Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs (Seattle)

Canopic Coffinette Front, Side and Back View. Held the mummified stomach of Tutankhamun.

The Exhibit

The Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs exhibition is touring the US from 2008 to 2013. The last stop on this National Geographic Organized Exhibition is the Pacific Science Center (May 24, 2012 to January 6, 2013) where we saw it. As a kid, I saw an earlier exhibition, The Treasures of Tutankhamun (1972 - 1981), at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1979. It was a memorable experience for a teenager who rarely left the Berkshire Hills. Yes, right about the time of Steve Martin’s King Tut was on the airwaves. How could you not like Martin and his backing band, the Toots Uncommons?

Overall, we thought the Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs exhibit was very well done. We walked out informed about the boy king Tutankhamun and some of the pharaohs that came before and after him. The exhibition contains twice the number of artifacts than the Treasures tour, so there was a lot to see. In general, the written descriptions accompanying each artifact were good. We appreciated that they put the descriptions at many locations around an artifact and in some cases up high so they could be read when crowded.

We’ll mention two minor missteps with the exhibition, at least in the Seattle Center venue. First, the music was too loud and a tad schlocky. It would have been nice if they turned it down a bit. Second misstep was that the audio guide was okay, not great. It could have been more descriptive of the artifacts we saw and given more optional backstory. Also, the sound seemed a bit muddled - likely the mechanics of the wand-like audio guide. For $6 dollars a handset, the audio guide should have been much better. Why not make it free and downloadable, e.g. like Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise? The audio guide for Tutankhamun is narrated by Harrison Ford with thoughts and recollections by Zahi Hawass, world-renowned Egyptologist.

The layout of the Tutankhamun exhibition in Seattle is dictated by the layout of the Science Center and so this exhibit felt similar to Lucy's Legacy: The Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia. The exhibition space is broken into two levels. You enter on the bottom level and exit on the top; connecting the two levels is a large ramp. In the Tutankhamun exhibition the ramp is used with good effect as it represents the long ramp into Tutankhamun’s tomb. Right before the ramp, Howard Carter the discoverer of the tomb, is introduced and then you walk up the ramp to “experience” what he found back in 1922 in what is now called KV62 in the Valley of the Kings. 

The sections of the exhibit are organized as follows: Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, Pharaoh’s Family, Pharaoh’s Court, Pharaoh’s Religion, Pharaoh’s Gold, Discovery of a Pharaoh [Tutankhamum](Antechamber, Annex, Treasure, and Burial Chamber), Pharaohs’ Fate, Gift Shop, and Modern Science. Yup, shopping before science.


Damnatio Memoriae

There are usually a few interesting tidbits that catch my attention in an exhibit. Somehow our minds keeps coming back to the tidbits trying to understand them. The belt of the kilt on a statue of Tutankhamun was one of them. The statue was one of a pair of colossal 17 foot quartzite figures associated with Tutankhamun. Tut’s successor “Ay appropriated the statue and carved his name on the front of the belt. Horemheb, in turn, took it over for his use and reinscribed the belt with his name.” It struck us as strange. Horemheb, the last ruler in the Eighteenth Dynasty, usurped many of Tut’s monuments. Why?

The Eighteenth Dynasty was a period (c. 1550 - c. 1292 BC) in ancient Egypt which included some of the most well-known pharaohs, including Tutankhamun. One of the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs was Hatshepsut - a rare, powerful female pharaoh. She ruled more than 100 years before Tutankhamun. A statue in the exhibit shows her wearing a royal kilt, headdress and beard typical of male pharaohs.

Tutankhamun was the third from the last ruler in the Eighteenth Dynasty, ruling for just nine years from ca. 1333 - 1323 BC and dying before reaching twenty years old. Tutankhamun’s father Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) had moved away from traditional Egyptian polytheism and focused on just one god, Aten, the sun-god. Under Tutankhamun’s reign the restoration of traditional beliefs was started, taking Egypt back to polytheism. But alas, it wasn’t enough because after Tutankhamun’s death, Ay ruled for a few years followed by Horemheb who instigated a damnatio memoriae against rulers associated with Akhenaten.

But against all odds - the damnatio memoriae, what may have been an unexpected death and hasty burial, and tomb robbers – Tut today is one of the most widely known pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Tutankhamun may have faded from public consciousness in Ancient Egypt within a short time after his death and remained virtually unknown until the 1920s, but he is back in a weird twist on the afterlife. From a description in the exhibition: “Pharaoh’s fate, however, was different for Tutankhamun. His early death led to a hasty burial in an atypically located and small, almost undecorated, tomb. No grand ceremonies took place for him. No funerary cult was established to keep his memory alive. The rulers of the revolutionary religion of Aten were officially forgotten, their names omitted from the lists of kings. Their statuary and monuments were appropriated by their successors. For the Egyptians, Tutankhamun did not exist. Yet it is his tiny tomb, his banned name, and his hidden treasures that people envision when they hear of Egypt’s pharaoh. Tutankhamun, unlike any other, attained an eternal afterlife.”

Speaking of forgotten, all the craftsmen and workers who build the pharaohs’ temples and monuments usually do not show up in exhibitions. In this exhibition however, there are four figurines of Inty-shedu, a master builder of the pyramids of Giza. The four statues represent the builder at different states in his life. (The pyramids of Giza were built more than a thousand years before Tutankhamun’s reign.)

On a final twist of damnatio memoriae, during the embalming of a royal person the brain was discarded - there go all the memories. Egyptians thought the brain to be useless. Four viscera, the liver, lung, stomach and intestines, were dried out and protected by the four sons of Horus.


Exhibit Words

Museum and exhibition visits can often hit you with a barrage of terms that you have never seen before. Here are a few terms we noted with definitions courtesy of Wikipedia:

  • Anthropoid Coffin - a container for a body that resembles a human, anthropoid coffins where often used as inner containers for a rectangular outer coffin.
  • Calcite - a common crystalline form of natural carbonate, CaCO3 that is the basic constituent of limestone, marble, and chalk. Also known as alabaster.
  • Canopic - related to or being an ancient Egyptian vase, urn, or jar used to hold the viscera of an embalmed body.
  • Cartouche - a special pictorial way of representing a royal name in Egyptian hieroglyphs; it is an oval with a horizontal line at one end. Tutankhamun’s birth name (prenomen) means “living image of Amun” and is what the cartouche represents. A cartouche is also used for a royal person’s throne name (nomen).
  • Damnatio memoriae - erasing someone from history.
  • Senet - a board game from predynastic and ancient Egypt.
  • Shabti – a funerary figure placed in the tomb of a pharaoh that acted as a substitute worker for the deceased should he (the deceased) be called upon to do work.
  • Unguent - a soothing preparation spread on damaged skin. One of the artifacts in the exhibition is a vase that held unguent, found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.
  • Ureaus (plural uraei or uraeuses) is the stylized, upright form of an Egyptian spitting cobra, used as a symbol of sovereignty, royalty, deity, and divine authority in ancient Egypt.

Amenhotep IV - Tutankhamun's Father (left) and Tutankhaman (right)
Amenhotep IV - Tutankhamun's Father Tutankhaman

Colossal Statue of Tutankhamun - Belt Detail (left) and Annotated To Show Rework (right)
Colossal Statue of Tutankhamun - Belt Detail Colossal Statue of Tutankhamun - Belt Detail  

Unguent Vase (left) and Shabti (right) – Items in Tutankhamun’s Tomb
Unguent Vase (left) and Shabti (right) – Items in Tutankhamun’s Tomb Unguent Vase (left) and Shabti (right) – Items in Tutankhamun’s Tomb

Examples of Exhibition Descriptions
Examples of Exhibition Descriptions in the Tutankhamun Exhibit Examples of Exhibition Descriptions in the Tutankhamun Exhibit

Amenhotep III Jewelery Box - 18th Dynasty (right), “Cat Box” - Tomb for a cat that belonged to Thutmose, son of Amenhotep III (left)
Amenhotep III Jewelery Box - 18th Dynasty Tomb for a cat that belonged to Thutmose, son of Amenhotep III

Lid for Canopic Container (left) and Shabtis (right)

Shabtis (left), Pectoral with Scarab - Sheshonq II - 22nd Dynasty (middle), Gold Death Mask of Psusennes I –21st Dynasty

Kahfre, A Fourth Dynasty King (left) and Inty-Shedu Four Figurines - Old Kingdom

Queen Nofret - Consort of 12th Dynasty Pharaoh Senwosret II (left) and Thutmose III Offering Nu-Jars - 18th Dynasty (right)

Statue of Kai and his Children - Tomb of Kai, Late 4th Dynasty (left), Stele (right)


  1. Thank you for this. We went to see the exhibit but it was soo very overcrowded. I appreciate your in-depth review and your excellent photos.

  2. Yes, thank you! The exhibit was filled with so many people all clicking the same photographs that it got to be a tad annoying. We didn't want to contribute to the problem, but wished we had pictures. Thankfully, you've got good taste and have taken photos of all of our favorite artifacts!


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