Harry Burton’s Photographs, Discovering King Tutankhamun’s tomb

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A new exhibition reappraises the work of Harry Burton, who photographed the decade-long Tutankhamun excavation. The collection is a striking record of a groundbreaking moment in our study of the past.It was one of the most remarkable archaeological discoveries of the 20th Century. But what was it like to first point a lens into the 3,000-year-old tomb of King Tutankhamun? That job fell to Harry Burton. He took more than 3,400 photographs of the treasures uncovered by Egyptologist Howard Carter in a decade-long investigation of the famous site. Now, Burton’s photos many previously unpublished are on show at Cambridge University.

Prof Christina Riggs is the first to study the collection in its entirety. From the prints, negatives and rejects, she says that fascinating new perspectives on the astonishing discovery made in 1922 have begun to emerge. By exploring the photographs that did not make the cut, alongside those reproduced and widely circulated throughout the 1920s, new information is brought to light. “It’s about shifting our entire perspective on ancient Egypt, modern Egypt, and archaeology,” says Prof Riggs, who is the curator for the exhibition Photographing Tutankhamun, at the university’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

“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 ‘neutral’ way,” she explains. Although touted as depicting the moment Carter discovered the legendary tomb, the picture above was actually taken over a year later, in January 1924. By this time, excavators had demolished the wall separating the tomb’s first room from the burial chamber, which Carter is seen peering into. But, said, Prof Riggs, this photograph “lets us imagine that Carter is gazing directly at something even more wonderful, something that almost seems to glow from within”.

What is not apparent to the casual observer is that Carter is looking through two sets of doorways towards the royal coffins. The photograph is “carefully staged”, according to Prof Riggs. Burton’s Egyptian assistants would have held reflectors to bounce light to create an effect that Carter himself called a “mystic mauve glow”. More than a hundred men, boys, and girls were hired to excavate and remove earth from the discovery site. The photograph from May 1923 shows the arduous work of moving crates of artifacts from the tomb in the Valley of the Kings to the Nile river town of Luxor almost six miles away.

A government barge would transport the precious cargo, under guard, downriver to arrive at the antiquities museum in Cairo. This trip alone would take two days in scorching 38C (100F) heat. A lightweight rail track was used to push the crates along. Sections could be lifted and re-laid, to make the carrying easier. In the heat, Carter said the track rails were nearly too hot to touch.

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