97 years ago today, on November 4th of 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter and his team finally unearthed a long sought-after Egyptian treasure: one solitary step, leading down to the tomb of King Tutankhamun.
Carter’s team had been searching the Valley of the Kings for nearly 15 years, much to the dismay of their primary financier — George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. He’d begrudgingly awarded the team just one last dig season to locate the tomb of the then-obscure boy king of the 18th dynasty, and Carter finally delivered. Following a hasty excavation of the staircase, the tomb was opened on November 26th.
Worldwide fascination with the discovery almost immediately took hold. And while “Egyptomania” was nothing new, having persisted throughout America and Europe for hundreds of years (particularly inspiring the death-obsessed 19th-century Victorians) — King Tut was the first pharaoh to benefit from the rise of modern mass-media. Jazz Age Chicagoans were inspired anew by the widespread coverage of the tomb’s many extravagant possessions, and Egyptian motifs began to appear across America in textiles, art, fashion, movies, literature, furnishings, and architecture.
Chicago has a number of remnants from its post-Tut obsession with “Nile Style.” The city was deep into an Art Deco building boom at the time, and many Egyptian symbols and golden details worked their way into our distinctive architecture. The Oriental Museum at the University of Chicago, founded in 1919, opened the “Chicago House” in Luxor, Egypt in 1924 to begin surveying and documenting ancient markings in the Valley of the Kings. Chicago’s cemeteries, meanwhile, remained popular spots to build Egyptian-style obelisks & tombs.
While we may never know just what it is about Ancient Egypt that remains perpetually fascinating to all of us in the modern day, at least we know the fascination is nothing new. So break out the hieroglyphics, ogle the colorized photos of Carter’s discovery, and head on down to the Field Museum to marvel at some mummies. Tis the season!