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June 16 - November 15, 2005 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, West Hollywood

by Nancy Kay Turner

All photographs courtesy of Kenneth Garrett,
“Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the
Pharaohs,” Official Companion Book.
© 2005 National Geographic Society.

“Canopic Stopper of Tutankhamun,”
painted calcite, 24 cm h x 18 1/2 cm w.

Elisabeth Daynes, "Tut Reconstruction,"
forensic reconstruction using CT-scan
data of Tutankhamun's skull.

“Child's Chair and Footrest," chair: ebony and
ivory, 71 1/2 x 40 3/5 x 39 1/10 cm; footrest,
wood and ivory, 5 4/5 x 37 2/5 x 21 7/10 cm.

“Inlaid Pectoral Spelling out the Name
of the King," gold/semiprecious
stones, 9 x 10 1/2 cm.

“Statue of Herwer (Horus the
Elder)", gilded wood, 58 x 14 1/2 cm.
After 26 years, the much anticipated “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” returns. Over one hundred and thirty objects from the Boy King’s tomb and over seventy objects from earlier dynasties will once again spur discussion and debate. King Tut is still a superstar who commands attention. His handsome doe-eyed face has recently been on the cover of a national magazine as three teams of international forensic pathologists using the newest scan technology attempt to recreate his visage. Not surprisingly, the King actually looks remarkably like his famous, now iconic gold funerary mask.

Zahi Hawass (who has written the companion book to the exhibit) and an all-Egyptian team recently used a CT scanner on the mummy remains in the hopes of answering some fundamental questions about Tutankhamun’s health and early demise. These scans and the information derived from them are incorporated into the exhibit.

This exhibit of King Tutankhamun and his ancestors is part detective story, part cultural anthropology, part mythology (the curse of the mummy), and part art history, with a dash of voyeurism thrown in. It is a guilty pleasure to see the Boy King’s pint-sized, gold-encrusted throne and footstool, which underscore his ascendancy to the throne at the tender age of eight. Even mundane items rated a high level of decoration for the Middle Kingdom Egyptians. A humble leather dog collar (presumably for the royal hunting dogs) is intricately carved, and a turquoise faience (a paste of ground quartz glazed with a slip consisting of quartz, lime, alkali and pigment) drinking bowl is covered with precise incised lines.

Many other turquoise faience objects were found in the tomb, and were believed to connect the deceased with the rising sun and hence rebirth. Egypttian artisans used color symbolically, with black referring to fertile earth and consequently resurrection. White represented purity, green regeneration and dark blue the night sky and the original primordial waters. The artisans used the abundant limestone, sandstone, semi-precious stones collected from the desert, imported wood from Lebanon and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan for their architecture, furnishings, statues and toys. There were six objects associated with play found in the tomb. One is a delicately inscribed game board constructed out of a solid piece of ivory. While such objects are instructive, it is the gold objects that ultimately dazzle and fascinate us.

Gold is a soft metal that can be easily worked cold and does not tarnish. The Egyptians called gold ” the flesh of the Gods” and became especially adept at using it. “Pectoral in the Shape of a Necklace” (sheet gold and gold wire, 18th dynasty) is an elaborate neckpiece in the shape of a falcon holding a shen ring. Several falcons were found on the King’s neck, suggesting that they were there to protect him. Found with the King were dockets detailing all the inventory of jewels buried in the tomb; up to sixty percent of them were stolen by thieves. Surprisingly, two female fetuses were also found in the tombs. One, possibly a stillborn, showed signs of birth defects (spina bifida), and the other was only five months old. The King and his Queen had no surviving children.

These 3,500 year old funerary objects, so beautifully preserved and so expertly created, continue to connect us to those who created them. Like us, the Egyptians played, prayed, loved, fought, decorated themselves, their houses, and their pets. They hoped to ward off evil, chaos and death with amulets and religion. In death, they provided their relatives with food, toys, model boats to take them across the river Styx, furniture and all the comforts of home. Their advanced burial techniques allow us to delve into their world, and our increasingly sophisticated technology permits an increasingly vivid evocation of it.