Howard Carter, the man who discovered Tutankhamun’s resting place in the Valley of the Kings, spent a decade documenting the treasures found in the tomb.
A smile crosses the face of the Oxford Egyptologist Jaromir Malek as he reflects that he has outdone the great man, having spent 15 years cataloguing the thousands of artefacts that came out of the largely-intact pharaoh’s tomb following its discovery in 1922.
Dr Malek is the keeper of the archives at the Griffith Institute, arguably the best Egyptology library in existence. It might be a world away from the Valley of the Kings, but the stacks and boxes stored in an air-conditioned basement off St John Street contain many of the forgotten secrets of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the most famous find in archaeological history.
And thanks to Dr Malek, and his assistant Elizabeth Fleming, the world is finally to be offered the full story of the remarkable discovery, with records of the excavation being made available, bringing fresh details of the tomb to both experts and the general public.
Despite the enormity of Howard Carter’s discovery, which inspired almost a century of Hollywood films, television documentaries and books, the majority of Carter’s findings have never been published, leaving many questions surrounding the tomb unanswered.
To ensure that the public finally has access to the full extent of Carter’s achievement, Dr Malek has been dedicating himself to putting new information about the finds online for the first time.
Details of thousands of artefacts have already been put on the institute’s website by Dr Malek and his small Oxford team, along with the meticulous notes made by Carter at the time of the excavation.
About 5,400 objects were found in the tomb, including weapons, chariots, clothes, furniture and musical instruments.
Carter began documenting them almost from the moment he peeped through a small hole to see “the wonderful medley of extraordinary and beautiful objects heaped upon one another” in the interior of the chamber.
But it would take him ten years to catalogue everything, with the effort leaving him physically and mentally exhausted. Carter died in 1939, before he could fully publish his findings.
While Tutankhamun’s gold burial mask is instantly recognisable almost anywhere in the world, many of the objects found were still not known, even to experts, until Dr Malek embarked on his own Tutankhamun mission.
The tomb of Tutankhamun, who came to the throne as a young boy and ruled for just nine years before he died in his late teens, is the only royal tomb that we have that was not gutted by tomb robbers.
As well as telling us exactly what an Egyptian pharaoh took with him to the afterlife, it also reveals much about Ancient Egypt’s technology.
Yet one of the real curses of Tutankhamun, from Dr Malek’s point of view, is the failure of Egyptologists to publish the discovery in its entirety.
Dr Malek said: “It is astonishing, but no longer acceptable, that some 80 years and thousands of articles, hundreds of books, and dozens of exhibitions after the discovery of the tomb, this most famous event in the history of Egyptian archaeology has not yet been fully published.
“Our original idea was to create a database of the objects. Carter recorded his finds on thousands of index cards. But it has been expanded and we have put documents and photographs online.”
While the artefacts are held in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, Carter’s notes were donated to the Griffith Institute, based in the new Sackler Library, next to the Ashmolean.
The institute was created thanks to a bequest from Oxford’s first professor of Egyptology, Frank Griffith, the unassuming academic who died in 1934 and is largely responsible for the pre-eminent position Oxford still enjoys as a centre for the study of Ancient Egypt.
Transcribing Carter’s diaries has been a challenge. Although written in tiny, neat handwriting, the archaeologist was working under the most intense pressure, and his notes can sometimes be difficult to decipher.
Carter’s plans in black ink, drawings and paintings are also held by the institute, along with the photographs that were taken throughout the excavation. These have now also been put online.
Henry Burton, who accompanied Carter on his missions, took more than 1,000 images. As well as offering a record of the team’s progress through the tomb, despite the difficult lighting conditions, the photographs, one of which can be seen below, are also real works of art, capturing the stillness of the newly-opened tomb.
Dr Malek’s project, which began in 1993, has taken so long because it has had to be done between other work and in his lunch, and sometimes in the evenings.
“It has been a question of finding a couple of hours here and there. It is not my main job,” said Dr Malek, who arrived to work at the Griffith Institute in 1970 from the Institute of Egyptology in Prague.
“This is my main work,” he said handing me a hefty volume of The Topographical Bibliography of Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic Texts, Reliefs and Paintings. He is responsible for editing this multi-volume, multi-edition work — an essential tool for Egyptologists working on monuments.
“It has been going on for nearly 100 years and we are now working on volume eight.”
Its computerisation is proving another major challenge facing its editor. But while there was no funding for the Tutankhamun project, he always viewed it as a task too important to put off. He hopes to complete the work before the end of the year and is already looking forward to a small celebration for all those who have helped him.
He said: “The documentation needed to be presented online in its original form so that scholars, interested members of the public and school students, can consult it. In a way, it puts a moral pressure on Egyptologists. By making this material available, there can be no excuse for not using it.
“But we hope that this will help bring the knowledge and love of Ancient Egypt to everybody. It really belongs to the world.”