“Can you see anything?” asked the fifth Earl of Carnarvon.
“Yes, wonderful things!” his companion exclaimed.
In November, 1922, Egyptian King Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in the Valley of the Kings. The find is credited to Howard Carter, a London-born archaeologist, but a local worker is actually the person who accidentally uncovered the first step leading down to the vault.
While standing in the King Tut exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, audio guide pressed to my ear, I chuckle over this new this information. So often in exploration, it is actually the unnamed worker who makes the discovery, not the person whose name is attributed to it. And, for all these years, I always thought Howard Carter was actually the one to find the tomb of one of the world’s most famous historical figures.
Very little is known about King Tutankhamun, his short nine-year reign or how he died. A lot of what we know about this 18th Dynasty Pharaoh is clouded in mystery. What makes him famous, though, are the incredible riches that were pulled from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings starting in 1922; ornate artifacts in a quantity unlike anything the world had seen before were discovered.
“Is this a busy day or a pretty typical crowd?” I asked a museum employee while I stood in line, feeling a bit like cattle being herded to slaughter, waiting to be admitted to the King Tut exhibit at the museum.
“Oh no, this is at least triple what we normally have. As a matter of fact, on many days we only had ten people standing in line,” the young blonde woman explained.
The Saturday night lines wrapped through and out of a large room where audio guides and 3D movie tickets were being sold in addition to regular admittance. Many people grew agitated over the delay, but it only served to build my anticipation and interest. “This might be the last chance you have to see these things in America,” the employee explained. “They’re building a new museum in Cairo and many of things may never travel outside of Egypt again.”
Originally I scoffed at seeing the traveling King Tut exhibit, having seen many of his artifacts on a trip to Egypt, but now was please that I spent an exorbitant amount of money to see what so many people had talked about for months. If this could be my last chance to see such treasures, save on a return trip to Egypt, I was glad I was taking advantage and not just being an old sour puss.
It wasn’t long until the rope keeping us back was pulled aside and a stream of people were admitted to the next room, me at the lead. The room was just a holding pen, though, and not really the exhibit. The museum organized the tour to build anticipation by starting out with a short film narrated by actor Harrison Ford, and they succeeded – a grand entrance was created at the conclusion of the film with double-doors swinging open wide to the waiting audience.
The doors cracked open to a clatter of hushed whispers on the other side as though a library was packed with thousands of people all trying to talk over the next while keeping their voices down. It didn’t matter, though, since the noise of jaws dropping to the floor made more than enough noise to supersede anything other sound. Upon entering the exhibition, we were greeted by beautifully carved statues of the pharaohs Menkaure and Khafre.
Harrison Ford whispered sweet nothings in my ear, occasionally interrupted by soundbites from Egypt’s Vice-Culture Minster Dr. Zahi Hawass. I ignored them both. I was only partially interested in what they had to say. What truly caught my attention was the rich collection of artifacts the Cairo Museum could spare to go on tour from what is easily a treasure-trove of a collection. At each turn through the showing I was greeted with something even more spectacular with the last and something so impressive that I felt the courage to battle the crowds to inch up to the display case to read the placard while I continued with my audio guide.
I worked my way through the Pharaoh’s Family and Private Life section and into the Pharaoh’s Court area, pausing to smirk like a schoolboy at the ancient stone toilet seat on display, and continued on to the Pharaoh’s Religion, Pharaoh’s Gold, and Discovery of a Pharaoh sections. And near the end of the floor, that is where it hit me like a ton of gold bricks. I was met head on by the stunning funerary mask of Psusennes.
Psusennes was the third pharaoh of the twenty-first dynasty. He ruled from approximately 1047 to 1001 B.C. and is best known for his contributions to the construction of central parts of the Great Temple at Tanis – yes, the one that Harrison Ford found the Ark of the Covenant in during Raiders of the Lost Ark. Psusennes was buried in the wetter climate of Tanis, so, unfortunately, many of his burial objects, like those made of wood, did not last upon the discovery of the tomb. But his golden mask did, and that was certainly a prize worth the effort.
I didn’t want to stray from Psusennes’ mask. It was simply stunning. I poured over each detail of the lapis and glass-inlaid gold. The detail was phenomenal, right down to his fake beard – a symbol of his god-like power.
Surely, though, there had to be something even more impressive downstairs if this is what met me halfway through the exhibit, so I continued on only to be met with another queue at the bottom of the staircase. The line was not moving and it was obvious why by a giant display visible over the heads of others waiting in line. We had come to items discovered in the antechamber of King Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Occasionally something large, like a chair or bed, was on display, but generally all of the items of Tutankhamun were no larger than the size of a boot. Golden sandals, finger and toe protectors, canopic stoppers, and shabati – they were all there waiting to be discovered by my own eyes for the very first time. And they were all simply spectacular, right down to the small golden coffinette that held King Tut’s viscera, or stomach with this particular item.
People ooh’d and ahh’d over the items as though they were fireworks in the sky. It was all well deserved, since these were some of the best examples of ancient Egyptian art ever discovered, particularly the leopard head decoration from a ritual robe from King Tut’s tomb. That one item, valued at a fortune on its own, was used at the time by priests who would open the mouth, eyes, nose and ears of the mummy so the pharaoh could use all of his senses in the afterlife.
It would seem this would be possible without a gilded wood leopard head also made with rock crystal and colored glass, but one thing was certain: the ancient Egyptians, at least those that could afford it, did things in style.
From King Tutankhamun’s antechamber, I moved through the Annex of King Tut, Treasure of Tutankhamun and Burial Chamber Displays, all the while fumbling through disbelief over the detail, beauty and value of the items on display. It was unlike anything I had ever seen, including on my visit to the Cairo Museum. Sure, here King Tut’s famous funerary mask wasn’t on display, nor were the prized mummies like those in Cairo, but this was special on a different and inexplicable level.
Harrison Ford and Dr. Hawass were still talking in my ear, but at this point I was only paying half attention. There was so much to examine and appreciate that only the occasional nugget of information made me pause and say, huh. And that’s when it happened again. My jaw hit the floor with a loud thud that I was sure woke others from their trance.
The remains of the Colossal Statue of Tutankhamun, once seventeen feet tall, stared down upon me from its perch. The quartzite statue, which was found at the Temple of Ay and Horemheb in Thebes, was spectacular and definitely one of the crown jewels, so to speak, of the exhibition. It was obvious why they saved it for last – it was impressive, particularly in size, unlike any other object had been, even Psusennes’ funerary mask.
Stunned from nearly twenty minutes of staring at the statue, I stumbled into the gift shop and instantly began to think of making the trip to the Science Museum of Minnesota. The King Tut exhibition is on display there next from February 18th until September 5th. But, unlike I did here in Denver, I wouldn’t want to wait until the last possible moment to see these astonishing treasures, all discovered on accident by an unnamed worker, once again.
NOTE: All photos are from postcards purchased in the gift store or from the official museum guide to the King Tut exhibit. Photography was not allowed throughout the display.