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Egyptians Played a Crucial Role in the Excavation of King Tut’s Tomb

The discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 is traditionally credited to the British Egyptologist Howard Carter, but he didn’t work alone. A new exhibition at the University of Oxford highlights the “crucial” contributions of Egyptians on Carter’s team.

The  exhibition, “Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive”, presented in collaboration with Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, showcases photographs, letters, plans, drawings and diaries from an archive that was originally created by the excavators and is now held by the Griffith Institute, the centre of Egyptology at Oxford.

Tutankhamun was an Egyptian pharaoh who ruled from around 1332 B.C.E. (when he was just nine years old) until his death in 1323.

The finding of his tomb three millennia later and the riches it revealed dazzled the world. But in the media hype surrounding the discovery, the Egyptian team members’ involvement in the excavation was largely unnoticed.

“This excavation was a complex process of teamwork lasting ten years and not the story of a single heroic figure. Above all, we showcase the crucial role of the Egyptian team members.”

Daniela Rosenow A co-curator of “Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive”

Al-Fanar Media talked to Daniela Rosenow, a co-curator of the exhibition, about how the new exhibition provides a more inclusive view.

“We want to interrogate the discovery and look beyond the colonialist stereotypes, and we hope to show that there is so much more than gold to Tutankhamun,” said Rosenow, an Egyptologist at Oxford.

“This excavation was a complex process of teamwork lasting ten years and not the story of a single heroic figure,” she said. “Above all, we showcase the crucial role of the Egyptian team members.”

Many Egyptian Helpers

The exhibition is a first-hand account of the laborious and meticulous work that the Egyptian excavators did in documenting and conserving the find.

“Howard Carter heavily depended on a group of skilled and experienced Egyptian team members who had worked alongside him for many years,” Rosenow said. “Besides his four foremen, he also employed about 50 other local workmen and dozens of children. They can be seen in photographs, often working side by side with Carter.”

Gallery: ‘Not the Story of a Single Heroic Figure’

Photographs by Harry Burton, who documented the decade-long excavation, show Egyptians participating in work like removing the wall between the Antechamber and the Burial chamber within the tomb, lifting shrine roofs, carrying baskets, removing rubble, transporting objects to a laboratory, and loading crates with objects, she said.

Pictures of the children provide a sense of the loss of childhood as they worked with adults to move rubble and shift materials to make way for the discovery. The images are equally haunting and beautiful and provide historical evidence that must be preserved and shared.

A companion book, also called “Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive”, was published with the exhibition to give visitors more in-depth detail of the archive.

Richard Bruce Parkinson, a professor of Egyptology at Oxford and a co-curator of the exhibition, says the exhibition “documents the humanity of the modern and ancient people who worked on the tomb.”

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Rosenow agreed that the exhibition sheds important light on the Egyptian excavators.

“Their story has been lost,” she said, “and although the exhibition cannot uncover these team members’ names or stories, it can at least bring this loss to peoples’ attention.”

Information for Visitors

Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive” continues until 5 February 2023 in the Treasury of the Weston Library, at the University of Oxford. Admission is free.

A simulated fly-through of Tutankhamun tomb, as reconstructed from records in the archive, is available on the Bodleian Libraries’ YouTube page.

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