Nearly a century after the excavations at Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, we are coming to regard the finders, keepers attitude towards ancient objects in countries other than our own as (at least) problematic. No such hesitation troubled Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter at the time, though the discovery would help change the politics of archaeology. Gill Paul – whose new novel, The Collector’s Daughter, is based on Lady Evelyn Herbert’s part in the discovery of the tomb – explains.
News of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in November 1922 spread rapidly round the world, helped by advances in print, telegram and radio technology. Descriptions of the glittering wealth and fabulous artistry of the contents were lapped up by a consumerist generation, and Harry Burton’s carefully staged and well-lit photographs fed the frenzy. But no one could have had any idea how much influence the discovery would have on colonial politics, and on the practice of archaeology thereafter.
In Britain, it was portrayed as a story of British triumph. The dig had been financed by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and led by Suffolk-born archaeologist Howard Carter, and they fully expected to bring home multiple cases of treasures for the British Museum and Carnarvon’s private collection at Highclere Castle.
Carnarvon and his daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, were invited to Buckingham Palace to regale King George and Queen Mary with their descriptions, and Howard Carter was very much man of the hour.
In Egypt, however, the story was a different one. Since 1882 citizens had been straining under the leash of a British protectorate, and there were increasing flare-ups of nationalist protest.
Nine months before the discovery of the tomb, the country had been granted partial independence, but Britain hung onto control of the Suez Canal – its route to India – and insisted on a continuing military presence and British advisors in every Egyptian ministry.
In November 1922 Egyptian nationalists claimed Tutankhamun as a symbol of the rebirth of pride in their nation, with its magnificent culture and long history. Poems and plays were written about the splendour of the tomb, and citizens looked forward to seeing the treasures in their own Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
The first clash between the two camps came in January 1923, when Lord Carnarvon awarded The Times exclusive access to stories and images from the tomb, in return for a fee that would help to offset the costs of excavating and preserving it. There was an immediate outcry from journalists at competing papers, and especially from the Egyptian press, who were furious at being excluded from this major story happening on their own soil.
Howard Carter was a talented archaeologist but he was no diplomat, and he had frequent disputes with Pierre Lacau, head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service. These escalated after the unexpected death of Lord Carnarvon from an infected mosquito bite, and crunch time came in 1924 when Carter petulantly announced he was closing the tomb following a dispute with Lacau about whether some diplomats’ wives could visit.
By closing it, he broke the terms of the concession and played right into Lacau’s hands. From then on, Lacau announced, the Egyptians would excavate their own tomb and Carter’s services would not be required.
Carter might have been excluded from the tomb permanently were it not for the murder of a British diplomat, Lee Stack, in Cairo, which led to Britain tightening control and forcing a change of government to a more moderate one. In 1925, Howard Carter was back in the valley once more, but this time the terms of the concession were clear: all items from the tomb must remain in Egypt.
Archaeologists worldwide were alarmed. Throughout the 19th and into the early 20th century, rules on the ownership of finds made on colonial soil had been conveniently relaxed, and they had felt entitled to seek a return for the time and money they had invested. Without their expertise, they argued, the artefacts could not have been recovered intact.
Heinrich Schliemann helped himself to the gold he found during his excavations at Troy in 1871–73, a fact that emerged when his wife was seen wearing some of the jewellery at a party. Sir Charles Woolley, who was excavating the royal tombs of Ur in modern-day Iraq during the 1920s, must have been especially concerned.
As it turned out, Woolley was able to secure a substantial part of the treasures of Ur for museums in Britain and the US, but it was the beginning of the end of archaeologists looting the ancient heritage of their nation’s colonies.
Britain retained a foothold in Egypt right up to the 1950s, when the Egyptian Revolution, followed by the Suez Crisis, left relations chilly. There was a thaw during the 1960s when Egypt needed international aid to build the High Dam at Aswan. To foster favour in the West, the Egyptian government sent out touring exhibitions of Tutankhamun artefacts and they pulled in millions of spectators wherever they went. The boy king hadn’t lost his magic touch!
In the 21st century, the conversation about ancient artefacts plundered in colonial times is only just beginning. Should we be returning important items kept in our national museums that were looted by our ancestors?
“I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France,” Emmanuel Macron said in 2017. “There are historical explanations for this but there is no valid, lasting and unconditional justification.”
However, British Secretary of State for Culture Oliver Dowden said in March 2021: “Once you start pulling on this thread where do you actually end up? Would we [the UK] insist on having the Bayeux Tapestry back [from France]? … I think it is just impossible to go back and disentangle all these things.”
Some British universities have already returned their Empire plunder, but national institutions, including the British Museum, claim they are legally not permitted to and instead they have offered to lend artefacts for time-limited exhibitions.
The Egyptians weren’t able to hang onto their Rosetta Stone, which was looted by Napoleon’s troops in 1799 and now resides in the British Museum, but they kept hold of Tutankhamun, and in the process they helped to change attitudes towards the treasures of all ex-colonial nations.
Gill Paul is the author of eleven historical novels that have topped bestseller lists in the UK and US and been translated into twenty-one languages. She likes focusing on real women she thinks have been marginalised or misjudged by historians. Her latest novel, about Lady Evelyn Herbert’s role in the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, is published by Avon Books in the UK and Morrow in the US.
If you enjoyed this you may like Hilary Green’s feature about excavations at Troy and at Ancient Greek cities in The triumph of Greek myths and the destruction of a civilisation.
- The mask of Tutankhamun, c1327 BC, Egyptian Museum, Cairo: photo by Roland Unger via Wikimedia
- Howard Carter, Lord Carnarvon and Lady Evelyn Herbert at Tutankhamun’s tomb, photo by Harry Burton: The Griffith Institute Archive via Wikimedia
- Contents of the tomb’s antechamber, photo by Harry Burton: Wikimedia
- Sophia Schliemann wearing jewellery found at Troy: Wikimedia
- Figure of Tutankhamun carved in wood; the funerary envelopes and bands of the carved mummy protect the character from supernatural forces: Wikimedia