairo Museum, where the Egyptian antiquities officials took it in March 1924, and where Burton was a regular visitor. He often took photographs on request, for his colleagues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Nothing in the correspondence I’ve read from Burton mentions him photographing the head; perhaps it was something best not spoken about, or perhaps the occasion to mention it in writing just didn’t arise. Burton took between 8 and 10 photographs, all on large-plate (18×24 cm) glass negatives. One of them made the front page of the Illustrated London News on May 23rd, 1931: ILN 23-v-31 lotus head on cover. Tutankhamun was still a cover star.

IMG_4257
My photograph (and iPhone), all materials copyright the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York – who kindly let me spend a week in 2015 consulting their Burton photographs and archives.

I started writing about those photographs because I’m interested in the choices Burton made about positioning works of three-dimensional sculpture in front of the camera (you can see scans made from modern prints of his pictures at this Griffith Institute link). The head-on-a-lotus is the only Tutankhamun object he photographed with such a pale background behind it, and the most subtle of lines between the background and the covered surface on which the head sits. It’s a photograph clearly taken in a controlled situation indoors, perhaps with electric light, in contrast to the the reflected sunlight, and sheltered outdoor setting, in which he photographed Tutankhamun objects at KV15. Most of the glass negatives are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, since Carter gave them a share of the Tutankhamun negatives off and on; they also inherited 500 more after his death. Still more of Burton’s Tutankhamun negatives are in Oxford’s Griffith Institute, which received most of Carter’s records after his death – but the two glass negatives they have for Object 8 are copies carefully made, I imagine by Burton himself, by re-photographing a print. It gets even more complicated than that, once you start trying to track down which negative was where, at what point between 1931 and 1951, when the Met and the Griffith had an exchange of prints and negatives to try to even out their parallel collections.

None of this was getting me any closer to the argument I wanted to make about how the posing of certain objects helped make them look more like ‘sculpture’ as it was understood in Western art, that is, real art, fine art, treasures worthy of being reproduced in porcelain for museum gift shops. The photographs do tell that story (I think), but they started telling another story as well – a story about cover-ups (perhaps), colonial privilege (almost certainly), and copying photographs (definitely), and that story was getting in the way. The split in the side of Tutankhamun’s head, if that’s who it is, doesn’t come from a blade, thank goodness, just a split in the wood as it dried out over centuries, somewhere in his tomb. The machete, I took to my writing. I gave my faltering paragraphs and notes their own ‘junked’ file. Maybe I’ll revisit them, one day.

 

Heat

Let’s start with the banner photo for this website.*

‘Heat’ is everything in this image. Notice the short shadows: it was taken when the sun was near its zenith on May 14th, 1923. That day, from sunrise until 6 pm, dozens of Egyptian men moved 34 crates containing 89 boxes of objects that had been cleared out of the first room (the ‘antechamber’) of the tomb of Tutankhamun over the previous five months. The tomb lay more than five miles from the Nile, and the objects were due to sail down the river on an Egyptian government barge, destined for the antiquities museum in Ismailiya (now Tahrir) Square. There was only one way to get them there, and that was manpower.

Manpower with some help from a light railway line, the kind of track and wheeled cart system used in mining and construction work at the time. It was a staple of such projects throughout the colonial Middle East and Africa – and in archaeology as well, where the carts were used to move earth and rubble. Segments of track could be lifted and re-positioned to get whatever needed to be moved to wherever it needed to get.

What we see here are men coming up alongside the carts in groups of four, each group carrying a section of rails to add to the front, so the train of Tutankhamun’s tomb goods can continue its slow journey. The tomb’s lead excavator, Howard Carter, had this to say about that journey: ‘the work was carried out under a scorching sun, with a shade temperature of considerably over a hundred [38C], the metal rails under these conditions being almost too hot to touch’.

We often look at photographs to see what they show – or who they show. That’s Carter himself in the white pith helmet, striding towards the front of the railway line. But what about their more subtle qualities? How they make us feel, for instance, and what uncertainties, discomforts, or unexpected textures of history they bring out, whether at first glance or with repeat viewings. Their affective qualities, to use an academic turn-of-phrase. It isn’t just about how such photographs affect us now, but how they affected people at the time. What did photography do? What did it mean to stand there, photographing Egyptian men as they scorched their hands for archaeology – a profession that had gone out of its way to exclude Egyptians, except as cheap labour? Why isn’t this particular photograph as well known as others from the Tutankhamun dig – and why isn’t that hundred-degree heat, and the fundamental contribution of the Egyptian workforce, as much a topic of discussion as, say, how Tutankhamun died or what he looked like?

It isn’t clear who took this photograph – possibly a reporter for the London Times named Alfred Merton, who was embedded with the excavation thanks to his newspaper’s exclusive contract with Carter’s team. It was taken with a handheld camera, a Kodak, perhaps. The film negative, around 6 x 10 cm (2.5 by 4.25 inches), survives in Carter’s personal archive in the Griffith Institute at Oxford University, so whoever took the picture must have passed the negative on to him once the film was developed. Prints were made and circulated too, although as far as I can tell, none were published at the time. Still, photography clearly mattered, from taking the picture to printing it, and from sharing the prints and the negative to numbering and filing everything away.

This blog grows out of the research I’ve been doing for more than two years on the photographic archive from the tomb of Tutankhamun. It gives a taster, I hope, of some of the ways I approach photography in archaeology, and the kinds of questions I think photographs allow us – no, require us – to ask. There aren’t necessarily answers. But asking good questions, and looking for better ones, is always a good place to start. Egyptology could do with more heat, more pressure, to take a harder, clearer look at how it created ‘ancient Egypt’ out of sweat and newsprint, crates and steamboats, and the camera’s equivocal eye.

* Thanks to Paul Kuzemczak of GK3 for the site design, and to the Griffith Institute for supplying the image, which is (c) Griffith Institute, University of Oxford.