In 1922, British photographer Harry Burton was on assignment for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian Expedition when he received an intriguing job offer from Egyptologist Howard Carter. After searching for years with little success, the archaeologist had finally chanced upon what would prove to be one of the field’s most significant finds—Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Burton would spend the next eight years taking more than 3,400 snapshots of the tomb and its array of treasures, a feat that cemented his legacy as the “Pharaoh’s photographer.” Now, thanks to Photographing Tutankhamun, a traveling exhibition currently at Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the public can finally view Burton’s photos, many of which were previously unpublished.
Curator Christina Riggs, a professor at the University of East Anglia, is the first individual to study the visual archive in its entirety. Her work focuses on the intersection of archaeology and photography, engaging with questions of photographic objectivity and power dynamics between the individuals involved in the excavation.
“It's about shifting our entire perspective on ancient Egypt, modern Egypt, and archaeology,” Riggs tells BBC News’ Beth Timmins in a recent interview. “Once we start thinking about the complex, and inherently unequal, set of relationships in which the archaeology took place, it's hard to see photographs in any kind [of] 'neutral' way.”
One of Burton’s most famous images depicts a wide-eyed Carter gazing into Tutankhamun’s burial chamber, ostensibly for the first time. In fact, Timmins notes, the photo was taken more than a year after Carter’s initial discovery and was heavily staged to exude the aura of a mystically bewitching find.
Visitors hoping to see this widely circulated image in the exhibit may be disappointed: In a blog post, Riggs explains that she deliberately chose to exclude classically staged photographs of Carter and his colleagues. Instead, she emphasizes the essential yet largely ignored group of Egyptians, including men, women and children of all social classes, who worked with the archaeologists.
“Carter appears only off to the side in one photograph–a group shot of Egyptian politicians visiting in 1926,” Riggs writes. “Instead, the ‘hidden’ workers are the Egyptian archaeologists, basket boys, and camera assistants that our eyes, and our histories of Egyptology, have otherwise overlooked.”
In a May 1923 snapshot, Burton focuses on the rail system instituted to transport artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings to Luxor. Locals push crates filled with treasures along the rail line, completing an exhausting exercise exacerbated by the 100-degree temperatures. In other images, 6- and 7-year-old children are seen performing heavy labor, Riggs tells Timmins.
To create the exhibition, Riggs turned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which houses about 1,400 of Burton’s photographs and much of his personal correspondence. She also relied on the Griffith Institute at the University of Oxford, one of the foremost collections of Egyptology-related items in existence. Home to the complete records of Carter’s 10-year excavation, the Griffith Institute offers an online database filled with notes, photographs and journal entries related to the endeavor. Black-and-white scans of Burton’s images detail finds ranging from a ceremonial robe to the head of the pharaoh himself.
According to a press release, Photographing Tutankhamun features more than two dozen images created using digital scans of Burton’s original glass-plate negatives, as well as publicity materials that reveal how photos were used to shape public perception of the discovery.
“Through the eyes of the camera lens, the exhibition demonstrates the huge input from the Egyptian government and the hundreds of Egyptians working alongside the likes of Harry Burton and Howard Carter,” Riggs says in the release. “This refreshing approach helps us understand what Tutankhamun meant to Egyptians in the 1920s–and poses the important question of what science looks like and who does it.”
Photographing Tutankhamun is on display at Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology through September 23, 2018. Entry is free.