Water boys and wishful thinking

The BBC documentary ‘Tutankhamun in Colour’ is the most recent television outing for the idea that the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered when a little boy delivering a jar of water accidentally uncovered the first step. Like most accounts of the discovery, the BBC programme also wants to credit archaeologist Howard Carter as a systematic and scientific scholar: we see his gridded map of the Valley of the Kings, and we hear about his plans to clear every square centimeter of it. Despite all that intellectual rigour, and the physical effort of the dozens of Egyptian men and children who cleared the sand and rubble away, this unnamed water boy just happened to stumble across the right spot.

You’d think that Howard Carter might have mentioned this at the time, in his diary, his journal, his correspondence, or the dozens of interviews he gave to the press. Earlier in his career, he’d given credit to his horse for discovering the buried entrance to underground chambers in front of the Deir el-Bahri temple, where he found the statue of an 11th dynasty king named Mentuhotep. [1] Carter also liked telling cute stories to the press. This is a man who posed with his pet canary to illustrate another discovery-related tale that did the rounds, about a previous golden bird whose arrival had supposedly foretold the find – only to meet its end in a cobra’s mouth.

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The reverse side of a press photograph from November 1923, with a caption directing newspaper editors to Carter’s canary story. Courtesy of Rupert Wace Ancient Art.

Let’s jump from the 1920s to the 1970s, when Tutankhamun was reborn. The 1972 ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’ exhibition at the British Museum broke attendance records, made headline news, and earned more than £600,000 in profits, which went to the Unesco campaign to relocate the temples of Philae. Four years later, an even bigger version of ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun’ went on tour in the United States. Between 1976 and 1979, it stopped in seven cities, and attracted more than 7 million visitors. What’s more, Tutankhamun reached most of the country’s 218 million-strong population through TV, newspaper, and magazine coverage, while sales of Tut-related merchandise skyrocketed. Unlike the British Museum show, the American tour aimed at generating income for the host museums and for the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. King Tut became big business.

One of the masterminds of the American tour was Thomas Hoving, colourful and controversial director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1978, Hoving published a best-selling book called Tutankhamun: The Untold Story. It raised eyebrows for revealing what had been an open secret in Egyptology, namely that Carter and Carnarvon had entered the tomb’s burial chamber in secret, after they first entered the antechamber in late November 1922. Carnarvon had described the nighttime breach in writing, in an account Hoving saw on file in the Metropolitan Museum; Carter’s biographer, British Museum curator T.G.H. James, found further evidence to back it up. Photographs of the antechamber show how easy it was to conceal the floor-level access hole by propping up a basket lid. [2]

For his book, Hoving also had access to an unpublished memoir by Lee Keedick, the New York-based agent who organized Carter’s successful lecture tour of North America in the summer of 1924. Keedick claimed Carter had told him that what he’d always said – in private and in print – about the discovery of the first step of the tomb, on the morning of November 4th, 1922, wasn’t true. Instead, says Keedick, the step wasn’t under the ancient workmen’s hut that Carter’s team of Egyptian workmen had cleared the previous day. It was a little outside the digging area, and it had been uncovered by a water boy playing at digging in the dirt. Here’s the passage Hoving quotes from Keedick:

‘Gloom had settled over the entire party. The incentive for achievement had almost completely vanished – except for the water boy whose stake was small but whose energy the sun could not penetrate or slacken. Like small, industrious boys emulating their elders he was carrying on, in his play, digging with sticks in the sand, when suddenly he hit a hard surface. He dug furiously and in a few moments had unearthed a stone step. His heart almost ceased to beat. Hastily he covered the step with sand so that the rival archaeologists might not see him, and then ran as fast as his legs would carry him to tell Howard Carter of what he had found.’ [3]

The hidden exploration of the tomb makes it clear that Howard Carter wasn’t a reliable narrator; various autobiographical sketches that he wrote also suggest a tendency to embroider the facts a bit. Charitably, we could say that the discovery of the tomb and the intense activity that followed was such a whirlwind in his life, and had to be told so many times, that we shouldn’t expect all of his accounts to match precisely. To date, I haven’t come across another source from the 1922-24 period that has Howard Carter (or anyone else) telling the water boy tale, but perhaps it’s out there somewhere, in a diary, letter, or newspaper story that I’ve missed. Otherwise, it seems that the water boy first entered the public sphere in Hoving’s book in 1978.

On the back of the American tour’s success in the 1970s, mass tourism to Egypt took off. Every tourist wanted to visit the tomb where it all happened, and while they were exploring other sites on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, they might stop in for cool drink in the shade of the rest house – a simple café – near the Ramesseum temple. The rest house belonged to one branch of a large family from Gurna (or Qurna), as the villages on this side of the river are known. [4] The Abd el-Rassuls were well-known not only among their fellow Gurnawis, but to Egyptologists, because back in the 1880s – yes, Egyptology has a long, if selective, memory – a group of Abd el-Rassul brothers had discovered a cache of royal burials hidden in the cliffs. They sold off several of the treasures before the French-run antiquities service got wind of it. The director of the antiquities service, Gaston Maspero, had two brothers arrested and interrogated (tortured, by today’s standards), until a third brother agreed to show the authorities to the tomb. [5] The point is, if you say ‘Abd el-Rassul’ to most Egyptologists, they’ll probably say ‘tomb robbers’. It’s a slander that stuck to the people of Gurna for centuries.

By the 1980s, a senior member of the family who owned the Ramesseum rest house, Hussein Abd el-Rassul, was regaling tourists about his time working for Howard Carter at the tomb of Tutankhamun. [6] Hundreds, even thousands, of men and children from Gurna worked for Howard Carter and other archaeologists over the years, and many Gurnawis today can trace their family histories to different digs and foreign excavators. At the tomb of Tutankhamun, Howard Carter recorded the names of just four men who worked with him, each of whom was a rais; often translated as overseer or foreman, the title marked them out as responsible, authoritative figures.

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Foremen (at back) and other workers at the tomb of Tutankhamun, published in The Sphere, 3 February 1923. I have an inkling that the man at top right may be Ahmed Gerigar, but it’s just a hunch based on glimpses of him (I think) in other photographs and film footage.

The most senior, and probably eldest, of them was Ahmed Gerigar. Under rais Ahmed there was Gad Hassan, whom Carter had known for 20 years, and two men named Hussein: Hussein Abu Awad and Hussein Ahmed Said. In the custom of Egyptian naming patterns, the second and third names of the men aren’t always family names, but the names of each man’s father and grandfather. [7]

Back to sheikh Hussein of the Abd el-Rassuls. At the Ramesseum rest house, the family keep a framed photographic image that comes from the Tutankhamun excavation. The photograph in the frame was taken by Harry Burton towards the end of 1926 or early in the new year. [8] It was published in the Illustrated London News on April 23rd, 1927. Not having examined the rest house image in person, I have no idea of its specific source or format (what it’s printed on, for instance). It’s obvious in photographs of sheikh Hussein holding this framed photo that it’s been enlarged to almost twice the size of the original negative (an 18 x 24 cm glass plate); it’s bigger than the 1920s newspaper print, too.

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Illustrated London News, 23 April 1927 – jewellery from the Treasure of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and ‘a living Egyptian boy’.

The Burton photograph shows an Egyptian boy dressed in a fresh white tunic and wound turban, gazing off to the viewer’s left. He’s wearing one of most stunning objects from the tomb, a chest-piece and matching chain of dazzling gold mounted with five scarabs of lapis lazuli and inlaid with carnelian, turquoise, feldspar, and glass. Some 50cm long, the piece was found in an ivory casket in the tomb’s innermost room, dubbed the Treasury, and like all the items from the tomb, it required careful cleaning and repair. You wonder how the boy in the picture felt under the weight of it, and the pressure.

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Sheikh Hussein Abd el-Rassul with a framed enlargement of the Harry Burton photograph from decades earlier. Source: Egyptian Streets blog entry, ‘Tutankhamun’s necklaces’, 23 March 2014.

Sheikh Hussein identified himself as the boy wearing Tutankhamun’s necklace in the photograph. Descendants of Hussein, who died in 1997, have since been photographed with a framed photograph of him holding the framed image of the boy wearing Tutankhamun’s necklace; a study of the work that photographs are doing here would fill more space and take me wandering off track just now. Suffice to say that it’s a fascinating example of the alternative archives that can be formed as images circulate out of their ‘official’ roles – but it’s also tricky to untangle, touching as it does on family networks and authority in Gurna over the past few decades. Other descendants of Gurna families who worked on excavations don’t give the Abd el-Rassul story much weight. Perhaps it’s one of their ancestors in the Burton photograph of the necklace-wearing boy, or in dozens of other photographs of the Egyptian workforce, who are never identified by name. Photos, as I often say, aren’t really about what the photograph shows but what a photograph does. Or doesn’t, as the case may be.

When we look at photographs of Hussein with the Burton image that may, or may not, be him, we are supposed to see their physical resemblance and sense a continuity from Gurna past to Gurna present. Hussein elaborated his story to different western journalists and tourists at different times. I’ve only ever read it through their words, not his, so it’s second hand at best, and sometimes third or fourth (I don’t read Arabic and can’t research any sources in that language – but language and translation clearly matter here). The most detailed account I’ve found in a European language is by Francine Marie David, a Swiss writer and photojournalist who was married for a time to one of Hussein’s grandsons. In a 2011 memoir, written in German, she recounts an early meeting with the keeper of the Abd el-Rassul family history, sheikh Hussein’s youngest son Nubi. At Nubi’s alabaster factory (a crucial livelihood in the area, linked to tourism), she asks about the photo of young Hussein wearing Tutankhamun’s necklace. Hussein had told her he was twelve years old at the time – in 1922, he meant, or she assumes – and that he’d had to stand very still while Carter watched and Burton worked. She wants more details. Uncle Nubi pauses for a long time before he speaks: ‘Carter gave him the necklace’, he says. Silence. So where is it, she asks. More silence. She eventually realizes that it’s in the Cairo Museum (and has been, since Carter delivered it there shortly after the photograph was taken). Something doesn’t add up, though David wants it to – especially after her partner tells her even more, revealing the supposed secret that the Abd el-Rassuls had shown Howard Carter where the tomb of Tutankhamun was.

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A Harry Burton photograph from late November/early December 1923, when the wall between the antechamber and the burial chamber of the tomb was taken down. Is that ‘little Hussein’ up top, as one account suggests…? Courtesy of Rupert Wace Ancient Art.

David acknowledges that various versions of the discovery have circulated, from the standard and consistent account that Carter and Carnarvon gave (backed up by diaries, letters, and telegrams), to the tale of Carter’s lucky canary, to the water boy story, which David says Carter told on his American tour in 1924. She doesn’t give a specific reference for this, but she does list the German edition of Hoving’s 1978 book among her source material (where Keedick has Carter telling him the tale in private, not on tour). Enraptured by the idea that her grandfather-by-marriage discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, David goes in search of further family stories – and she finds them, sometimes linked to famous Harry Burton photographs of work in the tomb. Sheikh Hussein’s father is said to be one or other of the two men named Hussein who worked with Carter, and the family identifies rais Hussein as one of the men in the Burton photograph I’ve shown above. ‘Little Hussein’ is in the image too, they say – son of the rais. To my eyes, this boy looks nothing like the boy in the necklace photograph, nor should he: for one thing, the photos were taken three years apart, and for another, there were almost certainly several boys from Gurna who spent their days shifting stones for archaeologists. It makes sense that sons, fathers, and other family relations worked together, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea that there was only one boy involved at any point in the Tutankhamun excavation. Why reduce the efforts of so many to a single emblematic child?

I’m also uncomfortable with the filtering of the Abd el-Rassuls’ voices through western interlocutors, no matter how well intentioned they may be. Other travellers or journalists who met sheikh Hussein picked up the ‘water boy’ story and conflated it with the turbaned boy wearing Tutankhamun’s necklace – or perhaps the Abd el-Rassul family themselves added this twist. A version of the double whammy, attributed to Sonny Stengle, appears ‘adapted’ by Jimmy Dun on a popular Egyptology website. Stengle, Dun tells us, was one of the last people to interview Hussein before his death. Getting to wear Tutankahmun’s necklace gets turned into a reward for the water boy who discovered the first step, and whose face we can now see, celebrity-style, in the Burton photograph.

I first heard the sheikh Hussein boy-in-the-photograph story from American Egyptologists who had worked at Luxor in the 1980s. They thought it was charming – a little suspect, sure, but charming. I find it more unsettling than charming myself, not so much on the basis of its truth (or otherwise), but because Egyptology has started accepting it as truth and publicizing it in print and broadcast media without reference to any written sources or research on the photographs involved. Let me admit that I also feel extremely awkward contesting the Abd el-Rassul tale: some of my research, and the work of scholars I admire (Stephen Quirke and Wendy Doyon, to name just two), has tried very hard to draw attention to archival sources that show exactly how Egyptian contributions to Egyptian archaeology have been overlooked. I would like to see Egyptology – the field in which I originally trained – undertake some serious self-examination of its own history, so this aspect of my research has been important to me.

Here’s one of the things that bothers me about the ‘water boy’ tale: why does Egyptology give ‘discovery’ credit to Egyptians only if they are children or so-called tomb robbers? Quadrupeds show up just as often in the short list of archaeological discoveries that aren’t attributed to white men. I can’t help but wonder, does a photogenic child seem like the ‘safe’ way to acknowledge – and then ignore – the desperate need for more diverse voices and decolonizing approaches within the field? Whatever we know about ancient Egypt has relied on the labour and local knowledge of Egyptians of all ages, any sex, and several ethnicities, almost none of whom the ‘greats’ of Egyptology bothered to identify by anything other than a passing name or patronizing comment. Is one photo, from admittedly the most famous find, meant to patch over this gigantic crack?

Photographs are what make the water boy and jewellery-wearer stories so convincing, you see. They seem to offer proof, although they also show how difficult it is to pin proof down. The ease of copying, shrinking, and enlarging photos helped make photography incredibly useful in all kinds of scholarly endeavours, including archaeology. Photographers like Harry Burton were valued by their colleagues because they could produce the kinds of photographs that archaeology thought it needed. The ‘record’ photograph was supposed to show the pertinent details of an artefact or site, nothing more or less. Ironically, the complicated history of the Tutankhamun archive means that a lot of facts about the photographs have not survived, even as the images themselves have circulated ever more widely (and now as Burton’s carefully crafted monotones have been manipulated into colour).

Unlike the objects from the tomb, which went to the Cairo Museum, the excavation archive and its photographs remained the personal property of Howard Carter. He kept the best set of negatives and gave the extra or less-good shots to Burton’s employer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Carter’s archive was loaned, then given, to Oxford University after his death. When I started research on the photographs in 2015, neither archive seemed to have a clear idea of who owned which negative, on what date different photos had been taken or published, or even the date of different prints (only the New York archive has many prints attributable to Burton, for instance). The photographs didn’t interest most Egyptologists as photographs – only as records of what the photo shows, especially if it shows an artefact, the mummy of Tutankhamun, or a white man who can easily be identified by name.

A failure to think about photographs as historical and material objects has meant that stories like the water boy/jewellery wearer/sheikh Hussein mash-up become more convincing than they might have been if placed under greater scrutiny. Again, this isn’t to denigrate the Abd el-Rassul account, but to ask us to take photographs seriously and to check sources with care. An oral history can be a fantastic primary source, a way to fill in archival blanks – those gaps of history into which so many stories of people living under colonialism and imperialism fell. But the second, third, and fourth-hand accounts through which sheikh Hussein’s story – or Carter’s water-boy anecdote – reaches us aren’t really the same thing, nor do we have any primary source about the jewellery-wearing boy except a photograph whose actual date (late 1926) contradicts what Hussein and his family repeatedly asserted, namely that he was 12 years old when the photo was taken in 1922, the year linked to the discovery. Memories often collapse events together, of course, and birth dates were not recorded with precision until much more recent times. Still, there’s a niggling disparity to account for in this and other aspects of the tale.

It seems to me that what’s more important here isn’t whether or not these stories, and their photographs, are verifiable and ‘true’ – but why we want to believe and circulate them now. A Google search in English suggests that the water boy story has gained considerable momentum since 2014 or 2015, featuring in fairly high-profile and reputable sources like Smithsonian magazine. It appears – as historical fact – in study materials for schoolchildren in England and America, where some California students made an award-winning video about the ‘water boy’. With the ‘Tutankhamun in Colour’ documentary on the BBC this week, the Howard Carter archive in Oxford has now put its own credentials behind the tale as well, with the water jar, not a digging stick, revealing the marvellous first step. The ‘water boy’ features in the current IMG Exhibitions touring show of Tutankhamun objects, illustrated by the Harry Burton photograph of the boy in Tutankhamun’s necklace and the attribution to sheikh Hussein. I wonder if the renewed prominence of the story, or stories, doesn’t go back to an earlier version of that show, staged by essentially the same commercial outfit between 2004 and 2011. The Egyptian Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, who is associated with all those tours, has settled on the water boy story as truth (he has past form with stumbling horse discoveries, too). So far, my searches haven’t found many references to the water boy earlier than 2005, when it was woven into a BBC docu-drama about archaeology in Egypt. I’m cut off from some of my books and notes (and a library) right now, so I may be missing something. Besides which, I’ve learned never to say never where Tutankhamun is concerned. It’s also worth remembering just how many English people claimed some special connection with the tomb, especially around the time of the 1972 British Museum show. I’ve lost track of how many people have been in touch to assure me that their father or uncle or grandfather (it’s always men) was present at the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

I almost regret, now, using one of Burton’s photos of the boy in the necklace for the Photographing Tutankhamun exhibition I curated in the UK in 2017. I chose one of the rejected negatives, where we clearly see the tension in the boy’s clenched jaw. Burton never printed that negative. It’s out of focus, so he wouldn’t have bothered. The exhibition used a digital print (a reversed scan from the glass plate), blown up to double size and shown with a short text that embraced the ambiguity of both the image and sheikh Hussein’s association with it.

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Panel from the Photographing Tutankhamun exhibition, held in Lincoln and Cambridge (UK), 2017-18.

An archive like the archive of the Tutankhamun excavation gives us one view, one story, and it’s the story of the British archaeologists, who had the privileges of colonialism and empire behind them. I’d like to think that we can read such archives and photographs both along and against the grain, in order to retrieve something of the experiences, viewpoints, or at the very least, presence of the Egyptians glimpsed within. That’s the optimist in me. The cynic, I’m afraid, sees what’s on TV or the internet, and despairs that thinking differently about Tutankhamun has become a hopeless task. Too many people have too much invested in the heroics of Howard Carter – and little boys look so sweet (and interchangeable) when they are frozen in time. Who needs sources, facts, or evidence when there’s such an easy fix, it seems, to the problem of where Egyptology has come from – and where it would rather not have to go.

Huge thanks to Mahmoud El-Hishash for sharing his family history, checking Egyptian nomenclature for me, and sending some Luxor sun to Newcastle.


  1. I talked a bit about this discovery in my book Unwrapping Ancient Egypt (Bloomsbury 2014), pp. 38-9. You should be able to view the page on Google Books if you don’t have access to a specialist library.
  2. T.G.H. James, Howard Carter:The Path to Tutankhamun (Tauris 2001, first published 1992), pp. 260-4.
  3. Thomas Hoving, Tutankhamun: The Untold Story (Simon & Schuster 1978), pp. 76-7. For his biography of Carter (see note 2 above), James also had access to the Keedick memoir but considered the exact circumstances of the step’s discovery ‘not a matter to be worried about’ (p. 255).
  4. For Old Gurna, which was demolished by the Egyptian government after decades of attempts to protect it, see the community histories at www.qurna.org and Kees van der Spek, The Modern Neighbours of Tutankhamun: History, Life, and Work in the Villages of the Theban West Bank (Bloomsbury 2011). I highly recommend Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity (University of California Press 2002), which has a chapter on the heritage politics of Gurna.
  5. I talk about this in Unwrapping Ancient Egypt, pp. 61-9. Link here, I hope.
  6. A French blog, posted in or before 2015, gives some additional images of the Ramesseum rest house and the sheikh. 
  7. In Gurnawi naming practice, Abu Awad designates a member of the Awad family.
  8. As part of my research on the archive, I worked out the sequence and likely dates of all the Harry Burton photographs, using his correspondence, Howard Carter’s diaries and journals, and the dates when some photographs were published. I’m an archival fiend that way. More on this in my book Photographing Tutankhamun.