SAN DIEGO – It’s not necessary to be an Egyptologist to appreciate the treasures from the tomb of King Tutankhamun, replicas of which are on exhibit here at the San Diego Natural History Museum.
The sheer opulence radiated from the scientifically reproduced trappings that accompanied the young pharaoh into the afterlife may leave the viewer transfixed.
It’s obvious from the more than 1,000 pieces in “The Discovery of King Tut” exhibition that gold and precious stones commanded as high a value more than 3,300 years ago as they do today.
Gold, on gilded wood or as pure metal, was incorporated in the pharaoh’s throne, mummy case, shrine, crown and burial mask. Gold was found in medallions, figurines and statues.
The burial mask – the most widely recognizable of the artifacts – that covered the mummy’s head and neck area is solid gold, weighing 24 pounds.
The exhibition leaves room for various levels of appreciation – the sheer monetary worth of the glittering treasures, a glimpse of an ancient society or the comparison of religious and philosophical values.
A belief in an afterlife dominated the ancient culture, not unlike the modern belief of meeting again in heaven. But the visitor is struck by the extent to which the pharaohs went to assure they would be superior to their fate and continue their lifestyle for eternity.
Stripped of its jewels, the mummy of Tutankhamun is the lone item on display in the pharaoh’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, Egypt. All other artifacts are in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, also known as the Egyptian National Museum, in Cairo.
The collection of facsimile items that tour the world was designed by an international team of experts over five years.
Controversy and fascination
It was diehard determination that led British Egyptologist Howard Carter to King Tut’s burial chamber in November 1922.
Carter had persisted in his search, with the financial backing of aristocratic George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, when conventional wisdom held the Valley of the Kings held no more pharaonic burial sites.
Crediting Carter with the discovery of King Tut’s tomb may be the only undisputed fact about the boy king.
Otherwise, experts even today continue to spar over interpretations of his short-lived reign. They beg to differ on his manner of death, physical ailments, the identity of his parents and whether he was the product of an incestuous relationship.
Bearing witness to the seemingly unflagging public fascination and professional rivalry associated with King Tut is the cover story of this month’s Smithsonian magazine, which features Tutankhamun.
Author Matthew Shaer’s interviews of numerous King Tut authorities finds each of them determined to make their interpretation of the standard controversies prevail.
Exhibit rich in artifacts, history
Visitors to the NAT, as the Natural History Museum here is known, learn about King Tut via handheld audio devices as they move chamber to chamber through the exhibition hall.
Adult and children’s versions of the recording are available and the audio also is offered in Spanish.
As with NAT exhibitions of remnants from the ill-fated Titanic and pirate gold from the sunken Whydah slave ship, panel after panel of text places King Tut’s artifacts in the context of the broader society of ancient Egypt.
With no intention to offend expert judgment, let’s accept that Tutankhamun ascended to the throne at age 7, with advisers at his elbow. His reign lasted from 1332 B.C. to 1323 B.C. when the pharaoh died.
King Tut’s tomb, entered twice by grave robbers soon after burial, ultimately was lost beneath tons of debris and forgotten.
The exhibition here brings him back to life. One learns that in the burial chamber four shrines (covers), a sarcophagus and three coffins – the last of which is solid gold – protect the mummy. Each layer, like nesting Russian dolls, is increasingly smaller.
An adjoining treasure room – protected by a sculpted Anubis (the Greek name), a jackal-headed god associated with the afterlife in ancient Egypt – housed other items, including alabaster jars containing the pharaoh’s organs.
Capturing our imagination
The discovery of King Tut’s burial site captured global imagination as society moved on from the turmoil of World War I. Over the nearly 100 years since, King Tut has been the object of attention ranging from scientific to silly.
Geneticists, archaeologists, forensic anthropologists, computer reconstruction experts and paleopathologists have studied the mummy. It also has been subjected to CT scans, DNA analysis and X-rays.
On the light side, King Tut was subject of a 1939 film with the Three Stooges, a song in 1978 by Steve Martin and video games.
The King Tut exhibition made its West Coast debut here. It opened Oct. 11 and will run through April 26.