Politics and the King Tut Discovery
by Jimmy Dunn
Politics have always taken an important part in Egyptian archaeology, as they continue to do today. As we gaze upon the wonders of the Tutankhamun treasures, it should come as no big surprise that politics also played a big part in that discovery, becoming in fact the real curse of King Tut's tomb.
In general, many of the worlds greatest scholars, even today, are not some of the world's greatest politicians, even though their work often comes under political scrutiny. This can also be said about Howard Carter, so the death of his financier and the more politically savvy Lord Carnarvon on April 5, 1923 could not have come at a worst time. Afterwards, irregardless of how proficient Howard Carter was as an excavator, he proved to be a very poor diplomat at a time when the whole Tut tomb affair had become a very tricky political situation.
The disaster was actually initiated by Lord Carnarvon himself when, on January 9th, 1923, he signed a contract with The Times of London, giving them exclusive rights to the details of the Tutankhamun discovery. It seemed like a good idea at the time, both financially and practically, but in reality it turned out otherwise. First of all, the agreement with The Times was felt to be an affront by not only the news media in Egypt, but the news media throughout the rest of the world as well. One must always keep in mind that this was a time of limited media, before the age of television, radio and the numerous media that so impact our world today. Thereafter, Howard Carter and his team had to suffer what might be called guerilla warfare and general mischief making from the desperate Time's competitors. One of them, the Daily Mail, even employed one of Carters old rivals, Arthur Weigall, as their special correspondent.
According to Aruther Mace, a member of the Tutankhamun excavation team, in a letter to his wife Winifred:
"...the atmosphere of Luxor is rather nerve-wracking at present. The Winter Palace is a scream. No one talks of anything but the tomb, newspaper men swarm, and you daren't say a word without looking round everywhere to see if anyone is listening. Some of them are trying to make mischief between Carnarvon and the Department of Antiquities, and all Luxor takes sides on way or the other. Archaeology plus journalism is bad enough, but when you add Politics it becomes a little to much..."
Furthermore, this was a difficult time in Egypt. There was a serious and growing movement for an independent Egyptian state, even though it would take another three decades to achieve. For those involved in the movement, known as Nationalists, the Times agreement provided a big stick with which to beat not only the British "colonialists", but foreigners in general. It would eventually result in the Tut expedition's undoing, at least for a while.
After the official "discovery" of the tomb on February 16, 1923, and the revelation that the boy king laid undisturbed within his tomb, there was a growing pressure to make the find public. There was also the legal question of the treasure's division. If the tomb was classified as "intact", the Egyptian Government would, under the terms of the concession, be entitled to deny the excavators' claims to any share of the objects that were recovered.
Indeed, the issue of how best to deal with the discovery created difficulties between Carter and Carnarvon which ultimately resulted in a falling out between the two men. On February 23rd, 1923, Carter went so far as to demand that Carnarvon never enter his house again. Yet, that did not prevent the cloud of doom that fell over the expedition camp following Lord Carnarvon's death some months later. Lord Carnarvon had not only been their sponsor, but an influential one as well.
Between the first and second excavation season, Carter spend the summer in England, where he managed to persuade Lady Carnarvon to renew the concession under her own name. She readily agreed to this, but she also renewed the Times contract which had been the cause of so much grief the previous season.
By October of 1923, Carter was back in Egypt to begin his second season at the tomb, but thanks to his poor handling of the political situation, even more problems would arise this season. It began when Carter, with a clear aim of circumventing a call from journalists that all or none be present when an announcement on the find was made, decided that Merton, the Time's correspondent, would no longer be regarded as a journalist but as a member of the excavation team. Hence, the Times would still get the news first.
At the same time, the Egyptian Government, and in particular Pierre Lacau who was now the Director General of the Antiquities Service, had been under increasing pressure to take action over the Times monopoly, especially by the Nationalists who resented considerably the lack of Egyptian involvement in the Tut excavation. At the time, a sound political move would have been for Carter to immediately brief the Egyptian press, which would have probably gone a long way in smoothing over the situation. Yet stubbornly, Carter refused to budge on the matter. It would not take long for the tension between Carter and Lacau to escalate into downright unpleasantness.
Matters finally came to a head following the official lifting of the sarcophagus lid on February 12th, 1924. Carter intended to allow the wives of the expedition members to visit the tomb the following day. However, this was thwarted by the newly appointed Nationalist Minister of Public Works, Morcos Bey Hanna. Hanna was certainly no friend of the English, who had attempted to have him hanged for his political activities some years before, and Carter could see nothing in the Minister's action except a personal affront to himself, his colleagues and to England. On the other hand, Mace, one of Carter's principal team members, simply saw it as petty jealousy, "spoiling the dream of every Egyptologist".
In a letter to his mother, Winifred Mace remarked:
"The whole is a disagreeable business and Carter is such an autocrat that to be thwarted at every turn takes all reason from him."
Thus, "looking desperately ill and in a fury", Carter carried out an earlier threat and closed the tomb, leaving the sarcophagus lid hanging precariously by its ropes. He then posted a notice in the lobby of the Winter Palace in Luxor explaining the reason for his actions:
"Owing to the impossible restrictions and discourtesies of the Egyptian Public Works Department and its antiquity service, all my collaborators, as a protest, have refused to work any further upon their scientific investigations in the tomb".
That was Howard Carter's biggest mistake. By closing the tomb, he had played into Lacau's hands, violating the terms of his concession and allowing Lacau to void the agreement. Afterwards, the Egyptian Government declared that it would finish the work. Legal action on the part of Carter to re-establish the concession came to nothing, and he, fuming with indignation and frustration at having been so completely outmaneuvered, soon left for England and an American lecture tour.
Meanwhile, in Egypt things when from bad to worst, with the discovery of a gessoed wooden head of the boy king packed as if ready to be shipped out of the country. Furthermore, Carter privately published a pamphlet containing "a full statement of the facts which have led us to the present position with the Egyptian government". One of the appendices removed by Carter from many copies of the booklet contained embarrassing transcripts of Herbert Winlock's coded telegrams and letters warning Carter of problems. The printing of this ill-judged pamphlet cost Carter the support of many friends and allies.
Were it not for the terrorist murder of the British Sirdar, Sir Lee Stack, on November 19th, Carter might very well have never returned to Egypt. Afterwards, the British tightened their control over Egypt, which included disbanding the Nationalist Government, which allowed Carter to return to his excavation, though now on Egyptian terms.
He received the new concession, still in Lady Carnarvon's name, on January 13th, 1925. Under the new agreement, The Times of London would loose its monopoly on the discovery news, and the Carnarvon estate, despite vague promises of one or two duplicates when the tomb had been fully cleared, was required to abandon any formal claim to the king's treasures. As compensation for the expenses incurred during the excavation, the Carnarvon estate was given the sum of 36,000 pounds sterling in 1930, which marked the end of the Carnarvon financial commitment to the excavation. The final seasons would be financed by the Egyptian government and by Howard Carter himself.
In the end, there was considerable relief when Carter took back the excavation, even by Lacau. It was a monumental task, and as Winlock remarked, "there is no better person to whom this dedicated stuff could have been entrusted". While Carter may not have been a good politician, he was unquestionably a great excavator, and in truth, it was a job that no one else wanted. Work on clearing the tomb and conserving the objects would continue for more than seven years, and the study of its contents and preparation for publication would hang as a burden around Carter's neck for the rest of his life.
|Complete Tutankhamun, The||Nicholas Reeves||1990||Thames & Hudson, LTD||ISBN 0-500-27810-5|
|Masterpieces of Tutankhamun||Silverman, David P.||1978||Abbeville Press, Inc.||ISBN 0-89659-022-4|
|Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amen, The||Howard Carter||1927||Cassell & Company, Ltd||ISBN 0 7156 3075 X|
|Treasures of Tutankhamun||Metropolitan Museum of Art||1976||Metropolitan Museum of Art||ISBN 0-87099-156-6|
|Treasures of Tutankhamun||British Museum||1972||Thames & Hudson Ltd||ISBN 0 7230 0070 0|
|Tutankhamun (His Tomb and Its Treasures)||Edwards, I. E. S.||1977||Metropolitan Museum of Art; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.||ISBN 0-394-41170-6|
|Tutankhamun's Jewelry||Edwards, I.E.S||1976||Metropolitan Museum of Art||ISBN 0-87099-155-8|