I'm preparing for “Capturing Light” at the Petrie Museum, so I’ve been looking into light in the history of archaeology. My first port of call was digitised newspaper archives, where I discovered an unexpected link!
Last year, I wrote about a 1903 ad announcing the electric illumination of ancient Egyptian tombs in the Valley of the Kings. It turns out that Howard Carter of King Tut fame was the man responsible for this programme of electrification. As a young Inspector in the Egyptian Antiquities Service, Carter had lights installed to make the tombs at Luxor (and even as far south as Abu Simbel, near Egypt’s border with Sudan) more accessible for the tourists who flocked to Egypt for the winter season at the turn of the 20th century. H. V. F. Winstone’s book on Carter notes that 3,000 feet of cable were needed for the task. An intriguing image published in The Sphere and reprinted in several US newspapers featured a group of tourists staring at the spotlit body of Pharaoh Amenophis (Amenhotep) II, showcasing this new public access.
A July 1901 article in the Minneapolis Journal makes an interesting connection highlighting Carter’s role in applying new technology to bring ancient spaces and bodies out of the dark. The article’s subheading really packs the punch: “Mummies to be X-Rayed to Discover What They Have On Their Persons”. In the section on the work of the Egyptian Antiquities Inspectorate, Carter and his electrification programme pop up, as does his plan to submit mummies for x-ray.
X-ray technology was very new at this point in time – x-rays were first systematically studied in 1895, and one of the first applications of x-rays in a medical context occurred in early 1896. Archaeologists were quick to adopt this innovation to probe more intimately into ancient life than ever before. Two years later Flinders Petrie published an x-ray photograph of human leg bones in his volume on excavations at Dashesheh, Egypt. In Cairo in 1904 Carter and the anatomist Grafton Elliott Smith used the only x-ray machine in the city to submit Pharaoh Tuthmosis IV to internal examination.
And here we are in 2015 – the British Museum’s exhibition Ancient Lives, New Discoveries (still running until 19 April and well worth a look) is all about illuminating ancient Egyptian interiors. It turns out one of Britain’s most famous archaeologists had his own role to play in this history.
David, R. (Ed.). 2008. Egyptian Mummies and Modern Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fletcher, J. 2004. The Search for Nefertiti: the true story of a remarkable discovery. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
James, T. G. H. 1992. Howard Carter: The Path to Tutankhamun. London: Kegan Paul International.
Reeves, N. and Taylor, J. 1992. Howard Carter Before Tutankhamun. London: Trustees of the British Museum.
Winstone, H. V. F. 2006. Howard Carter and the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Manchester: Barzan Publishing.