As the centenary of Howard Carter’s discovery looms, the largest collection of Tutankhamun’s grave goods ever to leave Egypt has embarked on a world tour. The objects, ranging from glittering treasures to everyday essentials, were assembled to ease the youthful pharaoh’s passage into the next world. For all their beauty, these artefacts also tell tales of belief, the burden of royal duties, and young love, as Tarek El Awady revealed to Matthew Symonds.
Excitement still fizzes from the pages of Howard Carter’s account of the discovery. Almost 100 years since a rock-cut step was exposed in an ancient workman’s hut in the Valley of the Kings, we can share Carter’s hopes and doubts as digging progressed. He confides nagging fears that his sixth and final season in the Valley would be in vain, that any tomb would be unfinished, or at best a cache of royal mummies long since stripped of their finery. We experience the emotional rollercoaster as his team locates a seemingly sealed doorway, only to find it was breached by looters. And, ultimately, we reach the most-celebrated moment in the annals of archaeological discovery. On 26 November 1922, Carter opened an aperture in a second doorway, and illuminated the void beyond with a flickering candle. ‘Can you see anything?’, asked his sponsor Lord Carnarvon. ‘Yes,’ Carter replied, ‘wonderful things.’
That shadowy monarch
The pharaoh we know as Tutankhamun was born around 1340 BC, and named Tutankhaten. DNA evidence reveals that his father and mother were also brother and sister, a union that may explain abnormalities in their son’s feet: Tutankhamun was born with one flatfoot and one clubfoot, perhaps meaning he needed a walking stick for support. He also had a mild cleft palate, and later in life an impacted wisdom tooth probably brought pain. Tutankhamun’s father was most likely Akhenaten, a radical heretic who upended worship of Egypt’s broad pantheon in favour of the sun (Aten). It was this schism that led to Tutankhamun’s change of name. Judging by a small golden throne found in his tomb, the boy was still known as Tutankhaten when he became pharaoh, aged nine or ten. Amending this name, which means ‘the living image of Aten’, to reference Amun, the principal deity worshipped at Karnak, symbolised the victory of the old gods over the new one. The consequences were huge, as Tutankhamun’s embrace of the traditional deities ensured the Aten obsession was just a blip, rather than Egypt’s new normal.
Tutankhamun’s journey to the afterlife began when he was about 19. It was once believed that foul play had a hand in his demise, but more recent scientific analyses suggest that simple bad luck claimed the teenager. As well as contracting malaria, the king may have suffered a serious injury. Tutankhamun’s body has an unhealed fractured femur, which either occurred just before death or while the embalmers went about their grisly business.
‘It is not easy to say that he died because of this, or because of that’, says Tarek El Awady, exhibition curator. ‘All the tests, research, study of the mummy, CT scans, and X-rays have not been able to tell us whether he died because of a disease or because of an accident. But thanks to this work we can be sure that he was not in good health from the very beginning.’ Although official preparations for Tutankhamun’s passing were still in their infancy when he died, his former subjects took pains to ensure he was well provided for in the next world. ‘That is the scenario for our exhibition’, Tarek explains. ‘We are bringing 149 objects from the tomb, and the aim is to have visitors experience the sacred journey to the afterlife. We want to express their function, and how they helped the king on his magic journey.’
Anything might lie beyond
‘In the exhibition, we have one of two life-size wooden sculptures found in the tomb. These are known as the guardian statues. For me, this is the masterpiece among masterpieces. When Howard Carter first entered the tomb antechamber, he found the statues facing each other to either side of the sealed doorway leading to the burial chamber. That is why they are called the guardians: it looks as if they were protecting the entrance. Their real function is a mystery, but one popular interpretation is that they are Ka statues. The Ka is the soul of the deceased, and as the statues have faces depicting the real features of Tutankhamun, their role would be to represent him and guide his soul on its journey.’
‘The statues have been carved so that they have what you could think of as magic faces. You can look at them from any angle, but the eyes never look at you. Even if you stand directly in front of them, the eyes are looking far beyond you. It is as if they are gazing into another world.’ Although fragments of such guardians have been found in other tombs, the quality of Tutankhamun’s are exceptional. Flourishes include obsidian discs for their eyes, and bitumen skin, perhaps evoking the fertile soils left in the wake of the flooding Nile. Most apparent, though, is the gilding, which appears absent from what is left of guardians elsewhere in the Valley. The lack of any other intact royal tombs means we have no true basis for comparison, but it has been proposed that the lavish gilding of Tutankhamun’s grave goods might reflect his popularity, perhaps because he restored the beloved old gods to his people.
A generous application of gold was certainly one of the first things to catch Carter’s eye, as he peered into the tomb antechamber: ‘details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues [which must have been the guardians], and gold – everywhere the glint of gold’. To us, gold symbolises wealth and power, but the ancient Egyptians divined a deeper significance within its properties. ‘Why was gold everywhere?’, asks Tarek. ‘It was important not just because it is a precious material, but because it is a material connected with eternity. As it doesn’t perish, tarnish, or rust, ancient Egyptians believed that gold was the flesh of the gods. They never got old or changed, and neither did gold.’
Tutankhamun: treasures of the golden pharaoh runs until 3 May 2020 at the Saatchi Gallery in London. For tickets, visit the website https://tutankhamun-london.com or telephone 0800 988 4440.