DISCOVERING TUTANKHAMUN
Friday, 15 August 2014

DISCOVERING TUTANKHAMUN

A new exhibition focuses on the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb – and its effect on the wider world

Written by Sandra Smith
Sandra-Smith-176The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 sparked a fascination for Egyptology that lingers to this day. It was also a testament to the persistence of a team that toiled for years without success.

The 5th Earl of Carnarvon had long been an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist when he employed Howard Carter – a skilled artist who’d evolved into an experienced archaeologist – to lead his exploration of tombs at Thebes. In 1914, Carnarvon was granted a concession to excavate in the Valley of the Kings, and after the First World War, Carter returned to the area to resume his work. Little was found, however, and in 1922 Carnarvon told him he could provide only one more season of funding. Then came the remarkable 1922 discovery.

This Ashmolean exhibition focuses not so much on the tomb’s contents, but on the documentation of the find and its impact upon a world in which the imperial powers of the 19th century were in decline.

Objects and archive material fill four galleries, the first of which introduces the main protagonists. Thanks to Carter’s meticulous cataloguing, numerous sketches detailing individual artefacts are featured. There are plans of the antechamber and pencil reproductions of Tutankhamun’s mummy. Meanwhile, copies of scenes from a painted box off er a colourful insight into the pharaoh’s life. Winifred Brunton’s paintings similarly depict the wealth of the young ruler. Her watercolours on ivory portraying jewellery from the royal tomb reveal a richness of hues, with semi-precious stones and gold inlay.

The variety of objects displayed in this exhibition shows the impact the tomb’s discovery had on Western society. While a limestone head of Tutankhamun and a replica of the gold funerary mask demand attention, 1920s postcards and magazines reveal the craze unleashed by the archaeological coup.

Black-and-white photographs transport the onlooker into that post-war era. A photo of members of the excavation team lunching in a tomb, for instance, captures the formality of their mission.

It took Carter a decade to recover and catalogue the tomb’s contents. Discovering Tutankhamun sheds a new light on this undertaking.

Until 2 November at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Beaumont Street, Oxford: 01865-278000; www.ashmolean.org


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