British archaeologist Howard Carter is often credited with finding Tutankhamun's tomb, but the names and identities of the Egyptians who did much of the work are largely unknown.
Now, in the exhibition "Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive" at the University of Oxford's Bodleian libraries, which runs through Feb. 5, 2023, photos of the Egyptians who uncovered King Tutankhamun's tomb are displayed in an attempt to recognize them.
The photos in the exhibition show the Egyptians doing much of the excavation, as well as an Egyptian doctor participating in the autopsy of Tutankhamun's mummy. Another photo shows a boy wearing some of Tut's jewelry, and in another image, a group of American and European archaeologists sit down to lunch near the excavation site while Egyptians serve them.
According to the curators of the exhibition, we don't know the names of most of the Egyptians who excavated the tomb. "We only know the names of the four foremen that Carter employed, as he names them and thanks them in his publication," Daniela Rosenow, a project officer at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford, told Live Science in an email. "They were Ahmed Gerigar, Gad Hassan, Hussein Abu Awad [and] Hussein Ahmed."
We also know of Mohamed Saleh Hamdi Bey, an Egyptian medical doctor who took part in the autopsy of Tutankhamun, and Hussein Abd el-Rassul, a water boy who, according to some stories, was the first, or among the first, to find the tomb. In most cases, the exhibition curators could not identify the Egyptians in the photos.
A number of Egyptologists told Live Science that Carter had a colonial mindset and tended not to treat the Egyptians as equals. "I think he was generally arrogant … not only against Egyptian[s] but also against other nationalities," Usama Gad, a tenured lecturer of papyrology and comparative literature at Ain Shams University in Cairo, told Live Science in an email. "He abused most of his teams' efforts and work."
Zahi Hawass, Egypt's former minister of antiquities, also noted that Carter treated Egyptians poorly. "One of Carter's biggest mistakes was how he treated Egyptians," Hawass told Live Science in an email. "He didn't allow any Egyptian officials to visit the tomb, but planned to open the burial chamber and sarcophagus with his team and their wives." Hawass noted that this incident increased tensions between Carter and Egypt's then-minister of antiquities, Morcos Hanna, with Carter being dismissed in 1924. After a change in Egypt's government in 1925, Carter was allowed to resume working at the site.
In 1922, Egypt declared independence from Britain, but Britain retained considerable influence. "For the Egyptians, struggling for true independence, it hurt that Tutankhamun's tomb was in the hands of foreigners," Peter Der Manuelian, an Egyptology professor at Harvard University, wrote in his book "Walking Among Pharaohs: George Reisner and the Dawn of Modern Egyptology" (Oxford University Press, 2022).
Today, Egyptians lead and conduct major archaeological excavations, Hawass said. "Now our work and our excavations are admired by foreign teams," Hawass said. "We are not against the foreign teams, but we can compete."
However, there are still instances of Egyptians being sidelined by foreigners. "I have repeatedly wrote that the legacy of the colonial era is heavy on the ground and what have been done in this century or more cannot be undone in a few years," Gad said. "Sidelining Egyptians is continuing unabated."
Did a water boy discover the tomb of Tutankhamun?
According to one story, the aforementioned water boy, Hussein, discovered the tomb. Hawass has talked to members of the Rassul family and told Live Science he believes the story.
"Many people do not believe the story," he told Live Science in an email. "But I have investigated it, met his family, and I know it is true."
Hawass worked with the boy's cousin, Sheikh Ali Abdul Rassul, who told Hawass how the events occurred. Hussein was 12 years old, and "his job was to bring water to the workmen," Hawass said. "People would help him put the water in a jar and then put the jars on a donkey to bring to the workers. When he arrived at the site, he and the workmen would dig holes to hold the jars. One day while digging one of these jars, they found the tomb!"
As an award, Carter had a picture taken of Hussein wearing a necklace from the tomb. Hussein would sometimes tell the story to visitors outside the Ramesseum, a mortuary temple built for pharaoh Ramesses II, Hawass said.
However, not all scholars are convinced. Christina Riggs, a professor of the history of visual culture at Durham University in the U.K., expressed caution. In a 2020 blog post, she noted that the story appears to have been first published in 1978, when Thomas Hoving, a director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the time, wrote about it in his book "Tutankhamun: The Untold Story" (Simon & Schuster, 1978). Hoving got the story from an unpublished memoir written by Lee Keedick, an agent in New York who organized Howard Carter's lecture tour of North America in 1924.
Riggs' research found that the photograph of the boy wearing Tutankahmun's necklace was taken in late 1926, which "contradicts what Hussein and his family repeatedly asserted, namely that he was 12 years old when the photo was taken in 1922."
Today, Egyptian-led archaeological teams conduct work over the entire country, with Hawass himself leading a team that excavates in the Valley of the Kings.
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Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.