"No finer human interest story, no more thrilling drama, no greater archaeological revelations could be summoned from history or the most vivid imagination than is told by the mute objects in this tomb of King Tutankhamen--mute objects that speak with golden eloquence and whose message is now being revealed to the world."(1)

Howard Carter arrived in Luxor in late October, expecting to look for King Tutankhamen's(2) tomb, and not really expecting to find it. After all, he had searched the Valley of the Kings for six full seasons with no luck. Earl Carnarvon, who shared his interest in Egyptian archaeology, had financed Carter's excavation for one more short season in hopes of finding what they thought at the time to be the last undiscovered Pharaoh's tomb.(3) "We had almost made up our minds that we were beaten…and then--hardly had we set hoe to ground in our last despairing effort than we made a discovery that far exceeded our wildest dreams," Carter wrote a year later.(4) Carter and his team found the steps to Tutankhamen's tomb on Nov. 4, 1922.(5)

What happened from there was a sensational story--not only was the tomb a revelation in archaeology, but also to the world, as the media helped spread the story of Tutankhamen's tomb. The find culminated Americans' lengthy love affair with Egypt, and as a result, found an eager audience there. In the excavators' home country, England, however, the ensuing commercialization of Tutankhamen displeased Carter's and Carnarvon's countrymen, who were still reeling from the impact of World War I. Americans, free from such burdens, and not averse to commercialization--at least at first--embraced the Tutankhamen find as if it were its own. They were not completely wrong in thinking this, since many of the excavators who rushed to Carter and Carnarvon's aid were indeed American. Many workers from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art helped catalogue the excavation. Even as American archaeologists helped at the site, American corespondents reported from it. The media, including movies and advertising, helped translate the find from a high culture event celebrated in scholarly circles to a popular sensation that affected the mass American culture. The influence Tutankhamen had filtered from the top down; while city newspapers such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times reported on the daily progress at the site, the only evidence it even existed in the Saturday Evening Post was Egypt-influenced advertisements published in the same months newspaper coverage reached its peak. The American fascination and involvement with Tutankhamen, informed by different forms of media and commercialism, drove Americans to compare the ancient Egyptian civilization to their own. The fad created by commercial interests involved Americans in a discourse about Egypt and America as well. More than just the latest in a line of "new national thrill[s]"(6) as Frederick Lewis Allen claimed in his book about the 1920s, Only Yesterday, the discovery of Tutankhamen allowed Americans to examine their place in the world.

 

Source: (1) "Times Man Views Splendors of Tomb." New York Times. 22 Dec 1922: 1+.

(2) Tutankhamen is spelled several different ways throughout the paper by different sources; the ancient Egyptian language didn't spell out vowels.

(3) Howard Carter and A.C. Mace. The Tomb of Tutankhamen. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1923. 131-132.

(4) Carter and Mace, 131.

(5) Carter and Mace, 132.

(6) Frederick Lewis Allen. Only Yesterday. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1931. 69.

 

At left, a map of the principles tombs and pyramids at Thebes. Below right, even in portraying Egypt, the media used the minstrel image of the African American that was popular in the 1920s. The 1920s also featured the height of the pervasiveness of the Ku Klux Klan.

Click on the images for a better view.

 

 

 

Photo sources: All black and white photos by Harry Burton.

Map courtesy of National Geographic Magazine. ("At the Tomb of Tutankhamen." National Geographic Magazine XLIII: 5, May 1923: 467.)

Cartoon: "Tutankhamen's Leap into Fame." Literary Digest 76, 10 March 1923: 42.

 

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