Friday, August 20, 2010

Science: "Now, if I'd known they'd line up just to see him..."

One of the greatest scientific finds of the twentieth century occurred more than eighty years ago. Yet, until recently, the documentation, notes, photographs, and details weren't available freely to the public. If you wanted information on what happened when KV62 was literally uncovered you'd have been hard pressed to find details.

Which is amazing considering how the find still enchants people to this day. In fact some of the material found inside KV62 is touring the world and attracting crowds right now.

KV62 is the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings. In 1922 Howard Carter discovered it hidden under ancient debris. Over the next 8 years the tomb was slowly, carefully, and meticulously emptied of its contents. Much has been written about the discovery and excavation but the details have never been collected in one publicly accessible place. At least not until the present day. I thank Wayne for bringing to my attention a web site where I may end up spending too much time.

Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation by the Griffith Institute, Oxford aims to be the place where all the photos, maps, notes, and other details can be collected in one place. For anyone and everyone to explore at their leisure. There are photos of the excavation work taking place, notes from Howard Carter, Alfred Lucas, and Lord Carnarvon on the robberies that probably occurred soon after the tomb was first sealed, and maps and drawings of the tomb.

Much of the notebooks and other written material is online in transcripts without scans or photographs of the originals so you won't be reading Howard Carter's notebooks directly. Luckily the list of numbered objects removed from the tomb is presented with the original photographs and scans of the original handwritten object cards along with transcriptions to make reading easier. Item 256 is the King's mummy and 256a is the Gold Mask of the King. You can see the mask as it was found in situ as well as after removal from the mummy.

The first object card for the mask reminds me of the only memory I have of seeing King Tut's mask in person. In the 1970s the treasure of King Tut went on tour. Unlike the current travelling exhibition the 1970s exhibit did include the gold mask. All I remember of the seeing the 1970s exhibit on a dark ealry winter's night is the clear recollection of just how small the mask was. Just over 50 cms tall and less than 40 cms across. That's when it struck me that King Tut really was the boy king.

With all the physics and chemistry and other 'hard' sciences I find that I forget that archeology is a science as well. The detailed records and photographs of the King Tut excavation are a wonderful example of that science. Looking at the photographs and maps it's easy to see why King Tut's tomb caught the public imagination. Over 80 years later the public's fascination continues.

Now if you don't mind... I'm going to find an old comedy album, put on Steve Martin, and look at the original photographs while singing along to King Tut:

"Now, if I'd known / they'd line up just to see him, / I'd trade in all my money / And bought me a museum." 


Unknown said...

I was also fortunate enough to see the 1970's exhibit. I remember the details of the mask and just how imperfect it was. You could tell it was a handmade article from hundreds of years ago. The pictures you see of it often lack the details, and present a more perfect view.

David G said...

I saw the current exhibit when it came to Toronto. There were a couple of necklaces made of very tiny hand made metal beads. The photographs in the book about the tour did little to show the amazing detail. All those individual and very tiny beads. No two alike. Looking at it you can see the work and craftsmanship. Most of that is lost in the photos.

I keep reminding myself that skill and technique are nothing modern. Given time, practise, and talent anyone at anytime could create art that still invokes disbelief and awe.