What I learned at the Tutankhamun exhibition

  1. Humans are clever – and have been for some time.

Tjuya's coffin

If you are a craftsperson, particularly if you sculpt, or make jewellery or furniture, you will love this exhibition. What is remarkable about the 50 objects drawn from Tutankhamun’s tomb is the quality of the craftsmanship and the integrity of the objects, given they were created around 1300 BC and were underground until the tomb’s discovery in 1922.  In my humble opinion, it’s also remarkable that royal jewellery – made, as it is, from solid gold and precious gems – can look so tacky. I like the scarab pectoral,

Scarab pectoral

but surely this headdress is straight out of a Bob Hope and Bing Crosby ‘Road to Cairo’ film?

Tutenkhamun's headdress

But then I also thought the British royal crowns on exhibit at the Tower of London were lacking in the Understated Elegance department.The Imperial Crown of India, (below), set with around 6,000 diamonds and magnificent rubies and emeralds, was made for King George V to wear at the Delhi Coronation Durbar in 1911. It has never been worn since, purportedly because it was so heavy that the king complained it hurt his head but quite possibly because it was too OTT.

Imperial Crown of India: too heavy or just an excuse? When it comes to royalty, you don’t tend to find much of the ‘less is more’ ethos.

Having said this, there are some incredible items in the Tutankhamun exhibition, including a little chair and matching foot stool made for the boy-king and the golden coffin of Tjuya, (pictured above), engraved with exquisite intricacy with dozens of protective figures.

2. History is a slippery enterprise

In the industrial-sized font of the ‘blockbuster’ exhibition, we are told of the decisions that Tutankhamun made to try to restore harmony and prosperity to Egypt following his father, Akhenaten’s, disastrous rule. Akhenaten had taken an economic rationalist approach to the number of gods, reducing the pantheon to one miserable sun disk. After alienating the priests, he decided to shift the kingdom’s capital. Anyone who’s moved house can imagine how popular he was among his subjects after that decision. But here’s the thing: Tutankhamun was nine when he became king and 12 when ‘he’ decided to move the capital back to Thebes. Is it just me, or do you also find the notion of a child making these kinds of decisions on behalf of the country just a tad implausible? It could be that, at nine, my civic responsibilities were restricted to occasionally drying the dishes, applying contact to my school books and creating name labels for everything with an object  called the Dymo.  As the audio guide wasn’t available for the exhibition preview I attended, I’m not sure if more information about Tutankhamun’s advisors and their level of influence is available. It’s interesting to note that when Tutankhamun died,aged 19, possibly of malaria, one of those advisors married Tutankhamun’s widow, becoming Pharoah. ‘It’s interesting’ – that’s all I’m saying.

3. Don’t have children with family members

I think the royals have worked this out now but back in ancient Egypt, they still made a hobby of horizontal folk-dancing with the siblings. With the modern availability of DNA testing, researchers have been able to discover that Tutankhamun’s mother was not one of Akhenaten’s wives but was one of Akhenaten’s sisters. Breeding with your sibling tends to amplify any dodgy genes in the family, which may explain why poor little Tutankhamun had a cleft palate and a club foot (and no, you won’t find these depicted in renderings of his image). Tutankhamun then married his half-sister. The coffins of their two still-born daughters, also found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, are the saddest objects in the exhibition. Tutankhamun may have restored the status of the gods but the gods  didn’t repay him with kindness.

Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs is at Melbourne Museum until November.

Discovery Channel has a series of videos about Tutankhamun and DNA testing of the royal mummies.

Why I love the Internet…here’s the original story in The Times about the discovery of the tomb in 1922 by the English anthropologist Howard Carter.


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