Touring the Tutankhamun Exhibit

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

This experience…. well, this experience was nothing like that.

The Darcy of this story is Pharaoh Tutankhamun, and for one thing, the guy was so sick the only place he’d be taking anyone would be the royal infirmary ward. Still, his afterlife estate is far more impressive than the whole of Pemberley, I’d daresay, batteries included or not.

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. Then in November 1922, beneath the hard bedrock of the previously excavated Valley of the Kings, Howard Carter struck gold, releasing to the world one of the greatest archaeological finds in history.

As I combed through idols and coffins, miniature boats and what appeared to be a life-sized, divine chia pet during a tour of a 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 is 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.

But before we get to those pieces, I’m going to rant about the death mask….

The Death Mask

Tutankhamun’s golden death mask, with its gemstone inlays and gold detailing, the symbol of the immortal god-king, can truly take one’s breath away. Or at least it would have caused respiratory issues, had it not been repeated three times before and four times after on the many coffins and canopic jars. After twelve copies, it kind of loses its luster.

According to the exhibit placards, ancient Egyptians 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 repetitive, elaborate shrines served merely a protective function or were believed to work like a magic microwave that recharged the body. In either event, the layers 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

That’s quite a way to protect a body, but I digress. Onto my favorite items, starting with….

1. Morally Suspect Sandals

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In the three thousand years that stand between us and the closing of the tomb it appears one type of footwear has remained relatively unchanged: the flip-flop. The cute straps and similarity to modern designs made this one of my favorite objects in the exhibit, and one could not overlook their spunky narrative.

Egypt’s enemies 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.

2. 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 discovered 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.

3. The Beetle from Space

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At the center of this pectoral, the sacred scarab 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 final favorite object on the list, because really bugs + space, what’s not to love.

Runners up included

The Iron Dagger
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Then, iron was precious; today it is common. The inversion is interesting.

Writing Reeds
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I can almost see them sitting in a shop somewhere, tossed into Tut’s Underworld survival bag much like the ones dropped into my college suitcase. One must always travel with pen packs.

The Sema-Tawi Vase
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The sema-tawi, or unity hieroglyph was the inspiration for the visual representation of the Merman’s Mark.

And finally…

The Throne and Shrine
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Covered in the images of Tutankhamun with his wife, the two pieces raise more questions than they answer. Tut was young and married to his sister, born to a heretical father. Instead of an idol inside as was customary with these shrines, there are only two footprints, suggesting an invisible god. Did he believe his father’s heretical views of an “invisible god” despite his return to the old, polytheistic religion? Were he and his wife close? Were these items of value, or did Tut’s untimely death make them so, hastily thrown into the tomb because there wasn’t time to make others?

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?

Maybe one day I’ll find it, but for now I’m content to imagine.