The trumpeter held the silver instrument to his lips. This was no ordinary trumpet: It had been retrieved 17 years earlier in the tomb of King Tutankhamun, a 14th-century B.C. pharaoh whose lavish sarcophagus and funeral remains had stoked a worldwide fascination with all things Ancient Egypt.
It was supposed to be a magical moment: The bandsman, an expert trumpeter, had been entrusted with helping sound King Tut’s trumpets for the first time in 3,000 years.
Then, as he held the silver instrument to his lips, it fell to pieces.
It was a disaster—and just part of the long tale of King Tut’s trumpets, a set of instruments that survived millennia only to become a source of 20th-century fascination. The trumpets now sit silent in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. But in 1939, they were part of a bold experiment that brought history and radio together.
The instruments, one of silver and one of bronze and copper, had been discovered in King Tut’s tomb in 1922 by Howard Carter, the archaeologist who became a household name after he discovered the boy king’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Though the world was in the midst of a massive interest in archaeology and antiquities, it had never seen anything like the riches found in the perfectly preserved tomb: lavish artwork, the king’s gold- and jewel-encrusted sarcophagus and mummy, and two trumpets that were part of a much larger collection of funerary objects found in the tomb.
The discovery immediately became international news. It was the beginning of “Tutmania,” a cultural onslaught that overtook newspaper pages and overshadowed the concerns of Egypt, a newly independent nation that had only just shaken off British rule. The Western public was curious about all aspects of the tomb and its significance, especially as images of the immensely valuable cache made their way to Europe and the United States.
Disaster Unfolds During a Rehearsal
News that the find included two trumpets intrigued Rex Keating, a BBC radio announcer known as a pioneer in the areas of radio documentary. In 1939, he approached archaeologists and curators about the idea of using the trumpets on a radio broadcast that would highlight the King Tut research and let the world, in his words, “cross the gulf dividing us from ancient Egypt, and for a few seconds breathe life into her dead bones.”
The request caught officials off guard. But lured by the promise of radio and the possibility of hearing the instruments played by a professional, they agreed.
A British Army bandsman was chosen to play the trumpet and began practicing. Keating wanted him to try to play a melody, but as he improvised it caused “ear-splitting discord.” The trumpets hadn’t been designed to play multiple notes, but Keating was determined to let the world hear them. In an attempt to play the instrument, the man shoved a modern mouthpiece onto the instrument, causing the brittle silver to shatter.
It was a disaster. The bandsman was reassigned and, as Keating claims in his memoirs, Alfred Lucas, a member of the original archaeological expedition who was to be interviewed during the radio program, was so distraught he had to go to the hospital.
But the instrument was repaired. The performance went on as scheduled. This time, the musician was James Tappern, a British Army bandsman who played a haunting melody on both trumpets. Though he also used a modern mouthpiece to sound the trumpets, the earlier accident was not repeated.
The trumpets are still at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. They were originally used to announce the king’s arrival and were believed to banish bad spirits, writes art historian Mey Zaki. The lavish illustrations on the instruments’ sides show religious iconography; the gold and bronze trumpet shows the king receiving the key of life from Amun-Ra, the sun god.
The use of the trumpets is a matter of debate. Zaki thinks its purpose was to rouse the king for the millions of jubilee festivals the pharaohs expected to celebrate in the afterlife. Musicologist Percival Kerby speculated that they were military trumpets that would have been used to call King Tutankhamun’s troops to order and direct their movements during battle.
The trumpet has also been the subject of superstitious speculation. In 2011, Hala Hassan, one of the Tutankhamun collection’s curators in Egypt, suggested that whenever someone blows the trumpet, war breaks out.
“A week before the revolution, during a documenting and photographing process, one of the museum’s staff had blown into it and a week after revolution broke out,” writes Nevine El-Aref for Ahram, Egypt’s largest daily newspaper. “The same thing had happened before the 1967 war and prior to the 1991 gulf war, when a student was doing a comprehensive research on Tutankhamun’s collection.” And later in 1939, after the BBC radio broadcast, war broke out in Europe when Nazi Germany invaded Poland.
Superstitions Around King Tut's Trumpets
Conflict is linked to the trumpets in another way: In 2011, one of the trumpets disappeared during the Egyptian revolution. In January 2011, as student protests raged outside the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the trumpet was stolen along with other artifacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb. It was returned a few months later, undamaged.
The 1939 performance would be the last of its kind. But it wasn’t the end of the world’s obsession with ancient Egypt—a preoccupation that brought past and present together. When King Tutankhamun’s relics toured the world in the 1970s, millions of visitors fell under the boy king’s spell all over again. Since then, the artifacts from his tomb have remained in high demand, offering a unique glimpse into an intriguing world that has all but disappeared.
So why won’t the trumpets sound again? The answer lies in changing attitudes toward history and cultural artifacts. “The idea of actually playing a 3,000-year-old trumpet wouldn't be entertained today,” archaeologist Christine Finn told The Independent’s Jane Thynne, “but in the gung-ho archaeological heyday of the early 20th century, there were no such qualms.” As as much as people may long to hear the trumpets in person, it’s more important to preserve them for another three millennia.