Friday, June 26, 2009

The mother of all bling returns

After 30 years, King Tut returns to the De Young with more items and an even larger flurry of publicity and even more hype. There will be lines, there will be expensive tickets and there will be hordes of people trying to see every shiny item. For many, what gets lost are all the complex and still unknown problems of his life, as well as that of his much more important father Akhenaton. But it's a big money maker and museums need that in these difficult times. I understand that much of the profit will be going to the Cairo Museum where I hope it will be spent wisely. So, here's a closer look at some of the precious which you will probably not be able to get a close up of if you attend the show in person.

Ceremonial Dagger and Sheath: There were two daggers found within the king's mummy wrappings. This one is absolutely extraordinary. It and its sheath are of solid gold and the tiny gold granulations and cloisonne work are remarkable. The sheath is especially an indication of the artistic ability and skill of the goldsmith. (Andreas F. Voegelin / Antikenmuseum Basel)

Pectoral With Solar/Lunar Emblems and Scarab: The ancient Egyptian ability to show symbols that are meant for protection with such a creative sense of design is astounding. In this beautiful pendant, the scarab in the center was merged with a hawk, both symbols of the sun. Above the scarab are images that represent the moon. (Kenneth Garrett / National Geographic 2008)

Chased gold Falcon Collar, representing the Pharaoh's status as the Falcon of Egypt. Of all the gods and goddesses of Egypt, the two best known are probably Isis and Osiris. Osiris was regarded as the oldest and, for a long time, the most important god who lead the Egyptians out of savagery, giving them laws and teaching them how to cultivate the land. He married his sister Isis and ruled with wisdom and benevolence. He was murdered by his jealous brother Set but Isis gathered up the sundered parts (including THAT part) and was able to conceive a son, Horus. Horus, represented by a falcon, defeated his wicked uncle and regained the throne. Henceforth, the king of Egypt was called "The Horus," and the falcon became one of the personal totems of pharaoh.

Viscera Coffin (detail), Dynasty 18, Reign of Tutankhamun 1332-1322 BCE. Photo: Andreas F. Voegelin, Antikenmuseum Basel and Sammlung Ludwig

Thou appearest beautifully on the horizon of heaven,
Thou living Aton, the beginning of life!
When thou art risen on the eastern horizon,
Thou hast filled every land with thy beauty.
Thou art gracious, great, glistening, and high over every land;
Thy rays encompass the lands to the limit of all that thou hast made:
As thou art Re, thou reachest to the end of them;
(Thou) subduest them (for) thy beloved son.
Though thou art far away, thy rays are on earth;
Though thou art in their faces, no one knows thy going.

Of all the items in the show, this one is probably the most historically important. Akhenaton was the most radical king in all Egyptian history. He abandoned the old capital of Thebes and built a new one, dedicated to the glory of his personal god, Aton. He ordered his servants to deface and destroy the the name of Amon-Re, the most powerful god (and priesthood) in Ancient Egypt. Other gods were not spared and in some cases, the plural for gods was scratched out. The surviving hymn, while probably not written personally by the king, is unique in the long history of Egyptian religion. A spirit of joyousness and an appreciation of life flow from what we know of faith of Aton; even the temples were open to the sun. Eventually, sadly, the whole edifice collapsed and the faith of the Aton, along with its founder were oblitered for centuries by the powerful and vindictive priests of Amon-Re. None of the important tombs and mummies of the family have been discovered. Tut was a very very minor king and while the treasures of his tomb dazzle, there are still many questions unanswered.

Tut Links
Information about the Ancient Egypt from Barbara Mertz's funny yet informative book: Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs. (Harper Collins, 2007).

Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation
The electronic publication of Howard Carter's records of the excavation of the tomb of King Tut! Brought to you by the Griffith Institute.

Eighteenth Dynasty: King Tut'ankhamun
Enjoy viewing some of the treasures from Tut's tomb through this virtual museum site.

The Diaries of Howard Carter

De Young Museum Web Site:
images courtesy of National Geographic

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