By Tim Masters
It may not boast glittering treasures from ancient Egypt, but a new Tutankhamun exhibition shows how the discovery of the boy king’s tomb in 1922 had a huge impact on popular culture across the globe.
It was one of the one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th Century.
Tutankhamun’s tomb had been untouched for some 3,000 years until the British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered it in 1922, after years of fruitless excavations funded by Lord Carnarvon.
“Can you see anything?” asked Carnarvon as Carter opened the tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.
“Yes,” replied Carter. “Wonderful things.”
Those unforgettable words are inscribed on the wall at the beginning of the Discovering Tutankhamun exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
With most of Tutankhamun’s treasures too fragile to travel from Cairo, the only items in the exhibition from the tomb are some watermelon seeds and almonds that were left to feed Tutankhamen for eternity.
“We’ve looked at the gold, but there’s a lot more hidden behind it,” explains the exhibition’s co-curator Dr Paul Collins.
“One of the biggest discoveries we made in putting this together was that only 30% of the objects from the tomb have actually been the subject of detailed scholarly study.”
The Ashmolean show focuses on the story of Carter’s discovery and how it sparked a wave of “Tut-mania” across the globe.
In one of the first examples of a newspaper paying for a scoop, The Times was given exclusive access to the excavation when Lord Carnarvon sold the rights for £5,000.
Rival newspapers weren’t happy and there was fierce competition among reporters to report the story and its many mysteries, such as the famous Pharaoh’s Curse.
The exhibition features giant blow-ups of of Harry Burton’s photographs for The Times, as well as Carter’s original records, drawings and photographs.
Also on show are many items that illustrate how the craze for all things Tutankhamun had an impact on arts and culture in the 1920s.
Egyptian motifs appeared on clothes, jewellery, hairstyles, fabrics, furniture and in architecture.
“Tutankhamun, Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter became almost movie stars,” says Dr Collins. “There was an extraordinary outpouring of games and ceramics and costumes and posters. Everybody wanted a little bit of Tut.”
The tomb’s discovery, at the start of the Roaring Twenties, followed the global upheavals of World War One. Mass media was able to bring news of objects being carried out of the tomb to a wider audience, faster than ever before.
America, in particular, became obsessed by “King Tut” – as he became known. Even US President Herbert Hoover used the name for his pet dog.
American stage magician Charles Carter rebranded himself “Carter The Great” on his Egyptian-themed advertisements.
Meanwhile, songwriter Harry Von Tilzer had a 1923 hit with Old King Tut. The lyrics went: “They opened up his tomb the other day and jumped with glee / They learned a lot about ancient history / His tomb instead of tears / Was full of souvenirs.”
The sheet music and an old Bakelite recording of the song appear in the exhibition. The song was also played at the Ashmolean’s launch event this week, accompanied by a group of 1920s-style dancers.
“Old King Tut was one of the great hits of the time, just as the Charleston was becoming the most popular dance,” says Dr Collins. “It was a great combination.”
Even today Tutankhamun remains an icon. “In the recent revolution, in Tahrir Square in Cairo there was graffiti showing Tutankhamun’s mask as a symbol of Egyptian identity.”
Speaking at the Ashmolean Museum this week, Lord Carnarvon’s relative, George Herbert, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, said: “My great grandfather would be delighted that the fascination with his and Howard Carter’s discovery still continues after all these years.”
• Reigned Egypt circa 1336BC-1327BC from the age of eight or nine
• Thought to be the son of Akhenaten, known as the “heretic king”
• Married his half sister, Ankhesenpaaten
• Was about 17 years old when he died
• The cause of his death is a mystery – he may have been assassinated, or died as the result of an injury received while hunting
Source: BBC History