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Photographing Tutankhamun

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On 26 November 1922, an archaeologist and Egyptologist named Howard Carter chiselled a small hole into the top left corner of a sealed stone door deep inside Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. After lighting a candle to check for noxious gases, Carter peered through the hole into the darkness.

‘Can you see anything?’ asked Carter’s sponsor, Lord Carnavon, who was waiting anxiously behind him.

‘Yes…’ replied Carter. ‘Wonderful things.’

Together, they had just discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun, which had lain undisturbed for over 3,000 years.

The discovery of King Tut’s tomb remains the most famous archaeological find in history, partly because the location of the tomb had been a mystery for so long but also because it was the first dig of its kind to be photographed so extensively. Indeed, Harry Burton – the pioneering photographer who accompanied Carter and Carnavon on the excavation – took around 1,400 photos over a ten-year period.

Now, 95 years later, these photographs are set to go on display as part of a brand-new exhibition entitled ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’.

The exhibition is the work of Dr Christina Riggs, a historian of archaeology, photography, and ancient Egyptian art at the University of East Anglia, who received a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship in 2015 to undertake the first ever study of the Tutankhamun excavation photo archives.

‘The idea,’ explains Dr Riggs, ‘is not simply to go and look at pretty pictures of the artefacts but to question the role of photography. We want to encourage people to explore the purpose and uses of photography, as well as the meaning it creates.

‘I mean, people can look at the artefacts because we do have photos of them. But we also have photos of, for instance, Egyptian politicians, Egyptian children working on site and people who were generally involved in the excavation.’

So, besides documenting the find, what did Harry Burton have in mind when taking the photographs?

‘Many of the photographs were carefully staged,’ says Dr Riggs, ‘so were undoubtedly taken with publicity in mind. About two-thirds of the photographs he took were what we call object photographs – after the artefacts had been cleaned and repaired, it was Burton’s job to get a good, clear photograph, or sometimes 2 or 3, depending on the kind of object.

‘For the famous mummy mask, for example, he took about 20 photographs, while other objects weren’t photographed at all.’

As well as prompting viewers to consider the many uses of photography, Dr Riggs hopes the exhibition will encourage archaeologists and Egyptologists to adopt what she describes as ‘a more historically informed and visually critical approach to source material’.

She explains, ‘I want people to consider the political dimension of archaeology around the world, especially in the Middle East. The Tutankhamun discovery came at a crossroads in colonial relations between Egypt and Britain but few Egyptologists understand that, much less members of the public.’

Dr Riggs applied to the Academy’s Mid-Career Fellowship scheme on the advice of a friend, and received the funding in 2015.

‘The fellowship budget was absolutely pivotal in giving me the space and time to do the groundwork archival research in Oxford and New York – the kind of research that challenged and changed some of the ideas with which I went into the project.

‘It also covered the design stage of the exhibition and the scanning and licensing of the images, which have all been created especially for this show from the original 1920s glass negatives, in an archive at the University of Oxford.’

Looking forward, Dr Riggs is working on an academic monograph – also called ‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ (scheduled for release in summer 2018) – and hopes to take the exhibition on tour.

She says, ‘We’ve designed the exhibition to be low-cost and easy-to-take-on-tour. So I hope that more venues will express an interest in hosting it, and I will also be looking at ways to take it schools in the Norfolk area, especially as Howard Carter was a Norfolk man!’

‘Photographing Tutankhamun’ will run from 10 November until late January 2018 at the Collection Museum in Lincoln, before moving to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge.

Follow the Photographing Tutankhamun blog: www.photographing-tutankhamun.com and on Twitter @photograph_tut

The British Academy’s Mid-Career Fellowships are designed both to support outstanding individual researchers with excellent research proposals and to promote public understanding and engagement with humanities and social sciences.

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