When I’m strolling through the British Museum’s Egyptian Sculpture Gallery taking in its ancient statues, stelae and scriptures, it’s hard not to think something’s missing. For among its rows of exotic artefacts, nothing on display relates to Egypt’s most famous king in modern times, Tutankhamun. And I think Britain deserves to have kept hold of at least some of the ancient world’s greatest pieces.
Firstly I think I need to set the record straight: I’m not some postmodern British colonialist, sipping on Pimm’s while the servants polish my Blunderbus. Tutankhamun’s discovery was made by an Englishman, funded by an Englishman and exclusively reported by the British press back in 1922. The BM historically nabbed a lion’s share of treasures from adventurers like Layard and Woolley – so why couldn’t Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon bring Tut’s treasures home?
The answer, as ever, is politics. Lord Carnarvon, ever the soothing presence between an increasingly capricious Carter and the nationalist Egyptian government, died suddenly aged 56 in 1923, the victim of an infected mosquito bite. Carter continued squabbling with the Egyptians, refusing their media outlets access to the tomb, and even storming off and closing it in early 1924.
The latter indiscretion was to prove fatal for Britain and the Carnarvon estate’s chances of housing Tutankhamun’s artefacts. By closing the tomb Carter voided his original concession, and only after the British government cracked down on the increasingly nationalist Egyptian government (British soldiers would remain in Egypt until 1956) could Carter return to his baby. Yet a new concession meant the Carnarvons had to relinquish their claim to the treasures: save for exhibitions in 1972 and 2009 London has never seen the relics, almost all of which are in Cairo.
The repatriation of ancient artefacts is a hot topic, and has largely centred on the ‘Famous Five’ artefacts Egypt’s antiquities chief Zahi Hawass wants back in their ancestoral home. The British Museum seems to have survived another media storm surrounding the Rosetta Stone after a Dr Hawass visit in December. But what about sending artefacts the other way? Surely as the country that bankrolled and discovered the boy-king’s tomb, Britain deserves some of his pieces on display?
Egypt claims that as the motherland it should keep its most spectacular ancient assets. I’m not about to carry on about Egypt’s modern genetic makeup compared to that of its ancient forebears:how much of a resemblance do us Brits bear to the guys who built Stonehenge almost 5,000 years ago?
The Carnarvon estate was all-but evaporated funding the Tutankhamun expedition. By the time the pharaoh was found nearly all of Carnarvon’s properties had gone and he was dead. As the present-day Lord Carnarvon confides, “There would have been no guarantee that Tutankhamun would have been discovered to this day had (Carter and Carnarvon) not found it.” 21st century cock-ups with ground-penetrating radar go some way to backing his claim.
Tutankhamun is a global phenomenon, a rock star of the ancient world, loved just as much in the US and Europe as Egypt, if not more so. Dr Hawass’ assertion that the artefacts are too frail to travel seems to fall flat when you consider his willingness to let many go if the price is right. Attendance figures for Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, which has toured North America for several years, has broken visitor figures in almost every city it has been.
The Australian Museum, Sydney, were forced to pull out of the same tour after Dr Hawass demanded 10 million Australian dollars (6.1 millon). As a guardian of these global treasures, Egypt has an obligation to loan its prized assets away for extended periods, whether it’s making a profit or not.
I’m not asking for everything at once, just a recognition of Carter and Carnarvon’s exploits (not the British occupation). Before you mention, I agree the British Museum should also loan out its ancient masterpieces: the Elgin Marbles, Rosetta Stone, Assyrian Lion Hunt et al. In an age when it takes less time to send a message to New Zealand than next-door, surely we can globalise the world’s heritage? Tut’s treasures are our sparkling touchpoint into one of the world’s greatest cultures, and the world, including the country which found them, deserves a piece of that.