In November 1922, British archaeologists made history when they found the long-sought-after tomb of King Tutankhamun in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings.
They didn’t do it alone. Many skilled Egyptian workers made the discovery possible to begin with.But though dozens of unnamed Egyptian men and children performed much of the intense physical labor at the site—and shared their local knowledge and specialized skills—self-taught British archaeologist Howard Carter got all of the credit for the find.
To this day, historians are unable to match the names of the few Egyptian workers they do know to the faces of local men who were present at every stage of the painstakingly photographed discovery.
Now, a new exhibition in England shines a light on the Egyptian workers who made the find possible—most of whom were left out of the historical record.
“Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive” goes beyond “colonialist popular stereotypes” to showcase the “humanity of the modern and ancient people who worked on the tomb,” says Richard Bruce Parkinson, an Egyptologist at Oxford and the exhibition’s co-curator, in a statement.
Though the exhibition, on view through February 5, 2023 at the University of Oxford’s Weston Library in Oxford, England, celebrates the 100th anniversary of the find, it also criticizes and interrogates the prevailing narrative.
“The excavation was not achieved by a solitary heroic English archaeologist but by the modern Egyptian team members, who have so often been overlooked and written out of the story,” says Parkinson in the statement.
Carter’s life story is the stuff of archaeological legend. Born in London in 1874, he was drawn to the field when his father, a successful artist, painted an Egyptologist. At 17, young Carter headed to Egypt for the first time, working at several archaeological sites while perfecting his craft as an illustrator.
His reputation as an experienced Egyptologist got around and, in 1907, English aristocrat George Herbert, the fifth earl of Carnarvon, tapped Carter to lead an expedition to search for the tombs of Egyptian royalty, including that of Tutankhamun, a young king who ruled over Egypt from 1333 to 1323 B.C.E. and died at age 19.
Though World War I interrupted the search, Carter and a crew of workers spent several years searching for the tomb without any luck. In 1922, the same year Egypt declared independence from Britain after 40 years of direct colonial control, Herbert gave Carter an ultimatum: Find the tomb that season, or the expedition was over.
Carter’s luck turned after that: On November 4, 1922, Carter and his men found a flight of stone stairs that led to a sealed chamber. Three weeks later, they entered the four-room tomb and discovered thousands of items meant to accompany the young king into the afterlife. After two months of careful excavation, they finally found a stone sarcophagus with three nested coffins inside. The final coffin—the one containing Tutankhamun’s 3,000-year-old mummified body—was made of solid gold.
The tomb, and Carter, became international sensations. The Egyptian men and children hired to work on the expedition, however, received almost no recognition. Carter thanked his four Egyptian foremen—Ahmed Gerigar, Gad Hassan, Hussein Abu Awad and Hussein Ahmed Said—in books about the expedition “assiduously, if patronizingly,” as historian Christina Riggs notes in Photographing Tutankhamun: Archaeology, Ancient Egypt, and the Archive. However, he never mentioned the other Egyptian members of his 60- to 100-person crew.
“They are invisible,” Daniela Rosenow, an archaeologist and the co-curator of the exhibition, tells the Telegraph’s Lucy Davies. “These people did not write diaries like Carter; many couldn’t read or write at all. They probably went home each evening and told their families what they’d seen, but those stories are lost.”
The exhibition does what it can to fill in the blanks, with help from dramatic images captured by Harry Burton (nicknamed “the pharaoh’s photographer“ for his work in Egypt), letters, diary entries, plans, drawings, record cards and other archival material.
Even today, curators cannot match the names of Carter’s four foremen with the Egyptian men shown in the photographs, nor do they know the names of any of the other men and children Burton captured with his camera. So while Carter may have appreciated the Egyptian workers, his respect for them was “very much within a very colonial context,” Parkinson tells the National‘s Paul Peachey.
The artifacts themselves are still among the most famous ever displayed. Today, the artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb are primarily housed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, though they’re expected to be relocated to the new Grand Egyptian Museum, which is slated to open later this year.
King Tut’s Egyptian co-discoverers remain silent. The exhibition is an attempt to put them back into the picture—literally. The photographs, which show them performing a variety of tasks at every stage of the excavation, from opening shrine doors to carefully brushing dust from artifacts, make the extent of their work clear.
Even without knowing their names, viewers to the exhibition can see for themselves the vitally important role the unnamed men played in the discovery.
“Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive” will be on view at the University of Oxford’s Weston Library through February 5, 2023.