By Tom Norton
I first heard the name Tutankhamen, I think when I was in the 7th grade. The renowned treasures of King Tutankhamen were coming to the United States for the first time and America was crazy with Tut fever. Steve Martin was parodying it on SNL and lines that stretched for blocks were filled with the lucky thousands whose eyes would gaze upon the most phenomenal cache of treasures from the ancient world ever discovered…anywhere. For an 11-year-old kid in a Catholic grade school dreaming of adventure, the timing was perfect. My best friend and I were already dreaming of becoming archeologists and the boy king’s treasures coming to America dovetailed neatly into our world view.
We talked endlessly about digging for buried treasure and discovering lost cities. Impatient to begin, we spent summer afternoons with shovels, brushes and any of the equipment we thought they might use digging for artifacts on the steep banks of a large creek near our homes. And there where the creek had cut away layers of earth for some 10 feet deep, we “discovered” many an animal skeleton. (Never mind that we were confusing paleontology with archeology) but nevertheless, we carefully extracted each bone from the skull to the tail and proceeded to re-assemble them on my mother’s dining room table. However, doubts on archeology as a career started when my mother came home from work and discovered three clean, but freshly unearthed skeletons on her dining room table. (Now considering her reaction, I could have made a career studying ballistics.)
Between the confusion of archeological disciplines and my mother’s ire over skeletons on the table, one would think it was not in my cards to discover treasure and advance the understanding of other cultures. What spurred my interest on at this time was that we now had a connection with events larger than we were. It was through the treasures of Tutankhamen. They were here and they were real!
Which brings us to the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s “The Discovery of King Tut.” If there is one thing that museums anywhere do, it’s that they connect us in a real way with stories and events that are often larger than we are. The connection changes us, molds our views and gives a bigger, better understanding of the world. It’s why I love museums and cannot overstate their importance to our society and our culture. Even though this exhibit hasn’t a single authentic piece from the Tutankhamen tomb, it is in a word, breathtaking. For over 30 years, I’ve studied, read, gazed upon and dreamed of the mysteries of ancient Egypt. I’ve poured through thousands of pages of books with images of the treasures of this great discovery and without any doubt, this exhibit now at the Grand Rapids Public Museum is by far one of the most striking! The exacting detail in my opinion nearly approaches devotion.
In fact, I would dare say that any amateur Egyptologist would be hard pressed to be able to select between the real Tutankhamen treasures in the Cairo museum and those on display at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. A huge statement, maybe, but then one has to see this exhibit to fully appreciate it.
Coming around the corner and seeing the full scale replicas of the three coffins, the innermost one being six feet in length and of solid gold, you instantly feel the surge of excitement. This, you think must be a taste of what archeologist Howard Carter and his team must have felt when they lifted the lid of the pink quartz sarcophagus and saw before them treasures not even dreams could hope for. The discovery of Tutankhamen in 1922 by archeologist Howard Carter triggered a global sensation.
For millennia, the pyramids had stood empty and countless, beautifully painted tombs throughout Egypt were only mute testament to what glorious treasures must have once laid inside. With Carter’s discovery the world now knew what it must have been like. King Tutankhamen, a minor pharaoh who became king during one of Egypt’s most tumultuous political times was now front and center in the 20th century. His popularity in a modern world of aircraft, space exploration, iPhones and the Internet would span one hundred years and more. And nearly a hundred years on since that great discovery, new elements of Tut’s life and his reign are coming to light. Each one fascinating and as time goes on, contributing to a deeper understanding of the mysteries of ancient Egypt.
King at 9 Years Old
Tutankhamen’s name means “Living Image of Amun,” the principle deity in Egyptian mythology. But several years before Tut was born, Egypt went on a political roller coaster ride that would shake up every element of society. Tut’s father, the pharaoh Akhenaten, in one felled swoop did away with the pantheon of Egyptian mythology and declared that there was only one god, the Aten. The Aten was peace loving, just and a giver of life; not a destroyer and eager to punish naughty children as the priests of Egypt would portray many of the other gods. Initially, the cult of the Aten was welcomed (except by the priests who were simply out of a job). From there, Tut’s father built a new royal city, Armana where he and the royal court could worship the Aten freely and peacefully without the meddling of the powerful priests who held control over much of Egyptian society, including pharaoh.
And it’s interesting to note that this change in religion even affected the art of ancient Egypt. Surviving statues of Akhenaten show him, not the muscular, square shouldered pharaoh we are accustomed to seeing in the likeness of the warrior pharaohs Rameses the Great or Thutmose, but a pharaoh with an unusually elongated face, bulbous thighs and sloping shoulders. Whether these radical departures were simply part of a new style of art or an honest portrayal for the first time is still unclear. This new style of art became known as the “Armana” style. Previously, Egyptian society, its economy and its future were solidly built on unending conquest and the tribute from subjugated peoples. Rivers of gold flowed from Nubia (the Egyptian word for gold is “Nu.”) along with the import of slaves from whole nations subject to Egyptian military might. All of the plunder that the spoils of war bring to enrich a country had to be maintained if the way of life everyone was accustomed to was to stay in balance.
But Akhenaten wasn’t terribly interested in war, or the subjugation of other peoples. When he became pharaoh, Egypt was rich, built up on conquest and history shows that once the religion of the Aten was established, he preferred to stay in Armana with his beautiful queen Nefertiti and worship the Aten. It was in this ivory tower that Tutankhamen (his name originally replaced the “amen” with the “aten”) was raised. But rightly or wrongly, the empire was no longer in balance. Hittite kings, (in modern day Syria) Egypt’s arch enemy for centuries, grew bolder and were making bold claims to Egyptian lands.Generals must have demanded that pharaoh, the leader of the army do something and likewise, the priests of Amun, outraged at the dissolution of their cults sulked. Everyone who was on the out was waiting for the opportune time to end the fantasy world of the dreamer-pharaoh and eventually like in all things, that time came. Akhenaten was either too foolish or naive, or a combination of both to not see it coming because when it did, it was overwhelming.
It’s uncertain how he died. Perhaps he was murdered or simply deposed, but given the violent world around him, his simply stepping down is unlikely. So with Akhenaten gone, the nine-year old Tutankhamen became pharaoh and the cult of the Aten was swept away and the pantheon of Egyptian gods restored. But the restoration to orthodoxy would take surprising turns. The priests and perhaps the military as well erased Akhenaten’s royal city from the map. Today barely a stone sits upon a stone and only fragments of Akhenaten’s sarcophagus have been found (which at least implies he was given a funeral).
So the dreamer-pharaoh, Akhenaten with his peace loving religion of a single god was gone. The challenge now was that the next in line for the royal throne was an 9 year old boy, Tutankhaten. He would change his name to Tutankhamen and return the entire state to orthodoxy and the “Amun” again would be restored to being the principle deity. His reign would be short, only eight years, but in that time Egypt would go from a cataclysmic showdown between religions to a rebirth that would last several more centuries. But none of this made Tutankhamen famous, neither in his time nor in the three millennia that followed. At nine-years old, he was too young to rule so a regent served in his place. Often regents in ancient Egyptian royalty were women as it was believed a male regent would usurp the throne and depose any young king once he became a real threat to power.
However, history has shown that in Egypt, the female regents were no less a threat to royal succession and perhaps this was the case in the story of Tutankhamen. There was a woman who served as regent. Her name and everything about her is lost to history; intentionally erased? We may never know but enigmatic discoveries within the tomb of Tutankhamen tomb whisper the possibility of a female regent who may have tried to be pharaoh instead of Tut.
The Other Woman
Virtually nothing is known about her, but then again Egypt was rather good at trying to erase people from history. She was regent during the young boy’s initial reign, but other men, powerful men in this cast of characters were also around the boy-king. Among them, Horemheb, a general in the army and the royal vizier, Ay who is portrayed on the king’s burial chamber wall. In the years after Tutankhamen’s mysterious death, both Ay and Horemheb would become pharaoh, each for a very short time which suggests the atmosphere of intrigue and violence that was still sweeping through the ruling class. In fact it would be Horemheb, a general who from some accounts, had a unique ability to control the young king’s temper, but who in the end, upon becoming pharaoh, would conduct a systematic campaign to erase Tut from history.
Yet within Tut’s tomb are objects that clearly belong to and were made for a female; in fact a ruling female. We can only suppose this was the unnamed Queen who acted as his regent when he was still a boy. Some scholars maintain that the second coffin is not in the likeness of Tut, but in the likeness of the queen who ruled as regent until he was old enough. Apparently, this regent was preparing for her own royal burial and accumulating sacred golden objects for the hereafter; only to be stopped short once the boy king became old enough to assert his authority. What was it? It was about three years into his reign that Tutankhamen truly did become pharaoh. Was there a backroom deal between the priests and the royal vizier, Ay to return the multiple gods to Egypt and they would support him against the regent? Perhaps. It’s fun to speculate, but in an atmosphere where so many characters in this cast were seeking power it must have been like living in a shark tank.
A Mysterious Death
Numbers of CAT scans of the mummy of King Tutankhamen in the last few years have revealed extraordinary findings; findings that point to the possibility of a horrific chariot accident as the possible cause of death. Numerous beautiful state and every day use chariots were in Tut’s tomb and the record shows he loved the sport of hunting. Whether the accident happened while hunting or in battle, the King’s knee was badly mangled, several ribs separated from the spinal column and a severe blow was suffered in the back of his skull. Whatever did happen, it wasn’t immediately fatal as the skull fracture shows signs of healing, but perhaps the wounds became infected and it overwhelmed his system. We will never know for certain, but death by accident is looking more and more likely. But one thing is certain; the treasures of King Tutankhamen are a testimony to a culture in history and in time that achieved unparalleled superiority in art and craftsmanship. The exquisite beauty in the craftsmanship for a culture from 5,000 years ago is nearly overwhelming and the amount of gold is astounding. The exacting detail in the replicas in this display is a testament to the creative ability of a culture and society that was entirely focused on the idea that you can take it with you. Fortunately for us who gaze upon it 3,300 years later, they believed this with everything they could muster.
For King Tutankhamen, no one will know what his personality was like, but suffice it to say that perhaps there is some poetic justice in the fact that this relatively minor and forgotten pharaoh is the only pharaoh of all of ancient Egypt who’s body still safely resides in his own tomb and that his global fame is renown. You know you’re famous when the very weird spelling of your very strange name doesn’t get highlighted in spell check. One can only say thank you to the Grand Rapids Public Museum for reminding a middle-aged guy about the wonder and sense of adventure he felt at the age of 11 when he first heard the strange and enigmatic name of “Tutankhamen.” The exhibit “The Treasures of King Tut” runs through April 2016. Explore more about the story and details of the exhibit at the website: http://www.grpm.org/kingtut/
Tom Norton is Executive Director of WKTV Community Media serving Wyoming and Kentwood and describes himself as an armchair, amateur Egyptologist (skeletons on his mother’s dining room table notwithstanding.)