February 16: Our Favorite Mania

2016/02/16 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1923 Howard Carter unsealed the burial chamber of Tutankhamun.

The unearthing of the tomb had unfolded over many months.  The site, covered by late-ancient housing (explaining, in part, the tomb’s protection through the ages), revealed a hint of something in November of 1922.  Working with great care, the British archaeologist Carter (1874–1939) slowly excavated a stairway and then an empty room, eventually discovering its secret: a door that led to an extensive burial chamber stuffed with treasure, which he opened for the first time in February. The team excavated the hoard with incredible diligence and care, taking over seven years to record the site as they gently dug in, piece by piece.

The haul was arguably the greatest find in ancient archaeology, both in terms of the riches pulled out of the ground, but also the spread of its influence.  Although the monetery value of the treasures is staggering–consider that just one important piece, the solid gold coffin in which the king was buried, was made of 243 pounds (POUNDS) of gold–it is the cultural influence that is the true value here.  Publications spread the fame of the find and rekindled the west’s latent interest in Egyptian culture.  An immediate impact is evident in 1920s  jewelryArt Deco architecture, 1930s cinema and wacky movie houses (see also here and here), flapper fashion and cosmetics advertising.  By mid-century this fascination in decorative awesomeness had dissipated, but then general interest in Egypt ramped up again with Tut’s traveling exhibition (which maintains a touring schedule that put the Grateful Dead to shame).  Starting in the 1960s, the collection toured from Kyoto and Moscow to London and Chicago, with blockbuster exhibits setting attendance records at museums around the world.  The material culture of this spurt of Egyptian influence was not quite as stunning, although there was at least one TV show that deserves a revival but also monuments like this sad building that makes us think we’ve had enough Egyptian revival for now–and that exhaustion may have something to do with the ubiquity of such exhibitions that raise questions of commercialism (memorably posed in this highly regarded editorial by Prof. S. Martin) that go largely unanswered.  Still, the Cartier jewels and Clara Bow eyes far outweigh one-note casinos, and we believe, if you’re going to have a mania, it may as well be Egyptomania.

image: Howard Carter with Tutankhamun

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