As the drama surrounding the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb unfolded, the press coverage of the event became as much of a story as the tomb itself. While the both newspapers and magazines gave detailed accounts of events and treasure found in the tomb, particularly in the spring of 1923, it also reported on its own activity, due to its own intrinsic involvement as part of the narrative of the mass media. A May 1923 National Geographic Magazine article illustrated what life was like covering the tomb's discovery: "Two correspondents sat there and another roamed about waiting for news. For weeks they had waited under the glare of the sun, compelled by the force of circumstances to be detectives rather than scribes…Now and then some rumor would escape the portals, to be weighed and considered before it was put upon the telegraph wire or in the discard."(29) Maynard Owen Williams, the author, acts almost as if the press were the story--or even casts them as the archaeologists the story is about: "These were the men who were trying to give the news of this great discovery to the world."(30) The press was newsworthy in part because Carnarvon had signed a 5,000 pound contract with the London Times, plus 75 percent of all profits from the sale of Times articles to the rest of the world, for what turned out to be nearly exclusive coverage.(31) Other reporters had to scrounge to get enough information and find new angles for a story. As a result, the press got angry--and creative, and acquired many of the sensationalistic habits that plague the image of reporters today.

Carter and Mace themselves noted the effect the media had on their work in their account of the excavation:



"Archaeology under the limelight is a new and rather bewildering experience for most of us," Mace and Carter wrote in 1923. "All of a sudden we find the world takes and interest in us [archaeologists], an interest so intense and so avid for details that special correspondents at large salaries have to be sent to interview us, report our every movement, and hide around corners to surprise a secret out of us."(32)



Journalists hounded Carter and Carnarvon. Carter was "weary of telegrams and sick to death of reporters…he wanted to avoid being followed by gentlemen of the press."(33)

The National Geographic coverage also reveals the attraction journalists had to ferreting out secrets. Once a press photographer hung around at "the mouth of the silent tomb, hoping that some secret would be revealed that day… anxious reporters …had for so long put up a nerve-racking fight to get the news…"(34) Williams argued that "the sway of Tutankhamen still grips the world,"(35) but it also gripped the reporters. They were forced to find more angles to cover the story in addition to the Times stories that were fed to newspapers. The sense of secrecy and mystery conveyed through their writing probably attracted more readers than straight event coverage, making the discovery more than just a musty scholarly event. The coverage of the excavation helped popularize it.

The media's own articles acknowledged the work of journalism in spreading the word. "Through the discovery of the tomb and the enterprise and efficiency of modern journalism, the most widely acclaimed of all the long line of pharaohs [became] a household word all over the civilized world."(36) Journalists could fulfill a need for the newly urban readers in the 1920s. During the decade, circulation soared to unprecedented numbers, with a major share of the success due to tabloid newspapers.(37) Carter had his own opinions about the 1920s press: "The Press is a great and necessary force in modern civilization, but it is occasionally eager for more news than actually exists. It is, too, exceedingly competitive."(38)

Whatever Carter's misgivings, the newly modernized media was able to undertake coverage of the events at the tomb as never before. The word was spread through "techniques that had barely existed before, the miracle of modern communications, including telegraph and telephones at the tomb itself, and the first minute-by-minute photographs and moving film footage ever undertaken in the history of archaeology."(39) Americans could still the power of the Tutankhamen legend in the 1970s, when the tomb's treasures toured the United States for three years, drawing seven million people.(40)

By examining articles in the New York Times, a prime carrier of Tutankhamen news since the city's own museum was heavily involved in the excavation, we can see the hype and self-hype that the public faced--and devoured. Even though many stories were covered by the London Times because of an exclusive contract with Carnarvon, the New York Times cabled in their own coverage of the tomb discoveries through telegraphs almost daily, particularly during February of 1923, when excavators began to open the inner tombs. Although not the most popular newspaper in New York, by 1920 the New York Times daily circulation was 343,000.(41) In Michael Schudson's book, Discovering the News, the author showed that the New York Times was in many ways a conservative paper. "The Times attracted readers among the wealthy and among those aspiring to wealth and status, in part, because it was socially approved. It was itself a badge of respectability," Schudson said.(42) "It presented articles as useful knowledge, not as revelation."(43) In other words, the New York Times was the kind of paper to report such high culture events--but it was also the kind of paper that wanted to increase its readership. The New York Times, even as a conservative paper in its day, commercialized the high culture of archaeology for its readers through its coverage of Tutankhamen. In many ways, the Times coverage itself represented a nation struggling to define what it meant to be American.

Several New York Times reports played up natural elements as if they were supernatural. The early coverage started rather benignly, if dramatically--a rainstorm threatens to flood the tomb. "If water enters, the result might be catastrophic from an archaeological point of view."(44) The Times' job was to make it catastrophic from the reader's point of view. The day the tomb was opened, one reporter said, archaeologists found serpents in the crown of a statue. That same day at dinner, Carter and some guests heard a commotion outside. A similar kind of serpent on the statue "grabbed the canary." Even though they killed the serpent, the canary died "probably from fright. The incident made an impression on the native staff, who regard it as a warning from the spirit of the departed King against further intrusion on the privacy of the tomb."(45) The correspondent later reported, "Already in this land of superstition myths are beginning to grow up….out of [the canary's death] the most fantastic stories are being manufactured…so it has been easy to weave a legend that brought in the little bird, which in some ways symbolized the modern spirit of civilization, and the cobra, which stood for the powers of old dynasties…"(46) The Los Angeles Times, not averse to the new journalism which injected the reporter into the report, also chimed in with its own superstitions. "No matter how little superstitious a man may be, the act of breaking the rest so carefully guarded through the centuries must cause an emotion which time can never efface," said one L. A. Times correspondent.(47) Another reporter said he felt "pity" for the "ordeal" the mummy faced.(48)

With Carnarvon's death in April of 1923 of an illness apparently brought on by an insect bite, the press helped spread rampant rumors about a curse. "Those most intimately connected with [the tomb] during the last few months suffered in some way or other. Even the journalists who covered the story have felt the reaction. Three of them have been ill…"(49) During the course of the excavation the New York Times also ran articles with headlines like "SAYS PHARAOH'S KA GUARDS THE TOMB/French Egyptologist Urges Efforts to Propitiate Tut-Ankh-Amen's 'Double.' LISTS MYSTERIOUS DEATHS/ He Also Thinks That Malignant Germs Lie Waiting for Those 'Profaning' the Sepulchre."(50) Newspapers blamed Carnarvon's death on a curse.(51) The press indisputably affected public opinion, and how they viewed Tutankhamen. "Several American politicians went so far as to call for an investigation of mummies to determine whether or not these possessed the same medical dangers as those thought to be apparent in the tomb."(52) This kind of coverage gave drama and excitement to what once might have been considered a scholar's work and brought the high culture event to a mass audience primed to accept what it read.

Even before Carnarvon's death, the discovery along with the press had created a kind of worldwide hype unprecedented prior to the 1920s. Carter and Carnarvon received a stream of letters and telegrams from around the world requesting artifacts, photographs, seeds from the tomb, designs, and descriptions of shoes for shoemakers. The New York Times also reported requests from motion picture industry workers and requests for souvenirs.(53) The renewed interest in Egyptian artifacts also drew Americans to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When the Museum displayed one of Tutankhamen's rings in 1923, the Times reported that thousands had visited the museum before even the ring came due to the "interest heightened by cabled accounts of the discoveries of the tomb."(54) The Times, in fact, seemed proud of its massive role in the popularization of Tutankhamen. "PRESS AIDS WORLD HOUSTON DECLARES/Speaker says Times Performed a Great Service Through Photos of Work on Tut-Ankh-Amen's Tomb" blared one headline.(55) "Egypt seemed to live again and pass before our eyes," the publisher of the World, Herbert S. Houston said. "That, ladies and gentlemen, is some measure of the great service which the press is always doing for us."(56) The press viewed its role as a social service to people, enlightening them to events that otherwise might go over their heads. At least one editorial writer agreed: "Hitherto the news of such events was pretty well confined to a little circle of experts and professionals. Now the press has changed all that. It assumes that many people want to know, and it takes care that they shall have the opportunity to do so."(57) The New York Times, in other words, had helped bring high culture to the "people"--not just the academics.

The attention the tomb garnered from the media in turn helped create the latest rage--Tutankhamen was the latest fad. It's hard to say if the public or the media helped build hype for the dead king, but papers reported Americans' interest avidly.



"All the district is his court," said one New York Times article. "There is only one topic of conversation…One cannot escape the name of Tut-Ankh-Amen anywhere. It is shouted in the streets, whispered in the hotels, while the local shops advertise Tut-Ankh-Amen art, Tut-Ankh-Amen hats, Tut-Ankh-Amen curios, Tut-Ankh-Amen photographs, and tomorrow probably genuine Tut-Ankh-Amen antiquities. Every hotel in Luxor today had something a la Tut-Ankh-Amen…There is a Tut-Ankh-Amen dance tonight at which the piece is to be a Tut-Ankh-Amen rag."(58)

Full paper and footnotes.

Photo Sources:

"Press Aids World, Houston Declares." New York Times. 20 Feb. 1923: 5.

"Everyday Life of Egyptians Revived By Museum Exhibit." New York Times. 11 Feb. 1923: VIII:8.

Autochromes: Current History Magazine 20, June 1924.

 

Uncovering Tutankhamen I The Boy King I Buried Treasure I Metropolitan Connections I Cinematic Contributions I Stop the Presses I Literary Illusions I Fashion is King I Americans Abroad I Main