‘King Tut’ diary – first-hand account of ‘great excitement’ of opening tomb
A diary recording excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun sells for £8,125 at Sotheby’s
The diary was kept by Minnie Burton, wife of Harry Burton, the photographer who spent eight years recording the excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun
How will future historians manage without diaries? The hand-written journals kept by the great and the good, the bad and the ugly and even (or especially) those by so-called “ordinary” people have long provided a treasure trove of first-hand anecdote and detail which really brings the past to life in an unadorned manner.
Luckily original diaries from the 20th century still come to light, written by people at the margins of great events and offering fascinating insights from unexpected perspectives.
A wonderful example went under the hammer at Sotheby’s Literature auction in London last month billed as containing “detailed daily entries recording social engagements and memorable events, most notably relating to the excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun”.
The diary was kept between 1922 and 1926 by Minnie Burton, wife of Harry Burton, the photographer for the Egyptian Expedition of the Metropolitan Museum who spent eight years recording the excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
The tomb of the 14th century BC pharaoh known as the “Boy King” was discovered in 1922 in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor by English archaeologist Howard Carter and his sponsor George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon. They famously breached the sealed doorway of the tomb on February 16th, 1923 – an event that made world headlines – and which Ms Burton recorded as a day of “great excitement”.
Her diary provides a first-hand account of the most famous archaeological excavation of all time and captures the sense of astonishment. An entry for December 3rd, 1925 includes: “Mr Carter showed us the Tutankhamun jewels – masses & masses of them . . . rings, gold plaques in the shape of spread-winged vultures, inlaid bracelets & amulets. A lovely perfume box in gold & inlay on polished iron base, & 2 gorgeous daggers in sheathes, one with crystal stopper handle & polished iron blade, very sharp. Also the gold & inlaid mask, so like Akhnaton, in the gold coffin. Also the wonderful gold coffin lid. We saw a hand of the mummy with the ring on & gold finger stalls & the head of the king, very small & well preserved, lacking nose.”
The diary sold for £8,125 (about €11,600). The estimate had been £4,000-£6,000.
But the diary is ultimately just a pale reflection of Mr Carter’s own recollection of the moment he discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb. Having breached the doorway with a chisel, he held a candle to peer inside. Afterwards he wrote: “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, enquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things’.”