Ancient Egypt’s most notorious pharaoh visits London for the very last time…
It’s 1922, and archaeologist Howard Carter is desperate. He was hired by the fifth Earl of Carnarvon 15 years previously to oversee excavations in the Valley of the Kings, but while other Egyptologists are discovering glorious things through their digs in this ancient land, he has unearthed nothing more than a mummified cat, and time is running out. Carnarvon has agreed to fund just one more season of digging…
That final season was to prove perhaps the most important in all of Egyptology. Just as they neared giving up hope, a chance discovery by a local boy looking for a place to prop a bowl of water, suggested the top of a staircase was jutting out of the ground. Howard’s first explorations warned of disappointment—the evidence of two historical robberies led to concern that the tomb may now contain nothing at all. But what he eventually unearthed would shape the way the modern world viewed ancient Egypt forever.
In his journal, Carter wrote, “I inserted the candle and peered in… At first I could see nothing… but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment—an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by—I was struck dumb with amazement.”
With the discovery came global fame for Tutankhamun, who died aged just 19. Ancient Egyptians believed every man dies twice—first, when he loses life, and again the moment his name is uttered for the last time. Carter’s discovery was to make King Tut, the Boy King—ironically obscure in his own time—immortal…
After years of touring the world to sell-out shows, in 2019, Tutankhamun embarked on his final world tour before being laid permanently to rest in the new Grand Egyptian Museum. His journey, which began in California and received great acclaim in Paris, will take him as far from home as Japan, Sydney and South Korea.
From now until May 2020, he stops off at London’s Saatchi Gallery. Here’s a glimpse of the treasures you’ll witness if you choose to pay one last farewell to the most notorious pharaoh of the ancient world…
This life-sized guardian statue is one of a set of two that vigilantly watched over the entrance to Tut’s burial chamber, and was one of the first things Carter saw upon entering the tomb. While strikingly life-like and commanding as a whole, it’s their eyes that immediately draw your attention because of their unnerving remoteness. No matter where you find yourself in relation to the statues, they never seem to be looking directly at you. Curator Tarek El Awady explains that this is because the statues were made for the afterlife, meaning they need to be looking farther than our world—they need to be looking into the eternal life of the king. It’s one of the objects that has left Cairo for the first time and one that the exhibition’s organisers refer to as “a big win.”
Buried alongside the Boy King were a variety of tools and statues designed to help him on his path to the afterlife. Though pharaohs were buried in the Valley of the Kings, it was believed that the netherworld began upon the horizon, at the place where the sun sets, and that the dead would have to undergo an arduous journey in order to join the sun god, Ra, for eternity. This scene of Tutankhamun on a skiff shows the young king using a spear aboard a light boat in order to catch fish for the long days of his journey—the magic placed on these objects by the ancient priests would mean the tools and vessel could become a reality for the king in his journey.
Naos One of the most mysterious objects discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb and on display at the Saatchi, is this ornate gilded wooden naos. Never before has a depiction of the relationship between a king and his queen been discovered with this level of detail—it shows that King Tut and his wife (and half-sister), Ankhesenamun were extremely close. Inside the shrine, Carter found a stand for a statue, but no statue itself, only footprints on the base of the stand, where the statue should be. Many interpretations as to its meaning have been offered over the years, but Tarek El Awady perhaps makes the most convincing when he suggests it was a stand for a statue of the god Amun, whose name means “the hidden one”.
Not every discovery from the tomb is so mysterious, however—some appear downright comical. This container in the shape of a cooked duck was filled with the remains of a real, mummified duck. A priest would have cast special magic upon the bird before its death and consequent embalming, which would ensure that, should the Boy King wish to eat duck in the afterlife, his desire could be granted. There are many similar containers on display at the Saatchi, including beef ribs and a shank of meat.
You might be surprised to learn that organs were dealt with separately during the mummification process in ancient Egypt. Each organ had a specially designated case in order to protect it during the passage to the next world. King Tut was no different and this beautiful, gold inlaid canopic coffinette was designed to store the young pharaoh’s liver.
The final room of the exhibition is the quietest yet the most awe-inspiring one. Its sole inhabitant is the colossal, quartzite statue of Tutankhamun. Ten-foot-tall, he stands proud in this dimly lit room as enigmatic traditional Egyptian music fills the air. Every once in a while, a woman’s voice whispers his name with solemnity and pathos... “Tutankhamun”, to remind us that the great pharaoh is still living his eternal life, as his name is far from forgotten. Anywhere he travels in the world with the exhibition, this is the room that the visitors spend most time in. As the organisers reveal to us, visitors often come here to seek solace, or to reflect upon personal grief or trauma. The ancient Egyptian notion of being forever alive in the memories of other people is a comforting and resonant one in the face of loss.
Upon finally entering the tomb and catching the first glimpse of the treasure trove it had been harbouring for thousands of years, Howard Carter uttered two words in response when Lord Carnarvon asked him what he could see. He said, “wonderful things.” Interestingly, those also happened to be the words inscribed on one of the first of many objects they discovered on that fateful day: the magnificent alabaster chalice which Carter nicknamed the “wishing cup” after the prayers and wishes for the Boy King that it bore.
It read: “May you live thousands of years. May your eyes see wonderful things.” In many ways, that wish did come true, according to Tarek El Awady. “King Tut is the most travelled king from ancient Egypt. All these exhibitions dedicated to him toured the world during the 1960s and 1970s, then again a few years ago, and now with our current exhibit. He has seen many different cities, many different cultures, many wonderful things.”
This current exhibition, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the discovery, is the biggest one yet, touring ten cities around the world before returning to Egypt forever. Out of the 150 items on display, 66 have never travelled outside of Egypt before, making it a very exciting, but incredibly precious venture which requires meticulous attention to organisation and security.
John Norman, the managing director, likens it to moving around a presidential candidate: “There are undisclosed trucks and locations, and the security is quite similar to that of a military operation. It’s very discreet—it happens, and nobody even knows it’s happening”.But before the artefacts are shipped off to their next destination by a special fine arts division at FedEx (who work with museums across the world, including the Louvre), they must undergo a lengthy prep and packaging process that in itself resembles mummification.
Each of the 150 objects has a specifically built travel case which lives within another case—enclosed within yet another case, so there are three cushioned cases protecting it in total.
Says John: “It takes us a week to de-install all the objects in the exhibition, there is a process and formality of doing that. Then the objects go to the new city and it takes another week to ten days to condition, report, and to install the objects.”
After spending 3,000 years in oblivion, Tut is once again being treated like royalty and living his dream of travel and adventure, attracting millions of people around the world to pay him a visit and marvel at his cherished belongings. Though insignificant in life, in death he achieved the goal of every pharaoh—to cross the vast ocean of time and achieve immortality.
Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh is on at the Saatchi Gallery until May 3, 2020. For tickets, visit tutankhamun-london.com
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