King Tut revisited

L.A. exhibit offers a contextual look at Egypt's boy pharaoh

Published: Sunday, July 10 2005 12:00 a.m. MDT

Robert Noyce, Deseret Morning News

It's been almost 30 years since he returned to Egypt, living sequestered in the land of his birth and shrouded in mystery. But for the next two years he will travel to faraway lands and allow millions of fans to witness the return of the king.

Egypt's boy pharaoh, Tutankhamun, has returned to the United States on a four-city, 27-month tour starting in Los Angeles and ending in Philadelphia.

"Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" opened June 15 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and will remain there until the middle of November.

The exhibit includes more than 130 objects that span 250 years. Only 13 of these artifacts are repeats from the last Tut tour in the 1970s, and most have never left Egypt before.

"We felt there was no reason to bring the same show twice. This is so different that it's not even a sequel," said Kathlyn Cooney, Stanford Egyptologist and LACMA co-curator.

These objects represent not only the riches of Egypt but also the transition of the empire's politics, art and religion, Cooney said. "This exhibit has a difference emphasis — focusing on context rather than beauty and gold."

Not that the artifacts aren't exquisite. "We just hope that it's less about the stuff, and more about history and culture and what North Africa was about during the 18th Dynasty," she said.

Tutankhamun was a minor king who ruled at the end of Egypt's 18th Dynasty. He was born to the pharaoh Akhenaten and his secondary wife, Kiya, in 1343 B.C., at the height of the Amarna Age. During this time Akhenaten introduced a quasi-monotheistic belief system that replaced traditional religion. He was later declared a heretic, and records mentioning him and his successors, including those of King Tut, were destroyed.

Tutankhamun became pharaoh at age 9 or 10. He reigned for about nine years, restoring the religious and political order his father had temporarily destroyed. He died under mysterious circumstances in 1323 B.C. and was buried in a small, hastily constructed tomb in the Valley of the Kings, where he remained undisturbed for 3,300 years.

"Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" includes 50 major objects excavated from Tutankhamun's tomb — each has an individual story and historical significance.

Among the tomb's treasures are series of objects associated with the pharaoh's embalming. The highlight, said Cooney, is a Viscera Coffin that always draws a large crowd. It is one of four miniature coffins used to house King Tut's internal organs. The one on display in this exhibit held his liver.

The mini-coffin is an exact miniature of King Tut's famous golden funeral sarcophagus. People are surprised when they see the mini-coffin in person. The work on it is so fine and detailed that photographs of the canoptic jar easily trick people into thinking it's the full-size sarcophagus, Cooney said.

"It's funny because people are either really amazed because something so small is so exquisite, or they are really angry because it is so small." Because of conservation and security issues, the larger burial sarcophagus never has and never will leave Egypt, she said.

The final room of the exhibit highlights five items associated with Tutankhamun's mummy. Hundreds of articles ranging from jewelry to weapons were found placed inside the wrappings on King Tut's body. Among them was an informal crown featuring the protective figures of the vulture and cobra and a solid gold dagger strategically strapped to the thigh as an aid in fending off villains during the dangerous journey to the afterlife.

Other relics shed light on King Tut's divinity and daily duties.