Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh

Tutankhamun was a short lived and minor king who reigned nine years during Egypt’s most expansive period. He was a puppet ruler led by his grandfather-in-law Ay.

A man dies two times. The first time is when he dies and the second time is when the last person who speaks his name dies.

Tutankhamun will not die the second death for quite a while.

Gold Inlaid Canopic Coffinette of Tutankhamun Dedicated to Imseti and Isis_CREDIT IMG
Gold Inlaid Canopic Coffinette of Tutankhamun Dedicated to Imseti and Isis (CREDIT: IMG)


Tutankhamun was a short lived and minor king who reigned nine years during Egypt’s most expansive period. He was a puppet ruler controlled by his grandfather-in-law Ay. Tutankhamun’s father, Akhenaten, had overseen a period of religious change as official worship was transferred from Amun and several gods, to Aten the solar disk.

Akenaten moved the capital from Thebes to Akhenaten or Amarna (to give it the anglicised form of its modern day Arabic name). One of the most notable changes introduced by Akhenaten was artistic. The royal family was portrayed in an intimate and naturalist style. The most famous piece of art from this period is the plaster bust of Nefertiti, held in Berlin. Nefertiti was Akhenaten’s wife and Tutankhamen’s mother-in-law. Several images show the royal family receiving the life giving rays of the Aten, symbolised with hands holding ankhs (the symbol of life). One moving image shows the Pharaoh and Nefertiti mourning the death of his daughter.

Following Akhenaten’s death, his religious changes were reversed and Amun again become the predominant god. The capital moved back to Thebes and the young king changed his name from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun. Of him, so little is known.

His own family life was complex and tragic. He married his half-sister Ankhesenamun. They had no surviving children. Two tiny sarcophagus were found in the tomb containing the bodies of two young children who died before birth.

Following his death, Ay ruled for a short time, until the general Horemheb usurped him. Horemheb wiped the previous monarchs from the historical record. Statues were converted to images of him. Inscriptions were wiped.

Manetho, an Egyptian priest writing in Greek during the Ptolemaic period, names a Queen Acencheres and her brother Rathotis, who may be Ankhesenamun and Tutankhamun (whose official title on becoming king was Nebkheperure). Otherwise he was forgotten.

Guilded Wooden Fugure of Tutankhamun on a Skiff, Throwing Harpoon_CREDIT IMG
Guilded Wooden Fugure of Tutankhamun on a Skiff, Throwing Harpoon (CREDIT: IMG)

Ancient Egyptian Art

Egyptian art has a profound sense of formalism and symbolism. Much of this probably came from the script used to write Ancient Egyptian language in formal contexts. Hieroglyphics are both symbol and language. Images stood for sounds and concepts and symbols were both image and language. This meant that in Egyptian art images had both a symbolic meaning and a literal meaning.

Much of ancient Egyptian symbolism came from nature. Plants were important symbols in Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians loved gardens. The papyrus reed and the lotus flower symbolised upper and lower Egypt (the two lands ruled by the Pharaoh). A papyrus scroll was also the heirglyph used to identify abstract words. The lotus flower was a symbol of solar rebirth. The flower would disappear beneath the waters every night and re-emerge in the morning, much as Re the sun god.

Animals were also important. Idealised images show Tutankhamun killing various animals. A moving scene on a golden shrine shows the queen pointing out wild geese for her husband to shoot with his bow.

The legs of the bed buried in the tomb are made of taunt muscles ending in sharp claws.

The playful formalism is seen in many objects. A  box with Tutankhumn’s name is shaped like a cartouche (which royal names were always contained in). The royal pencil case (technically containing hollowed reeds which were dipped in ink) is shaped as an architectural pillar which is itself shaped like a palm tree. A dangling ear ring looks like a disk with a centre piece of a bird’s head until you look again and see the disk is actually the bird’s body and outstretched wings.

Tutankhamun Earring
Earring of Tutankhamun

The treasures of King Tut

Although golden objects might take precedence for most visitors, the most poignant item is the chair. Its small size belying Tutankhamun’s youth. Alongside this several walking sticks were found in the tomb. A symbol of wisdom and rulership, but also a support for the young king who had a club foot.

The treasures are a strange combination of religious goods and items associated with every day life. Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt wrote that “everything necessary for the tragic and sublime transformation was assembled in four rooms”. A spouted vessel, like a tea pot or sushi pouring, was used during the “opening the mouth” ceremony, central to the funeral rites of the ancient Egyptians.

A surprising object are the boxes which contained food items. One is shaped like a large roast goose.

Various jewellery is on display. Some possibly used by the King in his life (such as the earrings) and some positioned on the body for ritual use such as the amulets positioned on the body according to instructions from the “Book of the Dead”.

Although the iconic golden death mask is not in this show, items are breathtaking. The king’s viscera was contained in a small replica sarcophagus held in one of four alabaster canonic jars with a fine box. The craftsmanship of each is staggering.

The most ubiquitous of grave objects are on display here. Egyptian craftsmen created hundreds of Shabtis to labour for the dead in the afterlife. Many of made from faience. Tutankhumun had 417. 365 workers for every day of the year, 36 overseers for every week and 12 for every month. The shabtis symbolise both labour and hierarchy of the living and their hopes for ease in the hereafter. They were made in different styles and materials to differentiate between roles.

The Egyptian economy was complex and specialised. The people who created many of the objects found in the tombs were experts and some bordered on genius. The first evidence of industrial action dates from roughly this period of Egyptian history.

Tutankhamun Food Goose
Plaster Goose

Discovery of the tomb

The famous quote that everyone knows is “Yes, wondrous things” said by Howard Carter in answer to Lord Carnervon’s question as he peered through a small hold into the first of four chambers. You can almost feel the peer’s impatience to have a look. What is little known is that Carter’s first words were probably “It is wonderful”. He rewrote the story of his discovery in a sell out book, the first of three volumes, in 1923.

Tutankhamun’s story is now intrinsically linked with the story of his discovery. This is as much a result of the fact that so little was known of him. He was a minor king wiped out of the historical record.

Tutankhamun was discovered in 1922 and rediscovered in the 60s and 70s when a world wide blockbuster tour launched the interest all over again. Since then, Tutankhamun or Kind Tut has never been out of fashion.

The discovery of Tutankhamun happened nearly 100 years after the birth of Egyptology which followed the modern day decipherment of hieroglyphics by Jean-François Champollion (conveniently dated to 22nd September 1822). The preceding period had seen an increase in interest and direct artistic borrowings of Egyptian motifs in Western art.

Between 1822 and 1922, Egyptology had become more scientific, but the search for Egyptian treasures was still a pastime for the rich. Lord Caernarvon was a playboy who loved racing cars (his first license plate was “3”). He got interested in Egyptology after a doctor recommended that he should spend his winters in the South following a motor accident.

Archaeologists could buy concessions from the Egyptian government. Patrons like Lord Caernarvon could underwrite these costs and the costs for staff and equipment. Carter and Caernarvon worked together from 1907. Their discoveries were published in Five years’ explorations at Thebes: a record of work done 1907-1911.

Theodore Davis, a rich American businessman who collected Egyptian antiquities and Renaissance paintings, had recently given up his concession in part of the Valley of the Tombs. He thought he had exhausted every discovery. Carter was not so sure. He had found an undiscovered but empty tomb close to Davis’ area. He also remembered Belzoni’s claims a hundred years before that he also had exhausted the stock of Egyptian antiquities. In 1914 he persuaded Caernarvon to buy the concession rights.

And then the First World War began. Caernarvon returned to England for four years and Carter was enlisted into war service in Egypt.

From 1918 work recommenced but Caernarvon was getting frustrated. 1922-23 was to be the last year of work.

On 4th November, Hussein Abdel-Rassoul discovered the first steps of a previous ly undiscovered tomb. Huts for workmen had been built on top of it in the Ramesside period, which was partly why it was left undisturbed. Hussein was later photographed by Harry Burton wearing a gold pectoral found in the tomb. If Tutankhamen wore it during life, he may been the same age.

As soon as he could Carter telegraphed his sponsors who arrived in Egypt three weeks later. He waited until Carnarvon arrived with his daughter before proceeding with work. They cleared the stairs and together they peered through the hole in the sealed door.

cairo egyptian museum-golden shrine of a statue-carter108
This jewel/like shrine is made of wood covered with gold foil inside and gold leaf outside, it sits on a silver plated sledge, inside is a foil/lined back pillar engraved with prayers wishing Tutankhamun a long life and an ebony base carved with two small footprints. The shrine is decorated on all sides with names titles and images of Tutankhamun and his queen Ankhsenamun engraved in repoussè. (Credit: Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo, Italy)

The celebrity king

The world was entranced by the discoveries in the tomb. This was as much a result of the post-war malaise as the high archaeological importance and artistic merit of the objects. Carter himself said the public were bored “with news of reparations, conferences and mandates”.

Carter was an assiduous archaeologist, but also a canny operator and a showman. When he was fired from an official job (as a result of defending Egyptians from attacks by French nationals) he made his living from his art work and selling antiquities. He was a John Lovejoy figure of his day. His magic lantern lecture tours were very popular across the world.

Although he complained about press intrusions, like all true celebrities, he knew how to work the press and was very photogenic. Christina Riggs, Professor of Egyptology at UEA, has written how Carter and his photographer Burton used the camera to dramatise the discoveries. It was not just as an objective documentary tool.

It is partly because of Carter’s courting of public attention that we still talk about Tutankhamun in terms of a discovery.

In the first round the world tours in the 1960s and 70s only 55 objects were ever shown at the same time in one place. This year 150 objects at exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery, 66 have been never outside Egypt before.

Tutankhamun has redefined the way that museums exhibit items. The first exhibition outside of Egypt was held in the United States in 1961 to raise support for the UNESCO sponsored project to move the Abu Simbel temple. After touring regional museums, it moved on to Canada and Japan in 1964. In 1967 an exhibition was organised in Paris by Christiane Desroches-Noublecourt which was attended by over 1.2 million visitors. The treasures were first exhibited in Britain in 1972 at the British Museum. The museum opened six days a week from 10 am – 9 pm with queues snaking through the museum, and outside and round the block. It visited the Soviet Union, but it was the US exhibitions of 1976 that set the standard for all future block buster exhibitions. Organised by President Nixon to cement US-Egyptian relations, it was directly connected to the Oil Crisis and Middle East Peace Talks. Nixon reportedly asked for more treasures than had been shown in Russia. Henry Kissinger asked the director of the Met to organise the show stressing that it was a “vital part” of America’s diplomatic relations in the region. The exhibition toured the US over three years and over 8 million visitors saw the exhibition.

The current show is billed as a final tour. London is the third stop in a ten-city world tour, which broke records in Los Angeles before becoming France’s most attended exhibition of all time with more than 1.4 million attendees. A museum of ancient Egypt is being built in Cairo, overlooking the great pyramids of Giza. Here, all the treasures of King Tut will be displayed. This might be the last chance to see items from the tomb outside of Egypt, even if the words final tour always evokes the Rolling Stones whose first final tour in 1981 was followed by several other tours over the years.

Research on Tutankhamen continues. The boy king continues to make international headlines. Researchers briefly argued that a blow to the head indicated he was mudered, until further research carried out by Zahi Hawass showed that the blow occurred after death. Recently work with DNA has proven relationships between various mummies found nearby. Most poignantly, DNA testing has show that the mummified remains of the small babies in the tomb were almost certainly Tutankhamun’s children. DNA has also shown that Tutankhamen had Malaria, which may have been the cause of his early death.

Wooden Guilded Mirror Case in the Form of an Ankh, Inlaid with Blue Glass and Carnelian_CREDIT IMG
Wooden Guilded Mirror Case in the Form of an Ankh, Inlaid with Blue Glass and Carnelian (CREDIT: IMG)

Museum UX

The exhibition has spot-on UX. Audioguides, text and video captions are used to great effect. Display cabinets, with non reflective glass, use atmospheric down lighting; perfect for Instagram. Music drifts in and out of earshot. Objects are given space and the flow of people is designed to different rhythms. Impeccable.

Audiences can also experience a Virtual Reality tour of the tomb in the Valley of the Kings narrated by Paddington Bear’s Hugh Bonneville.

Where is Anubis?

I have one small criticism about a notable absence. It is not we do not hear the voices of the King. This is unavoidable. The tomb tells us so much about art, funerary ritual and aspects of every day life but so little about Tutankhamun’s own story. It is not the absence of certain items such as the golden death mask, the chariots, or the painted casket. It is completely understandable that not every object is on display.

The absence is that of Anubis the god of the afterlife. Carter knew that he was on to something when he cleared the stairway to the door. The ancient seal made of Nile mud and oil, and held by twine, was marked by the emblem of Anubis guarding over the nine traditional enemies of Egypt. A statue of Anubis guarded the treasury of the tomb. A green felspar amulet of Anubis protected the young king. The god protected the body over centuries. But he was nowhere to be seen in the show?

Duamutef (jackal headed) and Qebehsenuef (falcon headed) protectors of the viscera


A brilliant show. The Saatchi is the best place, making the artistic merit of the objects clear to visitors. ★★★★★

Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh presented by Viking Cruises opens at the Saatchi Gallery on 2 November. Tickets on-sale now.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics