High tech has made ours an era of ubiquitous images — they flash on our phones, computer screens, and TVs, transmitted from around the world with the tap of a finger or the press of a button.
But in the early 20th century, the newspaper was the visual information superhighway, and the pictures displayed in London papers in January 1923 exposed the world to long-unseen wonders.
A few months earlier, when Howard Carter first peered into the dark antechamber of the millennia-old tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun, his colleagues eagerly asked the English archaeologist if he could see anything. Dazzled by the sight, Carter stammered back, “Yes, wonderful things.”
Images of some of those wonderful things appeared in print thanks to English photographer Harry Burton, who was working in Egypt on excavations for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
By loaning to the dig the services of one of the best field photographers of the era, museum officials hoped to be rewarded with finds from the tomb, according to Christina Riggs, a professor of the history of art and archaeology at the University of East Anglia and author of the forthcoming “Photographing Tutankhamun: Archaeology, Ancient Egypt, and the Archive.”
In a recent talk at the Geological Lecture Hall, Riggs explored connections among archaeology, photography, memory, identity, and scholarship. The lecture was presented by the Harvard Semitic Museum with support from the Marcella Tilles Memorial Fund.
Most archaeologists think that “photographs are fact, and that their main and only interest lies in what they show,” Riggs told the crowd. “What interests me however, is what photographs do, and one of the things that photographs did for the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb was create that phenomenon that we now know as King Tut.”
Riggs explained that newspapers quickly adopted the nickname “to describe this long-lost, little-known pharaoh with so many symbols in his name.” Burton’s evocative photos turned the tomb “into a triumph for British and American archaeology,” she added.