The Imitation Game of Tutankhamun, from Cairo to Kingston upon Hull
Ryan Prescott | The University of Hull
The 4th November 2022 marks the centenary of the discovery of Tutankhamun by Howard Carter. Filled with a host of treasures and everyday objects, the tomb’s contents have since been displayed and toured across museums worldwide, captivating the imagination of millions of people along the way. Both tomb and treasure have been at the centre of the cultural phenomenon known as Egyptomania, with Tutankhamun’s funerary mask becoming synonymous with the image of Ancient Egypt and its Pharaohs. What was once regarded as the most intact and complete burial of its kind, evading grave robbers and unwanted visitors for some 3350 years, has become a victim of its own celebrity. The gravesite and artefacts are now threatened by accelerated damage caused by tourists who have visited in their droves to see ‘the boy king’ ever since he was unwittingly projected into the limelight in 1922.
A replica of the tomb opened in 2014 in an effort to address the growing concern caused by decades of visitors to the tomb. Located near the original, the facsimile offers an alternative way for tourists to experience the space and helps to preserve the original, whose condition has suffered at the hands of modern tourism. This can be said of any copy of an artefact, building, or space, and there are many benefits when incorporating copies into museum displays and exhibits. Conservation and visitor experience do not always go hand in hand, but replicas can mitigate any damage to original relics. The fragility of this tomb became apparent at the end of the twentieth century when the crumbling walls and damage to the paintings, in particular, stood as stark warnings that things could not continue as they were. For visitors, reconstructions can provide an easier, more practical and, in some cases, a more affordable way in which to engage with the historical subject whilst conveying much of the intended message. They can also provide brighter lighting conditions and better access, making it easier for visitors with disabilities. The burials in the Valley of the Kings continue to garner an air of mystery and allure, as they did a hundred years ago. Conservators and curators are now aware that these qualities must be central to this new vision of tourism moving forward.
When Howard Carter began searching for the missing tomb of Tutankhamun following the First World War, Britain’s rule in Egypt was drawing to an end. On the 28th of February 1922, Britain finally granted independence to Egypt, bringing its forty-year protectorate over the country to a close. The excavations of Carter came to represent the political climate of the time. Increasingly embroiled in conflict with Egyptian authorities, Howard Carter lost control of the excavation site to the locals. When the work was done, none of the artefacts left Egypt, and neither the Met nor the British Museum got anything they thought they would. As Egypt introduced some of the world’s first antiquities laws, the treasures went to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Lord Carnarvon’s estate, who had funded the project, was reimbursed only for the excavation costs. This caused something of a conundrum for the British, who had to show something for their efforts: and so Tutankhamun’s place within the British Empire Exhibition was born.
Hosted at Webley between 1924-5, a series of replicas were commissioned from the contents of the tomb. Fearing that this collection would present an inaccurate display of what he had discovered, Carter did not support the venture. Denied access to the original artefacts as a result, William Aumonier and Egyptologist Arthur Weigall began to create items such as the iconic gold throne, casket, and funerary bed, using only sketches and photographs created by Howard Carter and photographer Harry Burton. On its opening, visitors to the entrance to the Egyptian exhibit at Wembley were met by a camel and a man wearing a fez before finding their way via a sandy path into a dimly lit room containing the replicas. A series of staging decisions made the whole affair appear more authentic to a twentieth-century audience; the exhibit became one of the few ways in which the public could learn about what had been found without footing the expense of traveling to the original. The fact that they were not contemporary to Ancient Egypt did not matter, and the attraction proved to be immensely popular. After being bought by Albert Reckitt at auction and later donated to the city, the collection now resides at the Hands-on History Museum in Kingston-Upon Hull and is still admired for its incredible accuracy and level of detail. You could mistake them for being the real thing.
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb was exciting and remains one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time. However, the fascination with all things Egyptian was certainly nothing new. Napoleon had invaded Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century. With his army, he brought a team of artists and scientists to record its mysteries and uncover its lost secrets, culminating in Description de l'Égypte. A result of Napoleon’s intervention in Egypt was the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799. Until then, Egypt had been seen as a distant and foreign land, overlooked at the expense of Greece and Rome. What followed was, as described by Edward Said, an age of treasure seekers featuring the likes of Giovanni Belzoni and Bernardino Drovetti. They sought to claim Egyptian antiquities and bring them back to public and private collections in Western Europe.
Museums did not quite know where or how to display their finds, but for the public, it did not matter. These curiosities captivated their imagination, and for some, it became customary to attend mummy unwrapping events and even taste their remains. The experience was the key to all of this. The craze with all things Egyptian gained more momentum during the 1920s and became known in its own right asTutmania. Giving rise to the Art Deco movement and the Roaring 20s, the pharaoh’s image inspired developments in art, architecture and music. None of these interpretations of the ancient past were entirely accurate and never had been. This cultural shift was arguably more about invoking the essence of the past and re-interpreting it in new ways rather than being concerned about authenticity. The same could be said for all trends throughout history, and imitations have always served as a more accessible route into a luxury brand. Very few could truly match the brand image of Tutankhamun.
The Valley of the Kings has become one of the world’s most popular archaeological sites, receiving around 1.5 million visitors per year, though this has slowed since 2010. Tutankhamun remains the star attraction, and the burial chambers of his tomb, which otherwise remain empty, can draw in several hundred tourists in a single day. In the decades following the discovery, new handrails and paths were created to keep up with demand, but in 2007, the need for change was all too apparent, and the authorities limited visitors to 400 per day. The damage was becoming unavoidable. A further decision was made in 2009 to create an exact copy of the tomb detailing everything from the imperfections in the walls to the paintings which adorned them, made possible by the state-of-the-art 3-D laser scans. Taking five years to complete, this replica tomb has started to receive thousands of visitors since 2014. Some may even unwittingly visit the reproduction without realising it. The tomb is not an accurate representation of how it would have appeared in 1322BC, but that was not the aim of the philanthropic project led by Adam Lowe. The project sought to showcase how it appeared before the worst of the damage it had suffered became all too apparent. Replications and new technologies do not necessarily have to replace the originals, which is rarely the intention either. Working in partnership, both can stand as reminders of the dangers of unsustainable tourism and the need to raise awareness for similar projects in the future.
Since Tutankhamun and his tomb were uncovered in 1922, we have learnt a great deal about Ancient Egyptian beliefs and practices. In one hundred years, Egyptology has greatly benefitted from the fascination that it continues to inspire for both academics and the general public. It is no surprise that the New Grand Egyptian Museum, delayed due to the pandemic, is set to open in Autumn 2022 at the Giza Pyramid complex in Cairo. The largest of its kind, the museum will commemorate the centenary of the discovery of Tutankhamun and, at the same time, help to rejuvenate tourism in Egypt which has greatly suffered in recent years due to political unrest and the coronavirus pandemic. As a state-of-the-art facility, it will bring together the entire collection for the first time since it was excavated. As Egyptomania enters another turning point, it also marks the final time the pharaoh’s treasures will leave Egypt and draws to a close the travelling exhibitions of the previous century. The use of replicas and facsimiles across the world may be the only way in which many can still experience them, and their importance will only continue to grow as a result. Archaeology has provided many answers to the debate about who Tutankhamun was, how he died and what these objects meant to Ancient Egyptian society. Still, one question remains unanswered: how far can replicas replace original artefacts in exhibitions? That is one for the visitors to decide.
B. Brier, Egyptomania: Our Three Thousand Year Obsession with the Land of the Pharaohs (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
J. Curl, Egyptomania: The Revival – A Recurring Theme in the History of Taste (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994).
G. Heffernan, Wonderful Things in Kingston upon Hull. In Dobson, E. & Tonks, N. (eds.) Ancient Egypt in the Modern Imagination (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), pp. 13-29.
C. Riggs, Treasured: How Tutankhamun Shaped a Century (London: Atlantic Books, 2021).
Ryan Prescott is a PhD candidate in Archaeology based at the University of Hull. His research interests focus on landscapes and buildings of the early medieval period. He is also fascinated by Ancient Egypt and it is the main reason he first became interested in studying the past.