Comparative Book Review: The Discovery of Tutankhamun’s Tomb and Tutankhamun’s Tomb: the Thrill of Discovery

Review by Kate Phizackerley.  Published In Brief on Egyptological.  April 3rd 2012.

1)      The Discovery of Tutankhamun’s Tomb, text by Howard Carter, photographs by Harry Burton, edited by Polly Crone, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1976

ISBN: 0-448-14546-5 (hardback – reviewed here) and 0-448-14546-6 (paperback)

2)      Tutankhamun’s Tomb: the Thrill of Discovery, text by Susan J Allen, photographs by Harry Burton, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2006

ISBN: 1-58839-189-2 (hardback, The Metropolitan Museum of Art – reviewed here), and 0-300-12026-5 (hardback, Yale University Press)

Howard Carter in Tutankhamun's Tomb by Harry Burton

Superficially these are very similar books: both were compiled and published under the editorial direction of the usually reliable Metropolitan Museum of Art; both are associated with an exhibition, the first of the 1970s Tutankhamun exhibition and the second with an exhibition of Burton’s photographs; and both rely upon Burton’s wonderful photographs as their chief selling point.  There the similarities end.  They are likely to appeal to different audiences, and indeed, for all the overlap, there is merit in owning both volumes.

Let me explain.  Discovery (the 1976 book) was somewhat amazingly the first reproduction of the Burton photographs in print since they were published in newspapers during the 1920s.  Alongside the photographs are snatches of text by Howard Carter and excerpts from contemporaneous news paper articles and letters.  It also includes a forward by Charles Wilkinson which covers the Metropolitan’s relationship with Howard Carter, and an Introduction written by Arthur Mace in 1923 which is rather interesting.  There is also a brief section introducing the dramatis personae of the team responsible for clearing the tomb, including photographs of them.  Certainly the main reason for buying Discovery rather than Thrill¸is likely to be the textual components.  The book also includes unusual elements such as Photostats of a couple of telegrams. The biggest disappointment of the book is that the standard of reproduction of the photographs is generally rather poor, although oddly a very small number, seemingly at random, are reproduced to a good standard.

In contrast, the standard of photographs within Thrill (the 2006 book), is very high.  I also possess King Tutankhamun: the Treasures of the Tomb by Zahi Hawass with photographs by Sandro Vannini which has full cover photographs of many items.  Albeit the Burton photographs are in black and white, but in many ways I think I prefer them, when reproduced to this standard, to the more lavish colour photographs by Vannini in the Hawass book, beautiful though those are.  Black and white photography at its best, and Burton was an expert photographer, is often better at showing detail.  While Thrill has captions for the images, it has no other text worthy of note.  The text is therefore one reason why some people might prefer the older Discovery, notwithstanding the poorer reproduction of photographs.

But why, when full colour, coffee-table volumes like King Tutankhamun: the Treasures of the Tomb why would anybody want one of these volumes which only contain black and white photographs? Certainly Sandro Vannini is another great photographer and those wishing a book on “treasures” will infinitely prefer the Hawass/Vannini collaboration.  What Discovery and Thrill both offer the scholar is contemporaneous photographs of the objects, many within the tomb before they were disturbed, and before they were conserved.  So while the modern Vannini photographs shows museum pieces, the Burton photographs show them as they were found, and provide context within the tomb.  They show, for instance, the jumble of objects and how they were arranged by the ancient Egyptians, if that is indeed the correct verb for the apparent disarray.

For instance, when I wrote recently about the contents of King Horemheb’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings (Introduction to the Contents of Tomb KV57 (Horemheb), published in Edition 4 of the Egyptological Journal) I compared photographs of Anubis jackal figures found in the tombs of Horemheb and Tutankhamun.  The original Burton photograph, reveals that when found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, that jackal was wearing a linen tunic and had ribbons around its neck.  Had the jackal statue in Horemheb’s tomb once been similarly bedecked?  The caption in Thrill asks whether the statue had had a role in the funeral procession, perhaps even a prominent one?  Because within the tomb it sat fore-square upon a portable shrine mounted on carrying poles, as shown again in a Burton photograph, this is a very reasonable suggestion.  It is also not one which would occur to anybody seeing a photograph of the jackal, disvested  and devoid of context, as a museum piece.  This perfectly illustrates the value of the Burton photographs.

So, if the value of the photographs lies in their value for study, the book with the clearest photographs would be the one to buy?  Not necessarily.  I own Discovery and borrowed Thrill  from the library.  Had I seen it first, I might have bought the 2006 Thrill rather than the 1976 Discovery. Comparing each side by side though is interesting.  The unstated impression given by Thrill is that it shows all of the Burton photographs.  A comparison with Discovery dispels this impression.  Plate 62 of Thrill has a lovely photograph of three small statues of the king, clothed in cloaks of linen and lined up to have their photograph taken.  (Again, this detail of garb is missing from museum pictures of statues.)   Thrill doesn’t have this image.  Instead it has a photograph of two of them still inside their protective wooden shrines in which they were entombed, in turn a detail missing from the Discovery image.  While most of the images are common between the two volumes, there are also some differences like this.  (As an interesting aside, Discovery also reveals that the Met owns movie footage shot by Burton while working with Carter on the clearance of Tutankhamun’s tomb.  Hopefully one day this will become publically available too.)

In conclusion, both books have their merits.  Given the very considerable overlap between the photographs, few private individuals will wish to purchase both.  For studying the Burton photographs, Thrill is the choice because of the much better standard of reproduction. There may be some merit in buying the older Discovery  for its text, although increasingly Carter’s notes and writing are freely available online.  Amazon, however, currently list the older Discovery for a fraction of the price of Thrill and for those only making a casual purchase, the cheaper option may be preferable.

 Image Credit

  Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons