Amid King Tut Tumult, Hardwick Re-Caps What We Really Know About this Famous Pharaoh

Over the weekend in Cairo, conflict broke out in the archaeology community. Ground-penetrating radar has revealed peculiar results that some believe indicate additional rooms behind a solid wall in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Others reject this new theory.

British Egyptologist Nicolas Reeves offered up this theory last year following scanning results that he says suggest two open spaces filled with metal and organic matter. Zahi Hawass, famous Egyptologist and former Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, remains dubious.

Those backing Reeves are pushing to excavate, but to the naysayers, causing damage to the ancient burial chambers to follow a hunch is something antiquities of this magnitude can ill-afford. But one thing’s for certain in this battle of the minds — the issue has renewed interest in the exploration of these chambers that once housed one of pharaonic Egypt’s most iconic figures, a boy-king buried behind a magnificent golden mask.

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Burial Chamber. North wall of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun, Valley of the Kings. Some archaeologists believe an additional space exists behind this ancient artwork.

As the world of archaeology continues to bring to light new information on the issue, Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Consulting Curator of Egyptology Tom Hardwick is keeping his eye on the ball. No matter what news should erupt from Egypt in the next few weeks, he believes a return to the science of King Tut is of greater importance.

“In point of fact, we still know relatively little about him, and yet we try to read our own interests and preoccupations into the evidence,” Hardwick said. “The facts we in the 21st century want to know about people, who their parents were, what they thought, is information which the evidence from an Egyptian burial context doesn’t give you.”

Tut’s character as a “poor, sweet little boy” are fabrications of our own culture, Hardwick said, a kind of ontology that requires as much the injection of our society’s values into ancient history as the discoveries we’ve made from exploration, interpretation and scientific testing. And the marriage of the two is a big problem.

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King Tutanhkamun’s famous death mask.

 

“It’s a matter of conjecture and filling in the gaps, and what we use to fill in the gaps tells us far more about us than what it tells about Tut and his family,” Hardwick said. “You’re trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but the way in which you do it is invariably influenced by who you are and your own preoccupations.”

From evidence unearthed from the tomb of a single pharaoh like Tutankhamun, we can learn more about the society and culture of entire Egyptian states in 1300 B.C. than we can about the pharaoh’s life. Hardwick will explore this thesis in an HMNS Distinguished Lecture Wednesday night. His presentation will compare the solid facts the archaeological community has accumulated over time with the stories we’ve invented to enrich the science with narrative.

“It’s interesting how things change over time,” Hardwick said. “It’s like a game of telephone. Conjectures get solidified into facts, then used as the base for further conjectures.”

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Egyptologist Tom Hardwick.

The story of the original discovery of King Tut’s tomb highlights another central issue involving the international trade of Egyptian antiquities — where do these finds belong? In the countries of the archaeologists who discovered them or the nations in which they were discovered? In Hardwick’s words, King Tut was “a wind-vane of our own preoccupations” at the time of his discovery.

When British archaeologist Howard Carter found Tutankhamun’s tomb in the 1920s through painstaking research and excavation in the Valley of the Kings, the several thousand exquisite objects inside became the subject of great contention between Egypt and Great Britain. In the years following, the tug-of-war elevated King Tut to an iconic status as a symbol of the struggle of two governments to come to a mutual resolution in the interest of human history.

Visit HMNS Wednesday night to hear these stories and more as news develops in Cairo. To see our own collection of historical treasures, explore the Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Last Chance to See Ramesses II and Horemheb! Australian Artifacts Move Home Next Week

by Tom Hardwick and Dirk van Tuerenhout

When the Houston Museum of Natural Science planned our Hall of Ancient Egypt, filling its 11,000 square feet with artifacts was not an easy job. Our own collection of Egyptian material is rather small, and that made looking for long-term loans from other museums a logical — and necessary — choice. We reached out to museums across the world to borrow material to display in Houston.

It was sometimes a bit of a long shot since while asking for a short-term loan (typically three to six months) is standard, asking for a long term loan of several years is a different undertaking altogether.

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Ramesses II

We are extremely grateful that so many museums agreed to lend us some of their wonderful Egyptian objects. As the day of the opening approached, artifacts from museums in North America and Europe started to arrive in Houston. Some came from as far away as Australia. Yes, Australia!

In 2013, two star pieces — a giant granodiorite head of king Ramesses II (between 1280 to 1210 BC) and a bust of a non-royal man from a little earlier — traveled from the Nicholson Museum in Sidney halfway across the world to Houston. Affiliated with the University of Sidney, the Nicholson Museum is Australia’s oldest university museum and home to the largest collection of antiquities in the Southern Hemisphere.

A well known pharaonic face at the end of the columned corridor beckons the visitor

A well known pharaonic face at the end of the columned corridor beckons the visitor.

Ramesses II’s bust, representing one of Egypt best known pharaohs, took up a strategic location in our exhibit. Positioned at the end of a long line of sight, this royal image drew visitors deeper into the exhibit. It symbolized the double role played by Egyptian kings: that of worldly leader as well as representative of Egyptian gods on Earth. Ramesses was not just the king who worshipped the gods; he was also a god himself. For the many people who were denied access to the interiors of temples, colossal statues like the one our head came from (he must have been a good 20 feet when complete) were the only images of the king or the gods they could interact with. No surprise that some colossi were also worshipped as gods in their own right.

The bust of a private man, whom many believe to be Horemheb, the general who took the throne after Tutankhamun’s death, was tucked away in our display of burial in the New Kingdom, where visitors could have a more intimate encounter with him.

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Bust believed to be Horemheb.

All good things come to an end, however, and the Nicholson’s objects will be leaving us next week to go home. Following established museum procedures, a courier from the Nicholson will come to supervise their removal from their cases, will check their condition, and will see them safely crated up for their long journey home.

We’ll be sorry to see them go, but there’s one bonus — for me, at least. During the de-installation, I will get to look at them out of their cases, and in different lights. For Horemheb, this will just be pure pleasure: it’s one of the finest pieces of carving from the period.

For Ramesses, however, I have a mission. Arielle Kozloff, former Curator of Ancient Art at Cleveland, told me that she thought Ramesses’s face might have been re-worked, either before or after his reign. Ramesses was a prolific builder, and often economized by recycling statues of earlier kings. Sometimes Ramesses just put his cartouches (the king’s name, written in an oval ring) over the previous king’s; sometimes he went to the trouble of re-carving the previous owner’s face to harmonise with his own. In cases like these, sweeping a torch over the surface, and (gently) running your hands over the surface, can make you aware of different textures, possibly indicating different tools and different phases of working, that normally escape your notice. I’m not convinced that this is one of Ramesses’s retreads, but this is the perfect opportunity to test Arielle’s theory.

Just as nature abhors a vacuum, curators abhor empty cases: I’ll introduce you later to the objects that have replaced Ramesses and Horemheb. Before they go, though, you have the rest of this week to admire them at HMNS.

A Symbol of Culture: Francs Guinéens Paint a Picture of Life in Guinea

by Kaylee Gund

During a recent visit to the Museum’s offsite collections storage, one carving in particular caught my eye — the Nimba (D’mba). After living in Guinea for over a year, I immediately honed in on the familiar polished wood of the Nimba among the other West African pieces.

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The Nimba.

The Nimba is a symbol of feminine power and fertility, carried on someone’s shoulders around the fields to ensure a bountiful harvest. It wasn’t one of the traditions in the region where I lived, but I still saw the Nimba almost every day in my village on the corner of the 5,000 FG (franc guinéen) note.

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The Nimba appears on the corner of a 5,000 FG note.

Among many other traditional symbols, the Nimba has become an expression of national pride, as evidenced by the Guinean bank’s use of it on currency and as its logo. Guinean currency is an interesting mix of national and local identity. Each denomination represents a different culturally distinct region of the country, showing important symbols and economic activities for that region.

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A gold mining operation appears on the back of a 500 FG note, paying homage to the major source of income for the Siguiri prefecture.

Haute Guinée, the eastern plateau, is featured on the 500 FG, complete with an image of gold mining on the back. A major source of income for the Siguiri prefecture, gold mining was also an occasional source of exasperation for schoolteachers, as our students would often leave for months at a time during a gold rush and “cherchent l’or,” or “search for gold.”

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As you’ve probably noticed, the number of zeros behind monetary amounts in Guinea can be a bit intimidating. Pictured above is a whopping 16,600 FG, worth a little over $2 in the U.S.

What can all this money buy?

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Bags of clean drinking water are sold for 500 FG each. Drinking water from the well is ill advised, so this is a worthwhile investment at $0.07.

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At the peak of mango season, everyone has more fruit than they know what to do with. It spoils fast with no refrigeration, so piles of mangoes are sold for 2,000 FG (less than $0.30).

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Prepared food, like this rice with potato leaf sauce, costs between 5,000 and 7,000 FG for a plate (around $1).

So many mundane things require money that it’s easy to forget what an incredible symbol it can be. Guinean currency gives a glimpse into the many traditions of its different regions, and while there is occasionally ethnic strife between groups and the road to democracy is still rocky, the entire nation is unified in using Guinean francs.

Culture is an incredible thing, and we’re lucky enough to have access to a rich treasure trove of it: from Ancient Egypt to the Amazonian rainforest, even the smallest things can hold great significance.

Next time you’re about to spend a dollar, take a look at what’s on it. You might be surprised!

Editor’s Note: Kaylee Gund is in Youth Education Sales at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. During her time in the Peace Corps, Gund was placed in Guinea to teach chemistry in the country’s national language, French.

Zahi Hawass delivers inspiring speech at HMNS Excellence in Science Luncheon

He’s met President Barack Obama, Shia LaBeouf, Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, Megan Fox and Susan Sarandon. He looked King Tutankhamun in the face, burrowed under the Sphinx and claims to have found the temple of Alexander the Great and the mummy of Hatshepsut. With a lifetime of distinguished discoveries and achievements to draw from, famed archaeologist Dr. Zahi Hawass shared his adventures with the students and educators present at the 2015 Houston Museum of Natural Science Excellence in Science Awards Luncheon.

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Thursday, Oct. 22, Hawass delivered an astounding keynote speech to 182 attendees, including HMNS President Joel A. Bartsch and Ernie D. Cockrell of the Cockrell Foundation. The pair awarded Eleanor S. Frensley Student Scholarships to Rolando Marquez and Philip Tan and presented Mycael Parks and Dr. Thomas Heilman with Wilhelmina C. Robertson Teacher Awards.

In his speech, Hawass inspired both adults and students in the audience with his experience growing up from humble beginnings and coming late to the game.

“I was not always a good student,” Hawass admitted. “I wanted to be a lawyer so I could make money. Then I thought, I couldn’t stand this.”

Before he was 20 years old, Hawass pursued careers as a lawyer, a diplomat, and in archaeology. He hated being out in the desert, he said, because of the high temperatures and the punishing sun. But when he was sent on an excavation and asked to sit down in a tomb to brush dust from a statue of Aphrodite, he found his love of archaeology.

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Now, Hawass lives by one word: passion. “You can like anything,” he said. “You can love anything. But if you give your passion to anything, you make it great.”

In a riveting slideshow of shots from Egypt, Hawass shared new discoveries about the location of Nefertiti, the use of contemporary imaging software to peer inside the great pyramids, working with actors and meeting the President of the United States, and excavation projects in the Valley of the Kings.