Melbourne: Raiding the lost ark of the boy pharaoh

By Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon visits a new exhibition of King Tutankhamun's precious treasures in Melbourne.

The gilded funerary mask of Tjuya, King Tut's grandmother. Photo / Greg Dixon
The gilded funerary mask of Tjuya, King Tut's grandmother. Photo / Greg Dixon

For British Egyptologist Howard Carter, November 26, 1922 was his day of days. And though it's been almost 90 years since, the excitement and sheer exhilaration of that day still broadcast themselves across the long decades which have followed that afternoon in Egypt's Valley of the Kings.

"Thirty feet down from the outer door," he wrote in his first volume of The Tomb of Tutankhamen, published the following year, "we came upon a second sealed doorway ... and behind it was the answer ... The decisive moment had arrived.

"With trembling hands I made a tiny breach in the upper left-hand corner ... Candle tests were applied as a precaution against possible foul gases, and then, widening the hole a little, I inserted the candle and peered in ...

"At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold - everywhere the glint of gold.

"I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, 'Can you see anything?' it was all I could do to the get out the words, 'Yes, wonderful things' ..."

There was no flickering of candles on my own day of days a fortnight ago, but, yes, I could quite understand Carter's amazement.

Inevitably my first, and probably last, sighting of some of these 3000-year-old "wonderful things" was not to be in some dusty, baking, godforsaken valley on the west bank of the Nile.

Nor was it inside the red-hued grandeur of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities on Cairo's Tahrir Square, where most of Tutankhamun's other-worldly possessions now reside.

It was to be half a world away from there, on an autumn morning inside the steel and glass modernity of the Melbourne Museum. And it seemed only remotely odd that this was so.

The strange animals, statues and glinting gold that Carter found down 16 steps, through two doors and inside the four and a bit rooms of the tomb of Tutankhamun are said to be the most travelled relics in the world.

However only a score or two of the 3500 objects found by Carter during the long and painstaking eight years that followed the discovery of the second door have, actually joined the jet set.

Touring exhibitions of these few first began in the 1960s. But they have never journeyed further than the Northern Hemisphere. Until now. Until early November, the Melbourne Museum will have 50 Tutankhamun artefacts on view among 130 from his family line, Ancient Egypt's 18th Dynasty.

So until then, New Zealanders will have their best and, let's be frank, least risky chance to see some of what struck Carter dumb, and what made one of the ancient world's least important kings one of the modern world's most famous.

A little learning is a wonderful thing. Armed with half a university paper in Ancient Egyptian history - and you'll agree this is a very little learning - I knew little more than this before going to Melbourne: in historical terms, the father is much more important than the son.

Tutankhamun was, by a minor wife, the son of the pharaoh Akhenaten. Crowned as Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten really should be the family's biggest celeb. He ascended the throne at possibly the wealthiest and most peaceful period of ancient Egyptian history, was married to the hauntingly beautiful Nefertiti (her famous bust resides in Berlin's Neues Museum) and built, rather insanely, a new city, now called Amarna, in the middle of nowhere. He has been described as "the first individual in history".

More importantly, he was a heretic, a worldly religious radical who replaced his ancient empire's long established polytheism with a single god, the sun disc Aten. He banned the old gods before embarking on a programme of erasing them from Egypt's multitudinous monuments. It was, according to scholars, a cataclysmic cultural revolution which led to a second: after Akhenaten's death the old gods were restored and, eventually, he and his heirs were themselves largely erased from history.

And so to the son. Born in 1343 BC, Tutankhamun came to throne at nine or 10 (there was possibly an intermediary pharaoh after the death of Akhenaten called Smenkh-ka-Ra). He married his half-sister, was dead by 17 and left no heirs.

It is still somewhat uncertain how or why he died. What we do know is this: during his short reign he went on an expansive and expensive spending and rebuilding spree - as well as what might now be called a PR campaign - to return the country to orthodoxy and to restore some credibility to the pharaohcy.

All of this, at least for me, is terribly, terribly interesting. But it is remarkable what little importance a little learning has when confronted by strange animals, statues and glinting gold.

To enter Melbourne Museum's Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibition you must first go down a flight of stairs. Intentional or not, it's an amusing echo of Tut's tomb and Carter's own experience, as is the museum's decision to locate the exhibition below ground level.

There is, indeed, much thought and a little playfulness in the curation of the Melbourne exhibition, from the lightning transitions from gallery to gallery, to the music composed especially for this show, to the tat - including a King Tut rubber duck! - on sale in the gift shop.

On entering the exhibition proper, visitors will first view a short National Geographic video (NG is the show's chief organiser) before moving through 10 main galleries: Egypt before Tutankhamun; Traditional Beliefs; Death, Burial and the Afterlife; Religious Revolution; The Boy King; Everywhere the Glint of Gold; Causing His Name to Live; Carter's Discovery; The Burial Chamber. There is an eleventh room, separate and open to all museum visitors, that explores the "mysteries of the mummy".

The order of the main galleries is, firstly, principally chronological. But each, with short story boards, also feeds those with little or no knowledge of Ancient Egypt quick and easily digestible primers about what is known of its culture and people so the show's centrepiece, the life and death of Tutankhamun, has context. Hand-held audio guides are available too to further enrich a visitor's knowledge.

But of course it's up to the individual punter to take or leave the history. If you want to simply glory alone in the strange animals, statues, and gold, you may. And what glories there are. Each gallery seems to hold objects more luminous, more finely made, more epic, more beautiful and - and this feeling is simply overwhelming - more alien and ultimately unknowable than the last.

There are many highlights. Some are eye-popping: the enormous gilded outer coffin of Tut's grandmother Tjuya; a giant sandstone head from a colossal statue of the heretic Akhenaten; the rather mad wooden head of a cow goddess.

Some are small and of astonishingly delicate make: a polychrome glass perfume bottle; a crazy dog collar made of leather and copper; a petite ivory board game.

There is certainly death - like the sad, tiny nested coffins of one of Tut's stillborn children - but there is plenty of everyday life too: model ships, elaborately decorated chests and chairs, a tiny cosmetic container in the shape of a duck (but not a King Tut rubber duck!). Inevitably one feels a little like Indiana Jones and, if one is not careful, a little overwhelmed. I found it best to take my time.

But the boy himself is not, at least in body, at home. Missing from the exhibition is Tutankhamun's mummy (though CT scans of the body are in the eleventh, public gallery), and so are what, arguably, are the most famous objects from his tomb: the gold burial mask and the richly ornate third coffin. However as you enter the last few main galleries, the boy king is all about you, in effigy and in a few of the gilded possessions packed with him in the inner burial chamber to help keep him looking good when he joined his ancestors in his journey to eternity.

They are indeed, along with all the rest, most wonderful things. What an afterlife - if not one the young pharaoh would have possibly imagined - he, his extraordinary cargo and we, the visitors to his strange lost world, continue to enjoy.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Qantas has regular flights across the Tasman to Melbourne.

The exhibition: Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs is on at the Melbourne Museum, 11 Nicholson St, Carlton Gardens, Melbourne CBD until November 6. Adults from A$29.50, children A$17.50, family (2 adults, 2 children) A$80.

Further information: For details of other events in Melbourne see the Tourism Victoria website.

Greg Dixon visited Melbourne as guest of IMG, Qantas and Tourism Victoria.

- NZ Herald

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