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15 Pharaonic Objects Buried in Tut's Tomb

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Tut's outer coffin. Malavoda via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

He may be the most famous of pharaohs, but Tutankhamun was just a teenager when he died in 1323 B.C.E. after a brief nine-year rule. In Egypt's long history, he was a minor ruler (yet a demigod, like all pharaohs).

Tut looms large in the popular imagination thanks of a stroke of luck. For millennia, the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings were plundered as soon as anyone could get into them. But Tut's remained hidden beneath a workers camp built not too long after his death. And so its treasures stayed hidden until 1922, when Howard Carter dug into the ground and found a staircase leading to the unbroken seal on Tut's tomb.


Tut may have not have been a power player, but he was still a demigod during the New Kingdom, a golden age of Egypt, and his multi-room tomb reflected that. It was stuffed to the brim with thousands of objects meant to make his afterlife eternally posh. It took Carter eight years to remove and catalog everything within. Today a small fraction of them are on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Here are some of our favorites.

1. Tut's Burial Mask

Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0


It's famous for a reason. Beautifully sculpted and inlaid, with sensuous lines and features, it represents an idealized version of the boy king. In early 2015, Tut's beard—standard on all pharaohs, even female ones—was reported to have been accidentally snapped off and hastily glued back on with epoxy, which damaged the surface. The director of the Egyptian Museum later denied the episode had ever happened.  

2. Statue of Anubis


The jackal-headed god Anubis—here depicted in full canine form—ushered souls to the afterworld. He was also associated with mummification, and was thought to protect graves.

3. Headrest


In an age of memory foam pillows, this headrest doesn't look very comfortable. But perhaps stone seems cozier when Shu, the god of air and wind, gives your head a lift. These headrests were long popular in Egyptian tombs as an essential accessory for the "sleeping" inhabitants.

4. Canopic Jars

In this alabaster chest, four Tuts seem to sit in an intimate face off. These are canopic jars containing Tut's organs, which would have been removed before mummification. The Egyptians believed he needed those innards in the afterlife. Tut's face is the stopper on each jar.

5. Tut's Fan

Dmitry Denisenkov via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Egypt is hotIf you're a demigod, your fan is extra special—gilded and inlaid, with your name in a royal cartouche.      

6. Game of Senet

Dmitry Denisenkov via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0


Who says a pharaoh can't enjoy a good board game? By the time Senet, or "passing," was buried with Tut, it had been played in Egypt for some 1800 years and had come to be associated with passing from life to death. The game was popular at all levels of society. Its rules have been lost to time, but we've made some educated guesses about gameplay.

7. Leopard Head

Dmitry Denisenkov via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Adorable here but fierce in real life, the leopard was much admired by Egyptian royalty and imported from southern Africa. The hieroglyph of a leopard head is used in association with words related to strength.

8. Throwing Sticks

Günter Bechly via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The throwing sticks (seen here as reproductions in an exhibit in Germany) found in Tut's tomb would have been used for hunting birds in the afterlife.

9. Statue of Ptah, the Creator God

Image Credit: Getty Images

Known as "the beautiful face," "the lord of truth," the master of justice," and "the lord of eternity," blue-capped Ptah was a creator god and the patron of craftsmen and architects—basically, the people who built Tut's tomb and everything in it.   

10. Solar scarab pendant

 
There's no creature as associated with ancient Egypt as the scarab. These beetles were hugely popular among all Egyptians, and they left behind countless thousands of examples. Here the scarab is associated with the sun god Ra—in his rising-sun form, the scarab-headed Khepri—and the wings of Horus, the sky god.

11. Royal Chariot

Maladova via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Tut's chariot had been dismantled before being placed in the tomb, but it's been reconstructed for display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. (This image is of a reproduction from an exhibit in Germany.) Recently, some researchers theorized that Tut died after a fall from his chariot, but it's more likely that an accident or disease caused his death.  

12. Kid Tut


Tut's features in this childhood depiction are unusual due to both aesthetics and genetics. Tut's father was Akenaten, who scandalized polytheistic Egypt by trying to force the monotheistic worship of Aten. He also nurtured a more naturalistic approach to royal art—and in the process documented his own family's genetic anomalies, including oddly shaped skulls, which persisted in the family due to close interbreeding. Tut's mom and dad were also brother and sister. 

13. Ornate Painting of Warfare


A classic way rulers have gotten people to remember them is by killing a whole bunch of other people—if not in real life then at least on painted wood. Here Tut is shown on his chariot aiming his crossbow at enemy soldiers, perhaps Syrian. That decapitated head beneath his horse isn't an outlier. Another gruesome depiction shows Tut receiving the severed hands of his enemies.

14. Perfume Vessel

Frank Rytell via Flickr // CC BY 2.0


Filled with expensive perfumed unguents, the alabaster vessels found in Tut's tomb were still marked with the "finger marks of thieves on their interior walls," according to Carter. This one depicts the pot-bellied, big-breasted, intersex fertility deity Hapi, shown in double form, who oversaw the annual flooding of the Nile. 

15. Tut Himself

Harold Carter and an anonymous worker study Tut.

In recent years, the analysis of Tut's mummy—along with many of his famous relatives—has provided many details of their lives. Tut appears to have been slight and sickly, with a club foot and malaria. He fathered two girls with his half-sister. Both were stillborn.

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Brigido Lara, the Artist Whose Pre-Columbian Fakes Fooled Museums Around the World
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iStock

In July 1974, Mexican authorities sent a man named Brigido Lara to jail. His crime wasn't a violent one, but it was serious nonetheless: Archaeologists from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), a Mexican federal government bureau devoted to preserving the nation's heritage, claimed that Lara had been found with ancient ceramic artifacts looted from archeological sites in the state of Veracruz.

Lara was convicted of stealing and smuggling antiquities, but he insisted he wasn't a thief—and he could prove it. All he needed were tools and some clay brought to his jail cell. 

FORGING A CAREER

Lara grew up in Veracruz, in the village of Tlalixcoyán. While his parents were peasant farmers, Lara showed artistic talent—specifically, a knack for creating figurines from clay. Veracruz is home to many archaeological sites that date back to hundreds and thousands of years before the arrival of before Christopher Columbus, and the young Lara would often find ancient terra-cotta figurines in the fields and near rivers. He claims that by the time he was 9 years old, he was making versions of these artifacts using clay harvested from a local stream.

As Lara grew older, his skill set expanded. He reportedly taught himself how to prep and oven-fire local clay, and began making objects that mimicked those of several ancient Mesoamerican cultures—imitation Olmec pots, Maya polychrome vessels, and figurines in the Aztec, Mayan, and Totonac styles. He began specializing in replicating works by the Totonacs, a culture that flourished in central Veracruz until the Spanish Conquest introduced diseases that ravaged the communities. These figurines ranged in size from large to tiny, and often depicted mythological gods wearing masks and headdresses.

It's not entirely clear whether Lara began making these figurines for fun or profit. But according to the man himself, traveling dry-goods merchants had noticed his talents before he had even reached his teens. They accepted his "interpretations," as he called his early work, in lieu of cash—then sold them on the black market. Looters also came to Lara, asking him to fix and restore stolen works. Eventually, the artist wound up working in a Mexico City atelier that produced forgeries.

No detail was too tiny for Lara. He visited archaeological sites to study just-dug-up artifacts, and harvested clay from the surrounding region to sculpt exact likenesses. He later told Connoisseur magazine that for true authenticity, he even crafted his own primitive tools and stockpiled 32 grades of cinnabar—a reddish form of mercury used by the Olmec, an ancient Mesoamerican civilization that existed between 1200 BCE and 400 BCE—for precise pigmentation. He finished his works with a ancient-looking patina made from cement, lime, hot sugar water, urine, and other ingredients, and coated the final products with a seal made from dirt and glue.

But even though Lara was a stickler for the details, he also took artistic liberties with some of his "interpretations," adding elements that wouldn't have appeared on the original artifacts. Sometimes he would include a fanciful new detail from his imagination: a winged headdress, or one that writhed with serpents; a duck-billed mask, or a dramatic, lifelike pose.

Lara didn't consider himself a forger. "My style was born with me," he told The New York Times in 1987. "I didn't learn from anyone. I studied the pre-Columbian pieces in my town that came from the burial mounds, and I used the ancient techniques. I made these pieces and I am very proud."

But by young adulthood, he'd also become a businessman, selling his unsigned pre-Columbian replicas to middlemen who re-sold them to illegal art collectors both domestically and abroad. "I was aware that many buyers then sold them as authentic pre-Hispanic works," Lara admitted to Art & Antiques magazine years later.

COMING CLEAN

Lara's forgery career may have continued undetected had he and four of his buyers not been apprehended in 1974 and charged with trafficking in pre-Columbian works. The police didn't consider Lara an artist or a forger—his works looked so real, the authorities thought they'd been dug right out of the ground.

Lara was sentenced to 10 years in jail. To regain his freedom, he devised a plan: He asked law enforcement officials to grant his lawyer permission to bring him clay and art tools. Right there in his cell, Lara created replicas of the antiques he'd reportedly stolen. Experts from the INAH examined the earthen artworks, and declared them "genuine" ancient artifacts.

The stunt worked. Lara had proven he had made the works himself, not smuggled them out of ancient sites. Finally convinced of his innocence, prison officials released him in January 1975 after he'd served only seven months of his sentence.

After his release, Alfonso Medellín Zenil, head of the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, offered Lara a job. "Our policy is, when you can't beat them, hire them," Fernando Winfield Capitaine, then the museum's director, joked to Connoisseur.

The Museo de Antropología is home to an extensive collection of artifacts from Mexico's Gulf Coast produced by ancient indigenous peoples such as the Olmec, the Huastec, and the Totonac. Lara was hired to restore these works as well as to make replicas for the museum's gift shop.

But his career as a forger wasn't behind him quite yet.

REVELATIONS AND REFLECTIONS

In the early 1980s, Veracruz governor Agustín Acosta Lagunes began repatriating pre-Columbian works from abroad, expanding the collections at the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa. But when Lara saw some of these imported works, which had been purchased at Sotheby's auction house in New York City, he pronounced them fakes. He knew, he said, because he'd made many of them—including a figure of a male dancer that had been exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History’s “Ancient Art of Veracruz” exhibit in 1971.

Little by little, it emerged that Lara’s works might have made their way into pre-Columbian art collections around the world, including in prestigious museums such as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum, as well as in renowned private collections. Lara claimed credit for a 3-foot statue of the Mexican wind god Ehecatl in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and out of approximately 150 works on display in the "Ancient Art of Veracruz" exhibit, asserted that he had made about a dozen.

Among the most notorious fakes Lara claimed to have created were three life-size ceramic sculptures in the Dallas Museum of Art that had once belonged to film director John Huston. "If you look at them closely, they are copies," Lara told the Associated Press in 1987. The works were attributed to the Totonac, and thought to have been made between 600 to 900 CE. Lara, however, claimed to have produced them during the 1950s: "The details are different than the originals … the details in the breast decorations, in the shoulder patches and so on," he said. "They are very different. They are originals of course—my own."

As news spread about Lara’s forgeries, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Met in New York City, and the Dallas Museum of Art responded to the controversy by taking works off display. "All three museums acknowledged that many of the Veracruz-style objects in their collections were problematic," Matthew H. Robb, a former curator at the Saint Louis Art Museum who is now chief curator at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, tells Mental Floss.

Nobody knows exactly how Lara’s creations made their way into American museums (Lara blamed various high-profile art traffickers and dealers), but experts say they noticed when suspicious artifacts resembling his work first began popping up in the 1950s, as pre-Columbian art was becoming more and more popular among American art collectors. "They appeared out of nowhere, resembling nothing previously excavated," Edmund Carpenter, a New York archeologist, told The New York Times. "I saw some in New York, Los Angeles, Paris. Museums bought them, big collectors bought them. But nobody asked, 'How come a big find like this?'"

Bryan Just, a curator and lecturer on pre-Columbian art at the Princeton University Art Museum, chalks the phenomena up to scholarly ignorance. At the time, "there wasn't a lot of material available for comparison," he tells Mental Floss. "There are many regions, including Veracruz … where not a whole lot of archeology had been done. So for a lot of these [new] artworks, there weren't great sources to reference that answered questions like, 'How should this stuff really look?' And at that time, what had been excavated may not have been published."

There was also a shortage of experts to consult because the very idea of pre-Columbian relics as art was still relatively new. Connoisseurs only began collecting and selling these works in the early 20th century, and university scholars didn’t begin offering pre-Columbian art history courses until the 1950s, according to Just.

Not that collectors were necessarily consulting scholars in the first place: "If you were considering work that was offered to you by a dealer, you may have not wanted to consult a colleague who's an expert in that particular area if they work at a collecting institution," Just says. "You know, out of concern that they might snag it up before you do."

Fortunately, modern scholars have access to a greater body of knowledge about pre-Columbian art than their predecessors. "In retrospect, when I see Lara's stuff now, it seems pretty obvious to me that it's wrong," Just says. "It doesn't make sense when you think about it in terms of the broader context of what we know about these particular traditions."

But even today, it isn't always easy to ascertain what's real and what's not when it comes to pre-Columbian art. Experts sometimes use thermoluminescence tests, which involve removing a tiny piece of the object, grinding it up, heating it in a furnace, and observing how much light it emits. Ideally, this process can measure how long ago the clay was fired, but the results can be skewed if a work was recently exposed to extreme heat or had been cleaned.

Another issue is that "lots of these complicated ceramic sculptures are pastiches," Victoria Lyall, a curator of pre-Columbian art at the Denver Art Museum, tells Mental Floss. Artists "will use bits of older sculptures and put them back together. So you have to test a lot of different spots to really get a better sense of whether the entire piece is fake."

X-rays are a good way to spot a composite, but they interfere with thermoluminescence test results, putting conservationists between a rock and a hard place. Furthermore, clays from certain regions—like the clay Lara worked with in Veracruz—reportedly aren't as conducive to thermoluminescence testing.

A LEGACY OF LIES

Lara is now in his mid-70s. He no longer restores antiques at the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa full-time, but he still works as a consultant there, and he continues to make art under his own name. However, his legacy will forever be tied with the difficult history of pre-Columbian artwork. According to experts, it's possible that his artworks are still masquerading as artifacts around the world, and that he may have even helped shape modern scholars' perception of pre-Columbian art from Veracruz.

However, it's also feasible that Lara's stories are a composite of fact and fiction—just like his work. The artist claims to have made thousands of forgeries (one estimate places the number at more than 40,000 pieces), but some experts say it would have been nearly impossible for Lara—who was only in his 30s when he was arrested—to have produced so many works in just a few decades.

Plus, the timelines don't always add up: Lara "was about 8 years old at the time that the [Ehecatl statue] was supposedly manufactured and purchased by the Met," Lyall says.

Lara also claims to have been self-taught, but some have speculated that he's stretched the truth about his natural talent. He may have instead learned his trade by apprenticing at a young age in a Veracruz workshop that specialized in forgeries, theorizes Jesse Lerner, a professor of media studies at Pitzer College. Lara "denies all that, but it's hard to know … Just by the nature of his business, it's kind of shady," Lerner tells Mental Floss. (Lerner's 1999 documentary Ruins—a look at the history of Mexican archeology and the traffic in fakes—features an interview with Lara.)

This workshop might have sold both Lara's wares and similar works to international collectors through an established underground market. Such a scenario would explain the artist's familiarity with pieces in faraway collections, like the Met's statue, which he could describe in great detail despite likely having never produced it with his own hands. Because forgeries aren't exactly signed, it's difficult to know for sure which pieces are Lara's and which may have been made by other forgers.

Either way, Lara's frauds are a reminder to avoid believing everything you read—even if it's a label in a museum. And they offer another lesson, too.

"The types of ancient works that Lara and other forgers were imitating, they weren't intended as aesthetic objects," Lerner says. "They weren't for museums. They were representations of this whole world view of cosmic forces."

That makes forgeries like Lara's particularly problematic. "If the only way we can access that worldview is through these objects that survive, [Lara] is just adding bad data to the pool of data that we have available. He's messing up everyone's understanding of who these figures are representing, and how their universe was understood and functioned."

In other words, sometimes fakes don't just fool art lovers—they can also change our understanding of history.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Egyptian Archaeologists Discover 3500-Year-Old Tomb of Goldsmith to the Pharaohs
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Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

Egyptian archaeologists have discovered the 3500-year-old tomb of a royal goldsmith. His name was Amenemhat, and his tomb was found in Draa Abul-Naga, a necropolis for elites and rulers located near the Valley of the Kings, in the southern Egyptian province of Luxor.

Amenemhat lived sometime during the 18th Dynasty (16th–14th century BCE). His tomb was dedicated to the god Amun-Re. It took archaeologists five months of digging to find a burial shaft leading to a chamber where they discovered a sarcophagus, mummies, and about 150 funerary statues and masks. Statues of Amenemhat and his wife, wearing a wig and a long dress, sat side by side in the chamber; a smaller statue of one of their sons rested between them, The New York Times reports.

egyptian archaeologist restoring the sarcophagus of a goldsmith
An Egyptian archaeologist restores an ornately decorated wood sarcophagus discovered in the tomb of Amenemhat, a royal goldsmith.
Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

More mummies, partially unwrapped, were discovered in a burial shaft. "We are not sure if these mummies belong to Amenemhat and his family," lead archaeologist Mostafa Waziri told the Times. "Others have clearly reused this tomb and poked around in ancient times. That’s probably why their heads are uncovered."

A laborer cleans an ancient skull in a goldsmith's tomb in egypt
Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

Amenemhat's tomb is not the most important find ever made in a country well known for its vast archaeological riches, but it comes at a time when Egypt is still trying to recover from the years of internal strife, terrorism, and violence that have followed in the wake of the uprising of 2011, which culminated in the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Tourism—a huge driver of Egypt's economy—plummeted, though there are signs the industry has begun to recover.

Egypt's antiquities minister, Khaled el-Enany, said as much in a news conference held outside the tomb over the weekend. "This find is important for marketing," he noted. "This is exactly what Egypt needs."

See more images of the discovery below.

Small funerary statues carved in wood, clay and limestone
Small funerary statues discovered in the tomb were carved in wood, clay, and limestone.
Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

Jewelry, statues, and other artifacts discovered in the tomb.
Jewelry, statues, and other artifacts discovered in the tomb.
Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

Skulls and bone remains placed next to a wooden sacrophagus.
Skulls and bone remains placed next to a wooden sacrophagus.
Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

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