Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh

Until 3rd May 2020, the people of Britain have a final chance to see the glittering world heritage artefacts that were discovered in a tomb belonging to King Tutankhamun before they return to Egypt forever. With a new museum being built specifically for the treasures in Egypt, 150 of the total 5366 objects are gradually making their way around the world on their final tour. Following successes in Los Angeles and Paris, it is London’s turn to hold the once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the wonder and mystery of the boy king.

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Tutankhamun was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who ruled at the end of the 18th dynasty (c. 1334 – 1325 BC). He took the throne at the tender age of nine after his father, Akhenaten (originally named Amenhotep IV) passed away. During Akhenaten’s reign, he had established an Aten cult, an ancient religion that deified the sun, dismissing other Egyptian gods. For this reason, the pharaoh renamed himself Akhenaten, meaning “effective for Aten.” He and his wife, known as “The Younger Lady”, named their son Tutankhaten, meaning “living image of Aten”. After Akhenaten’s death, the “boy king” dissolved the Aten cult and reinstated the cult of Amun, changing his name to Tutankhamun – “living image of Amun”. Amun is a major ancient Egyptian deity who may also be the equivalent of the Greek god Zeus.

When Tutankhamun became king, he married his half-sister Ankhesenpaaten, who subsequently changed her name to Ankhesenamun. Two mummified foetuses found in the same tomb as Tutankhamun suggests they had a couple of daughters, neither of whom survived. Data collected from the bodies reveals one was born prematurely at around 6 months of pregnancy, and the other was full term, however, suffered from Spina Bifidia, scoliosis and Sprengel’s deformity. Therefore, Tutankhamun, who died after a short reign of ten years, had no living heir.

Tutankhamun’s cause of death remains a mystery to this very day. His skeleton reveals he was physically disabled with a deformity in his left foot, which, judging by the number of walking sticks in the tomb, meant he needed assistance walking. He had other health issues including a cleft palate, scoliosis and several strains of malaria, however, it is not thought that any of these problems killed him. Xrays revealed Tutankhamun had a compound left leg fracture, which given the lack of modern medicine and technology, could have left Tutankhamun dead within a week. How the Pharoah received this wound can only be speculated.

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As items in the tomb reveal, Tutankhamun was also known by his throne name Nebkheperure. During his reign, he commissioned new statues of deities that had been destroyed whilst his father was on the throne and began to restore the old Egyptian order. This involved renouncing the god Aten, changing his and his wife’s name and reinstating Egypt’s polytheistic religion.

Given his age, Tutankhamun presumably did not rule alone and would have had advisers, such as Ay (a possible great uncle), who became Pharaoh after the boy king’s death. Nonetheless, Tutankhamun was praised for his successes, as evidenced by the gifts from other countries found in his tomb.

Tutankhamun’s history may be brief and open to speculation, however, none of this would have been known at all if his tomb had not been discovered almost 100 years ago. Ay died after a short reign of four years and was replaced by Horemheb, who had been promised the throne if Tutankhamun had no children. For reasons unbeknownst, Horemheb ordered Tutankhamun’s name be hacked out of all monuments, often replacing it with his name. Tutankhamun was literally written out of history and his name forgotten. It is thanks to an Englishman by the name of Howard Carter that Tutankhamun is the most famous of all Egypt’s pharaohs.

Howard Carter was a British archaeologist and Egyptologist who rose to worldwide fame after discovering the intact tomb of Tutankhamun. Carter was born in Kensington, London on 9th May 1874 and received artistic training from his father Samuel John Carter (1835–92). Howard was the youngest of eleven children and spent much of his childhood with his relatives in Norfolk. Whilst there, Howard frequently visited Didlington Hall, which contained a large collection of Egyptian antiques. Seeing that he had a keen interest in the subject, one of the hall’s owners sent 17-year-old Carter to Beni Hasan in Egypt with the Egypt Exploration Fund to help excavate the tombs in the area.

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Lord Carnarvon

During the 1890s, Carter helped to record the wall reliefs in the temple of Hatshepsut, the second historically-confirmed female ruler (1479-58 BC). At the end of the decade, he was appointed Chief Inspector of the Egyptian Antiquities Service and supervised several excavations at the ancient city of Thebes. He resigned from his position in 1905 due to arguments between Egyptian guards and French tourists. Fortunately, three years later, Carter met George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon (1866 – 1923) who employed him to supervise the excavation of tombs opposite the city of Thebes.

In 1914, Lord Carnarvon got permission to dig in the Valley of Kings, where Egyptian pharaohs were buried between the 16th and 11th centuries BC. By then, knowledge of Tutankhamun’s existence had been unearthed in tombs of those who had died before him, i.e. in places Horemheb could not access to remove his name. Although World War One hindered the excavation work, Carter returned to the site in 1917, however, by 1922, Lord Carnarvon was dissatisfied with the lack of results.

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Hussein Abdel-Rassoul

Carter convinced Lord Carnarvon to let him carry on working in the Valley of Kings for one more year. He instructed his workers to clear some ancient huts and the surrounding rock debris, however, when he arrived on the site on 4th November 1922, no one was working. Earlier that day, the team’s water boy Hussein Abdel-Rassoul had discovered a stone that turned out to be the first step of a flight of stairs. Having waited for Carter’s arrival, they assisted him to dig out the rest of the steps until reaching a mud-plastered doorway stamped with hieroglyphics. Wanting his employer to be there when the tomb was opened, Carter refilled the earth they had dug and sent a telegram to Lord Carnarvon who eventually arrived on 23rd November.

“At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.”
– Howard Carter

Using a chisel he had been given by his grandmother when he was 17, with Lord Carnarvon and his daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert (1901-80) in tow, Carter made a small hole in the top left-hand corner of the doorway through which he could peer with the aid of a candle. “Can you see anything?” Lord Carnarvon asked. To which Carter responded with the famous words, “Yes, wonderful things!” Carter had discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, later designated with the serial number KV62 (King’s Valley 62).

For the next few months, Carter painstakingly catalogued the items in the antechamber of the tomb, eventually making his way through another door that led to the burial chamber. In there, he unearthed the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun and, therefore, the remains of the pharaoh’s body. Work was suspended for a month in 1923 due to arguments about who owned the discovered items: Carnarvon, who paid for the expedition, or the Egyptian authorities. After a month, Carter resumed work but Lord Carnarvon soon became fatally ill.

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Lord Carnarvon contracted blood poisoning from an infected insect bite on his cheek. As a result, he passed away in Cairo on 5th April 1923. Newspapers throughout the world were quick to pick up on the fact that Carnarvon’s facial infection resembled a wound on the cheek of Tutankhamun’s body – later confirmed to be caused by the excavation – and rumours of a curse surrounding the pharaoh’s cave spread like wildfire. Later deaths and mishaps involving some of the people who worked on the excavation were also linked to this fictitious curse. Even today, some Egyptologists feel the effects of the “curse” despite logic debunking the rumour.

Howard Carter, on the other hand, appeared immune to the supposed curse and continued to excavate and catalogue the items in the tomb. As well as the objects discovered in the passageway, there were four chambers full of “wonderful things”: the Antechamber, Burial Chamber, Treasury and Annex. Amongst the 5336 objects were items made from gold, silver, semiprecious stones, wood, ivory, linen and leather.

Despite being world-famous, Carter did not receive much recognition in his own country, however, in 1926 he received the Order of the Nile from King Fuad I of Egypt (1868-1936). Later, he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Science by Yale University and honorary membership in the Real Academia de la Historia of Madrid.

Carter retired from archaeology after finishing with the tomb and began working as an agent for collectors and museums. He also published several books on Egyptology and delivered a series of lectures in Europe and America. Unfortunately, Carter developed Hodgkin’s Disease and passed away on 2nd March 1939 at the age of 64. Despite being world-famous for his discovery, very few people attended his funeral.

The majority of Carter’s finds are still in Egypt, however, the 150 items – at least 60 of which had never left Egypt before – currently in the Saatchi Gallery give a flavour of the type of objects found in the tomb. As can be expected, many of the items depict the boy king, celebrating his reign, such as a gilded wooden figure of Tutankhamun throwing a harpoon. Standing upon a papyrus raft, the pharoah appears ready to throw the weapon, presumably at a hippopotamus, which were widely hunted at the time. Hippos were a danger to human life and destroyed agricultural fields by flattening them with their heavy bodies. In Egyptian mythology, Seth, the god of chaos, often took the form of a hippo in the hopes of killing his brother Horus, however, he never succeeded.

A wooden statuette of Tutankhamun riding a leopard was placed in the tomb to aid him in the afterlife as he travelled to the next world. The netherworld was believed to be a dangerous place and the black leopard, associated with rebirth, was to guide and guard Tutankhamun on his journey. The statuette wears a tall white crown and holds a long staff, which symbolises authority, however, some people do not think the figure was originally intended to represent Tutankhamun. The statuette contains a few feminine qualities, including breasts, which suggests it was intended for a female king, for instance, Nefertiti. Dying so young, there had not been many preparations for Tutankhamun’s tomb, which may explain the appropriation of this object.

Other statues of the pharaoh depict him with a walking stick, alluding to his deformed foot. The number of walking sticks found in the tomb suggests Tutankhamun was reliant upon them to move around. Despite this disability, Tutankhamun was always depicted as an important, respect-worthy king. Even the damaged colossal quartzite statue that closes the exhibition demonstrates his importance. This dramatic statue was not found inside the tomb but may have once stood at Tutankhamun’s mortuary temple. This is one of the objects destroyed by Horemheb, who carved his name across the belt where Tutankhamun’s name would once have been.

Hidden amongst the treasures were objects that Tutankhamun may have used in his lifetime, as well as the walking sticks. Over seventy bows and four hundred arrows were buried with the king, some of which had been used and others that were just for show. The bow was a key weapon in Egyptian times and there were always expert archers in their armed forces. The varying sizes of the bows suggest Tutankhamun was taught to shoot from a very young age. There were also early forms of the boomerang, which were thrown at birds to knock them out of the sky.

The more elaborate bows were made from gilded wood and inlaid with coloured glass and calcite. Gold wire and sheet gold also ornamented the weapons and Tutankhamun’s throne name, Nebkheperure was inscribed in a band of gold on a few of the bows.

Some objects, such as a gilded wooden fan, contained carved images depicting Tutankhamun’s great achievements, albeit fictional ones. Being as disabled as his skeleton suggests, it is unlikely Tutankhamun shot arrows at ostriches from his fast-moving carriage. This scene is shown on one side of the fan, which was once fitted with the ostrich feathers from the animal the king had killed. On the other side, the image shows the king returning with the dead ostriches. It may be true that he shot them himself, but whether the event was as energetic as the artist suggests is uncertain.

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A ceremonial shield was discovered in the Annex of the tomb, which portrayed Tutankhamun as a sphinx: a human-headed lion. Due to the elaborate design, this shield would not have been suitable in battle but would have been present at ceremonial or ritual occasions. The Egyptian sphinx was a benevolent being with ferocious strength, which is how Egypt wished to view its kings. On the shield, the sphinx/Tutankhamun tramples on a couple of Nubians, an ethnolinguistic group of Africans, as an expression of the Egyptian view that the world belonged to the pharaoh.

Other elements on the shield include a fan, similar to the ostrich fan, which emphasises Tutankhamun’s royal title; a winged sun disk that protectively stretches over the king; and a falcon, representing Montu, the god of war.

The Egyptian gods were an important aspect of both life and death, therefore, it was unsurprising that Carter found many references to them in Tutankhamun’s tomb. There were over 2000 deities in the Egyptian pantheon, some whose names are still recognised today: Isis, Osiris, Horus, Ra, Hathor, Thoth and so on. Some gods were only worshipped in particular areas, however, others were worshipped throughout Egypt. Horus was one of these and appeared in Tutankhamun’s tomb in several different forms.

In one figure, Horus was depicted as a hawk with a sun disc on its head. In another, he was the half-bird half-human Herwer (Horus the Elder). Horus was a powerful sun god, sometimes referred to as Horakhty (Horus of the Two Horizons) and Horemakhet (Horus in the Horizon). He was the son of Isis and Osiris, therefore also called Harsiesis (Horus, Son of Isis) and Harpocrates (Horus the Child). Egyptian mythology states Osiris, the heir to the throne, was murdered by his brother Seth but was briefly resurrected by Isis during which time they conceived a son. Osiris eventually travelled to the netherworld to reign as king of the dead, whilst Isis endeavoured to keep their son Horus out of his uncle’s clutches. When Horus grew up, he battled against Seth and emerged victorious, taking his rightful place on the throne. Due to this story, Horus was sometimes used as a symbol of the king, which explains why he was prominent in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

In total, the tomb contained hundreds of figurines, many of them intended to help Tutankhamun in the afterlife. The netherworld resembled the living world, including fields, farms and towns, therefore, the dead were buried with shabtis (servant figures) that would activate in the afterlife and accomplish any unpleasant task the deceased faced. Buried with Tutankhamun was an enormous workforce that provided a servant for every day of the year as well as an overseer for every ten workers and a supervisor for every three overseers.

Each shabti was unique, for example, one was painted to resemble the king, whereas another looked more like the Nubian mercenaries that served in the Egyptian army. The costumes were rather elaborate for servants but it identified them as belonging to Tutankhamun. Some of the wooden figures wore painted gold clothing, complete with royal symbols and hieroglyphs.

Many of the items left in the tomb were to assist Tutankhamun in the afterlife. Boxes full of food, including meat and fruit were left with the body so that the dead would not starve on their journey. Some of the comestibles, such as herbs and seeds, may have been some form of medication, insinuating Tutankhamun had been a rather sickly person. It appears not even death would cure the king of his ailments.

The foodstuffs were preserved in nondescript boxes, however, Carter also discovered many decorated ones. On the floor of the Treasury was a wooden cartouche box decorated with ivory and ebony symbols. Rather than writing Tutankhamun’s birth name, the craftsman has used symbols to represent the Pharoah. For example, two loaves of bread and a quail chick spell out Tut, and a reed leaf, a game board and a water sign represent Amun, the god who Tutankhamun revered.

Not all the boxes were specifically made to place in a tomb, for example, the semi-circular box found in the Antechamber. Wear and tear suggest the box may have been used during Tutankhamun’s lifetime, for example, to transport written papyrus documents from place to place. Not only was it not intended for the tomb, but it also was not made for Tutankhamun either. Although Tutankhamun’s name has been added to the box, the original inscription gave the names of his predecessor Ankhkheperure and his half-sister Meritaten.

Tutankhamun’s wealth and status were clear from the amount of gold, silver and jewels discovered in his tomb. Hundreds of jewellery items were found in boxes in the Treasury, many which may have been gifted, worn by the pharaoh, or left in the tomb for protection in the afterlife. Every piece of jewellery was symbolic in some way, for instance, a lapis lazuli beetle, which represented the sun god.

A vulture represented the deity Nekhbet, the patron goddess of Upper Egypt where Tutankhamun reigned. The pendant is ornately decorated with gold, lapis lazuli, turquoise and coloured glass befitting of a king. In each of the bird’s claws is a tiny necklace containing the king’s throne name, proving it was made specifically for Tutankhamun.

Another bird used in jewellery was a falcon with upswept wings. Typically, bird pendants have their heads turned to one side, but in one version the bird faces forward as though looking at the viewer. A carnelian round sun upon the falcon’s head suggests it is representative of Horus and the bird also carried two pendants in its talons, also indicative of the sun.

“A man dies twice — once when the last breath leaves his body, and again when his name is spoken for the last time.” (Paraphrased)

When Horemheb became pharaoh and tried to write Tutankhamun out of history, he was also trying to cause Tutankhamun’s second death. The ancient Egyptian’s believed a man died when his soul left his body but was still considered alive as long as his name was spoken. Due to Howard Carter’s discovery of the missing tomb, Horemheb’s plan was thwarted. Tutankhamun is now the most famous of all the pharaohs and, if the size of the crowds queueing to see the exhibition is anything to go by, his name will never be forgotten. Thanks to Carter and the world’s continued interest, Tutankhamun has been made immortal.

Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh attracted over 1.4 million visitors when it was displayed in France. The London exhibition is expected to reach similar records, which is no surprise considering Tutankhamun’s fame and the fact that this is the final opportunity to see the artefacts outside of Egypt. As well as seeing 150 objects, visitors can opt to take part in a Virtual Reality experience in which they dive into a computer-generated version of Tutankhamun’s tomb and have a look around.

Adult tickets are priced between £24.50 and £28.50 and are selling fast, so do not delay booking your timed entry. Due to popularity, the gallery is operating on a timed entry system and it may take up to thirty minutes to get through security. The average length of stay is 90 minutes.

3 thoughts on “Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh

  1. An amazing blog about an amazing exhibition. How lucky to have been able to see it but thank you for giving me at least a glimpse.

  2. Another masterpiece, you really bring the exhibition to life. I appreciate all the background information you provide rather than just comment on the event itself. Thank you for sharing your considerable talents with us.

  3. Pingback: Unfinished Business – Vesta Tilley | Hazel Stainer

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