It’s always fun when you figure out that those half-forgotten memories of long ago grade-school lessons weren’t entirely wasted. We remember (vaguely) learning about ancient Egypt, the pyramids and the hieroglyphs, our imaginations taken immediately with the idea of cloth-wrapped mummies, tombs and the stylized drawings of a proud people shown in profile. Recently, we’ve been researching a future trip to Egypt (just a pipe dream for now but…) so we didn’t have to think twice when we found out that the Tutankhamun – Treasures of Egypt exhibit was at the Pavilion in Lisbon, January – May, 2017. A recent trip to the city combined a visit to our lawyer with spending time with friends and sightseeing. And, once again, we found our curiosity piqued and interest captured by the story of King Tut, the boy king in a civilization from over 3,000 years ago.
The story really begins with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter. By the time of Carter’s arrival at the end of the 19th century, most of the ancient Egyptian tombs in the Valley of the Kings had been discovered, typically empty and looted of their treasures. Carter had started out his career in his teens, sketching artifacts for other archeologists and eventually becoming a well-respected archeologist himself. Following an interruption of his explorations by WWI, Carter began to focus his efforts on looking for the tomb of the little-known Pharaoh, Tutankhamun. Akin to an urban legend, knowledge of the tomb’s location had long been forgotten over the intervening centuries, buried by debris from the building of subsequent tombs or deposits by flooding from the Nile. Financial support for his expedition was received from George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, a very wealthy, amateur Egyptologist (and incidentally, the owner of Highclere Castle, the future home of one of our favorite TV shows, Downton Abbey). After years of intense and systematic, albeit fruitless searching, and just as Lord Carnarvon was threatening to pull his support, the steps to the burial site were discovered in November of 1922, near the entrance of the tomb of King Ramses VI.
The short film we watched before entering the exhibition built up the suspense for what followed but it’s not hard to imagine their excitement as Carter and Lord Carnarvon descended the steps for the first time and discovered a door with its original seal still intact. After entering, they found a secret chamber and Carter describes the next few moments:
“…as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.”
King Tutankhamun’s tomb was the most intact of all the tombs that had been excavated in the Valley of the Kings, with more than five-thousand priceless, well-preserved artifacts meant to accompany the king on his journey to the afterworld. Consisting of four rooms, one of which had murals painted on the walls portraying the king’s funeral and journey to the next world, the innermost chamber was behind a sealed door and guarded by two sentinels.
When the sealed chamber was opened in February of 1923, perhaps the most fascinating find of all was the stone sarcophagus containing three coffins, one inside the other and each more fabulous than the last. The third coffin was made of solid gold and inside was the mummy of King Tutankhamun.
Much of what is known about the Egyptian Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, who’s multi-syllabled name was quickly shortened to a more manageable nickname of “King Tut,” derives from the discovery of his tomb as he was a relatively minor figure in ancient Egypt. The son of King Akhenaten and his sister, Queen Tiye, he ascended the throne following the death of his father at the age of nine or ten and ruled from approximately 1332 – 1323 BCE. Upon becoming King, and following the custom of keeping the royal bloodlines all in the family, he married his half-sister, Ankhesenamun. The mummies of the couple’s two daughters, both stillborn, were found in his tomb, and with King Tut’s death, the family line came to an abrupt end.
There’s much speculation about what led to King Tut’s untimely death at the age of nineteen and modern forensics specialists have tried to solve part of mystery. A reconstruction of what he might have looked like shows he was slight of build, taller than we would have guessed at approximately 5 feet, 11 inches, and that his left foot was severely deformed (a congenital birth defect) with evidence of ongoing bone necrosis. He would have needed a cane to walk and several walking sticks were found scattered about the tomb. It’s possible that he suffered from other physical disabilities arising from his parents’ sibling relationship. (The death of his own daughters may have also been caused by unknown genetic defects due to the restricted gene pool.) More than one strain of the malaria parasite was found upon DNA examination and researchers concluded that King Tutankhamun probably contracted multiple malarial infections, including an especially virulent strain which would have weakened his immune system. Towards the end of his life, there’s conjecture that an infection resulting from a severe leg fracture may have been the ultimate cause of his demise.
Doubtless, the early death of King Tutankhamun would have taken the Egyptians by surprise and they would have scrambled to complete all the rituals necessary to observe the customary seventy days between death and burial. Considering his status, many researchers have observed that his tomb was smaller than expected, leading to the conclusion that the tomb occupied by the King was originally intended for someone else. Much of King Tut’s burial equipment was made for the female pharaoh Neferneferuaten (aka Queen Nefertiti) including his middle coffin, the royal jewelry and the iconic gold mask. That of course leads to the question of where she was buried and with what, but we digress. Seventy days after his death, King Tutankhamun’s mummified body was laid to rest inside its eternal home and the tomb was sealed to lay undisturbed for three-thousand years.
The discovery of King Tut’s tomb, the most complete ancient Egyptian royal tomb ever found in modern times, received world-wide press coverage and generated an enormous interest in ancient Egypt and Egyptology. Howard Carter remained in Egypt for another ten years, working on the excavation and cataloging the 5,398 objects found in the tomb (everything an Egyptian Pharaoh might need for a comfortable afterlife) until the excavation was completed in 1932. King Tutankhamun’s linen-wrapped mummy rests, as it has for over 3,000 years, in his underground tomb in the Valley of the Kings, now encased in a climate controlled-glass box to prevent the “heightened rate of decomposition caused by the humidity and warmth from tourists visiting the tomb.” Artifacts found in his tomb are kept at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo but popular exhibitions of the archeological finds began touring in the 1960’s, make them the most travelled relics in the world.
The discovery of King Tut’s tomb has inspired several songs and dances as well motivated untold numbers of kids to learn more about Egypt. His image has graced the cover of National Geographic’s magazine five times which, considering he’s been dead for 3,000 years, sounds like stiff competition for #45 with his eleven Time covers. Visiting the exhibit was a fun trip back in time on the “Wayback Machine” and when we exited the building we couldn’t help but hum a few bars of Walk Like An Egyptian!
Note: The exhibit, Tutankhamun – Treasures of Egypt consisted of 100 full scale reproductions made in Egypt using traditional methods. We found that little factoid out after we went but it only makes us more enthusiastic to see the real deal one of these days!
By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash