Discovering Tutankhamun (Exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum)

In the middle of August we went to the Discovering Tutankhamun exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum. When we were there we met up with other people from the Essex Eygptology Group who’d come across for the day (we were staying with my parents for the weekend so were already in Oxford).

A lot of the items in the exhibition came from the Griffith Institute, who have all the papers and so on relating to Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. The first third of the exhibition was about the discovery itself. It started with a bit of biographical information about Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon before moving on to the discovery and the start of the excavation. This section included some of the original index cards for the objects, and the photographs taken by Harry Burton. As the photos are all in black and white they annotated the index cards with the colours of the objects, and also artists painted them. I was particularly taken with the gouache paintings of the jewellery. They also had painted replicas of the artwork on the sides of the painted box that was the first object to be removed from the tomb – this has war scenes and hunting scenes on the sides. In each scene the central large figure is Tutankhamun on a chariot, followed by his army or his huntsmen and riding down the enemies or animals. I was amused that the animals are painted so that they look dignified rather than the enemies who are in disarray!

The next section of the exhibition looked at the aftermath of the discovery – how it was received by the general public, and how it affected things like design and clothing styles. They had lots of letters that people sent to Carter, and newspaper articles about it. At first The Times had paid for exclusive rights to publish the stories about the tomb, but later other newspapers also had the chance. The stories about what was actually happening were “enhanced” with stories about curses (particularly after Carnarvon’s death). This meant that Carter got quite a lot of letters from people who wanted to help him avoid succumbing to the curse. I was particularly entertained by the chap who was “known in the craft as Master of the Forge” who sent a “lucky hand forged horseshoe charm” to Carter. It was just the same as the ones he’d sent the English Generals in the Great World War apparently! He finished his letter by asking for a souvenir from the tomb to be sent to him … I suppose at least he sent something he considered of value, unlike the person who requested a souvenir and only enclosed a pound for postage (to Australia!). This bit of the exhibition also included various objects inspired by the discoveries – like some jewellery, and some clothes (not all of which were any good!).

The last section of the exhibition was about the context for Tutankhamun. This was the bit that had some actual ancient Egyptian things. Tutankhamun was the Pharaoh just after the Amarna period, so they had a selection of Amarna era stuff and some later pieces from Tutankhamun’s reign. Particularly fine was a fragment of a statue – all they had was a pair of hands but they were very nicely carved and delicate.

It was an interesting exhibition, worth a visit.