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The Timeless Treasures of King Tut

Posted on 14 Mar 2019

How the world discovered the mysteries and splendours of the tomb of the Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun. The tomb that still has secrets to reveal...

Golden Mask, taken by Sandro Vannini © Zahi Hawass / Laboratoriorosso s.r.l.

With the passage of time, the mysteries and splendours of the tomb of the Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun seem to exert ever-increasing fascination. Since the 1960s, exhibitions of artifacts have toured the world to great acclaim, in particular Treasures of Tutankhamun, which was seen by millions of visitors as it worked its way across several continents throughout the 1970s and triggered a new wave of Egyptomania. To mark the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb which falls in November 2022, King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaohis the most spectacular showcase yet. Featuring 150 objects from the tomb, it’s the most extensive collection ever shown (Treasures of Tutankhamun contained only 55 pieces), and it’s currently at the California Science Center in Los Angeles until January 2019.
But should you wish to contemplate the glittering Tutankhamun legacy at your leisure, look no further than Zahi Hawass’s new book entitled simply Tutankhamun. Formerly Egypt’s Minister of State for Antiquities, Hawass has supervised numerous excavations while also working on education and conservation projects to sustain Egypt’s historical legacy. Illustrated by Sandro Vannini’s fastidiously detailed photographs of the pharaoh’s amazing hoard of treasures, the book charts something of Hawass’s personal history, while also outlining how the British archaeologist Howard Carter finally unearthed the Tutankhamun site, having spent frustrating years searching for it before and after World War One. It was on 4 November 1922 that Carter’s waterboy, digging a hole in which to store the earthenware jugs of water needed to refresh the labourers toiling in the sun-scorched Valley of the Kings, struck stone under the sand, and found it was the top of a flight of steps. Carter instantly grasped that this must be the entrance to the sought-after tomb. He had made the most remarkable archaeological discovery of the 20th Century, and it would prove to be his personal ticket to immortality.

Ritual Beds, taken by Sandro Vannini © Zahi Hawass / Laboratoriorosso s.r.l.

The single best-known image of Tutankhamun is the gold mask presenting an idealised portrait of his face, wearing a striped nemes headcloth made from gold inlaid with semiprecious stones and glass, but as it works its way through the different chambers of the tomb, the book details the huge scope and quality of the objects which were buried with him. One of the first items Carter discovered, lying seemingly at random in the tomb’s entrance corridor, was the painted wooden Head of Nefertem (‘one of the most spectacular pieces from the tomb,’ according to Hawass). It’s a hauntingly beautiful representation of the young king as Nefertem, a sun god associated with the lotus flower, which for the Egyptians symbolised resurrection and rebirth.

Golden Throne, taken by Sandro Vannini © Zahi Hawass / Laboratoriorosso s.r.l.

When he took his first peek inside the tomb’s antechamber, squinting though a hole in the blocked doorway with the aid of a torch, Carter glimpsed an array of statues, gilded couches, a gold inlaid throne, parts of a gold chariot and numerous other items, ‘the first impression of which suggested the property-room of an opera of a vanished civilisation’ as he put it. It was an apt metaphor, since the tomb indeed depicts the nature of Egyptian society in the 18th Dynasty (some 1300 years BC), offering insights into the lives of its rulers, their customs and religious rituals as well as giving clues about tool-making, astronomy, jewellery and handwriting (the tomb’s ‘Scribal Kit’ is a set of inkwells, reed pens and tools for writing). The model boats buried with the pharaoh had remained in excellent condition and offer priceless evidence of the kind of vessels used by the Egyptians.

Diadem with Uraeus and Vulture, taken by Sandro Vannini © Zahi Hawass / Laboratoriorosso s.r.l.

Carter’s subsequent exploration of the tomb – which comprised the Antechamber, the Burial Chamber, the Treasury and the Annexe – took him until the end of 1927, by which time his team had removed the 5,398 objects they had found within. Many of the most memorable pieces seem as remarkable now as they must have done when they were created, such as the ritual beds decorated with the heads of lions or cows or the sinister Ammut, ‘the devourer of the dead’. The Golden Throne, with its radiant depictions of Tutankhamun and his wife Ankhsenamun, was declared by Carter to be ‘the most beautiful thing that has yet been found in Egypt’. The Treasury was guarded by the startling black and gold figure of Anubis, the ‘super-jackal’ who protected the dead.
The good news for Egyptologists is that, thanks to new technological developments such as CT-scanning and DNA analysis, there’s always more to be discovered. ‘Fascinating new finds continue to be made and new theories proposed about both the tomb itself and the king,’ notes Hawassi. ‘Tutankhamum’s tomb still has secrets to reveal.’

Text by Adam Sweeting @ theartsdesk.com

With stunning full-colour spreads and foldouts throughout the book, Tutankhamun is the definitive record of the young king’s glittering legacy.

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