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Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs

Outstanding Art of the Afterlife

The treasures of ancient Egypt have fascinated the modern imagination ever since the rash of excavations in the 19th century. A rich culture that lasted for thousands of years, the kingdom of ancient Egypt pre-dated the Greeks and lasted about three times as long as the Roman Empire. However, over the course of the past five thousand years, many of the treasures of Egypt have been looted and stolen, scattered all over the world in private collections and public museums.

As a result, few tombs have been left untouched. However, on November 4, 1922, English archaeologist Howard Carter discovered one whose royal seals were still intact: the tomb of King Tutankhamun. Ever since, King Tut has become the most famous Egyptian in the world (well, besides Omar Sharif- who, incidentally, narrates the audio tour for the exhibition).

And now (drum roll, please), for the first time in thirty years, the treasures of King Tutís tomb return to the Bay Area in the De Young Museumís Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, an exhibition containing 130 artifacts, including five that are exclusive to the San Francisco exhibition. Designed to appeal not only to the generations who have not yet seen the grave goods of the boy king, the exhibition also promises a new look for those who attended thirty years ago.

The exhibition actually begins with funerary goods from several other tombs that provide context for the story of Tut himself- artifacts that were not part of the 1979 exhibition. Informative placards and the objects themselves tell the story of life and death in Egypt leading up to the time of King Tut, allowing viewers to gain a better understanding of the climate in which the boy king lived.

Found in nearby tombs of family members and unknown persons, these well-preserved artifacts tell an interesting story. Brilliant blue faience models of lotus buds, fruit, and unrolled papyri represent objects that the dead may need in the afterlife, while shabtis beautifully rendered in stone, faience, and wood embellished with gold and semi-precious stones stand ready to serve their masters after death.

Intricately painted vessels, alabaster canopic jars housing mummified entrails, statues of gods and goddesses covered in lapis lazuli, turquoise, carnelian, gold, silver, and copper; these objects are not only visually captivating, they also tell us about the importance of the people to whom they belonged and the expectations they had for the afterlife.

One of the most impressive of these funerary artifacts is the gilded coffin of Tjuya, a priestess of Amun and likely great-grandmother of Tutankhamun. The immense wooden coffin is covered in gold and bears the likeness of its occupant. Adorning her head is the suggestion of an elaborate wig while an enormous collar of gold and colored glass encircles her neck. Images of gods and goddesses and various texts are inscribed on the coffin, providing both protection and a stunning aesthetic.

But this riot of color and profusion of masterfully crafted objects ultimately pave the way to the contents of Tutís own tomb. Navigating through the maze-like formation of rooms, one ultimately comes upon a photo of the entrance to Tutankhamunís tomb as Carter himself must have seen it: a gaping hole in which previously unknown treasures may (or may not) lie. Around the corner, the glorious wealth of strikingly preserved artifacts continues unabated.

First seen by Carter as a jumble of grave goods piled into four small rooms, the contents of King Tutís tomb have now been cleaned, restored, and put on display such that audiences can experience their full glory. Gameboards, jewelry chests, numerous shabtis, even the tiny, richly decorated coffins of two fetuses await discovery. The warm glow of gold and vibrant colors of semi-precious stones are enhanced by dark interiors and strategic lighting.

Among the stars of the exhibition are several pieces of absolutely heartstopping jewelry- pectorals inlaid with an abundance of carnelian and lapis lazuli depict images of scarabs and gods, animals, ankhs (the symbol of life), and cartouches bearing King Tutankhamunís name. A beaded bracelet of incomparable size and beauty bearing an enormous lapis scarab clasp, unique to the San Francisco exhibition, will leave viewers breathless.

Finally, in the last room are several objects found on the body of King Tut, along with images illustrating the nested formation of the four gold painted shrines, the sarcophagus, and the three coffins that held the mummified remains of Tutankhamun. While viewers will not see the mummy itself nor the famous gold mask of the king (which may be a disappointment to many), the five objects displayed here show unparalleled beauty and craftsmanship, allowing audiences to truly see the other wonderful treasures laid to rest with the boy king.

This exhibition is big; expect major crowds, but also expect an outstanding show.

De Young Museum
June 27, 2009- March 28, 2010
Tickets: $15-$22.50