10 Things We Learned from the Discovery of King Tut Exhibition
No Egyptian Pharaoh has fascinated modern people like Tutankhamun, the Boy King, whose tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. Fifty objects from Tut’s tomb toured the U.S. in the late 1970s and again in 2010, kicking off Tut-mania—but it’s unlikely they’ll leave Cairo again. Thankfully, Tut-heads can tour The Discovery of King Tut, an exhibition that just opened in New York City.
The Discovery of King Tut displays 1000 expertly hand-crafted replicas, many displayed just as Carter found them when he opened Tut’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Unlike the tombs of the other pharaohs who were laid to rest in the Valley (after the pyramids were deemed to be obvious targets for grave robbers), Tut's tomb wasn't plundered. “The reason we talk about King Tut today isn’t because he was a significant king—not because he made his mark—but because Howard Carter found his tomb intact, for the most part,” Mark Lach, creative director of Premier Exhibitions, said at a media preview. “And Egyptologists, even today, are learning things from King Tut’s tomb.” Here are a few things we learned from the exhibition.
1. HOWARD CARTER HAD NO EXPERIENCE WHEN HE WENT TO EGYPT AT AGE 17.
Despite his lack of bonafides, Carter became an archaeological draftsman and excavator, and by 25, he was chief inspector of antiquities for Upper Egypt. In 1904, he became Chief Inspector for Lower Egypt—but he wouldn't hold the position for long. When some of his Egyptian site guards got into an argument with drunk French tourists about ticket prices, Carter sided with his staff—and rather than apologize to the tourists, Carter resigned his position. Though things were tough for a while, everything turned around when Carter met the wealthy Lord Carnarvon, who he convinced to bankroll his search for the tomb of Tutankhamun. (Fun fact: Carnarvon's country house, Highclere Castle, is the location of the series Downton Abbey.) After a five-year systematic search of the Valley of the Kings, Carter found what he was looking for. When he peered into the antechamber of Tut’s tomb for the first time, in November 1922, Carter said he saw “wonderful things.”
2. TUT'S FOUR-ROOM TOMB WAS ROBBED TWICE.
Carter believed that the first robbery took place soon after the burial, possibly by people who had worked on the tomb. After that break-in, the corridors to the burial chambers were filled in with rubble, but that didn’t prevent a second robbery—the thieves tunneled in. Afterward, the priests attempted to tidy up, but mostly left the antechamber as the thieves had. They closed off most of the walls, and the tomb remained undisturbed until Carter’s team opened it up more than 3000 years later.
3. KINGS BEGAN AMASSING OBJECTS FOR THE AFTERLIFE AS SOON AS THEY TOOK THE THRONE.
If a ruler died unexpectedly, craftsmen had 70 days to complete the objects—the length of time it took to mummify a body and perform embalming rituals.
4. TUT WASN'T ALONE IN HIS TOMB.
His two children—one who was stillborn, one who died at birth—were buried with him. There were no names on their coffins.
5. THE MUMMY WAS ENCASED IN THREE COFFINS.
The outermost two were made of gilded wood, and the last in solid gold. The coffins were then placed in a quartzite sarcophagus with a pink granite top. The sarcophagus was placed in the tomb first, and four shrines were built around it from the inside out using prefabricated parts. (Picture Russian nesting dolls.) One shrine was built in the style of an Upper Egyptian chapel; another was built in the style of a Lower Egyptian chapel.
6. ONE SHRINE IS MORE MYSTERIOUS THAN THE OTHERS.
The second shrine contains sections from a funerary text that has come to be known as The Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld. The inscriptions were written in an encoded text very few would have understood even then; researchers still don’t know what some of it says.
7. THE SHRINES HAD TO BE CARTED AWAY PIECE BY PIECE.
The burial chamber was so small that Carter couldn’t open the shrines there. Instead, he had to take them apart and move them piece by piece—a process that took 84 days. Carter built a rail system to take the pieces of the shrines to the Nile, where they were transported by ship to the museum in Cairo.
8. THE COFFINS WERE STUCK TOGETHER.
Carter began opening the three coffins in October 1925. He soon discovered that the innermost coffin was stuck to the bottom of the second coffin due to the embalming oils that had been poured over it as part of the burial ritual, which had hardened over time. To get the coffins—and the mummy—free, Carter suspended the coffins over a frame while he burned lamps underneath.
9. THE FAMOUS GOLD MASK, WHICH COVERED THE MUMMY'S HEAD AND CHEST, WAS PRETTY HEAVY.
Made of solid gold, and shaped in an idealized likeness of the king, the mask weighed 25 pounds. It wasn’t the only decoration on the mummy: There were also golden bands adorned with glass inscriptions from funerary texts.
10. THE BOY KING WAS PRETTY SICKLY.
He had a severe knee injury, carried the malaria parasite, and had bone diseases in his left foot. His ribs might have been separated from a fall from his royal chariot. Tut was 18 or 19 when he died, but the cause of his death is still a mystery.
The Discovery of King Tut is open now through May 2016; you can purchase tickets here.