I am ushered into the Ashmolean’s terraced restaurant, and find myself a seat. One pastry down and the time is nearing eleven o’clock. I still feel the need to nurse a coffee between my palms in hope the morning might make itself scarce – for what it’s worth, it seems to be working. A new exhibition is opening the floor below on what my handout declares to be ‘one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century’. Any discovery which has claim to such significance deserves my full attention, even if it is before lunch. Despite my somewhat resistant body clock, I manage to rise for the inaugural door-opening and proceed into one of the larger gallery rooms to hear an introductory talk. Discovering Tutankhamun, I am told, displays objects from ancient Egypt’s Amarna Period (about 1350 – 1330 BC) with material from the archives of Oxford’s Griffith Institute, celebrating its 75th year in 2014, to tell the story of the discovery of the tomb, its popular appeal, and to explore how modern Egyptologists continue to interpret the evidence. The descendant of Lord Carnarvon, great-grandson to leader and financial backer of the 1922 expedition, takes to the lectern to express his delight at the current exhibition. I’m awake now, but the lunch comment still stands.
The speeches have ended and I make my way from one end of a corridor to another. Turning right into the first room, I am met with a quote blazoned on one of the gallery walls. I pause to imagine the unfolding scene. “Can you see anything?” Lord Carnarvon shouts into the darkness of the breach. “Yes,” a reply finds itself within the void surrounded by the faint glimmer of gold, “I see wonderful things.” I look at the quote a while longer before casting my eyes about the room. Wonderful things.
Sure, I’m getting carried away; but it’s easy to experience some vicarious thrill, particularly when presented with Howard Carter’s own scripts and documentation. The archaeologist’s diary entry for 5th November, 1922 reads: “Discovered tomb under tomb of Ramses VI / Investigates same & found seals intact”. Undisturbed and untouched, the imminence of discovery is tantalising. Maps map out the excavation site (as maps often do) and ‘x’ marks the spot. Circling the room, I’m only a few steps away from finding out what happens next… This is ridiculous. I know what happens next: they find the mummy; the dude becomes cursed; The Mummy Returns, and Brendan Fraser sends its resurrected ghost back to the hellfire from whence it came – it’s a dark, fantasy adventure for the whole family.
George of The Jungle aside, that’s the fantastic thing about this exhibition. Discovering Tutankhamun narrates a step by step journey. Walking from room to room sees the chronological unveiling of each moment as it happened, through the eyes of those who experienced the discovery to the public phenomenon of “Tutmania”.The success of the exhibition is grounded in Paul Collins’ and Liam McNamara’s curation. Their unorthodox tale of ‘Tutankhamun: From Tomb to Turntable’ is certainly a refreshing take on a seemingly exhausted topic. Professor Christopher Brown CBE, Director of the Ashmolean, says: “Discovering Tutankhamun tells a thrilling story of archaeological discovery and explores its impact on both scholarship and popular culture. The exhibition shows archival material which has never been seen in public before, with major loans from around the world, and provides the opportunity to re-examine pivotal moments in both ancient and modern history.”
Beyond the traditional excavation scene, the exhibition explores the aftermath of the discovery and its immediate influence on 20th Century culture. Gallery 3 features a variety of cloths in glass cases foregrounded by a grand, black and gold mural. Each cloth bears a geometric pattern similar to those worn by the Pharaohs’ and their people, updated to suit the swings of both Flapper and Dapper. ‘Old King Tut’, a record by Billie Jones and Ernest Hare, lies off-centre next to ‘Tuttoom: The Board Game’. Reporting on the story in February 1923, a New York Times correspondent wrote: “There is only one topic of conversation … One cannot escape the name of Tut-Ankh-Amen anywhere. It is shouted in the streets, whispered in the hotels, while the local shops advertise Tut-Ankh-Amen art, Tut-Ankh-Amen hats, Tut-Ankh-Amen curios, Tut-Ankh-Amen photographs. There is a Tut-Ankh-Amen dance tonight at which the piece is to be a Tut-Ankh-Amen rag.” The ubiquity is hypnotic, and the public’s fascination mesmerising.
If visitors arrive with expectation to find an abundance of ancient Egyptian relics, it is likely they will be disappointed. Instead, Discovering Tutankhamun is about the process of discovery itself. As a result, displays mainly comprise paintings and photographs used for cataloguing. Howard Carter came to Egyptology through his skills as a draughtsman and artist, commissioned to copy hieroglyphic inscriptions and tomb paintings at the age of seventeen. The archaeologist’s analytical drawings and watercolours are the highlight of the exhibition, particularly his imaginative reconstruction of a horse bridled with the trappings found within the Antechamber. At times it feels as much an art exhibition as an historical one.
On leaving the final gallery, I find myself once again in the Ashmolean’s terraced restaurant. To my delight, I am met with a charming array of sandwiches arranged accordingly on a nearby table top. I hear Fortnum and Mason are supporters of the Press View and that the food emporium were suppliers to Howard Carter’s Egyptian expedition all those years ago. I decide it fitting that my epic, two hour journey from Droitwich Spa to Oxford’s Beaumont Street should end with a slice of ploughman’s and F&M anchovy relish. Tutmania, indeed.
Discovering Tutankhamun is open at the Ashmolean in Oxford until 2nd November.