Howard Carter spent years documenting the thousands of artefacts from
Tutankhamun's tomb. Now, thanks to the efforts of an Oxford
archaeologist, this remarkable archive of pictures and notes can be
From the circular main hall of the Sackler Library in Oxford, an
unassuming corridor leads to a staircase that takes you down below
street level. Through a door marked "archive", office ceiling tiles
and fluorescent lights stare down on a cheap blue carpet and a row of
grey rolling stacks.
The hum of the air-conditioning lets slip that this ordinary-looking
room is hiding something special. The temperature is held at 18.5C
(65F), several degrees cooler than the sunny July day outside, while a
humidifier keeps the moisture level tightly controlled. For those grey
stacks contain the forgotten secrets of the most famous find in
Egyptology, if not all of archaeological history: the tomb of
This is the Griffith Institute – arguably the best Egyptology library
in the world. One of its most prized collections incorporates the
notes, photographs and diaries of the English archaeologist Howard
Carter, who discovered Tutankhamun's resting place in 1922. The only
intact pharaoh's tomb ever discovered, it contained such an array of
treasures that it took Carter 10 years to catalogue them all. Yet
despite the immense significance of the discovery, the majority of
Carter's findings have never been published, and many questions
surrounding the tomb remain unanswered.
Jaromir Malek is the soft-spoken keeper of the archive whose own
Tutankhamun project is nearing completion. By making all of Carter's
notes available online, Malek wanted to ensure that the public would
have access to the full extent of the discovery – and to spur
Egyptologists into finishing the job of studying the tomb's contents.
He has ended up creating a model that other researchers hope will
transform the field of archaeology.
The effort has taken even longer than Carter's gruelling excavation.
It began in 1993, when Malek says he realised that fewer than a third
of the artefacts from Tutankhamun's tomb had been properly studied and
published, a situation he describes as "unacceptable".
A total of 5,398 objects were found in the tomb, covering every aspect
of ancient Egyptian life, from weapons and chariots to musical
instruments, clothes, cosmetics and a treasured lock of the royal
grandmother's hair. A few, like Tutankhamun's gold burial mask, are
instantly recognisable, but many are not well known, even to experts.
Part of the reason is that Carter died in 1939, just seven years after
his excavation ended, and before he could fully publish his findings.
"He started working on the final publication, but he was physically
and mentally exhausted after a very hard 10 years," says Malek. By all
accounts a difficult man to work with, Carter had no collaborators
left to continue his work when he died. And while the artefacts
themselves are held in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo,
Carter's notes were donated to the Griffith Institute, where they have
lain largely undisturbed ever since.
The sheer size and importance of Carter's haul seems to have
discouraged scholars from tackling it. "I often say that the real
curse of Tutankhamun is that Egyptologists have tended to shy away
from working on the material," says Marianne Eaton-Krauss, an expert
who has written three books about objects from the tomb. "These pieces
are beautifully made. To study them takes a lot of work, and requires
expertise not only on the symbolism, but also the technology."
So Malek decided that the best way to ensure that Carter's discoveries
saw the light of day was to post the entire archive online. "We can't
make Egyptologists work on the material if they are not inclined to do
so," he says. "But we could make sure that all of the excavation
records are available to anyone who is interested. Then there will be
A simple idea, but still a daunting task, particularly as a lack of
funding meant that Malek and his handful of staff had to carry out the
entire project in their spare time. Carter recorded his finds on more
than 3,500 densely written cards, with additional notes by Carter's
chemist and conservator Alfred Lucas, and more than 1,000 images taken
by his photographer Harry Burton. There are also around 60 maps and
plans of the excavation site, plus hundreds of fragile pages from
Carter's journals and diaries.
A succession of secretaries scanned and transcribed Carter's notes in
between other work, then Malek proofread the results at evenings and
weekends. Jonathan Moffett, head of IT at the affiliated Ashmolean
Museum, built a database that could hold images of the original
material as well as transcripts, so the text could be easily searched.
In 1995 the team started posting the records in one of the first
websites dedicated to Egyptology. They called it Tutankhamun:
Anatomy of an Excavation .
More than 15 years later, the internet has been transformed: a Google
search for Egyptology now returns more than 3 million results. And
Malek's project is almost complete. Around 98% of the material is
available, with the last pages to follow within the next three months.
Among the highlights is Carter's diary from the period in which he
discovered Tutankhamun's tomb. When I ask to see it, Malek's assistant
Elizabeth Fleming pulls the yellowed notebook from a stiff cardboard
case, and with white-gloved hands settles it on a pillow on the table
in front of me.
Funded by the Egypt enthusiast Lord Carnarvon, Carter had been
searching the Valley of the Kings – ancient Egypt's royal burial
ground – for seven years. A few objects bearing Tutankhamun's name had
been found in the area and the two were convinced that his tomb lay
somewhere beneath thousands of years' worth of limestone rubble. Yet
season after season of arduous digging, during which their workmen
cleared large areas of the valley down to bedrock, produced nothing.
Then on Saturday 4 November 1922, the dig revealed a step cut into the
rock of the valley floor, beneath the foundations of a group of huts.
It was the beginning of a stairway that led to a walled-up doorway:
Tutankhamun's resting place had been found. Fleming shows me two words
from the next day's entry – "seals intact" – the crucial sign that the
tomb had lain undisturbed since the second millennium BC.
Carter's handwriting, in small, neat pencil, suggests a disciplined,
down-to-earth man, not inclined to florid outbursts. A typical diary
entry reads simply "two donkeys" – a reference to the transportation
that Carter and his assistant took to the dig site each day.
On Sunday 26 November, however, after his first glimpse inside the
3,300-year-old antechamber, Carter could no longer contain himself. As
he peeped through a newly burrowed hole, he later wrote in his journal
that "the hot air escaping caused the candle to flicker". As his eyes
became accustomed to the light, "the interior of the chamber gradually
loomed before one, with its strange and wonderful medley of
extraordinary and beautiful objects heaped upon one another". Strange
ebony-black effigies of the king, gilded couches, exquisitely painted
caskets, flowers, shrines, chests, chairs and chariots glinting with
gold gave the appearance of "the property room of an opera of a
Elizabeth Fleming also shows me one of Carter's plans – the valley's
contours, neatly conveyed in sparse yet graceful black-ink lines. The
dig site was located in the deepest point of the valley, where
floodwater dumps debris when it rains. This, along with the fact that
the later tomb of Ramses VI was built almost on top of it, kept
Tutankhamun hidden from robbers over the centuries, and from the
wholesale dismantling of royal tombs by Ramses XI in the 11th century
The real meat of the archive, however, is in the notes and photographs
that record every item found in the tomb in painstaking detail. Any
other archaeologist working in the 1920s might have bundled the
treasures out of the tomb in a matter of hours, but Carter worked
methodically and meticulously.
Burton's black-and-white photographs show the team's progress through
the tomb, and these too are available online. Despite the difficult
lighting conditions, these images – acknowledged as some of the best
in archaeology – capture the eerie stillness of the tomb when it was
first opened. Chairs and chariot wheels have been casually propped
against the wall, while statues stand in their linen shawls as if
placed there hours before.
I'm struck by how messy and jumbled the objects look. This is partly
because Tutankhamun died unexpectedly, so his belongings had to be
crammed into a much smaller tomb than would have been intended, and
partly because the tomb was robbed shortly after the unfortunate king
was buried, and the guards seem to have done a rather careless job of
righting the ransacked contents before resealing the doors.
"We can see things missing," says John Taylor, who looks after the
Egyptian mummies collection at the British Museum in London. "We have
the plinths for gold statuettes but not the statuettes themselves.
They broke the gold fittings off furniture. And we can see fingermarks
inside a jar where a robber stuffed his fingers in and scooped out a
sticky mass of very valuable scented oil."
Burton's photos document each artefact after removal from the tomb: a
quick browse of the database reveals some charming treasures – from a
leopardskin cloak with a golden head and silver claws to a collection
of green and blue draughtsmen and even a folding bed. A search for
"mummy" returns 68 photos taken at various stages of the unwrapping
process, from plump outer bandages to fragile bone.
For Malek, a principal aim of the project is to bring the forgotten
details of the tomb to as many people as possible. "We felt this was
important because the discovery is so well-known," he says. "This
doesn't belong to Egyptologists only, or even to Egypt only. Everybody
should have the right to see what's there."
Taylor agrees that the failure of Egyptologists to publish the
discovery in its entirety has left the public in the dark about much
of what was in the tomb. "A lot of the objects will be very unfamiliar
to people," he says. "What is needed is for schools and people with a
more general interest to have access to the basic data and see what's
In this, the website appears to be succeeding. It has informed
countless school projects and even an interactive DVD being produced
by the BBC to accompany an Egypt-themed episode of Doctor Who.
Semmel, the German event promoter, has used Carter's technical
diagrams to make exact replicas of many of the treasures from
Tutankhamun's tomb for an exhibition that is currently touring Europe.
But Malek also hopes to put "moral pressure" on Egyptologists, to
encourage them to study this immensely important collection.
Tutankhamun's is the only royal tomb that we have that wasn't gutted
by tomb robbers. If we want to know what an Egyptian pharaoh took with
him to the afterlife, he says, "it's the only one we can look at".
Everything in the tomb was there so that the king could continue
living in luxury, from the food he would eat and clothes he would
wear, to ceremonial items such as huge animal-headed couches on which
he would have been carried into the afterlife. "Nothing in the tomb
was accidental," says Malek. "We will not be able to understand the
tomb as a unit until all of the objects are properly explained."
Egyptologists are particularly excited about what the objects from the
tomb can tell us about the technology of the ancient Egyptians. "We
can study how these objects were made, the materials and techniques
that were used," says Malek. "That is quite rare. There is a great
difference between being able to look at a representation of a chair
on the wall of a tomb or a temple and being able to study that
particular object in reality."
Although researchers will always want to study objects directly,
gaining access to many of the most priceless items from Tutankhamun's
tomb can be difficult. Carter's archive is a useful source of back-up
information. But it also provides a lot of data that would be
difficult or impossible to glean from studying the objects today.
For a start, Carter recorded exactly where items were found in the
tomb, and how they were positioned relative to each other. This has
helped researchers to make sense of the jumble of objects in the
antechamber. "It seems like just a pile of things, but there is a
system," says Malek. "You can see what the thinking behind it was."
For example, items of food should have gone into another room but the
space was too small, so at the last minute they were placed into the
Marianne Eaton-Krauss recently used the Griffith Institute website in
a study of how Tutankhamun was buried. "It's a mine of information,"
she says. Eaton-Krauss was able to tell from Carter's excavation
journal that the innermost shrine of Tutankhamun's tomb was too small
to fit properly around his sarcophagus, suggesting that the
sarcophagus had in fact been intended for someone else – something
that it is impossible to tell from the objects as they are set up on
display in Cairo.
Eaton-Krauss points out that many objects from Tutankhamun's tomb seem
to have originally belonged to other kings, and says she hopes the
website will stimulate other Egyptologists to investigate further. "If
these were all studied, it would be of great historical significance."
Also crucial for researchers is the fact that Carter and his
colleagues recorded the artefacts almost immediately after the tomb
was opened. "They were the first to see the objects, and therefore saw
them in the best condition possible," says André Veldmeijer of the
PalArch Foundation in Amsterdam, who used the website in a recent
analysis of the footwear found in Tutankhamun's tomb. This is
particularly important for finds made of organic material. One pair of
leather sandals, delicately embellished with gold leaf and coloured
beads, is shown perfectly preserved in Burton's photographs, yet
Veldmeijer says his visit to the Cairo museum revealed an oozing black
mess. He describes the online archive as "one of the best things in
As Malek's project edges closer to completion, the Carter archive
offers researchers an unprecedented view of the collection as a whole.
"What's really interesting is to see the totality of what is in the
tomb," says John Taylor of the British Museum. "There tends to be a
lot of focus on the mummies and the jewellery, but these are just part
of a complex of objects. Only if you study the whole lot together can
you see why they are there."
"You can easily compare different types of object because you have
that overview," agrees Veldmeijer. "It's a good example of how you can
get so much more from archaeological research." He is now pushing for
archaeologists working in other areas to take a similar approach,
instead of leaving their dig notes on huge collections of record cards
that soon become too unwieldy for anyone to study. Veldmeijer notes a
dig at Qasr Ibrim in southern Egypt that is recorded on 20,000
separate cards. "So many excavations have not been properly
published," he says.
Sitting in front of those grey rolling stacks, Malek tells me that
after going through every single page of Carter's excavation notes he
has a new appreciation of the archaeologist's strength of character.
"He was not easy to work with," says Malek. "He was quite often short
tempered, perhaps not always tactful. But what I find really
impressive is that there was this massive task, and in spite of all
the difficulties, he finished it." Something that Malek himself hopes
to live up to within the next few months.
secrets go online