U.S. says goodbye to King Tutankhamun exhibit, forever

By Melissa Huber, I-O Reporter

For more than seven months the Pacific Science Center in Seattle hosted the exhibit Tutankhamun: The Golden Kings and the Great Pharaohs. Early this year the exhibit was brought to a close and the artifacts were shipped back to Cairo, Egypt where they will remain, permanently.

Hundreds of artifacts representing 2,000 years of ancient Egyptian history called the exhibit home for just under a year, including over 50 objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb. All in all, it amounted to twice as many artifacts as the last time Seattle hosted the Tutankhamun exhibit back in 1972.

Maria Elings, who visited the exhibit in August of last year, had this to say, “The exhibit was actually a history of the Pharaohs in Egypt with a few pieces from King Tut’s tomb. I appreciated the historical timeline leading up to this boy king’s short life, as it was valuable to understand the culture he lived in.”

There were several grand objects on display, including fine jewelry and gold-plated masks, but the stars of the exhibit (for those who cherish history) were the more intimate items on display. Guests experienced a portal through time with items like golden sandals that had adorned the feet of Tutankhamun, a bed he had slept on, one of his personal chairs, games he had played with his young wife, Ankhesenamun, walking sticks he had used, and even one of the young pharaoh’s headrests.

Sensationalists hoping for an actual mummy were disappointed as Tutankhamun’s body has been too fragile to transport for a very, very long time. However, new to this tour of the exhibit, was a rather realistic replica of the damaged corpse of Tutankhamun. “National Geographic had a fascinating display at the end of the exhibit about all the research that has been done into discovering how he actually died, along with the DNA testing to discover his parental lines,” mentioned Elings.

History buffs might recall how Howard Carter discovered the tomb in November of 1922. What is less well known is how brutal Carter had been when removing the mummy from its sarcophagus.

Tutankhamun is the only known mummy to have been preserved with an excessive amount of resins and oils. Some speculate that this might have been because Tutankhamun’s body had started to decompose before he was finally mummified.

Whatever the reason, it was because of this that the mummy was, by Carter’s account, essentially glued to the sarcophagus, and subsequently the jewels to the mummy. Attempts to remove the objects were made with primitive methods, such as using heated knifes to cut through the buildup of resin.

This was said to have been done carefully, but later evidence proved Carter had been much more aggressive with his removal of the mummy and its treasures than he had previously claimed. The arms and legs, along with the skull, had been separated from the body to facilitate the removal of jewelry and the famous golden mask. The final result was more akin to a dissection than an exhumation.

Furthermore, though Carter claimed he had rewrapped the body once he had finished prying the jewels from it, it was found that he had fabricated this information. He had, in fact, left it as it was after he had finished with it: lying in sand covered by a simple sheet.

Even before the mummification, Tutankhamun’s body had been strangely brutalized. Much of his ribcage and sternum had been removed, and his chest cavity had been stuffed with cloth after the removal of his internal organs, suggesting that his chest may have been crushed somehow. However, there is speculation that the doctor in charge of Tutankhamun’s mummy when the tomb was exhumed by Carter might have had something to do with it, which would explain why the absence of the bones isn’t listed in his notes.

Other strange characteristics were that the resins used to remove the brain were introduced into the skull at two different points—once while on his back and once while suspended upside down—leading to a buildup of resin in two different locations on the inside of the skull. Unsurprisingly, Tutankhamun was the only mummy to have had this done to him.

Other abnormalities were a broken leg at the time of burial, which could have caused a rapid spread of gangrene and ultimately led to his early demise, and a cut on his jaw that had started to heal before his death.

A bone splinter found in his mummified skull lead to some of the first murder conspiracies, convincing people that he had died from a blow to the head. However, evidence shows that the bone fragment was almost certainly created by the embalmers or Carter’s team.

The broken leg and possible crushed chest are the biggest indicators that Tutankhamun died a vicious death. Some say that Ay and Horemheb, two of his advisors that respectively took the throne after his untimely death, may have caused the injuries somehow in an attempt to take over.

This theory is magnified by the discovery of new evidence that suggest Tutankhamun’s young wife, Ankhesenamun, wrote a letter to the Hittite king asking him to send one of his sons for her to marry. In the letter, which is heavy with desperation, the writer states that she is scared to marry a subject: most probably Ay.

The Hittite king actually sent a son, but he was murdered right after he reached Egyptian soil. Horemheb—Tutankhamun’s military advisor and head of the Egyptian military, even after the young pharaoh’s death—was most likely the Hittite prince’s murderer. Whether or not he was working with Ay, or simply doing his job, or had other motives, is anyone’s guess. Ankhesenamun subsequently married Ay and quietly disappeared from all records after that. It is highly likely that her marriage to Ay was simply to solidify Ay’s new role as Pharaoh.

Others speculate that the injuries Tutankhamun sustained were due to a fall from his chariot. Murals on the walls of his tomb—and the fact that several chariots were found among the treasures—suggest that he was an avid charioteer. Still others say that the fall from a chariot may have happened during a battle due to evidence that Egypt was at war with the Hittites at the time.

The seemingly endless possibilities surrounding the untimely nature of Tutankhamun’s death are certainly what make him interesting. The fact that his tomb was found untouched in a time when such a thing was rare only adds to an already interesting story.

The 1970s tour of the Tutankhamun exhibit saw record attendance numbers. Subsequently it was also the last time the famous golden funerary mask and the sarcophagus were seen outside of Egypt. One of the many delicate objects was damaged during that time, and Egypt enforced laws that kept the artifacts at home for nearly 30 years.

Those who have seen these objects up close and personal have had a glimpse into history, while also participating in the making of it. Though nothing is ever completely set in stone, it is certain that the artifacts that were on display are back home in Cairo and will eventually be put into a permanent exhibit downtown. Perhaps one day they will travel again.

Editor’s note: The author of this article had the unique chance to visit this exhibit firsthand, before it was sent back to Egypt. Much of what is written is knowledge gleaned before seeing the exhibit. However, the descriptions of seeing the objects in person are not.