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Art and life in ancient Egypt
Art and life in ancient Egypt

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2.3 Howard Carter – archaeologist

The archaeologist Howard Carter was the discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamun. In his account of the 1922 excavation, he frequently draws parallels between the tastes and habits of the ancient Egyptians and a more modern ‘Orient’.

Activity 3 Howard Carter – archaeologist

Read the quotations below and then answer this question:

  • What do you pick out as significant features of Carter’s Orient?

It was also essential to a mummy’s well-being that it should be fully equipped against every need, and, in the case of a luxurious and display-loving Oriental monarch, this would naturally involve a lavish use of gold and other treasure ... [L]ove of ostentation was ingrained in every Egyptian monarch and in his tomb more than anywhere else he was accustomed to display it.

(pp. 21–2)

Had it not been for the evidence of plundering afforded by the tunnel and the re-sealed doorways, one might have imagined at first view that there never had been any plundering, and that the confusion was due to Oriental carelessness at the time of the funeral.

(p. 83)

That he [i.e. Tutankhamun] took the field of war in person, especially at his age, is improbable, but of such polite fiction, kings and conquerors in the Oriental world have always been singularly tolerant.

(p. 128)

Valuable woods and ivory, natural stones, faience, glass and metals were employed by the ancient Egyptians for the manufacture and decoration of their caskets. Throughout the East, through all ages, these highly ornamental boxes were used to hold the more valuable and personal belongings – trinkets and clothes – or as repositories for cosmetics in costly vessels. In fact to this day, the pride of the fellah is the gaudily bespangled and more than often trumpery box, in which he keeps his most treasured articles.

(p. 247)

Source: Howard Carter, The Tomb of Tutankhamun, (London, 1923–33), Griffith Institute, Oxford/Little Books Ltd, London (2007 facsimile reprint edition).

Discussion

Once again, Carter assimilates ancient and modern, under the rubric of an unchanging Orient. In fact it is as if he is inclined to read the past in the light of the present. His sense of the gaudiness, even the immaturity, of contemporary non-European life, his motif of ‘luxury’ and ‘carelessness’ – not to mention the ingrained sense of superiority embedded in the descriptions of the ‘fellah’ – is mapped back onto the grave goods and burial practices of the Eighteenth Dynasty.