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Tutankhamun, Howard Carter, and Lisburn Museum.

This past week marked 100 years since the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb near Luxor, Egypt, an event which made headlines around the world. The discovery, by British archaeologist, Howard Carter captured the public imagination and was responsible for what has been described as a wave of ‘Egyptomania’. Inspiring fashion, art, and architecture, Carter’s discovery made a huge impact on world culture. This week’s Virtual Museum post marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time and discusses Lisburn’s place in that story.

In the heart of Lisburn, in the Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum, stands a very special item in the Flax to Fabric exhibit. Contained within a glass-covered case, hangs a sample of linen from Tutankhamun’s tomb. In the fifteen years since it was acquired by the museum, the piece has fascinated visitors from far and near. What is perhaps less well known is how this important artefact got from the Valley of the Kings to Lagan Valley.

While the name Tutankhamun is well known today as the most famous ruler of ancient Egypt, before 1922 it was a name that few recognised. Howard Carter’s discovery in November of that year changed all that and brought ‘the Boy Pharaoh’ to the attention of the world.

Howard Carter in 1924 (Public domain image).

Carter’s unearthing of Tutankhamun’s tomb was painstakingly slow, yet news of his discovery quickly spread across the world, igniting the imagination of young and old alike. It was the same locally, with people following daily updates in local newspapers of new treasures being brought to the surface. Many of our local newspapers paid attention to the uncovering of items from the tomb which were made of linen, perhaps mindful of the local linen heritage. Many items made from linen, including gloves and wraps which covered slabs of meat were displayed to the world in the pages of newspapers.   

Noting the prevalence of linen in Carter’s discoveries, the Belfast Telegraph was quick to make comparisons between the modern Irish linen industry with that of ancient Egypt, with special praise given to the Egyptian brand:

‘Today we pride ourselves on the superiority of our Irish linen, produced by the most scientific spinning frames and looms and bleached by the most experts of chemists, yet it is doubtful if we can yet approach those old Egyptian craftsmen of thirty centuries ago’. The article went on to say that while we have impressive mills such as the York Street Linen Mill and a tremendous heritage, it paled in comparison with the Egyptian product that people were now becoming familiar with. 

Tutankhamun display in the Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum (ILC&M Collection).

Given Northern Ireland’s prominent position in the global linen industry at the time, it is perhaps unsurprising that Howard Carter sought some expert advice on his linen discoveries. In 1923 he consulted with Lt. Col. Victor Unsworth, a buyer for the York Street Spinning Company on his finds. Carter provided Unsworth with the sample of linen which remained in the latter’s family until it ended up in the Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum. After many years of lying in a drawer at the Unsworth family home, the intact piece of linen was gifted to the museum by a family member. With a renewed interest in Carter’s discoveries now is the perfect time to come and see this stunning museum piece which connects the linen heritages of ancient Egypt and modern Lisburn.   

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