Tutankhamun: Excavating the archive audio highlights

Take a tour around the exhibition with curators, Professor Richard Bruce Parkinson and Dr Daniela Rosenow. Learn about the people involved within the excavation process and listen as actors bring past events to life. 

You are welcome to use your device with or without headphones in the gallery.

To navigate to the audio track, scan the QR codes in the gallery or scroll to the relevant stop on the page. Stops are marked with a headphones icon (  ).

Transcripts of each stop are available.

Access the audio trail in Arabic here. 






Carter's team




After the excavation


The curse





Selling 'king Tut'



Audio transcripts

Stop 1, Introduction [Read by Professor Richard Bruce Parkinson]

In 1922, as Egypt was becoming an independent nation, a British team led by the excavator Howard Carter and funded by the wealthy Lord Carnarvon discovered an almost intact royal burial in the Valley of the Kings – the tomb of the young king Tutankhamun from around 1320 BCE. This audio guide will navigate you around the exhibition, with the two curators, Professor Richard Bruce Parkinson and Dr Daniela Rosenow. In this selection of documents from the archive of the Griffith Institute in Oxford, we will introduce you to some of the original responses to one of the most famous of all archaeological discoveries. At the end of each curatorial statement, simply select the next track to listen to these voices from the past.

Stop 2, Case 'Wonderful' [Read by Dr Daniela Rosenow]

As soon as Howard Carter discovered the entrance to the tomb on 4th November 1922, he informed Lord Carnarvon in England, who travelled across Europe to Egypt. After a journey of almost three weeks, he arrived in Luxor, and they prepared to look into the tomb for the first time. Two days after that glimpse, Carnarvon wrote to the pre-eminent English Egyptologist Alan Gardiner with a hurried and almost incoherent account of what they had seen. The scale of the discovery and its implications were only starting to dawn on them. The letter is also rather indiscrete – it refers to the fact they unofficially peeped into the sealed burial chamber, which Carter later denied...

Stop 2.2, Case 'Wonderful' [Read by Nick Varey]

"My dear Gardiner
I wrote to my wife yesterday & asked her to give you a message.
The find is extraordinary it is a cache & has been plundered to a certain extent but even the ancients could not completely destroy it after some slight plundering the inspectors shut it again. So far it is Tutankamon beds boxes & every conceivable thing there is a box with a few papyri in – the throne of the King the most marvellous inlaid chair you ever saw –2 life size figures of the King bitumenised  – all sorts of religious signs hardly known up to date. The King[‘s] clothing rotten but gorgeous. Everything is in a very ticklish state owing to constant handlings & openings in ancient times (I reckon on having to spend 2000£ on preserving & packing). The most wonderful ushabti in wood of the King, wood portrait head ditto endless staves etc. some with most wonderful work. 4 chariots The most miraculous alabaster vases ever seen 3 colossal beds of honour with extraordinary animals. There is a further room so packed one cannot see really what is there – Some of the boxes are marvellous chairs numerable a wonderful stool ebony & ivory.
Then there is a bricked up room which we have not yet opened. Probably containing the mummies … There is enough stuff to fill the whole Egyptian section upstairs of the B[ritish] M[useum].
I imagine it is the greatest find ever made. Tomorrow the official opening & before I leave we peep into the walled chamber.
I somehow fancy it is the whole of the Amarna outfit as on the throne the King & wife are represented with sun disk.
I hope to be back soon. Carter has weeks of work ahead of him. I have between 20 & 30 soldiers police & gaffirs to guard.
Yours C."

Stop 3, Case 'Wonderful' [Read by Professor Richard Bruce Parkinson]

That first look into the tomb is one of the most famous moments in archaeology. Carter was aware of the excitement and the ability to excite audiences, and he produced various accounts of the moment. One early version was written in his excavation journal after the day itself in 1922. This is already composed in quite a self-consciously vivid style. Later in 1923 he published the first volume of his book about the tomb, with the literary help of the novelist Percy White; in this, he re-wrote the narrative for added effect. He also wrote out the presence of the Egyptian team-members (the Reises or foremen). Here are two different versions of the same moment, the first form the journal and the second from the publication:

Stop 3.2, Case 'Wonderful' [Read by Jonathan Goodwin]

"Candles were procured - the all important Tell-Tale for foul gases when opening  an ancient subterranean excavation - I widened the breach and by means of the candle looked in, while Ld. C[arnarvon], Lady E[veleyn], and [Arthur] Callender with the Reises [the foremen] waited in anxious expectation.
It was sometime before one could see, 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 gradually loomed before one, with its strange and wonderful medley of extraordinary and beautiful objects heaped upon one another. There was naturally short suspense for those present who could not see, when Lord Carnarvon said to me 'Can you see anything[?]'. I replied to him [‘]Yes, it is wonderful[‘]. I then with precaution made the hole sufficiently large for both of us to see. With the light of an electric torch as well as an additional candle we looked in."

Stop 3.3, Case 'Wonderful' [Read by Jonathan Goodwin]

"The decisive moment had arrived. With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left hand corner. Darkness and blank space, as far as an iron testing rod could reach, showed that whatever lay beyond was empty, and not filled like the passage we had just cleared. Candle tests were applied as a possible precaution against possible foul gases, and then, widening the hole a little I  inserted the candle and peered in, Lord Carnarvon, Lady Evelyn and Callender standing anxiously beside me to hear the verdict. At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping form the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment—an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by—I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words ‘Yes, Wonderful things.’ Then widening the hole a little, so that we both could see, we inserted an electric torch."

Stop 4, Case 'Carter's Team' [Read by Dr Daniela Rosenow]

Arthur Mace was an assistant curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York who worked with Carter on the tomb between 1922 and 1924. He was one of Carter's closer confidants, and co-wrote the first volume of Carter’s book on the excavation.  
Early in the afternoon of 16 February 1923, Mace and Carter carefully opened up the wall that sealed the Burial chamber in front of twenty invited guests, who included Egyptian dignitaries, Antiquities Service officials, such as the head of the Service Pierre Lacau, and other members of the excavation team, such as Alfred Lucas. The tomb was ‘as though set for a stage scene’ and the official guests watched and waited tensely. A few weeks, later Mace wrote an account of the momentous afternoon from Aswan (where he was resting on holiday).

Stop 4.2, Case 'Carter's team' [Read by Robert Stringer]

"Cataract Hotel.
March 3rd, 1923.
It seems a long while since the day of the opening, but it might be as well to get my impressions on paper to keep as a record. …
When the hole was wide enough Carter had a good look in and found we could just get round the right side of the tabernacle and walk along. He reported the outer door of the tabernacle was open, but that there was a second smaller one inside with the door still sealed and that there was another chamber opening off to the right. We then passed in our big travelling electric light, and Carnarvon and Lacau went in to see. Then Lady Evelyn - the only woman present, with Sir William Garstin, and then the others two by two. It was curious to watch them come out. With hardly an exception each person threw up his hands and gasped. Lucas and I went in together when it came to our turn. There was just room to squeeze round the corner of the tabernacle and walk along the side of it … It was a quarter past two when we went down into the tomb, and it was after five when we came out, and I think we were all fairly dazed, too dazed even to realize what we had found. Now it is all buried deep underground again waiting for next season's work.
Carter came back to dinner with us that night, and we were all more or less like crazy people. The excitement had been too much for us, and I'm sure anyone coming in would have said we all had been taking too much to drink.
An unforgettable experience and impossible to get onto paper."

Stop 5, Case 'Photography' [Read by Professor Richard Bruce Parkinson]

Minnie Burton was the wife of the team’s photographer Harry Burton, and she accompanied him to Egypt. Her personal diary gives a sense of day-to-day life on the west back at Luxor during the excavation seasons. Minnie records the large number of important visitors who came to view the world-famous tomb, including Elizabeth of Bavaria, the Queen of the Belgians, who was a noted patron of the arts, and her son Prince Leopold. The three entries selected here from 1922–24 also give a personal insight into Carter’s temperament and the escalating difficulties between him and the Egyptian Government over the control of the discovery. Despite these political events, she carefully records which visitors came for tea...

Stop 5.2, Case 'Photography' [Read by Victoria Jenner]

19 Dec. Tues. [1922]
"Painting my furniture in morning & afternoon. Mr Carter sent over for me his donkey to ride over & see “the” Tomb Tutankhamen. Wonderful. Mr Callendar there & later Dr & Mrs Breasted & the little girl. Went over the hill both ways. Mr Hauser & Hall came back from Assuan. Mrs W. & F. to the Davies’ for tea."

Stop 5.4, Case 'Photography' [Read by Victoria Jenner]

21 Feb. Wed. [1923]
"Met the Contessa at the Ramesseum & drove with her to the Valley. Took her to Seti II & then Mr Carter took her down the tomb. The Wiggins there, Mrs Merton etc. Had a row with Mr Carter! He was very rude. Drove back with the C[ontessa]. Very hot & dusty. Got back in time to change for lunch. The Queen of the Belgians, Prince Leopold, Countess Caraman-Chimay, Dr Capart & Colonel Watson lunched here. After-wards the Queen & Contessa C[ini] lay down for an hour & then they all went off to the Valley. Mr Hauser, Hall, Wilkinson, Bull & Frances lunched in the Sunporch & came in afterwards to be presented. Mr & Mrs Phelps-Stokes to tea. Very hot day. After tea with H[arry] up to a tomb where he took a flashlight photograph."

Stop 5.3, Case 'Photography' [Read by Victoria Jenner]

13. Feb. Wed. [1924]
"We were all to have gone over today at 3 to see the open sarcophagus. but Mr Carter sent word that the Government had telegraphed that the wives of the collaborators were not to be permitted entry. Mr Carter over at breakfast. He & Mr Mace & Mr Lythgoe to Luxor. Everybody furious at this last & culminating insult from the Government. Mr Carter closed the Tomb. Mrs Armstrong & Miss Stillman to tea. After tea the Lythgoes & Harknesses left for the boat. Harry & I up to the works. Hot day, & very windy in evening."

Stop 6, Case 'After the excavation' [Read by Dr Daniela Rosenow]

When Carter died in London in 1939, the excavation archive passed to his favourite niece, Phyllis Walker. Fears about its safety during the Second World War encouraged her to move much of it to Oxford, and she gave the whole archive and the associated copyright to the newly founded Griffith Institute, the centre for Egyptology at the University, which was at that time part of the University’s Ashmolean Museum. She was anxious to commemorate the achievements of her ‘uncle Howard’, and the arrangements were masterminded by the eminent Egyptologist Alan Gardiner.

Stop 6.2, Case 'After the excavation' [Read by Rachel Smith]

"March 15th, 1945

Dear Dr Gardiner.
I think you will have heard from Professor Newberry  that I am very anxious that the Turankhamen records compiled by my uncle, the late Howard Carter, should be presented to the Ashmolean Museum as a memorial to him and his work. I am deeply grateful to the Museum for so kindly giving the records sanctuary during these last few troublesome years, thereby relieving me of so much anxiety for their welfare and safety. My sole stipulation in the matter is that my uncle’s name should predominate entirely – mine of course is of no consequence at all.
Professor Newberry told me he felt sure you would not mind my writing to you to ask you [sic] advice and assistance in the matter, for which I should be so very grateful; I only trust  that it will not give you a great deal of extra work and worry in these days wen we are all so over-burdened already. I am very anxious that the presentation should take place as soon as conveniently possible, as i[t[ has been on my mind for some time now. 
If this presentation meets with the approval of the Museum, perhaps at your convenience you would very kindly let me know what if any formalities may arise to be delt with.
With renewed thanks for any assistance you can give me,
Yours sincerely,
Phyllis Walker"

Stop 6.3, Case 'After the excavation' [Read by Rachel Smith]

"April 10th, 1945

As long as I am able I shall continue to jealously guard as best I can my uncle’s life work – and though I am really not of a resentful nature as a rule, I have not forgotten the unfortunate remark of a high official of a well-known Museum (that shall be nameless) that it was “a pity Carter’s affairs had fallen into he hands of a little typist.”!"

Stop 7, Case 'The curse' [Read by Professor Richard Bruce Parkinson]

The Egyptologist Alan Gardiner had known Carnarvon for several years and was one of the first people to hear from him about the discovery of the tomb. He was also present in Cairo during the days leading up to Carnarvon’s death in 1923, visiting him and his desperate daughter, Lady Evelyn, in their hotel on a regular basis. Two of Gardiner’s letters to his wife, Heddie, give insight into the emotional roller coaster of anxiety, hope and shock that everyone felt during the Earl’s final days. He died early in the morning of 5th April.

Stop 7.2, Case 'The curse' [Read by Nick Varey]

Semiramis Hotel, Cairo
1 April 23

"My darling Heddie,
I have wanted to write, but many things have kept me from doing so. Above all, poor old Carnarvon’s illness. I saw him on Tuesday for five minutes, and on Wednesday came his relapse. I have just come back from seeing Evelyn, it has been a bad day and he had a terrible crisis just before six o’clock this evening. I was quite miserable about it all on my birthday. Why am I so fond of him? And that poor little girl nearly breaks my heart with her devotion. There she sits, day and night, tired out and waits, ready to run to him. And in just an agony of apprehension and anxiety. The crisis must come in a short time now. If he gets through that, he ought to recover altogether. Somehow I am optimistic. He wanted to see me last night, but of course they would not have let me. I do so want him to pull through.

Darling, this is a very unpleasing letter, but I am dreadfully depressed and worried about old Carnarvon. I just live under the shadow of his illness these days
Best love from your own

Stop 7.3, Case 'The curse' [Read by Nick Varey]

Semiramis Hotel, Cairo
5 April 23

Thanks so much for your cable. It has been a dreadful time, and I have been in the depths of despondency. However I am working out of it!
I can’t write to you tonight. Just these lines to tell you I love you
Your Alan"

Stop 8, Case 'Publicity' [Read by Dr Daniela Rosenow]

Carter wrote an account of ‘a true incident connected with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun’ concerning his pet canary, whose death had given rise to superstitions about the tomb. Although his story claims to be debunking such superstitions, and mocks the beliefs of the Egyptian members of his team, he narrates the incident in a sensationalist manner, presenting it as an almost supernatural coincidence. The story was co-authored by the novelist Percy White, and it shows how Carter’s presentation of his work was influenced by popular fiction and by Egypt’s association with the occult. The story about ‘the canary of death’ was published just nine months after Carnarvon had died, and is yet another version of the moment when Carter and Carnarvon first looked into the tomb.

Stop 8.2, Case 'Publicity' [Read by Jonathan Goodwin]

"The necessary lights were brought, and a small hole pierced in the sealed doorway, sufficiently large to admit a human body.
It was then that all doubt was dispelled, and we knew that a great archaeological triumph was our reward.
It was at this point, when the nerves of all of us were at extremest tension, that the messenger brought news of the tragedy, The man, who was almost breathless, told me that a cobra had entered the house, passed down the passage, made its way to the room [where we are now sitting], coiled up the leg of that table on which the bird-cage was resting, and killed my pet!
And as I realised what had happened, the significance which accompanies a moving and odd coincidence made itself felt even through the overwhelming excitement of the moment, for the ray of light from our candle revealed the contents of the ante-chamber to the tomb, and shone on the head of the King bearing on his forehead the Uraeus – the symbol of royalty and protection – the cobra!
The Reises [the foremen] were awed: before them was the image of the serpent that had killed the lucky bird!"

Stop 9, Case 'Selling 'king Tut'' [Read by Professor Richard Bruce Parkinson]

The official publications about the discovery presented it from a very Eurocentric perspective. The objects from the tomb remained in their homeland, and king Tutankhamun became a figure of national identity in the newly independent* country. The poet Ahmad Shawqi was a friend of the medical doctor Saleh Bey Hamdi, who took part in the examination of the king’s mummified body in 1925. Shawqi wrote several poems about Tutankhamun, celebrating the ancient objects’ ability to evoke the life of the young king’s court and linking the rediscovery and rebirth of the king with Egypt’s eternal identity as a nation, freeing itself from colonial oppression: ‘Tutankhamen has returned his authority to our sons’:

Stop 9.2, Case 'Selling 'king Tut'' [Read by Karim Elmestekawy]

Our forefathers, and their greatest [Tutankhamen], are an inheritance that
we should be careful not to let pass into the hands of others.
We refuse to allow our patrimony to be mistreated, or for thieves to steal
it away.

Pharaoh, the time of self-rule is in effect, and the dynasty of arrogant lords has passed.
Now the foreign tyrants in every land must relinquish their rule over their subjects.
In every corner graven images, in every nook a book.
You see statues, and imagine them scattered about the edges of the gallery.
Images that show you movement, though their origin is stillness.
The clarity of their silence passes over the senses, like clear speech.
Their paint accompanied time, from ancient age to ancient age. The paint remains fresh, despite the lengthy trials [of time], and alive, despite the long duration of death.
The paint tricks the eyes and still challenges those who touch it. …
As if the Dynasty of the Pharaohs were all around, to your left and your right.