Several years ago, when I was the owner/director of a travel company based in London, I organised several trips to Egypt for my American ex-patriot clients. The tour was called The Pyramids and Nile Cruise. I personally took the trip several times and became a great fan of this incredible part of the world. I grew very fond of the many Egyptians who helped me with the tours – particularly my dear friend Hassan from Aswan, a remarkable, trustworthy man. I often think of him when retelling this story.
I had read a lot about the boy king Tutankhamun and, in particular, about the British archaeologist Howard Carter who discovered his famous tomb in 1922. I was particularly fascinated by a book written by the Director of Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Irving called . . .
Tutankhamun The Untold Story
I became fascinated by a particular section of the book in which Irving describes Carter’s intention to take a certain artefact found in the tomb back with him to England. It was a carving in wood of the head of the young pharaoh in the style of a lotus flower. As Irving wrote . . .
On the twenty-ninth of March, Pierre Lacau, accompanied by four aides and a carpenter, arrived at the site and had broken down the doors of a tomb which Carter had used for storage and an occasional meal. They entered, made a hasty inspection, then closed the door and resealed it. The next evening, however, Lacau and his party returned to compile a list of the contents of the storage tomb. They discovered that objects had been tentatively labeled and numbered personally by Howard Carter in three separate places: on the outside of each box, again on the inside, and a third time in the entry booklet set on a table nearby. The Egyptians had been visibly impressed with Carter’s precise methods.
Then, far back in the storage area near a stack of empty wooden crates from Fortnum and Mason, they came across a crate marked ‘red wine’. They almost neglected to open it. But Lacau instructed them to do so. The crate seemed to be stuffed with surgical gauze and cotton batting. Intrigued, Lacau lifted the layers of wrapping. What he found within caused him to utter a sharp exclamation of astonishment. He could not believe his eyes. It was a work of art. Hurriedly, he removed the object from its nest. The Egyptian members of the commission, who had gathered when they heard Lacau’s exclamation, looked at one another dumbfounded.
What Lacau had come across in the wine case, unlabeled and clearly uninventoried was a near life-size wooden head, covered with a thin coating of plaster and painted so delicately that the figures seemed almost able to breathe. It was a marvel of ancient sculpture. The face, exceedingly handsome, with sensitive lips and large limpid eyes of the deepest black, must have been that of a child nine or ten years of age. The head emerged from a small pedestal carved with the petals of the sacred blue lotus of the Nile. The child was portrayed as the Son God, springing from the flower which according to the ancient Egyptians was the first of all to grow from the pool of creation. But its strength and competence marked it as more than a mere child. Here was a king as Sun God, without question, Tutankhamun.
I went on to read about Carter’s fascination with the wooden carving of Tutankhamun and discovered why he wanted to take the carving with him back to England. He was not interested in the invaluable treasures of gold that he had uncovered in the Valley of the Kings but simply this beautiful carving which he thought would be his reward for the hard work he had done in the Valley of the Kings.
His reasoning for the ‘theft’ had to do with the fact that he thought the Egyptian authorities would not preserve the carving very well because it has to be kept in a very dry and controlled environment. He believed that that they would simply place this piece with all the other items that he had uncovered which were primarily made of metal, namely gold, and not subject to environment control as much as the this elegant small piece of wood.
However, when he was about to leave Egypt with his belongings to go back to London, his materials were searched carefully and indeed the wooden carving was found. Because Carter was causing a great deal of controversy at the time, he was not allowed to travel with the piece.
So on one of the trips I made with the clients on my tour company I decided I would make a visit to the Cairo Museum to see if I could find the carving and see how it was displayed in the collection. It was with a great deal of apprehension that I approached the section on Tutankhamun and I did eventually find the glass case with which contained the carving in question. My chin must have dropped completely when I saw the pitiful condition of the wooden carving.
As Carter imagined it would be if left to the Egyptian authorities, it was in very poor condition. I photographed the piece and almost burst into tears when I saw it . Indeed Carter had predicted its fate accurately. The museum authorities had merely placed the piece in a normal environment of dry air which caused it to crack and split in several places as can be seen in the photograph which I took at that time, some twenty-five years ago.
In some ways this sad tale reminds me of the attitude of Lord Elgin who took the marbles off the top of the Parthenon because he felt that the Greek authorities would not protect them and keep them in good condition. They are now in a special room at the British Museum.
But what are we to do? We must have respect for the world’s great works of art and it is only the large, wealthy institutions who know how to handle them. Yet, we cannot take all the great treasures of the world to London, New York and Paris and so forth. It just can’t be done as it is so unfair. Another great conundrum of modern life.