Monday, June 18, 2012


“The day following (26 November) was the day of days, the most wonderful I have ever lived through, and certainly one whose like I can never hope to see again.  Throughout the morning the work of clearing continued, slowly perforce, on account of the delicate objects that were mixed with the filling.  Then, in the middle of the afternoon, thirty feet down from the outer door, we came upon a second sealed doorway, almost an exact replica of the first.  The seal impressions in this case were less distinct, but still recognizable as those of Tutankhamen and of the royal necropolis.  Here again the signs of opening and re-closing were clearly marked upon the plaster.  We were firmly convinced by this time that it was a cache that we were about to open, and not a tomb.  The arrangement of stairway, entrance passage and doors reminded us very forcibly of the cache of Akhenaten and Tyi material found in the very near vicinity of the present excavation by Davis, and the fact that Tutankhamen’s seals occurred there likewise seemed almost certain proof that we were right in our conjecture.  We were soon to know.  There lay the sealed doorway, and behind it was the answer to our question.

    Slowly, desperately slowly it seemed to us as we watched, the remains of passage debris that encumbered the lower part of the doorway was removed, until at last we had the whole door clear before us.  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 us whatever lay beyond was empty, and not filled like the passage we had just cleared.  Candle tests were applied as a caution against possible foul gases, and then, widening the hole a little, I inserted a candle and peered in,  Lord Carnavon, 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 from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.  For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnavon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” it was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.”  Then, widening the hole a little further, so that we both could see, we inserted an electric torch.”

Howard Carter, The Tomb of Tutankhamen.  New York, E.P. Dutton, 1972.



Pretty amazing, isn’t it?  

My interest in Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb was rekindled by Jane’s recent history project concerning the changes in ancient Egyptian religion that occurred during the reigns of Tutankhamen and his predecessor pharaoh, Akhenaten. Sliding Carter’s papyrus from its assigned shelf locus (we follow the Library of Alexandria system here) after 20 years' dust-gathering revealed this word-and-picture treasure.

Re-reading Carter also revived dormant childhood memories of visiting a crypt-like space in the Metropolitan Museum’s Egypt gallery and watching a scratchy black-and-white film with a muffled soundtrack detailing Carter’s discovery.  The room itself was supposed to simulate a crypt and contained at least a few sarcophagi whose staring empty eyes seemed fixed on you as and after you left the chamber.

Mummies and Egyptian things used to disturb me a great deal growing up.  This was largely because I was compelled by a friend's older brother to watch Karl Freund's The Mummy featuring Boris Karloff on television one evening when our respective parents were having dinner at a local restaurant.  He was a tall, scary kid who literally shut his sister and me in a crypt-like den and refused to let us leave. The experience terrified and horrified me and left a scar.  In today’s world, I expect we would have reported him to the police. 

A lthough I’m doing better today, I still would not watch The Mummy again if my life depended on it.  Karloff’s sad creature returns to haunt me in waking dreams all the time, but my actual night dreams are much more acutely adult and painful.  Last night in one of them my car (the old sports car that’s been costing us so much money, causing arguments) was stolen in a Manhattan neighborhood I didn’t recognize and struggled hopelessly to identify.  My dream devastation and breakdown preceded  a cinema “dissolve” cueing an extended forlorn city-wandering sequence.  It reminded me of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, silent and terrifying.

Eventually, in art history graduate school, I reconciled to Egypt. My discipline, Islamic Art, shared a library and study space with the school’s Egyptologists, a pleasant and hermetic group of bearded men who were only interested in their field and nothing else. Browsing through their enormous, heavy hieroglyphic dictionaries was an exceptional way to pass the time.  My car is doing fine, by the way.  It's in the garage where it’s meant to be.   I just checked.


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed reading your note! Thank goodness your car is still in the garage. I probably would have checked also.

  2. Thanks very much. We were discussing our dreams last night, a thoroughly engaging subject. As a child I found the Metropolitan's Egypt rooms utterly creepy and I remember them vividly. As an adult, however, I came to really love similar rooms at the British Museum more than just about anything. If you've never paged through a hieroglyphic dictionary, you should. It's a real library book though, much too large for normal shelves. Curtis

  3. I have very similar memories of the Egypt rooms; although they aren't vivid, I do remember being quite frightened. I doubt I would have the same reaction to them today. I've always been fascinated by hieroglyphics and symbolic language in general. I'll see what I can find locally. Nell

  4. I'm sure you'll find hieroglyphics galore in Washington. I've seen the Nicholas Cage National Treasure series. All kinds of weird things go on there, I know. Curtis

  5. Thanks. This was great. Hard to imagine anyone making a discovery like this now, but that says more about me than the world. Today all I can think of is that it must have been awfully hot in those pyramids.

    I know it's none of my business, but I would no more give up on that car than toss out King Tut.

  6. When I was in art history graduate school, I studied with a well-known archeologist who worked mostly in Iraq. He described to me the physical aspects of working in the Middle East, which sounded incredibly challenging. I wonder what discoveries lie ahead; some surely do. The Carter text can't be beat and his book contains many other thrilling passages. The car stays, by the way. I'll be visiting it again in a few minutes. Sometimes you need to just hear people out and then leave for a long moonlight drive. Curtis