A frail elderly woman would have a hard time walking a few blocks, from her apartment to the subway, then from the subway to the MET, with winds gusting to near hurricane strength. So, the patron of the arts and of archaeology, who happened to be a cousin of my first wife, called around to find a worthy pair to use her tickets to the private opening (for major patrons) of The Treasures of Tutankhamun, the exhibit of King Tut’s tomb. The public opening at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City would be several days later. When it was found that the two only archaeologists in the extended family were in town, they (we) were located and given the tickets. And so it was that I was to be one of the very few people to take in the art and artifacts of the most famous Egyptian tomb, which housed one of the least famous Egyptian rulers, without the crowds and long lines, even tough those in attendance were rather overdressed.
Years later, I saw the exhibit again, but this time with every single object faked (reasonably well), at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas. The Luxor assumed (correctly) that there would be great demand for this exhibit, so they made two, and patrons were duly shuttled into one or the other, alternately, as each group exited the Luxor Experience, which was a very fancy carnival ride in which paying customers relived a fictionalized version of an Indian Jones like search for the ultimate treasure in a lost underground Mayan world heavily influenced by Egyptian mythology. Or something.
Anyway, today is the anniversary of Carter’s discovery of the tomb, and we are very close to the anniversary of our visit to the exhibit (though I don’t recall the exact date, it was probably the weekend before the opening and a few days after Thanksgiving).
In Carter’s words:
“Slowly, desperately slowly it seemed to us as we watched, the remains of passage debris that encumbered the lower part of the doorway were removed, until at last we had the whole door clear before us. The decisive moment had arrived. With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left hand corner. Darkness and blank space, as far as an iron testing-rod could reach, showed that whatever lay beyond was empty, and not filled like the passage we had just cleared. Candle tests were applied as a precaution against possible foul gases, and then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle and peered in, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn [Lord Carnarvon’s daughter] and Callender [an assistant] standing anxiously beside me to hear the verdict. At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.’ Then widening the hole a little further, so that we both could see, we inserted an electric torch.
“My first care was to locate the wooden lintel above the door: then very carefully I chipped away the plaster and picked out the small stones which formed the uppermost layer of the filling. The temptation to stop and peer inside at every moment was irresistible, and when, after about ten minutes’ work, I had made a hole large enough to enable me to do so, I inserted an electric torch. An astonishing sight its light revealed, for there, within a yard of the doorway, stretching as far as one could see and blocking the entrance to the chamber, stood what to all appearances was a solid wall of gold. For the moment there was no clue as to its meaning, so as quickly as I dared I set to work to widen the hole…
With the removal of a very few stones the mystery of the golden wall was solved. We were at the entrance of the actual burial-chamber of the king, and that which barred our way was the side of an immense gilt shrine built to cover and protect the sarcophagus. It was visible now from the Antechamber by the light of the standard lamps, and as stone after stone was removed, and its gilded surface came gradually into view, we could, as though by electric current, feel the tingle of excitement which thrilled the spectators behind the barrier…
It was, beyond any question, the sepulchral chamber in which we stood, for there, towering above us, was one of the great gilt shrines beneath which kings were laid. So enormous was this structure (17 feet by 11 feet, and 9 feet high, we found afterwards) that it filled within a little the entire area of the chamber, a space of some two feet only separating it from the walls on all four sides, while its roof, with cornice top and torus moulding, reached almost to the ceiling. From top to bottom it was overlaid with gold, and upon its sides there were inlaid panels of brilliant blue faience, in which were represented, repeated over and over, the magic symbols which would ensure its strength and safety. Around the shrine, resting upon the ground, there were a number of funerary emblems, and, at the north end, the seven magic oars the king would need to ferry himself across the waters of the underworld. The walls of the chamber, unlike those of the Antechamber, were decorated with brightly painted scenes and inscriptions, brilliant in their colours, but evidently somewhat hastily executed. ”
Art Deco is a bit out of fashion these days, but it is worth noting that it (and parallel style and design motifs) were heavily influenced by the opening of the tomb. So, not only was there a plethora of mummy movies, signs in front of auto mechanics that said “Toot and come in!” and so on, but there was also an influx of ancient Egyptian elements in modern design. There were other ancient civilization influences as well… perhaps this is best thought of as an overall, generalized “archaeologial” influence.
I quickly note that there are several dates related to the tomb-opening event. Earlier in November (on the 4th), the steps to the tomb was discovered after a very long survey by Carter. Carter had cordoned off a large area to survey, square by square, systematically. The tomb was in one of the last squares to be inspected, which happened to be very near his base camp, which was a simple manifestation of what is now known as “Carter’s Rule” (the most important discoveries in an archaeological expedition happen near or on the last day). Then, the tomb was explored and the outer parts entered later in November then “officially opened” on the 29th of November, with the inner chamber opened the following February. So pick your anniversary.
Since we are on the subject of mummies and Egypt and stuff, I have a few reading recommendations.
One of the best novels ever set in ancient Egypt is The Egyptian: A Novel, by Mika Waltari (translated into English). You will enjoy the book more if I tell you now: It is supposed to be funny. All that stuff that seems “a little funny” is meant to.
I happen to be a big fan of Anne Rice’s “The Mummy or Ramses the Damned” … I fear a lot of people who don’t like Anne Rice will assume they won’t like this, to their own loss. It’s good.
The Egyptologist: A Novel by Arthur Phillips is a recent novel that runs parallel in time to Carter’s exploration and involves Carter and Tut’s tomb as an interesting element, though it is not the focus of the book. I enjoyed this book a great deal in part because at the end, I had no idea WTF had just happened. If you want books firmly grounded in reality with no question, at the end, about what was real and what was delusional, don’t read this one.
Source of quote:
Carter, Howard, The Tomb of Tutankhamen. 1923. Hoving, Thomas, Tutankhamun: The Untold Story (1978).