“The revelation that people actually studied ancient Egypt as their job seemed to me both astonishing and wonderful…”

February 23, 2020 at 3:54 pm (Art, Egypt, History)

Retold countless times down the centuries, there are as many versions of Egypt’s story as there are those to tell it. And so this is simply my version, featuring the people, places and events that have fascinated me my whole life.

And it is fair to say Egypt has pretty much been my life. Familiar and accessible through my family’s books, photographs and wartime recollections, the ancient Egyptians were, it seems, always around during my childhood, as the inspiration for my earliest drawings, the way I dressed my dolls, the things I read and collected.

The defining moment came in 1972, when the Tutankhamen exhibition arrived in Britain. His beautiful golden face appeared everywhere in the media frenzy for all things pharaonic, and Egyptologists of the day were regularly asked for quotes by the press. The revelation that people actually studied ancient Egypt as their job seemed to me both astonishing and wonderful – so at the age of six, I announced that I was going to do that too.

Introduction to The Story of Egypt: The Civilization that Shaped the World, by Joann Fletcher

Upon reading this, I identified powerfully with the author. I, too, was around six years old when I first became fascinated by ancient Egypt. But whereas Joann Fletcher went on to forge a distinguished career as an Egyptologist, I went on to live a more or less ordinary life, for which I am profoundly grateful. The   Egypt enchantment stays more or less underground, a stream flowing in the darkness. But every once in a while…

I recently signed up for a course in Egyptian art at a local lifelong learning institute. We had a our first meeting last Monday, and it was wonderful. I have obtained through interlibrary loan The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen by Howard Carter. This particular edition, published in 1977, “…is the unabridged republication of Volume I of The Tomb of Tut*ankh*amen Discovered by the Late Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter originally published…in 1923….”

The tomb was discovered in November of 1922.

Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon, Carnarvon’s daughter Lady Elizabeth Herbert, and Carter’s assistant Arthur Callender are gathered before the door to the chamber. Keep in mind that Carter and Carnarvon, his generous patron, had been searching for this burial site for years. This was to be their final effort.

Here is Howard Carter’s description of what happened next:

The decisive moment had arrived. With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left hand corner. Darkness and blank space, as  far as an iron testing-rod could reach, showed that whatever lay beyond was empty, and not filled like the passage we had just cleared. Candle tests were applied as a precaution against possible foul gasses, and then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle, and peered in, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn and Callender standing anxiously beside me to hear the verdict. At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold–everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment–eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by–I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense and longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” it was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.”

*****************

When I was in London a few years ago, I visited Sir John Soane’s Museum. Sir John Soane was a distinguished architect and also a compulsive collector. His house is filled with strange and wondrous objects. Along the way, he managed to acquire several beautiful scenes off Venice by Canaletto.

Canaletto; View in Venice, on the Grand Canal (Riva degli Schiavoni); Sir John Soane’s Museum

But possibly the most astonishing object in this bewildering welter of astonishing objects is this:

Behold! It is the sarcophagus of Pharoah Seti I (1290-1279 BCE).

Here is what the sarcophagus currently looks like in situ:

This fantastical object was discovered in 1817 by Giovanni Battista Belzoni, a  freewheeling adventurer and archaeologist sometimes referred to as the Indiana Jones of his day.  Having brought this cumbersome artifact to England, Belzoni offered it to the British Museum. That institution deemed the price – £2,000 – too high. But ut wasn’t too high for Sir John Soane, who snapped it up. Hence, it currently resides serenely on the bottom floor of the museum, being much too heavy to be safely placed elsewhere in the building. You can stand right beside it, walk around it, even touch it. I can attest to this personally.

The mummy of Seti I is exceptionally well preserved. It currently resides in the Cairo Museum.

For more information on the sarcophagus, click on this link to the museum’s website. And don’t miss this ‘digital fly-through’ of the museum.
*******************

I want to return briefly to the subject of the discovery of the tomb of Pharoah Tutankhamen. The moment of triumph in November 1922 was followed by a sudden and unexpected tragedy the following April when Lord Carnarvon died unexpectedly. Here is Howard Carter’s supremely eloquent dedication:

…I dedicate this account of the discovery of the tomb of Tut*ankh* Amen to the memory of my beloved friend and colleague

LORD CARNARVON
who died in the hour of his triumph.

But for his untiring generosity and constant encouragement our labours could never have been crowned with success. His judgment in ancient art has rarely been equalled. His efforts, which have done so much to extend our knowledge of Egyptology, will ever been honoured in history, and by me his memory will always be cherished.

George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon 1866-1923

 

Howard Carter 1874-1939

Giovanni Battista Belzoni 1778-1823

 

The Great Belzoni, 1824, by Jan Adam Kruseman

 

Sir John Soane 1753-1837

******************

Last year, I visited the National Geographic Headquarters in Washington DC to see their exhibit ‘Queens of Egypt.’ This occasioned another eruption of Egypt mania in the heart and brain of Yours Truly. I got rather carried away with the blog post I created to memorialize this splendid experience. Here is a snippet of video by which I, along with other visitors, was transfixed:

 

1 Comment

  1. Christophe said,

    Great post. It conveys your from-childhood-and-still-going-strong enthusiasm for Ancient Egypt and its art treasures in a very enjoyable and touching fashion.

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