Tutankhamun needs no introduction. The boy king's name and funerary mask are worldwide icons of ancient Egyptian culture and glory. In the 1970s, North America received its first live look at artifacts from Tut's tomb, in what was thought to be a "once-in-a-lifetime" traveling exhibition. And people today still talk about it.
But that chance has come again in the form of Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs. which opened this week at the Denver Art Museum. The commercial hype surrounding the blockbuster exhibit made us skeptical, but during a viewing of the exhibit last weekend, Tutankhamun proved incredible.
Awe-inspiring for both Egyptophiles and the museum-wary, Tutankhamun offers around 130 pieces, most never seen in the United States before now, ranging from glittering gold jewelry to smooth sculptures made from luminous or sandy stone to personal items from Tut's earthly life.
As you enter, the show offers a quick primer on Egyptian history leading up to Tut's time of around 1300 B.C., as assembled by famed Egyptian antiquities official and archeology celebrity Zahi Hawass. The exhibition atmosphere reflects its courtly holdings, and the mood is solemn.
Of particular interest is the colossal statue of Akhenaten (also known as Amenhotep IV, pictured above), the controversial pharaoh who converted Egypt from polytheism to monotheism. His feline characteristics in the stone share male and female qualities, with almond-shaped eyes atop high cheekbones and a long, thin nose hovering above full lips and a formidable jaw.
Mark Lach, the exhibition's designer and senior vice president of Arts and Exhibitions International, points out that this seemingly strange portrait spoke to the pharaoh's being a god on Earth, and therefore, able to encompass and lord over both genders. He adds that in the last few months, DNA testing has confirmed that Akhenaten was Tut's father; a compelling lineage for the history books.
The last galleries in the show comprise some of Howard Carter's findings in 1922. Visitors wander from a version of Howard's camp (a little hokey, to be sure) through four rooms that echo the four chambers of Tut's tomb.
Here, everything glitters. For all the artistry and splendor, however, the takeaway image for me is that of Tut's own reed bed, stacked hastily in his tomb for use in his afterlife. Homely and simple, this small piece of furniture was actually used, says Lach. With his bed, servants also packed a small game and chair, both exquisitely carved.
That he was so well-prepared in death, like any pharaoh, is impressive. That he died around the age of 19, though, is touching. The tomb preparations speak to a sense of bittersweet closure that we still practice today.
Tutankhamun's days on the road are few. Right now, Egypt is constructing the Grand Egyptian Museum, which will be the permanent home for all of these objects, in Cairo. Though it's been said before about some of Tut's treasures, believe it now: These gorgeous artifacts will never travel again.