“Treasures of Tutankhamun” show in 1972 was the world’s first blockbuster exhibition
. For nine months, more than 7.000 people queued every day, filling the museum’s forecourt in Bloomsbury, to see the wonders from the boy-king’s tomb. Since that travelling exhibition, no display of Egyptian antiquities has come close. Not that this has stopped curators from trying.
|Sir Howard Carter
The latest effort is at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. By focusing on the excavation rather than the contents of the tomb, the show manages to convey the thrill of unsealing a grave still stuffed with treasure. The story begins in November 1922, when a British archaeologist, Howard Carter, sent a telegram to his patron, George Herbert, the Earl of Carnarvon, saying: “At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact.”
Thanks to blow-ups of the original glass-plate negatives, visitors get to see exactly what confronted the excavation team when they entered: an antechamber piled high with chairs, boxes and beds adorned with animal heads; a painted chest filled with the pharaoh’s robes and sandals; and a rectangular stone sarcophagus containing the embalmed pharaoh himself The displays are from Carter’s rich archive, kept at Oxford University’s Griffith Institute, which celebrates its 75th birthday this year. Equally evocative are Carter’s diaries and record cards, and his delicate drawings of the finds, including a pencil sketch of the masked king lying in a nest of coffins.
Visitors hoping to see the young pharaoh’s sumptuous gold funerary mask will find a replica behind glass. The only items on show from the tomb itself are handfuls of seeds-almonds, persea and watermelon— that were buried for the king’s spirit to use in the afterlife (and which are kept in the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew).
JOB xv:31 Let not him that is deceived, trust in vanity:for vanity shall be his recompence.
The rest of the show is more patchy.One large room is devoted to the TUtmania that took hold in the 1920s on both sides of the Atlantic. Besides press cuttings, posters, and a 1923 Bakelite record of a hit song called “Old King Tut”, it features a scattering of pharaoh-inspired items: a “Tuttoom” board game, a hand-beaded lurex jacket, a Cartier diamond brooch, a biscuit tin.
One eye-catching object is a tall ritual couch ornamented with animal heads that was crafted by a sculptor in Hull. The final section, of ancient art, includes an elegant limestone head of TUtankhamun borrowed from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and a granite statue of the boy-king from the British Museum.
But there are no objects from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and probably won’t be for a long while as political turbulence in Egypt has also interrupted research.
And so nearly a century after the great Carter discovery, King Tut, the Boy King, still little is known except that he slept for centuries under gold.