What is the Tutankhamun mask made of

Tutankhamun's tomb: the find in 1922

1922: The archaeologist Howard Carter has been searching for the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings for five years. Without success. In autumn of the year the Englishman is about to give up; he only wants to dig one more winter. Then he discovers a staircase in the rubble under a slope. And a door at the end of the stairs. Is the grave hidden behind it? Carter decides to seek help from specialists from around the world. Including one who will make his find immortal: the photographer Harry Burton

In the late December days of 1922, a man in a hat, white shirt and bow tie is sitting behind a huge plate camera, half hidden under a cloth that is supposed to prevent the light from coming in from behind. Many meters underground, in a 3245-year-old burial chamber, he is busy recording a picture of an era of which, until a few days ago, one had only vague or no ideas. It is the pictures of this photographer that from now on let the world participate in the fabulous discovery of the Tutankhamun treasure - the pictures of Harry Burton.

Shortly before, a telegram had arrived in New York from Cairo. After years of searching, the researcher Howard Carter discovered a grave that, according to current scientific opinion, cannot exist. Since the Briton is facing the most daunting documentation task an archaeologist has ever had to face, he has asked the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, known for its excellent Egyptian collection, for support. And the curator of the Egyptian department then telegraphed him to the services of his in-house photographer: “Pleased to help in every way. Please dispose of Burton and everyone else on our staff. "

On December 18, Burton took his first pictures in the antechamber of the pharaohs tomb. And so it will be part of a story for the next eleven years which, as the sister of the project sponsor Lord Carnarvon later notes, "how Aladdin's magic lamp begins and how a Greek saga of nemesis ends".

Tutankhamun's tomb: forgotten and overlooked by looters

The time of the great discoveries in the Valley of the Kings seems long gone. In the three millennia before, countless interested people dug here: grave robbers, priests, researchers. The valley is full of piled rubble mountains between uncovered graves. Every grain of sand, one might think, has already been sieved several times. Howard Carter, however, is undeterred. He wants to investigate a premonition that is nourished by small, seemingly insignificant finds by his colleague Theodore Monroe Davis.

Years ago he discovered a faience beaker with the name of Pharaoh Tutankhamun under a rock - not far from it, a few clay seals and a broken wooden box in a shaft grave, the golden fittings of which also bore the name of this king. Davis has therefore come to the conclusion that the shaft must be the king's tomb.

Carter sees it differently. In the autumn of 1917 he wanted to dig down to the rock and first set out a large triangular field - marked by the graves of Ramses II, Merenptah and Ramses VI, which were each about 60 meters apart as the crow flies. At the foot of the open tomb of Ramses VI. He very quickly came across, as he later wrote, "a row of workers' huts, which were built on a number of large flint bulbs, as they are always a sign in the valley of the nearness of a grave".

However, because tourists continue to visit the tomb of Ramses VI. should be made possible, Carter decides to first remove the remaining area of ​​the triangular field layer by layer.

Mysterious steps lead to the Pharaoh's burial chamber

The years go by, but the yield is extremely small. After much hesitation, the Briton decides to spend one last winter in the valley. This time he digs at the foot of the tomb of Ramses VI. next - at the point he left five years earlier. And he discovers a stone step in the rock under the foundation of the first workers' hut. Then further steps. As the twelfth step emerges, "the top of a locked, mortar-coated and sealed door becomes visible," says Carter.

It stands at the entrance to the richest royal tomb that archaeologists will ever discover in Egypt. He quickly opens the door, clears rubble from a 7.60 meter long corridor, comes across a second sealed door and finally stands in an antechamber. Grave robbers, who have also been here, apparently only stole a fraction of the treasures.

On December 18, 1922, the summoned Harry Burton took the first overview photographs in the antechamber. What he sees through his lens seems like a dream: an immeasurable abundance of gold and precious stones, a golden throne chair, golden stretchers, alabaster vases, bizarre animal heads and two large black statues with the golden sacred snake on their foreheads. And in between another sealed door.

Carter suspects there are other chambers behind it, but he decides to go slowly. He had already had the grave closed beforehand, for example to seek advice from experts, to discuss the best conservation options or to expand his technical equipment.

The position of each individual object must first be documented in the antechamber. Experts from all over the world flocked to the valley to evaluate and uncover the find. Never before in the history of science has there been such exemplary international cooperation.

Harry Burton and eleven other specialists make up the core of the excavation team. In an essay for the New York Times, he writes: "Few people recognize the importance of photography in the search for archaeological traces, but without it much of importance would be completely lost, and some details would never have been noticed." In Carter, who as difficult and if he is quick-tempered, he has a patient sponsor who writes about the work: "The most important thing was photography."

Harry Burton, a talented photographer and improviser, accompanies the excavations

Burton and his two Egyptian assistants are now constantly commuting between the royal tomb, his laboratory in the tomb of Seti II and a makeshift darkroom in the neighboring tomb No. 55. His work is time-consuming and often delays the progress of the excavations for hours or days. The man from New York handles a huge camera and negative plates made of glass coated with light-sensitive emulsions. Burton loves the large plates measuring 18 by 24 centimeters and sees no advantages in smaller glass plates.

But working with the large plates is difficult: even with minor deviations, the images will be overexposed or underexposed. The developer fluid, which has to be kept constantly cool, also causes problems - but the temperatures of the Egyptian summers often cause the gelatine to melt on the plates.

For each motif, he produces a series of test negatives in order to test the correct exposure. After that, according to Burton's terse understatement, “nothing more needs to be done until the image has been developed and declared to be satisfactory” - he is the only one in his branch who can depict objects precisely and without distortion, fine in drawing and detail with overwhelming uniformity of light. He is also a great improviser.

In earlier excavations, for example, he designed a mirror system that allows him to work without lightning - an immense advantage because it reduces the risk of fire and because the rooms are no longer smoke-filled with powder vapor from magnesium lightning. An Egyptian assistant uses a large mirror outside the grave entrance to reflect the sunlight over a distance of over 30 meters into the interior of the tomb, where a second, sometimes even a third assistant redirects the light into the room to be photographed with additional mirrors.

There a reflector wrapped in silver paper throws the light onto the target object. And this reflector is constantly moving. This makes the illumination very even - the photos of the objects are unusually sharp and almost free of shadows. Burton calls this technique “painting with light”. In the easily accessible tomb of Tutankhamun, however, he can work with spotlights, which "makes him much easier".

He came to Egyptology by chance. Born in 1879 in Lincolnshire, England, the fifth of eleven children, he ended up in Florence through a friend, where he mainly took pictures of paintings for a long time. There he met the rich American art collector Theodore Monroe Davis, who hired the Englishman to document his excavations in the Valley of the Kings. Davis digs for twelve winters and during this time he discovers such revealing graves as those of the fourth Thutmose, the Siptah, the Haremhab and Queen Hatshepsut. In 1914 he had to give up the excavation work because of his poor health. In the same year, Burton becomes the official photographer of the New York Metropolitan Museum.

The antechamber was cleared in mid-February 1923. A little later, the first 34 heavy packing boxes roll down to the Nile in a field train - probably the same kilometer and a half that they were brought up in a solemn procession 3245 years earlier in the opposite direction. Carter hasn't found the mummy yet. It is also difficult to imagine that even greater treasures could be discovered.

But when they open the previously sealed door between the guard figures in the antechamber, they come across a wall made of gold: In the room behind the door stands what is probably the most precious shrine to the dead that a scientist has ever seen. To the right of this is a passage that leads to the actual treasury - with chests filled with valuables. The jackal god Anubis is enthroned on a wooden pedestal and guards the gilded canopic shrine, the four patron goddesses of which exude so much mercy that, as Carter later noted, "looking at it almost felt like desecration". When they step out three hours later in the day, Carter appears "the valley itself changed and in a special light."

The heart of the burial chamber is recovered - the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun

But the next few months passed almost unused: Lord Carnarvon, the financier of the expedition, died in April 1923, and disputes with the government delayed the work. In January 1924, Burton snaps a picture of Carter crouching expectantly at the open door of the second shrine. Because after the archaeologists had opened the double doors of the first shrine, they discovered a second inside. In this there is a third and a fourth shrine, even more splendid than the previous ones.

And: In the fourth shrine, Carter and his men come across the sarcophagus, which is carved from a single block of yellow quartzite and covered with a twelve-hundredweight granite slab. When they remove the plate, they discover three nested mummy coffins under linen cloths, each surface of which consists of a golden image of the ruler, who carries a crook and frond in crossed hands - the royal insignia.

The third and last coffin is made of solid gold: two and a half to three and a half millimeters thick and 225 kilograms in weight. When they open the lid, the researchers experience the only disappointment of their excavation: an excess of anointing oil has almost completely destroyed the mummy. The oxidized resin components of the oil have eaten the king's remains to the bone. Only the feet and the gold mask over the face are free of the black mass.

The young king's golden death mask becomes one of Burton's most famous motifs. He photographs them as if he were making a studio portrait of a living person. As a background, he takes a large piece of cardboard, which he places seamlessly around the object in a semi-cylindrical arc. All of the images of the mask obtained from Burton show the young king's face without the reflections that are otherwise inevitable on highly polished metal. Instead, the mask has an almost skin-like quality.

How did the effect come about? By chance, Burton had observed how the conservators in their mobile laboratory applied a thin layer of warm paraffin to Tutankhamun's mask to strengthen the lapis lazuli inlay and remove cloudiness in the metal. Burton recognized his unique opportunity, photographed the headdress in this state and conjured up an almost living face from a dead mask.

Tutankhamun: How his death brought him world fame

Who was Tutankhamun, that man with the lofty face? A pharaoh who ruled only briefly (probably from 1333–1323 BC). In his childhood he was, like his father, the "heretic king" Akhenaten, a worshiper of the sun god Aton, but after his ascension to the throne he returned to the old religion around the imperial god Amun. He also changed his name: Tutankhaton became Tutankhamun.

Carter notes, "As far as we know today, we can safely say that the only remarkable thing in his life was that he died and was buried." And the archeology novelist C.W. Ceram observes: "This truth forces us to draw one conclusion: If this pharaoh was buried with such pomp that surpasses all occidental ideas, with what grave goods could Ramses the Great and Seti I have been led into their graves?" Robbers stole everything there.

In 1932 the last boxes are brought from Luxor to Cairo. Of Carter's early collaborators, only the conservator Alfred Lucas and Harry Burton are there. The photographer exposed 14,000 negatives during his stay in Egypt, 2,800 in Tutankhamun's tomb alone. With the outbreak of the Second World War, many excavations came to a standstill and the time of the great expeditions was over for the time being. An era of photography is also coming to an end.

On June 27, 1940, a good year after the death of his mentor Howard Carter, Harry Burton, Carter's eye and memory, also dies. The first and so far only photographer who has ever achieved archaeological world fame.

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