Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Yes, I see wonderful things" -- Howard Carter

In 1922, a British archaeologist found what he was searching for; the untouched tomb of the boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamun. The result was 5,000 catalogued artefacts and a cold (or rather mummified) case of the unexplained death of a 19 year old king, some 3,500 years ago. In keeping with the traditions of the day, this haul was evacuated, divided up and now part of it is a visiting museum exhibit at the AGO in Toronto.

Since the Ancient Egyptians were ahead of their time when it came to Astronomy, I was confident that I could skip off work to see this exhibit and maybe offer it up at journal club without anyone clocking this research's publication date. Besides, how often do you get to see golden toes that sat over the actual mummified digits for a few millennia? Not often.

The exhibit starts not with Tutankhamun, but with a collection of other finds from digs connected to his relatives. It is interesting, but lacks a clear time line for those viewers whose ancient history is not entirely up to speed. Terms such as 'New Kingdom' are dropped without any indication of what defined this period or even when exactly it was. That said, who couldn't enjoy the tale of Hatshepsut, the female Pharaoh married to her half brother who seized power from her step-son to rule for about twenty years? Her gender did not prevent her bust from sporting a fine oblong beard. Marriage to your sibling was a practice reserved only for royalty in Ancient Egypt. The rest of the masses had to resist the urge.

There was also a large statue of Akhenaten, father of Tutankhamun, who was famous for denying the traditional religious picture of many gods and introducing instead a monotheistic view of a single sun god, Aten. Whether he denied his own destiny as a god-to-be (Pharaohs were considered to become deities upon death) is less clear. The religious move was deeply unpopular and Tutankhamun started the process of revoking it in his short reign. It is possible his close connection with his unpopular father triggered the erasing of his name from statues and records after his death. Ironically, as the exhibit points out, this attempt to delete all memory of Tutankhamun from history was to rather backfire.

Tutankhamun artefacts consist of many smaller pieces. None of the four consecutive coffins that held his mummy were on display, although the casket that held canopic jars in which his organs were placed was there, as was one of the jars itself; a beautiful peice in the form of the god of the underworld, Osiris, that once contained Tutankhamun's intestines. The official guardian of this delightful slice of Pharaoh is the jackal Duamutef, whose name was engraved on its base. There were also jars that held two foetuses, thought to be Tutankhamun's daughters by an unknown woman. Other items included countless pieces of jewelery, his bed and many servant statues that were buried with the deceased to perform the menial labour that would be asked of them in the afterlife.

The end of the exhibition leaves the cause of death of Tutankhamun largely unaddressed. However, boards outside show results from the latest research. Once thought to be murder by his successors, the boy king's demise is now considered less violent. The cracks in his skull are thought to have occurred after death, since body scans revealed the presence of the dislodged pieces. The very latest concept seems to be that of malaria. Not quite as exciting as homicide perhaps, but he might have preferred it.

The tour naturally ended in a gift shop. Tempted as I was by a cloth headdress in the shape of King Tut's burial mask, I really would have liked an overview of the history to read on the bus back. Unfortunately, the only tomes of the right length were clearly aimed at ten year olds with the implication that anyone with a more advanced grasp of literature should clearly be wanting the full detailed itemized list of the 5,000 items on the tomb's inventory. The headdress started to look more promising.

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