The Tutankhamun exhibition in London

Zahi Hawass
Tuesday 26 Nov 2019

Zahi Hawass describes favourite objects from the tomb of the ancient Egyptian boy-king Tutankhamun, the subject of a major exhibition in London

I recently went with my dear friend Khaled El-Enany, the minister of antiquities, to open the exhibition on the ancient Egyptian golden boy-king Tutankhamun in London entitled Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh.

I told him on the way to attending the press conference for the London exhibition that “I will never forget that the great king Tutankhamun attracted 1,423,000 people to see his artefacts in the six months” of the exhibition in Paris, its previous stop.

I think it is important to write about the decoration of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun because people often write about the major and best-known artefacts, such as the golden mask, the canopic jars, the throne, the shrines, the fan, the coffinette and others, while passing over the burial chamber itself.

Here, I will concentrate on the tomb decoration and the three artefacts that I like the best: a small gold figure, the “wishing cup”, and a dagger.

The reason I want to write about the tomb decoration is because when I entered the tomb with El-Enany last month to explain to visitors what the Getty Conservation Institute had accomplished in its work on the tomb, I felt that Tim Whalen, its director, had thought that perhaps its great work had gone unnoticed by the media.

So, from inside the tomb I talked about the new lighting system, the floor, the cleaned wall scenes, and the ventilation system, all of which had been carried out by the Getty team.

El-Enany directed my attention to the fact that British archaeologist Howard Carter’s team, the original excavators, had been forced to destroy much of the southern wall in order to gain access to the burial chamber during the excavation of the tomb.

All four walls of the chamber were covered with painted decorations, most of which are still intact today. Set on a grid system of 20 squares, the figures reflect the artistic conventions of the Amarna Period of ancient Egyptian history. However, the parts that were taken down by Carter have been impossible to retrieve: El-Enany and I asked everywhere, and I myself began to look at Carter’s notes, but I could not find where he put the scenes that he took out of the tomb. The missing pieces cannot be located in any storage facility in Egypt.

The scenes allude to the transition of the king to the afterlife, beginning on the eastern wall, and they are meant to be read from right to left. In the first scene, we see Ay, performing the “opening of the mouth” ritual on Tutankhamun’s mummy to restore his senses in the afterlife.

In the second scene, the goddess Nut offers water libations to the figure of Tutankhamun, who holds elements of regalia such as a mace, an ankh and a staff. In the final scene, the king and his ka embrace the god of the underworld, Osiris.

Then, the western wall is decorated with elements of the afterlife. We can see the solar barque, Osiris figures, and baboons linked to the 12 hours of the night through which the king has to travel in order to be reborn. Lastly, various gods such as Hathor, Anubis and Isis are represented with the king.

My favourite three pieces in the present exhibition, as I announced at its opening in London, include the following.

The first is the small gold squatting figure of Tutankhamun strung on a chain. The figure is made of solid gold and is very small, but it is a wonderful masterpiece in my opinion. The young ruler, adopting a position often associated with the young god Horus (the son of Isis and Osiris) is depicted as squatting, with the flail and crook of kingship in his right hand. Despite its small size, the artisans who worked on this piece devoted special care to the details of the face, costume and sceptres. The ancient Egyptian khepresh crown fronted by an uraeus adorning his head in particular stands out.

Some people believe this figure belonged to Amenhotep III and not Tutankhamun. The pendant, along with a lock of hair bound in inscribed linen, was found in a nest of miniature anthropoid coffins inscribed for Tutankhamun. However, the linen bore the name of queen Tiye. Carter considered that the statuette and the lock of the queen’s hair were buried with Tutankhamun because he was the heir to the throne of Amenhotep III. He also considered that the statuette and the hair were evidence that Amenhotep III and Tiye were the father and mother of Tutankhamun.

I used to agree with this theory, but that was before I carried out DNA analysis and CT scans on the royal mummies and discovered that the skeleton in tomb KV55 in the Valley of the Kings belonged to Akhenaten, the father of Tutankhamun and the son of Amenhotep III and queen Tiye. Therefore, I believe that this beautiful statuette belongs to Tutankhamun.

We also know that Carter took the piece of hair of queen Tiye and compared it with the hair of the so-called “Elder Lady”, a mummy found in the tomb of Amenhotep II, and found it to be identical. We later analysed the DNA of the “Elder Lady” and determined that she was in fact queen Tiye.

The second piece from the treasure of Tutankhamun that I am fondest of is the wishing cup. Most likely dropped by robbers in the entrance corridor to the antechamber of Tutankhamun’s tomb, this calcite vessel was not meant to hold oil, but was most likely for drinking. It takes the form of an open white lotus flower flanked by other flowers, with blue lotus flowers on each side as well as closed buds.

Both kinds of flower have symbolic associations with reincarnation, and by drinking from the cup it was expected that Tutankhamun would magically live eternally in the afterlife.

On either side of the cup, there are the titles and names of Tutankhamun, including the “Beloved of Amun”. Around the rim are the words that earned this object its modern name of the wishing cup, “May your ka live, and may you pass [live] a million years, one who loves Thebes and dwells in it, your face towards the northern wind: may your eyes see the good place.”

Carter later had these inscriptions cut on his own tomb in Kensington in London.

My last favourite object from the tomb is the ceremonial dagger with an iron blade. Two ceremonial daggers, one of which is in the London exhibition, were placed in the wrappings of the mummy of Tutankhamun by priests. The pommel of this one is made from rock crystal, while the handle is decorated with bands of coloured inlay separated by bands of granulated gold in geometric designs.

The sheath is decorated with a repeated motif of palmettes on one side and a scale pattern on the other with a jackal’s head at the tip. While this weapon was probably too delicate to use in daily life, it would have been symbolically used by the king in the fight against chaos and beasts in the underworld. 

The London exhibition on Tutankhamun, which runs until 3 May 2020, contains 150 objects from the tomb, 60 of which have never left Egypt before. Upon their return, they will become part of the permanent display at the Grand Egyptian Museum that is scheduled to be opened soon.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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