Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Literature and Culture


Dr Eleanor Dobson, Department of English, University of Birmingham


20 May 2019


This talk, enjoyed by a good-sized audience in the Elwin Room, was about the cultural background to the discovery of the 18thDynasty Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt in November 1922, and the mixture of fact and legend which quickly came to surround it. Dr Dobson began by showing a BFI film still of ‘first peeps of Tutankhamun’s Tomb’ with the words on the screen reading I Story is on the lips of all men. No discovery of our time has so moved the whole world.’ Most tombs in the Valley of the Kings had previously been broken into, but Tutankhamun’s tomb was exactly as it had been left.


The archaeologist Howard Carter (1874-1939) was a pupil of another celebrated archaeologist, Flinders Petrie (Sir William Flinders Petrie, 1853-1942). Petrie was the author of such works as The Pyramids and Temples of Gizeh (1883), Egyptian Tales, translated from the Papyri (1895) and The Religion of Ancient Egypt (1906).  By 1922, Howard Carter had already had much experience in the Egyptian desert. Carter’s financial backer was Lord Carnarvon (George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 1866-1923) a patrician who had met Carter in 1908. Lord Carnarvon made wartime visits to Egypt in search of treatment for a pulmonary complaint.


The excavation season in Egypt began on 1 November 1922, and the tomb was discovered three days later. Though it was not until 26 November that Carter made a small hole in the sealed doorway, and inserted a candle. With him at the time were Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn Carnarvon, and Arthur Callender.  Callender, known as ‘Pecky’, was one of Carter’s close friends, a former manager of the Egyptian Railways, and was acting assistant to Carter on the Tutankhamun dig. In a passage that subsequently entered legend, the dialogue at the crucial moment ran:


Lord Carnarvon: Can you see anything?

Carter: Yes, wonderful things!

(Then, widening the hole a little further, so that we could both see, we inserted an electric torch)


In fact, the phrase ‘wonderful things!’ does not feature in Carter’s Diary, where Carter instead recorded that he said ‘Yes, it’s wonderful…’


Eleanor showed a photograph of Carter and the novelist Percy White taken about this time. Percy White was Professor of English Literature at the Egyptian University in Cairo. He was a good friend of Carter’s and had advised the archaeologist on literary matters since before the Great War. Percy White’s novel Cairo, published in 1914, makes a link between classical mythology and Romantic literature. White wanted to stress the literary aspect, making a ‘magic carpet’ of the essential story, somewhere between make-believe and history. Cairo is a novel of political unrest and murder amidst fashionable Cairo society. While the supernatural does not feature in the text, the tone is close to nineteenth century Gothic writing. White returns to this again, certainly when helping Carter with the second volume of The Tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amen - for this was the spelling used at the time. The three volumes of this substantial work were published over several years, in 1923, 1927 and 1933.

Henry Burton became in 1922 the official photographer for Carter’s Egyptian expedition on behalf of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Burton had an exceptional reputation for fine archaeological photography. Trained in Hollywood, he took thousands of photographs of the excavation site. He had worked with Carter previously, so when the discovery of the Tomb was first made, Carter specifically requested that Burton be loaned to his team for the purpose of recording his finds. There is, however, no photograph of the first glimpse into the Tomb - not surprisingly.


A famous quotation from Volume One of The Tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amen (1923) runs: 

‘Uncanny beats, their bulk and gilded surfaces picked out of the darkness by our electric torches as though by limelight, their heads, throwing grotesque distorted shadows on the walls…’


This came from the chapter following the one in which Carter ends on the climactic moment of seeing ‘wonderful things’ in the Tomb’s interior.


In the same year as Carter published Volume One of his great work, he and Percy White published The Tomb of the Bird: Death of the White Canary (November 1923). This slight, imaginative work appealed to popular taste at the time, as had an image of a mysterious Egyptian mummy, in gold, in Pearson’s Magazine (a sixpenny weekly) back in August 1909.

Arthur Weigall (1880-1934), a journalist, reported the Tutankhamun excavations for the Daily Mail. He had a special interest in Egyptology, and also in stage design. Weigall and Carter did not get on, and there had been tension between them going back to 1905.  Among other things, Weigall wrote a sensational story, which used language such as:

‘The candle shone on the head of the King, bearing on the forehead the Uracus - the symbol of mystery and protection - the Cobra.’


Carter and Percy White produced a story, The Canary of Death: A True Story of the Tomb, similarly sensational. Lord Carnarvon died in 1923 of natural causes, but the press could not resist sensationalising his passing. ‘An evil elemental may have caused Lord Carnarvon’s fatal illness’, one newspaper speculated. The Egyptian History of the Pyramids says that the most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb. ‘Secret poisons are released, and enclosed in boxes… Those who trust them shall not learn how they came to suffer.’


Much earlier, in 1897, the writer of romantic melodramas Marie Corelli (1855-1924) published Ziska, a story of ancient Egyptian spirit seeking revenge on the reincarnation of her former lover - who had killed her in a moment of passion in his past life. Corelli, very much a figure of her time ‘hypnotised her public with her exuberant imagination, and he far-fetched theories - on anything from morality to radioactive vibrations.’ In 1893 she had published Barabbas, and in 1895 The Sorrows of Satan. These titles, and many other like them, indicate the tone and flavour of her always sensational and often provocative work. In her day, Corelli had a huge audience.


In 1903, Corelli’s older contemporary Bram Stoker (1847-1912) the Irish -born writer who became secretary to the great Victorian actor Sir Henry Irving, published The Jewel of the Seven Stars, another fantasy based on the ancient Egyptian supernatural. Dracula, his celebrated tale of vampirism, had appeared in 1897. The Jewel of the Seven Stars contributed to a broader cultural fluency with the ‘Egyptian Gothic’ which laid the groundwork for the exploitation of rumours connected with Lord Carnarvon’s death and the mummy’s curse - all absolute nonsense, of course. As it is generally accepted that Stoker’s narrative was inspired by Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut in 1903, it shows how Carter’s excavations and activities were already inspiring Gothic narratives as early as that year.  


In France, a notable figure was Joseph Charles Mardrus (1868-1949) a French physician and translator born in Cairo, of Armenian origins. Mardrus is best known for his version of the Arabian Thousand and One Nights (translated by him in 1898-1904) - though it  was far from the first, and I any case is said to be inauthentic, as Mardrus added many sections not in the original. Proust mentions him in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. At the time of the Carnarvon rumours in 1923-4, Mardrus is often erroneously recorded as being an Egyptologist. Mardrus never tried to discourage this label, which in a strange way could also be applied to Marie Corelli; a ‘self-fashioning’ as an authority in an area where not much scholarly knowledge really existed - despite the serious work of men like Petrie.


After the Tutankhamun Tomb was opened, and especially after Lord Carnarvon’s death, Howard Carter unsurprisingly received many crackpot letters, revealing endless credulity, such as the one from Margit Labouchere of Brioni, Istria, Italy, in which she implied that she alone had the secret of the Tomb. The distinguished anthropologist Margaret Murray said that ‘I find that all good archaeologists are expected to have at least one occult experience, either personal or of somebody that (he) knows.’


Dr Dobson made three final points:

  1. There is a disparity between details of archaeologists’ published accounts and their private notes, suggesting a willingness to manipulate facts or omit details in favour of a more interesting story. 
  2. Photographs supposedly part of a factual archaeological record have been carefully choreographed to enhance atmosphere, and illustrators in turn use these as source materials, bringing together genuine archaeological detail with invented supernatural images or implications. 
  3. Howard Carter, born in the same year as Winston Churchill, a dying on the eve of the Second World War, is one example of many in the history of Egyptology, whose publications embody the tension between the mundane and the supernatural, the sacred and the profane.



Copyright 2019 Dr Robert Blackburn, Convenor, and Dr Eleanor Dobson, Speaker, based on notes made by Dr Blackburn during the talk, with some additional material