The fascination that surrounds the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, the discovery of his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and the treasure discovered therein does not seem to abate. Indeed, the “boy-king” continues to make headlines; for instance, his name recently featured in the Art and Design Section of the New York Times. The July 5, 2019, article, “Tutankhamen Head Sells for $6 Million, Despite Protests from Egypt,” discusses the sale of a fragmentary statue of the god Amun, carved with the features characteristic of the reign of Tutankhamun, and highlights the anger of Egyptian officials who hoped to cancel the transaction because of the nebulous provenience of the artifact.1 Tatianna Flessas, associate professor of law at the London School of Economics, is quoted in the article: “Egypt's call for the return of the sculpture was a ‘nationalistic claim, an anticolonial claim, with a moral rather than legal justification.’”
Egypt's nationalistic and anticolonial sentiments during the first two decades of the twentieth century are two themes tied to the “Tut phenomenon” that Christina Riggs brilliantly presents in Photographing Tutankhamun: Archaeology, Ancient Egypt, and the Archive. After a decade teaching the history of art and archaeology at the University of East Anglia, Riggs is about to become chair in the history of visual culture at Durham University's History Department. As she wrote on her website, “Now I'm more interested in how Egyptology came to do what it does (and doesn't) do, and how people in different times, at different places, have imagined, studied, depicted, displayed, and, yes, photographed something we call ‘Ancient Egypt.’”2
This is exactly what she sets out to do in her recent monograph, as highlighted in chapter 1, “Photographing Tutankhamun: An Introduction.” Expecting her research to be “a straightforward case study of how photography was used in interwar Egyptian archaeology” (p. 231), Riggs opted to investigate the specific example of the Tutankhamun photographic archives. After all, “The camera helped make Tutankhamun king Tut” (p. 2). Chapter 1 introduces the reader with the main protagonists of the book whose names are intricately associated with the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh: archaeologist Howard Carter and photographer Harry Burton.
Photographing Tutankhamun is ultimately the tale of two archives. It follows the afterlives of not only Burton's photographs and negatives, but also of the excavation reports, object catalogs, diaries, journals, and correspondence of the members of the expedition, as these archival materials embarked on two separate journeys: one that ends at the Griffith Institute at the University of Oxford, and the other at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Riggs considers “the archive” both literally and conceptually, since an archives has the potential of acting as historical and social critique (p. 7). This latter concept is of special relevance to Egyptological photographic archives, more commonly valued as receptacles of archaeological data to be exploited for research, rather than as “colonial” archives that document colonialist archaeological practices.
Riggs also reviews the ten years of work at the tomb (also known as KV 62), from the moment of discovery of the steps leading to the sealed door on November 4, 1922, to the last photograph taken by Burton in 1933. She reiterates throughout the book that archaeology and photography are collaborative endeavors. A team of British and American specialists was assembled to work at the site, including philologists, engineers, photographers, architects, and chemists. The Egyptian workmen, however, are consistently ignored, especially the foremen and the laborers who moved approximately 200,000 tons of sand and stone during the three years preceding the discovery.3 In Photographing Tutankhamun, Riggs strives to give these Egyptian men a face, and, whenever possible, a name.
In chapter 2, “Mirrored Memories: Excavating the Photographic Archive,” Riggs reconstructs the path followed by the various objects that ultimately formed the Tutankhamun archives, from the death of Howard Carter in 1939 to that of Alan Gardiner in 1963 (the last key member involved at the site). Phyllis Walker, Carter's niece, inherited her uncle's estate and donated his notes, photographic materials, and filed index cards from the excavation to the Griffith Institute, the ideal home for such consequential material for the field of Egyptology. The 1950s saw the beginning of a long correspondence between the Griffith Institute and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to ascertain the content of each institution's archives. At a time when work with such archival records was not considered research or archival management but rather clerical duties, two women—Penelope Fox for the Griffith Institute and Nora Scott for the Metropolitan Museum—undertook the massive and complex task of reconciling the photographic objects and documents that had been sent to each institution, ultimately transforming the Tutankhamun photographs from “archaeological records” to “archival artifacts” (p. 68).
Chapter 3, “The First and Most Pressing Needs,” returns to the Valley of the Kings and surveys the role of photography during the ten years spent clearing and documenting the tomb. First, Riggs reminds readers how Burton became a member of the team working at the tomb of Tutankhamun, while employed as a photographer for the Metropolitan Museum's Egyptian expedition. With his arrival at KV 62, photography came to be a determining factor in the progress of the work. Despite the importance of photography during the clearing process, no log book was kept. Riggs thus had to “weave the photographic archive together with the rest of the excavation archive, in particular the diaries and journals kept by Carter and, for the first 2 seasons, [Arthur] Mace” (p. 84). Based on this investigative work, she estimates that both Oxford and the Metropolitan Museum own around 3,400 negatives, or prints of lost negatives, which she conveniently organizes by season and activity (Table 3.1, p. 86). Riggs completes this chapter by presenting the two main types of photography produced by Burton: the “work-in-progress” photographs, often staged and intended to be used for publicity purposes; and the object photographs, which give a visual record of the artifacts after they had been recorded, cleaned, and repaired in the laboratory set up in the nearby tomb of Seti II.
In chapter 4, “Tutankhamun's Treasures,” Riggs explores the role of photography in transforming the artifacts removed from the tomb of Tutankhamun into the treasures of King Tut. Riggs delves into Burton's object photos, which represent about two-thirds of the archives. Rather than simply recording archaeological artifacts, Burton showed a certain eagerness to treat these finds as works of art and, in some cases, as portraits. Many of his images clearly highlight the remarkable craftsmanship needed to manufacture some of the tomb's key objects. The most significant find is undoubtedly the king himself, whose mummified remains came to be treated as a complex artifact, and whose humanity was virtually lost as he was transformed into a unique and intriguing objet d'art. By ending the chapter with the most notorious artifact from the tomb, the gold mummy mask, Riggs reminds the reader that Burton did not restrict himself solely to scientific or record photography; some of his work “operate[s] in a different register to bring out the qualities of artistic caliber and material splendor—qualities that would elevate these objects to ‘treasures’” (p. 140).
Chapter 5, “Men at Work,” draws attention to the various protagonists present in Burton's photographs, as well as to members of the press and tourists who gathered in throngs at the entrance of Tutankhamun's tomb. Among these visitors were Egyptian officials, tourists, and students, some of whom were equipped with cameras. Yet, their photos are missing from the official records and constitute a “shadow archive” (p. 142). Despite Riggs's dismay about this lacuna, the existing site and group photographs give viewers insight into the role of the local workforce, the anonymous Egyptian laborers, whose presence in images intended to authenticate and valorize the work of the white European and American archaeologists may have been incidental. As Riggs remarks, “Asymmetries, inequalities, and anonymity suffuse photographs of labour at the tomb” (p. 158). Notwithstanding, these photographs may have a cathartic function by bringing to the forefront those who had been excluded from the field's narrative, specifically the Indigenous subalterns, often known only as “the boys” (pp. 165–66).
The photographs taken by Burton at the tomb were not designed to solely benefit the scientific work of Carter and his team. They were also to be shared with The Times, based on an agreement established between the excavation sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, and the British newspaper. In chapter 6, “Worlds Exclusive,” Riggs examines how the media coverage of the tomb created a visual and collective memory of Tutankhamun, stripping the content of the tomb of its funerary character and endowing it with a domestic and familiar flair, thus making the “boy-king” more relatable to most audiences. Advertising companies did not fail to exploit the discovery and the fantastic appeal it had on the public. “Thanks to photography, Tutankhamun was everywhere and everyone's” (p. 201).
The final and concluding chapter, “The Looking-Glass: Egyptology's Archival Afterlives,” returns to the archives and their latest transformations, from the resurgent “Tutmania” and popularization of ancient Egypt that resulted from the worldwide exhibitions in the 1960s and especially the 1970s, to the publication of the Tutankhamun's Tomb Series by the Griffith Institute (1960–1990)4 and the creation of a digital database available to all on the institute's website, “Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation.”5 Burton's photographic objects remain, however, the prerogative of archivists and conservators at the Griffith Institute and the Metropolitan Museum who are responsible for their care, or scholars, like Riggs, who utilize them for their research. For the rest of us, the materiality of these photographic objects remains ignored, as “for the research and publicity purposes of Egyptology . . . the image was the thing. . . .” (p. 224).
Photographing Tutankhamun is a must-read for both archivists who manage archaeological records and Egyptologists who use archival visual data for their research, as Riggs skillfully combines a thorough investigation of Tutankhamun's archives with a reflection on the use of archives in the field of Egyptology, laden with its colonial past. Interwoven with these themes are also discussions of the roles of women in both Egyptology and institutional archives during the twentieth century and of the increased desire on the part of Egyptians to be independent actors in the investigation of their past, rather than passive recipients of the knowledge and expertise of Euro-American scholars. Ultimately, it is difficult to do justice in this brief review to a book that deserves to be read from cover to cover to fully appreciate the scope of the work undertaken by Riggs and the richness of her argumentation and analysis in each chapter.
1 Scott Reyburn, “Tutankhamen Head Sells for $6 Million, Despite Protests from Egypt, New York Times, July 5, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/05/arts/design/tutankhamen-christies-sale-egypt.html.
2 “About,” Photographing Tutankhamun blog, https://photographingtutankhamun.wordpress.com/about.
3 Paul Collins and Liam McNamara, Discovering Tutankhamun (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2014), 23.
4 See list at “Publication of the Griffith Institute, Oxford,” http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/gri/5publ.html.
5 See the Griffith Institute, “Anatomy of an Excavation,” http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/discoveringTut.