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City’s fascinating link to Tutankhamun story marks 75th anniversary + video
NOVEMBER 4, 1922. Howard Carter, English archaeologist and Egyptologist, had been leading an excavation in the Valley of the Kings, digging away the sand for three days.
Despite being told by his contemporaries that there was nothing more to find in the Valley, he had pleaded with his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, for just one more season of work.
And his perserverance was to pay off, as he found that day, when he made a discovery which would reveal Tutankhamun’s now world-famous tomb.
The entrance was found about 13ft below that of Ramses VI.
Carter was only able to hastily scrawl one sentence diagonally across the page of his otherwise perfectly neat journal: “First steps of tomb found.”
You can read those words today in Carter’s own handwriting, out of his original excavation diary, along with all the journals he filled afterwards, in Oxford, at The Griffith Institute.
- A picture of Tutankhamun at the Griffith Institute
The institute, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, is a world-renowned centre of Egyptology and one of the city’s best-kept secrets.
It houses all of Carter’s records, pictures and diaries, as well as many other historical treasures.
Though not open to the public like a museum, anybody can request a visit and view its rare collections of Egyptology texts, many of which were some of the first attempts to decypher cryptic hieroglyphics left behind by the pharoahs and their subjects.
The oldest such record is that of Pietro Bracci, an 18th-century Italian sculptor, who tried his hand at translating the symbols.
His attempts are mostly non-sensical, but his intricate drawings and swooping hand strokes can now be seen for free online thanks to the institute at griffith.ox.ac.uk
The current library and archive, housed in the Sackler Library, in St John Street, back-to-back with the Ashmolean Museum, also contains a myriad of photographs, drawings and even watercolour paintings by French architect Hector Horeau made in 1838.
- One of Hector Horeau’s paintings
Horeau’s works capture the Egyptian landscapes and structures in vivid detail and would look perfect hung on a wall if they were not so fragile.
The room itself is kept at a steady and regulated temperature of 18.5C and humidifiers also maintain moisture levels.
Grey stacks containing all its items loom over a relaxed set-up of long wooden tables and chairs.
The institute is staffed by nine people, including its two directors Prof Elizabeth Frood and Prof Richard Bruce Parkinson, and runs on a £25,000 annual shoestring budget.
They recently finished uploading all the notes and pictures associated with Carter’s discovery online, after beginning in 1993 – longer than it took Carter to catalogue all the items physically.
Archive assistant Elizabeth Fleming said that his “near perfect” reference system is still useful to the institute today, and has served as the template for everything being converted to digital.
One major undertaking of the institute’s is the Topographical Bibliography, otherwise known as the “Scotland Yard of Egyptology”.
It contains the details of every Egyptian monument ever found by archeaologists.
Ms Fleming said: “The project has not changed that much.
“Over the years we have continued to do things in a very traditional way.”
Notes for additions that need to be made to the bibliography are still done with hard copies and sorted into small green metal draws in the institute’s office – “the same way it has been done since the early 20th century,” Ms Fleming added.
Co-director Prof Parkinson said the 75th year of the institute is an opportunity for it to remind everyone it is still knocking about.
He said: “The aim is to show that the home of Egyptology is here, in Oxford, even if it is a quiet and unassuming office.”
- Dr Vincent Razanajao at work
Some of the works contained in the archive are virtually unknown, said archive keeper Dr Vincent Razanajao.
He said: “People do not even know we have a lot of what is kept here. And some of it only comes out for exhibitions. It will all be put online eventually, but it is a slow process.”
He eagerly shows visitors “the squeezes” – 3D prints taken of hieroglyphics from the original monuments in Eygpt – among them copies from the Theban Tombs, on the west bank of the River Nile.
Those that require something not yet on the net provide the constant stream of guests throughout the year and interest is showing no sign of waning, he said. Ms Fleming said: “It is a different age now, but we are fortunate Griffith and his wife were so generous.”
Benefactor who created the institute
PROF Francis “Frank” Griffith, who was born in 1862, was a prolific Egyptologist and expert at translating ancient languages in the field of Egyptology.
He was an undergraduate at The Queen’s College in High Street, teaching himself to read hieroglyphics while there, and later returned to Oxford University to be its first proper Egypt scholar, living in Norham Gardens.
The Times described him as a “genius” after his death in 1934.
- Prof Frank Griffith
In 1913, after getting back from a three-year Oxford University excavation in Nubia, he published a series of texts in the Nubian language.
He was also involved in a dig at Tell el-Amarna in 1922 and 1923, his second wife, Nora, accompanying him on his travels, and illustrating many of his finds.
He instigated a project to catalogue inscriptions from every excavation site in Egypt, known as the Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs, and Paintings, which is still edited by the Griffith Institute to this day.
It is thanks to funds that he and his wife left to the university that the institute was founded and continues to be funded to this day.
Exhibition – Discovering ‘King Tut’
IN the summer of this year the Griffith Insitute is lending many of its documents and pictures from the Tutankhamun excavation to the Ashmolean Museum for a new joint exhibition.
It will detail the hunt for the tomb, the weeks it took to excavate it and gain entrance to the inner chamber and the subsequent 10 years it took to record every object that was found.
The discovery of “King Tut’s” tomb has been hailed as the first international media event, with only The Times of London getting exclusive rights to reporting on the excavation, much to the frustration of other British newspapers at the time.
Following this restriction, other papers began to publish reports of an ancient curse blighting those who had set foot in the tomb - which would become known as ‘the Curse of King Tutankhamun’.
The exhibition opens on July 24 and runs until November 2. Standard tickets cost £9.
Howard Carter's Journal, discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb
November 26, 1922: “Only the clean sealed doorway before us.
“We made a breach in the top left hand corner to see what was beyond. Darkness and the iron testing rod told us that there was empty space.
“Candles were procured, the all-important Tell-Tale for foul gases when opening an ancient subterranean excavation.
“I widened the breach and looked in.
“The hot air escaping caused the candle to flicker, but as soon as one's eyes became accustomed to the glimmer of light the interior of the chamber loomed, its strange and wonderful medley of extraordinary and beautiful objects heaped upon one another.
- Howard Carter
“Lord Carnarvon said to me: 'Can you see anything?’ “I replied to him: ‘Yes, it is wonderful’.”
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