While I was writing the month-long series of posts about my novel, SHADOWBOX, I came across the marvellous online archive at the Griffith Institute, part of Oxford University.
Significant among the archives is Howard Carter’s complete excavation records for the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
‘At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley a magnificent tomb with seals intact…’ – Howard Carter’s telegram to Lord Carnarvon on 5 November 1922
The treasures Carter uncovered during that excavation need no introduction. They’ve toured the world in exhibitions everywhere, including the current Discovering Tutankhamun at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Countless reproductions and imitations made out of everything from tatty plastic to solid gold are available online and in the street markets of Luxor. The treasures of Tutankhamun inspired whole movements in art and architecture, film and fiction and fashion.
That influence haunts us yet.
Besides the golden sarcophagi and jewelled collars, the life-size statues, the mummified husks of his stillborn children, the ceremonial ostrich-feather fans, the evidence of his early life as Tutankhaten, one item stood out for me as I browsed the online archive of Harry Burton’s photographs:
More so than the little statues of Nephthys and Selqet and Isis and Neith which stood guarding the corners of the sarcophagus, this little statue of the god Anubis has a charm that reaches out across the centuries.
Wrapped in linen, tucked carefully into a niche in the tomb wall, the statue was placed by a member of Tutankhamen’s funerary gathering in 1323 BCE the way you’d tuck a child’s favourite teddy under his quilt as he fell asleep.
Harry Burton’s photograph shows us that moment frozen in time.
Just as I wrote about the earliest photographs in First Light On Paris, the photograph is an artefact in itself.
Look closer. See the crack?
Curving from top to bottom, just to the right of the statuette’s hind quarters, a black line showing where the original glass negative has been broken. And parallel to this black line, as straight as tram-lines in Cairo, twin edges showing where sticky-tape held the glass together.
Layers of time, overlapping, each of which tells a story of its own.
Don’t you wonder who dropped Harry Burton’s glass negative – and stuck it back together with tape?
And don’t you wonder what the person thought who placed that statuette there, 3337 years ago?
Don’t you wonder who they were, he or she, who wrapped the statue of Anubis so carefully in linen as though it were a charmed memento, to accompany the tragically-young pharaoh into the afterlife?
I certainly do.It’s why many people are drawn to archaeology as a profession – to tell the stories of other people, long ago, from the remnants they leave behind.
But only fiction can give us the answer.