There are quite a few historical moments to which I would like to have been a witness, not least the premiere of the Rite of Spring in 1913 (was it really as dramatic as is popularly believed?). The other cultural moment that I would have loved to witness happened nine years later in an enormously changed world. Archaeologist, Howard Carter, who had excavated in the Valley of the Kings on and off since the late 1900s, believing there was an undiscovered tomb, finally hit gold, when one of the most junior of the Egyptian dig team, a water boy, accidentally uncovered what appeared to be a step beneath a waste heap on November 4th 1922. Carter’s team cleared the steps and found a door with a cartouche in Tutankhamen‘s name above it. He notified his employer and waited for Lord Carnarvon, who had funded the expedition, to arrive in Egypt. Finally, on 26th November a small hole was made by Carter in the door of the tomb, the air of 3000 years wafted out, and by the light of a candle Carter peered in.
“Can you see anything?” asked Carnarvon. “Yes,” gasped Carter, “Things. Wonderful things.”
Tut-mania was about to hit the world.
The Times had exclusive rights to the story, which broke worldwide on November 30th. The journalist was clearly very excited about the find, and the by-line “By runner to Luxor” brought a picture to my mind of an intrepid newshound speeding on a camel to a telegraph office, while firmly holding on to that all important typescript. The story behind the news coverage turned out to be even more thrilling than I had imagined, as you can see in the Times blog post about the events behind the scoop.
Between that first sighting of “Wonderful things” and The Times news story, there had been a great deal of work. Carter’s team had accessed the tomb and discovered two chambers stashed full of stuff. It was all rather higgledy-piggledy, and there was quite a problem even getting into the tomb to look at what was in there because of the plethora of objects. Carter suspected that earlier tomb raiders had accessed the tomb, but possibly had been surprised, leaving the tomb in a mess, but most of the grave goods largely untouched. The other possibility (which would not necessarily preclude the grave robbers) was that the tomb had been prepared at speed, and everything hastily placed in it. When later on it was discovered that Tutankhamun was a young king, this seemed more likely. In fact it is now generally believed that he was buried hastily in a tomb originally intended for someone else.
The original report also mentioned that a third sealed chamber had been found, and there were high hopes that this might remain untouched by thieves.
The first photographs from the expedition appeared in The Times in December (rather oddly they were juxtaposed with the captains of the Varsity Rugby match taking place the following day, which Cambridge won 21-8). The first astonishing shots of the interior appeared in the January 30, 1923 issue. Although evidently much tidier than when Carter first stepped into it, the sense of everything having been moved hastily was still very evident, as was the still sealed door into the mysterious third chamber.
This remained closed until February 1923 when it was opened to a celebrity audience – the Queen of the Belgians arrived by an express train from Alexandria and took up a whole suite in the Winter Gardens, while the King of Egypt sent his apologies. After a few weeks checking the chamber, it was closed for the summer. Shortly after this Lord Carnarvon died after a mosquito bite turned septic. Sadly he never lived to see the legendary mask of Tutankhamen which remained hidden away in the boy king’s coffin until early 1926. The story of the expedition remained daily reading in The Times until well into 1926.
If you have access via Raven do follow the news story in The Times digital archive.
The finding of the tomb captured the public imagination. By early 1923 Paris fashions had gone Egyptian. You could buy the Semiramis cape, an afternoon Smiles of the Nile frock, or be daring and go for a Nights of the Pharaohs evening gown. The Kennel Club’s annual dog show awarded the Tutankhamen Cup for Best dog or bitch, while a racehorse called Tutankhamen beat Wandering Monk at Newbury. (Tutankhamen in its modern incarnation of Tutankhamun is evidently a popular name for sporting animals, there is a racehorse of the same name currently running in Australia, and a greyhound in Hove). In Hollywood Cecil B. De Mille filmed The Ten Commandments and mislaid a sphinx. Rumours of the curse of the Pharaoh, which followed Lord Carnarvon’s death spawned a huge number of horror films, including variant mummy films starring kings of horror, Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, not forgetting the mummy of Carry on Screaming. A university in Southern Illinois renamed their student magazine The Egyptian “read by four thousand students, faculty, and friends of the school,” and an Amstel Beer advert asked “Were the pyramids built on beer?”
Music, of course, was influenced by events in Luxor. Throughout the next few years Egyptian related music and dance appeared across the world, with much of it being Tutankhamun specific, such as the song by the husband and wife team Monte Carlo (groan) and Alma Sanders, whose cover is at the head of this blog post. The song, a very simple one, evidently had delusions of grandeur, styling itself the “operatic edition”.
Meanwhile entertainers Norah Blaney and Gwen Farrar were strutting their own Egyptian walk, and singing In the days of Tut-Ankh-Amen as part of a revue at the Vaudeville Theatre, London. Blaney and Farrar performed to troops in France during the First World War, and went on to become LGBTQ+ icons. The chorus, as is fitting for one that was used in a revue, was clearly well aware of the latest news coming out of Egypt not least the world’s press clamouring for a scoop having been shut out of the dig by Carnarvon’s deal with The Times: “The News of the World is there in force, And we’ll be reading in due course, The details of the last divorce, In the days of Tut-Ankh-Amen.”
One of my favourite Tut inspired songs is Broadway Caravan [B1923.1086] by Johnson and Edwards. As well as mention of the latest Egyptian inspired styles “Since old King Tut came back again, The styles have changed around, Most every girl in town, Wears an Egyptian gown”, there is a sly dig at Prohibition too, which along with Tutankhamun, had been a major topic of conversation in the US since it was introduced in 1919 – “Happy faces there [on Broadway], Find oases there, And just like camels everyone goes 10 days without a drink, I don’t think”.
A recurring topic as the Pharaoh’s tomb was excavated was the possibility that “Queen Tut” was also in the tomb. There was no sign of a queen (perhaps Blaney and Farrar were right about the divorce?), though Tutankhamun’s stillborn daughters were buried with him. However this didn’t stop the song writers writing about glamorous Egyptian ladies, queens of the Nile, and Cleopatra (just 1300 years out).
With Egyptomania conquering the world through the 1920s, the novelty act Wilson, Keppel and Betty finally made it big. Jack Wilson and Joe Keppel were a British / Irish music hall act specialising in novelty dances and tap dancing. In 1920 they travelled to Canada and the USA where they met their ever-faithful assistant Betty – there would be a sequence of Bettys in the following years, but the original Betty was born in Kansas, and stayed with the act for 13 years. Taking the London Palladium by storm in 1932, the act stayed in the UK, where they became best known for their Egyptian sand dance, and the use of Ballet Egyptien by Alexandre Luigini [item no. 11 in volume M340.a.85.54]
Wilson, Keppel & Betty went on to perform in Berlin in the 1930s, where their act “Cleopatra’s nightmare” shocked Goebbels. Betty left the act in 1941, and became a journalist. She reported on the Nuremburg trials, and was one of the earliest journalists to break the news of the suicide of Hermann Goering.
Tutmania continued to influence fashion and culture for many years after the archaeological event of the century. The tour of the artefacts across the world in the 1970s led to a renewed wave of interest (and a fascination with Ancient Egypt for this blogger). One ’80’s song, though, which might have been expected to have been inspired by Tutankhamun actually owed its inspiration to something very different. Walk like an Egyptian was written by songwriter, Liam Sternberg, from Ohio. One day while on a ferry in rough water, he noticed the passengers were struggling to keep their balance, and had to hold out their arms in an unexpected mimicry of Egyptian tomb paintings to stay upright, and that most iconic of Egyptian songs, though it has absolutely nothing to do with Ancient Egypt at all (in that it has much in common with Wilson, Keppel and Betty’s Sand Dance) was born.