Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs

Let’s get one thing straight: there is no King Tut in the King Tut exhibition now at midtown’s Discovery Time Square Exposition. No mummy, no gold death mask, no sarcophagus. Tut, it turns out, is not allowed to leave his native Egypt. His effects are another matter. Their first worldwide tour in the 1970s (the exhibition “Treasures of Tutankhamun”) shattered museum attendance records and sparked the kind of Tut fever immortalized by Steve Martin on SNL.

Coffin for King Tut's Viscera, from "Tutankhuman and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs." Photo by National Geographic.

It’s not hard to see what all the fuss was about. “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” – in large part a “back by popular demand!” recapitulation of the original ’70s exhibition –  includes some stunning objects, from an elaborately inlaid “coffinette” built to house the boy King’s internal organs (must-haves in the afterlife), to wrought gold pectorals dotted with precious stone scarabs, to the sarcophagi of at least one of Tut’s lesser-known relatives. But in some ways, these more flashy showpieces pale in comparison to the utilitarian objects which seem to tell us more about the daily life of the young pharaoh. Tut was only nineteen when he died, and his tomb contained several objects which show the wear-and-tear of boyhood use, including four miniature board games and a child-size (and not very comfortable looking) chair and footrest. Those charged with outfitting Tut’s tomb seem to have regarded the task as something like packing for a very long overseas trip. Everything from sentimental boyhood keepsakes, to adult luxuries, to essentials had to be accounted for. Accordingly, in with carefully wrought perfume bottles, leather dog collars, and jewelry boxes, are small clay-sculpted pomegranates (the original fake fruit!) meant to sustain the king in the afterlife. As on any voyage, snacks are important.

King Tut's ride, on view at "Tutankhamun: The Golden Age of the Pharaohs."

By far the most high profile of these utilitarian objects is Tut’s chariot, a recent addition to the exhibition and notable for having never before left Egypt (notable also for being briefly delayed by U.S. customs officials demanding to see its vehicle identification number). An apparent favorite of the young King, who most likely used it for hunting and recreation, the chariot is the least ornate of four discovered in the tomb. It’s clean, sweeping lines, however, make it a powerful testament to the ingenuity of Egyptian designers. This is, in fact, a point which the Tut exhibition by its sheer number and range of objects is in a strong position to make: Clearly the Egyptians were a people of strong aesthetic and design sensibility. Their objects, motifs – even their eye makeup! – remain instantly recognizable over 3,000 years later. And that certainly seems an achievement worth celebrating.

Tickets to Tut are $19.50 when you use the code COLUMBIA at checkout. Full price is $29.50. Check out the full TIC listing for details.

– Annie Minoff (’11 CC)

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One Response to Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs

  1. I love your post! Hope to see exhibit if and when it makes it to DC.

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