An Estate Tour of the Living Dead

You know that scene in Pride & Prejudice where Elizabeth Bennet visits Mr. Darcy’s house, finds his man drawer and is like “Oh, my, he even has 9-Volts…. Please, Darcy, take me now.”

(A more detailed explanation of the man drawer in the following video)

Michael McIntyre: “The Man Drawer” 

Don’t remember? Well, maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that in the book. But basically, to recap: He likes her…she pretends not to like him…stuff happens…she visits his Pemberley Estate…changes her mind…they get hitched and live happily ever after. The end. Bestselling book for Austen.

At the moment, I’m referring to the part where she tours his mansion and ends up being wholly impressed. This experience…. well, this experience was nothing like that.

For one thing, this guy was so sick the only place he’d be taking anyone would be the royal infirmary ward. For another thing, he’s already been dead 3,000 years. Still, his afterlife estate is far more impressive than the whole of Pemberley, I’d daresay, batteries included or not.

It started after six years of futile excavation, when Howard Carter was given one last chance by his sponsor George Herbert, Fifth Earl of Carnarvon, to locate the tomb of an obscure Egyptian king by the name of Tutankhamun. In November 1922, beneath the hard bedrock of the previously excavated Valley of the Kings, Carter struck gold.

A treasure trove of golden shrines and idols, food, furniture, clothes and games, weapons and model ships lay buried in the grave of this forgotten ruler. After an interrupted robbery shortly after the Pharaoh’s burial in 1323 BCE, KV62, the tomb of Tutankhamun, had laid undisturbed in the Theban desert for more than 3,000 years, and it quickly gained global renown as one of the greatest archaeological finds in history.

And the presentation is enormous. The adage “You can’t take it with you when you die,” clearly did not apply to the 18th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, certainly not to Tut’s tomb. As I combed through idols and coffins, miniature boats and what appeared to be a life-sized, divine chia pet during a tour of this visiting exhibit, I kept asking myself a single question: Do any of these things hint at how Egypt became one of the longest-lasting civilizations in the world? In an age of so much political unrest, Egypt’s cultural longevity was staggering.

Whether I unlocked any philosophical secrets during my “excavation” remains up for debate. I did, however, see a lot of really cool stuff. From morally-suspect sandals to the beetle from space, here’s a list of my favorite items from Tut’s tomb, starting with the famous death mask.

The Death Mask

Tutankhamun’s golden death mask, the symbol of the immortal god-king, is arguably the most famous artifact of ancient Egypt. Indeed a beautiful work of craftsmanship, the gemstone inlays and gold detailing can truly take one’s breath away. Or at least it would have caused respiratory issues, had it not been seen it three times before and four times after. For the idyllic image of the boyish king is repeated on the gilded, gold/glass and solid gold coffins that encase the Tutankhamun’s mummy, as well as on the mini coffins which hold his organs inside alabaster canopic jars. After twelve copies, it kind of loses its luster.

But repetition seemed to be the norm in Egyptian funerary practice, for in addition to three coffins, the body was also protected by four gold shrines, a tent and a sarcophagus inside the burial chamber, as well as hundreds of amulets. They believed the dead person used up its energy during the day and had to return to its body at night to re-energize, just as the sun gained strength during the night and was born again each morning. It was unclear whether the elaborate shrines served merely a protective function or were believed to work like some magic microwave that recharged the body. What could not be mistaken, however, was the wealth and detail that went into it. The layer’s of burial included the following:

Tutankhamun, pearl cap, diadem, amulets, individual gold fingers & toes, sandals, dagger, gold detail, death mask, gold coffin, gold and glass coffin, gilded coffin, stone sarcophagus, gilded shrine 1, gilded shrine 2, gilded shrine 3, linen with bronze rosettes, gilded shrine 4, sealed burial chamber

Each one a work of art in its own right, the similarly-designed coffins mimicked the colors of the sun at every turn. The innermost coffin is especially striking; more than 100 kg of precious metal form Tutankhamun’s new, godly body, which covers the famous mask. Despite the beauty of the pieces, the image was repeated so often and opulently that it almost became common, leaving the shrine that held the innards seeming far more exciting than the famous image. Protected by lines of cobras from above, four goddesses with their arms outstretched, three mushroom-looking vases, a cow and a dog, the canopic shrine looked like something straight from an adventure film. The photos don’t really do it justice.

Though impressive in their artistic right, these mystical pieces seemed strangely juxtaposed against the sickly, boyish corpse they hid. Far more interesting to me were the everyday items that bridged the enormous gap between then and now. Some were simple; some, elaborate; each with a big story to tell.

Morally Suspect Sandals

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The three thousand years that stand between us and the closing of the tomb is a really long time. If each year equaled an inch of a building and King Tut stood on the doormat, we would be dancing our days on the twenty-fifth floor. And yet, through the painstaking, historical trudge up the stairs from ancient Egypt to the modern day, one type of footwear has remained relatively unchanged: the flip-flop. King Tut apparently had a large collection of gloves and footwear in his tomb, though only this pair was displayed; its cute straps and similarity to modern designs made this one of my favorite objects in the exhibit. The downside? They also come with a feisty political message.

Egypt had three main enemies along its borders: Asians, Libyans and Nubians. Along with keeping Egypt on its guard, these enemies also served as the main decor for footstools, walking sticks, chariot pieces, and these sandals. The message was clear. Pharaoh had his enemies under his feet and in the grip of his hand. Granted, Tut was only a teenager who’d never seen battle. He also was already in need of a cane due to disease, but when it comes to Pharaoh, it’s best to promote the positive.

Love thy neighbor? Not for another 1,300 years. Until then, wear angsty flip-flops.

 

Do-It-Yourself Sickle

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From what I could tell, food security seemed to be a big deal in ancient Egypt, a concern that extended even to the Underworld. Part of the funeral included the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony, which allowed the mummy to eat in the afterlife. A dedicated contingency plan was then put in place to ensure Tutankhamen never went hungry. It went something like this (written in hieroglyphs, obviously):

Dear Tut,

Congrats on being dead. We will bring you daily offerings for your enjoyment in the afterlife. However, as you know (or have recently dis

covered through your untimely death), sometimes things don’t go as planned. Should we at some point in the future fail to provide food, please see the following plan to ensure your continued survival.

Love,

The Priests

P.S. Everyone back home says hi.

THE PLAN

Eat the food provided by us through daily offerings.

Should we not show up…

Eat the models of food left in the tomb.
(Models = real in the afterlife)

Also kindly note that everyone, including you,
is required to harvest food and work the fields in the underworld.

Should this not be appealing…

Make use of the 365 ushabtis provided.
(Small statues of you that will work in your place.)

There is one ushabti for each day of the year.
1,866 tools have also been provided for their use.

Should the ushabtis be less than willing to work…

Make use of the 36 overseer ushabtis who can force them to work.

Should the overseers be corrupt…

12 chief overseers have also been provided.

If all else fails…

Use the sickle.
Harvest your own food, fulfill your duty and don’t starve.

The ceremonial sickle takes preparedness to a whole new level, and that’s something I can get behind.

Go harvest that field.

The Beetle from Space

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The scarab beetle was considered sacred in Tutankhamun’s time and appears often in Egyptian art.

Here, at the center of this pectoral, the beetle is carved from rare, Libyan desert glass. This hazy green glass is believed to have formed when a meteorite struck earth, making this space bug my fourth favorite object on the list. Plus it’s pretty.

The Iron Dagger

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This heirloom dagger won its way onto my list simply by the emotional inversion it causes. In all the rooms previous, I had been gaping at the vast amount of gold used; never had I seen so much gilding on such an enormous scale. Everything gave the sense of opulence.

This dagger, on the other hand, was the exact opposite of expected. Likely imported, it was extremely valuable due to its iron blade, a metal so common to us but rarely worked at the time. I can only imagine what the ancient Egyptians would have thought if today they could see all the iron used on a far greater scale than their gilded shrines, to find even our frying pans are made of iron…

Writing Reeds

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A plain, wooden pack of reeds with two blobs of ink and a fancier gold one, these additions to Tutankhamun’s tomb look like the pen packs of ancient Egypt. I can almost see them sitting in a shop somewhere, tossed into Tut’s Underworld survival bag much like the ones my mom dropped into my college suitcase. Did it actually happen that way? Perhaps not. Still, the idea that the people of legends were ordinary is very appealing, and probably not as far from the truth as we would think.

The Sema-Tawi Vase

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Fans of The Merman’s Mark can already guess why this alabaster vase makes my list. The sema-tawi, or unity hieroglyph was the inspiration for the visual representation of the Merman’s Mark. Our version is a bit simpler and, I daresay, more magical; nevertheless the Egyptian original is not without its charm. It symbolizes the coming together of the Upper & Lower Kingdoms of Egypt into the New Kingdom beginning in the 18th Dynasty with Tutankhamun’s direct ancestors.

The hieroglyph can be seen in the design of this vase, as well as in the photograph of the footstool, in which a united Egypt takes its enemies captive.

The Throne and Shrine

Tut’s father, Ankhenaton, was like the embarrassing child of Egypt. Filled with revolutionary ideas, his reign shattered traditional Egyptian culture like an earthquake in the Nile Valley. Ankhenaton abolished the old religion in favor of monotheism, replacing all the animal and human-figured gods with an invisible god, Aton, symbolized by the sun disk. Ankhenaton destroyed temples; dismantled the priesthood; and had the rigid, emotionless forms famous in Egyptian art replaced with curvy figures engaged in loving scenes. And then he died, leaving his eight-year-old son by a minor wife, Tutankhaton, Pharaoh of Egypt.

Under the influence of his advisers, Tutankhaton abolished his father’s heretical ways at the ripe age of ten, changing his name to Tutankhhamun. The old religion was restored and Ankhenaton’s reforms faded into history. Tutankhamun married his sister as was customary and had two daughters; one a stillborn, the other died shortly after birth. When Tutankhamun died at the age of 18, he became the last Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty.

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This detail from this throne and the gilded shrine are the last objects on the list and my favorite pieces from the exhibit. Covered in the images of Tutankhamun with his wife, the two raise more questions than they answer. The shrine is covered in scenes of Tutankhamun with his wife, in which she acts as priest to a god. Instead of an idol inside as was customary with these shrines, there are only two footprints, suggesting an invisible god. The exhibit said an amulet of a snake nursing a baby was also found. On the throne, another intimate scene between the couple is found. The chair follows the style of his father’s reign, and is inscribed with his original name, Tutankhaton.

Tut was young and married to his sister, born to a heretical father. Other pieces from the exhibit seem to indicate he may have been close with his paternal grandmother, who appears to have held political influence.

These pieces quickly worked their way to the top of the favorites list because of the questions they raise. Which religion did Tut believe? Were he and his wife close? Were these items of value, or did Tut’s untimely death make them so, hastily thrown in the tomb because there wasn’t time to make others? (Everything had to be prepared during the 70 days required for embalming.) What influence did his grandmother have and what did she believe? Or was he just a kid who did not concern himself with any of this, swept away into history’s pomp and circumstance by an archaeological accident?

Perhaps speculative, perhaps answered with more research, there certainly seems a story here, buried deep in the recesses of history. Maybe one day, I’ll find it, but for now I’m content to imagine.