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.”

Tom Hardwick

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.

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.

Beyond #BeardGate – What else has happened to Tut?

Museum displays, labels, and blogs provide an excellent way for us to look beyond the headlines and get to grips with the full picture. While the hubbub surrounding #beardgate has died down, I’ve kept thinking about it. In my last blog, I included a picture of Tutankhamun’s mask without its beard, photographed during the 1920s. I meant it as a reminder that, whatever happened during the news-grabbing re-attachment of the beard, it wasn’t ‘snapped’ off. The mask was displayed without its beard in the Cairo Museum for over a decade.

Egypt Blog Beard 1937

Courtesy R. Hölzl

A friend then sent me a photograph taken in the museum by her grandfather in 1937. Mask at top, beard lying below. But what’s the lump on the bottom left? It’s part of a collar of gold and faience beads that had been attached around the neck of the mask.

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Burton photograph p0750a Copyright Griffith Institute, University of Oxford

Here you can see the collar (and beard) in position on the mask as the mummy lies in the coffin. If you look closely at the mask today, you can still see the holes punched on either side of the neck to fix it in position. The collar itself is still displayed detached from the mask. It took fifteen years or so for the beard to make it back on to the mask, but the collar has still not been re-attached. Egyptologists are naturally conservative people, but this takes some beating. When the mask was taken abroad on tour in the 1970s, the exhibition catalog says that the necklace was removed from the mask for display “to reveal the neck.” Slim and elegant though Tutankhamun’s neck is, I don’t find this very satisfactory. Should we consider replacing it and restoring the mask to what it really was like?

Like most questions Egyptologists ask, this isn’t expecting a yes/no answer. It’s looking for more information.

Tutankhamun’s collar, with its flat disc-shaped beads, is a costlier example of the same type of necklace (shebyu for the Egyptians) as you can see in the Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Courtesy Chiddingstone Castle

Courtesy Chiddingstone Castle

For non-royals, shebyu necklaces were marks of honor, royal gifts for good service. Receiving the ‘gold of honor’ was an event that merited being carved or painted on your tomb walls; when the mummy of the architect Kha, now in Turin Museum, was x-rayed, his shebyu necklace could be seen still proudly around his neck (along with some serious gold hoop earrings).

For the king, the shebyu had a slightly different function: it emphasized his divinity and union with the gods – the same thing that the rituals of mummification and burial were designed to achieve once he died. It’s not surprising that the shebyu collar was an essential component of Tutankhamun’s burial, since wearing it showed that the dead king had successfully joined his fellow gods for eternity. I wonder if the reason Howard Carter could remove the necklace easily when he extracted the mask was because it was meant to be put on as part of the funerary rites that activated Tutankhamun’s mummy. What we now think of as a permanent fixture on the mask may have been intended for ‘performative’ use.  Perhaps the opening of the mouth ritual that activated statues and mummies needed extra components when carried out on a royal mummy?

We now see the mask first off as an icon of Egyptian culture, or a masterpiece of Egyptian art. For the craftsmen and priests who made it and installed it on Tut’s wrapped mummy, however, it was just one piece of a jigsaw of objects, spells, smells, and gestures that gave the dead king magical protection and kick-started his afterlife.

Tutankhamun’s burial equipment, from the mask – beard, necklace and all – to the three coffins, stone sarcophagus, and gilded wood shrines surrounding them, was never made to be seen. It was made to do a job: to transform his body into something eternal, divine, and protected. Alter one part of this arrangement and perhaps the job would be sabotaged.

Given this, there’s no single ‘right’ or ‘original’ way for Cairo Museum to display Tutankhamun’s mask and burial equipment, nor for us to display our Egyptian material at HMNS. What we can do in museums is to look after the objects in our care and make them accessible to anyone who is interested. We can keep thinking about what they may have meant to the people who made and used them, and how we can convey this in displays and labels (and, now, blog posts). Every so often, new interpretations and new objects allow us to change the way we view and display our collections.

And this is the long lead in to say that we will be making some changes to the Hall of Ancient Egypt at HMNS. By the start of March, we’ll have added some new objects and tweaked our labels – and we look forward to hearing what you make of the changes.

Finally, if you’re interested in finding out more about Tutankhamun’s burial, and more generally what wrapping, mummification, and burial meant to the Egyptians, here are two suggestions for further reading. The first is the Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation website, run by the Griffith Institute at Oxford University. The Griffith houses the Tutankhamun excavation archive, and has placed most of this online. You can read transcripts of Howard Carter’s notes, and see the excavation photographs taken by Harry Burton. To see how the mask related to Tutankhamun’s mummy, follow this link and browse the ‘object card’ section for object number 256 (the unwrapped mummy) and its hundred-odd sub-divisions.

The second is Unwrapping Ancient Egypt, by Christina Riggs (full disclosure: Dr Riggs taught me at university). Christina looks at what it meant for the Egyptians to wrap things up – to make things and then carefully hide them away under layers of cloth – and what it has meant for us, in the last two hundred years, to unwrap and display them.

A Lost Persian Army Returns

Spirit of Osiris
Creative Commons License photo credit: h.koppdelaney

The place is the famous Siwa Oasis in Egypt. The time is 525 B.C.  Ancient Egypt is but a former shadow of itself. Tutankhamun has been dead and buried for 800 years (and his tomb plundered twice already by now). Slowly but surely, Egypt’s power was fading as it was drawn into the orbit of mightier empires in the region.

During the 6th century B.C., Egypt was plagued by massive internal unrest. Egyptian armies were involved in expeditions heading south into Nubia, as well as into southern Palestine. Greek-speaking mercenaries were now gainfully employed in Egypt. Greek merchants even received permission to settle in their own city, Naucratis, in the Nile delta. Things were definitely different in Egypt and they were about to take a turn for the worse in 525 B.C.

Cambyses II, ruler of the Persian Empire, invaded Egypt in that year. Psammetichus III faced the Persian army at the great frontier fortress of Pelusium eastern gateway into Egypt. The Egyptian forces and their Greek mercenaries were no match. The king fled to Memphis, where he was captured and taken to Susa, the Persian capital. One can only imagine what his fate was.

Mui ne -  Sanddüne - Vietnam
Creative Commons License photo credit: marfis75

Greek historian Herodotus, father of history writing, lived a mere 75 years later and wrote about this momentous event. He relates how the Persian king sent off an army – of 50,000 soldiers no less – to destroy the oracle located in the Siwa Oasis. It is alleged that the oracle had predicted the king’s downfall, and Cambyses was having none of it. Yet the oracle proved to be right. The army never reached its destination and was swallowed up by the desert. Cambyses did eventually bite the dust as well in 522 B.C.

Then the sands of time and the desert covered up the story of the army that set off to destroy the oracle. Eventually, it was relegated to the realm of legend. Numerous expeditions were launched to find it, but without success.

Until….

Until relatively recent discoveries in the desert now seem to have located the unfortunate Persian army. Relatively recent indeed; it appears that for the last 13 years two Italian brothers, Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni, undertook five expeditions in search of Cambyses’ troops. They claim they have found good evidence of Persian-era and Persian-style military gear in the Egyptian desert. The media are buzzing with the news. Numerous online videos have popped up on the subject, showing the Italian and Egyptian teams working at a rock shelter in the desert and finding Persian arrow heads, a partial sword or dagger and bits and pieces of horse gear.

Is this for real? Are we dealing with something else altogether? Time will tell. For now, it appears very likely that the lost army has been found. As they say, stay tuned. I am sure a documentary will soon appear on TV. I wonder if a book is coming out soon as well….