The Tomb of the Bird told by Howard Carter and Percy White.
The Tomb of the Bird told by Howard Carter and Percy White.

The discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 and its subsequent excavation over the course of the following decade is intertwined with myth, with claims that a mummy’s curse plagued those who disturbed the pharaoh’s rest perhaps its most culturally indelible aspect. Little known, however, is that Howard Carter, who led the team of predominantly Egyptian excavators in this endeavour, himself contributed to such rumours. A short piece published in Pearson’s Magazine in 1923, attributed to Howard Carter along with his friend the novelist Percy White entitled ‘The Tomb of the Bird’, tells the story of Carter’s pet canary, which the authors claim to have been killed by a cobra in the autumn of 1922. Written from White’s perspective, most of the tale is relayed as if listening to Carter recall the events of how a cobra (a symbol of royalty in ancient Egypt) killed his bird at the very moment he peered into the breached tomb. This source is particularly noteworthy given the exasperation with which Carter and other members of the excavation team responded to suggestions of supernatural forces at work after the death of the dig’s financier, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, a mere matter of months after the tomb had been found. ‘The Tomb of the Bird’ is thus both a significant historical document in terms of our understanding of how the dig became so embroiled with supernatural rumour, and a rare instance of Carter participating in such discourse himself.

This source was one that Dr Eleanor Dobson (University of Birmingham) passed on to ‘Don’t Go Into The Cellar!’ theatre company when reflecting on the dig’s particular legacies around the time of the discovery’s centenary. ‘Don’t’ Go Into The Cellar!’ is known for bringing Victorian and Edwardian fiction to life, all with a kind of trademark Gothic atmosphere evocative of early Hammer Horror films, themselves informed by the kinds of Victorian supernatural and adventure fiction that, according to Dr Dobson’s research, underlies so much of the storytelling indulged in by Carter and his contemporaries. The resulting performance is the first professional theatrical production to take stock of the rumours of a curse plaguing the dig, which have themselves come to be so integral to popular cultural imaginings of these excavations. ‘The Tomb of the Bird’ and other sources are brought together in his performance, which is interweaved with the real occult speculations of historical figures including Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, along with other characters who voice the various stories that subsequently emerged.

Centenaries are often understood to be opportunities for celebratory rather than critical events, and it was important that, in voicing Carter, Jonathan did not present a rose-tinted account of archaeological heroism, nor gloss over aspects of Carter’s writings that strike us as objectionable, foremost among them his depiction of his team of Egyptian excavators as prone to irrational belief in the supernatural in ‘The Tomb of the Bird’, along with his avoidance of documenting the damage to Tutankhamun’s body in both his published account of the examination of the pharaoh’s remains and in his private records.

Dr Eleanor Dobson - Associate Professor in Nineteenth-Century Literature.

Of the stories that the performance tells, the most historically accurate horror is the damage done to Tutankhamun’s remains by Carter’s team, an element of the excavation that Carter downplayed in his writings, and as such is an aspect of the history of the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb that is all too often overlooked. In this performance, the prop skull atop the table next to Jonathan Goodwin (Writer and Artistic Director) is a constant visual reminder of archaeological violence in general, but particularly that suffered by Tutankhamun himself, whose body, found by the excavators to be held fast in his coffin by solidified unguents, was violently chiselled away, leaving it in several pieces. Carter’s accounts, including ‘The Tomb of the Bird’, reveal his own impulse to mythologise aspects of the dig, along with conspicuous omissions in his records regarding aspects of the excavation to which – for whatever reason – he did not wish to draw attention. In bringing both of these elements to the forefront of the performance, its audience is invited to cast a critical eye on both the fabrications and mutilations of early twentieth-century Egyptology.

An actor portraying Howard Carter gesturing with his hands