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Volume 28, Number 3May/June 1977

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King Tut Tours America

Written by Joanna Shaw-Eagle
Photographed by Katrina Thomas
Additional photographs by Harry Burton

For two-and-a-half full years November 1976 to April 1979-55 priceless treasures from the fabulous tomb of the 1300-BC Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen are touring the United States. Officials in the six lucky cities hosting the traveling exhibition predict that during that time the total number of people filing through then-local museums to view the dazzling collection may reach a staggering four.

This is only the fifth time the treasures of "King Tut" have left their home in Egypt's National Museum in Cairo since their spectacular discovery in 1922. Previously they have visited the U.S.S.R., France, Japan and England (See Aramco World Sept.-Oct., 1972), but experts generally acknowledge that the U.S. exhibition is the biggest and best ever to leave Egypt.

Never before have Tutankhamen treasures sent abroad by the Arab Republic of Egypt made such an extended journey. The fragility—and value—of the objects must have led Egyptian and U.S. museum officials to invoke their own private deities, as well as Tut's, in planning and executing the tour. The quality and scale of the exhibition were made possible through sponsorship by a consortium of six American museums, headed by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. It will visit virtually every geographical area of the continental United States.

The U.S. exhibition opened November 17, 1976, in Washington, D.C., where 830,340 persons jammed the National Gallery of Art during its 17-week stay. It is in Chicago through this summer and then travels to New Orleans, Los Angeles and Seattle before the grand finale in distant 1979 (See box for dates and places). The exhibition has been scheduled last at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to celebrate the opening of the museum's new wing, built to house the Temple of Dendur (See Aramco World, May-June 1969).

It is fitting that Tutankhamen's treasures have at last come to visit America, for it was an American, some 70 years ago, who stumbled across the first clue to their existence. The day was January 17, 1908. Theodore Davis, an amateur archaeologist, was digging in Egypt's Valley of the Kings when he came across a curious cache of large, sealed pottery jars, containing what he afterwards called "rubbish." Those jars, and the "rubbish" inside them, proved to be the beginning, the key clues which led some 14 years later to one of the most spectacular finds in the history of Egyptian archaeology: the 18th-dynasty tomb of King Tutankhamen, with its more than 5,000 unparalleled treasures.

The contents of those jars—mistaken by Davis as just a jumble of broken pottery, cloth and seals—were actually remains of materials used by Tutankhamen's embalmers as well as debris from the Pharaoh's funeral feast. (Tutankhamen reigned from approximately 1334 to 1325 B.C., dying at the age of 18.) The 125 red clay storage jars are the only intact collection of objects from an Egyptian funerary banquet ever found.

They were originally used for storing embalming equipment, such as bits of left-over bandages and bags of the embalming salt, natron. Some of these linen fragments contain dated references to Tutankhamen. One, a piece of cloth ascribed to Tut's sixth year, was the kind of evidence that convinced British archaeologist Howard Carter, who eventually discovered and excavated Tut's tomb, and Lord Carnarvon, his patron, that the tomb actually did exist.

The Davis jars are now at the Oriental Institute in Chicago, on display publicly for the first time. And since 55 priceless objects from the tomb itself are simultaneously on display at Chicago's Field Museum of National History, the jars and treasures come together for the first time since Tutankhamen's tomb was sealed 3,302 years ago.

Chicago has always been important in the life of the Tutankhamen objects. The Oriental Institute, where Davis' find comprises part of an adjunct "Magic of Egyptian Art" exhibition which will run through April 15, 1978, is a world center for Egyptian studies. James H. Breasted, who founded the institute in 1919 and was the leading American Egyptologist of his time, helped Howard Carter establish that the unviolated tomb he discovered was that of Tutankhamen by identifying the Pharaoh's seal on the tomb door and reading the inscriptions inside. Because of Breasted's prominence, and the importance of the institute as a learning center, part of Davis' original discovery went to Chicago.

"Orientation" exhibitions such as "Magic of Egyptian Art" in Chicago and another exhibition, "Eye for Eye", which opens at the New Orleans Museum, in Louisiana, in September, introduce and can be crucial in helping modern audiences span the 3,000-year-plus gap that separates us from Tut, and in preparing us for the dazzling attractions at the traveling exhibition.

According to Egyptian belief, writing a Pharaoh's name would insure eternal life. Ancient Egyptian tomb inscriptions read, "To speak the name of the dead is to make him live again." And just as the Egyptians believed they could live through their names, so also they believed that mummification would extend their existence. The spirit of the dead would roam freely, they felt, but was dependent on the mummy for a secure and final resting place. The tomb, its arts, its writings, its creature comforts such as food and fragrant oils were for one purpose: to insure the king's existence forever.

Tutankhamen's mummy, of course, is still in Egypt, and though his name was largely removed from the history books by his successors, who objected to his religious reforms, it lives again in the U.S. exhibition. The tomb itself is beautifully simulated in all six American cities which the Tut treasures are visiting. Unlike previous exhibitions held abroad, the traveling U.S. exhibition is composed of two complementary sections. One is, quite simply, beautiful objects (See photographs, page 28); the other demonstrates the adventure of archaeology.

The art is 55 carefully selected objects from the over 5,000 originally excavated: light-filled, translucent alabaster cups; elegant furniture of rare woods; dazzling jewelry; marvelous gold sculptures showing Tutankhamen as a child, as a sports-loving king, and, finally, as a buried god-king.

The second section recreates the archaeological discovery and excavation as well as the cultural ambience in which the art was created. Each U.S. museum is recreating the experience of actually entering the tomb and passing through its four rooms, with the burial chamber and its deservedly famous burial mask the chief focus. Large photomurals, charts explaining Egyptian religion and life as reflected in its art, and extensive wall captions from Carter's three-volume report on the tomb tell how the civilization of Tutankhamen flourished. They are mounted as flexible, portable wall panels that are traveling to all six museums

The display also reveals Carter's painstaking archaeological procedures, his 10-year clearing of the tomb, as well as his difficulties. One caption tells us. "The tours (of tourists) not only threatened to damage the fragile objects, but also caused interruptions that brought work to a complete halt. While Carter directed the archaeologists, the earl intercepted the tourists. Lord Carnarvon, it turned out, had the much harder job."

The photomurals put exhibition visitors practically in Carter's and Carnarvon's shoes to share in the adventure of discovery. Like the two Englishmen, visitors walk down a long dark corridor that now, instead of being filled ceiling-high with rubble, holds just one exquisite sculpture, the appealing and touching young Tutankhamen as "the sun god on a lotus." In Chicago, visitors first enter the exhibition through a buff-colored baffle simulating the tomb of Ramses VI, a reminder that this tomb almost blocked discovery of Tut's. They then "descend" the entrance steps through an optical illusion and duck along a long, dark corridor which is only spotlighted at intervals.

Carter almost stumbled over the sun god, as well as a lotus-formed alabaster chalice, as he entered the corridor and subsequent anteroom. Both had been dropped by early grave robbers as they hastily fled. Originally the largest room in the tomb (26 by 1 2 feet), the anteroom was stacked with animal-shaped couches (unfortunately too fragile to travel to the U.S.), several royal thrones, alabaster vases, chests, a dazzling gold shrine whose panels show Tutankhamen's affectionate domestic life, pieces of four chariots, and two life-size sentinel statues of Tutankhamen, which guarded the burial chamber. The chariots and statues, included in the 1971–72 London exhibition, could not travel to the United States; instead, Americans can see 18 different objects, among them the young sun god, the exquisitely sensual goddess Selket, that has never before left Cairo, a gilded wooden cobra sculpture, numerous pieces of jewelry, a golden mirror case and a painted alabaster casket.

Carter had decided to proceed slowly and carefully from one room to another. He had each object photographed, catalogued and removed to storage before proceeding to the next room. It was not until February 17, 1923, three months after entering the antechamber, that he prepared to enter the burial chamber. Here, the exhibition's most famous object and the tomb's greatest find, Tutankhamen's 22-pound, solid gold mask, was found in place over the mummy's head and shoulders. In Washington, D.C., the mask, beaten and burnished, inlaid with carnelian, lapis lazuli, colored glass and quartz, was dramatically displayed dead-center in the National Gallery's "burial chamber."

The treasury section held many images of Tutankhamen, illustrating the importance of the Egyptian belief that as mummification of the Pharaoh's body and inscribing his name were crucial in preserving eternal life, so was the painting and sculpting of his likeness. One Egyptian word for sculptor was "He-who-keeps-alive." The Tut treasures are from the Amarna period, a brief time in Egyptian art history when new naturalistic tendencies combined with old Egyptian stylizations for incisive and sympathetic human portrayals. The sculptures are remarkable for their variety, and in being painted and gilded. The rarity and skill of these gilded sculptures are amply seen in the U.S. exhibition in the two well-known figures of Tutankhamen. One, in a rare scene of action for the Egyptians, is Tutankhamen with harpoon in hand. The other is a dramatic contrast of gold and black, with a gilded Tut as the sun god traveling on a black leopard through the underworld.

Two other examples are the goddess Selket and a menacing gilded cobra with neck dilated, ready to spring. Selket had never been fully visible at the National Museum in Cairo, because there she faces inwards, attached to a massive gilded wooden shrine with three other goddesses. This is the first time she has been detached and sent abroad for full viewing.

The displays in Washington and Chicago demonstrate how very different the Tut objects look in different spaces and light. Each museum has attempted to simulate the darkness of the tomb and Carter's experience in that darkness as he found the objects. Though lacking a really large display space, the National Gallery of Art in Washington employed different shaped rooms and subtle shifts of wall color to dramatize the objects.

The Field Museum in Chicago took advantage of its large spaces and high ceilings to recreate its own special 15,000-square-foot Tutankhamen tomb. Rich blue-grays, both on the walls and in the cases, enhance the objects, especially the gold ones. The emotive quality of stone architecture is emphasized, and this may well be the most architectural of the displays. Certain walls are textured to simulate the limestone Theban walls of Tut's tomb.

Officials in Chicago estimate that attendance reaches eight to 10 thousand daily, and that a total of one million visitors will see the exhibition there. The quota for group reservations was filled before opening day: 1,000 women's groups, school classes and art and archaeological organizations from 15 inland states as well as Texas, California, and Hawaii. Opening-day crowds began lining up at museum entrances at 5 a.m. Since only 990 persons are allowed into the exhibit area at any one time, ticket holders roam around the vast building looking at other collections until their numbers are flashed on closed-circuit television screens.

This is undoubtedly one of the most stellar exhibitions of beautiful art ever to travel abroad. But it is even more: the recreation of what is probably the quintessential art discovery of the 20th century. The exhibition vividly conveys how Carter must have felt when he entered Tutankhamen's tomb, untouched in over 3,000 years, and realized that he was one of the first men in the long span of Egyptian history to gaze upon thousands of priceless objects lying undisturbed, just as they had been buried and sealed. Grave robbers had stripped every other Egyptian tomb, as well as its mummies of kings and nobles, of all burial accoutrements and valuables. Best of all, in this tomb was the unviolated sarcophagus of Pharaoh Tutankhamen himself, with its gold mask and collar.

It was an improbable discovery made by improbable men, attended by accidents and ironies at every turn. The author Rudyard Kipling, who visited the Valley of the Kings at the time, whimsically called field archaeology "a scholarly pursuit with all the excitement of the gold prospector's life."

Scholarship and 'prospecting' were part of the Tut find, but it turned out these improbable men were exactly the right men. Howard Carter, an accomplished watercolorist, came to Egypt as a draftsman in 1892 and stayed to dig. He had years of archaelogical experience, with both Davis and the famous Sir Flinders Petrie. His patron, no less than the fifth Earl of Carnarvon—George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert—came to Egypt to recover his health after a car smash-up—he owned one of the three first cars licensed in Britain—and, like many others, caught the archaeology fever. Carnarvon's patience and generosity were as remarkable as Carter's conviction—based on Davis' "rubbish"—that there was a Tutankhamen tomb. In 1914, when Carter and Carnarvon finally obtained Davis' concessions to dig, the Egyptian antiquities department told them they were wasting their time.

Others thought so too, and even the patient Carnarvon called a halt when the equivalent of half a million dollars, six seasons' work—the dig had been interrupted by World War I—and 200,000 tons of sand and rubble had been turned over. Carter pleaded for one more season, offering to pay for it himself if he didn't find the tomb. The rest of the story needs no retelling, except for its irony: the Tutankhamen tomb stairs were uncovered just a few yards from where Carter had stopped digging four years earlier because of the tourist flow to Ramses VI's larger, much grander—but empty—tomb. Archaeology had bowed to tourism for a few years but, luckily, not forever.

When Carter finally uncovered the entry door and found its seals untouched he guessed he was making archaeological history. Although it turned out robbers had broken into the tomb twice shortly after burial, the damage had been minor. Then, Carter surmised, a rainstorm washing gravel down the Valley of the Kings probably covered the entrance. And when, a short 200 years later, Ramses VI's tomb was dug nearby, the excavation debris completely obliterated the smaller tomb next to it.

All this was fortuitous for archaeology, and the timing was important. The excavation process could not have been as modern, scientific or meticulous if the discovery had occurred earlier. Nor would there have been the cooperation between archaeologists that characterized the find. The Egyptian Government loaned Carter and Carnarvon an empty tomb nearby for use as laboratory and workshop. Top specialists from around the world assembled during the next 10 years to help decipher inscriptions and clean, repair and catalog every object. Photographer Harry Burton was loaned by the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art expedition, and it is his dramatic photographs that give the flavor of immediacy to the U.S. exhibition.

Guarding and moving the treasures has been a nerve-racking job since Carter first found the tomb. That he was able to move 5,000 objects to Cairo without loss or damage 50 years ago is still something of a miracle. It started when Carter discovered the sealed tomb on November 4, 1922. A more impetuous man would have entered at once, feeling as he did that he was on the brink of perhaps the greatest archaeological find of the century. Instead, he waited patiently for Carnarvon to make the three-week trip from London. The two Englishmen opened the tomb together on November 26. Carter then set up a system of three guards to watch each other while he methodically opened one room at a time.

Transporting the objects to Cairo was almost more intricate in the 1920's than getting them safely to the United States in 1976. Carter decided to move them down the Nile by boat, but four miles of land had to be covered first. Terrain was uneven, roads still primitive. His moving crew had only a few yards of railway track, which they had to take up and lay down repeatedly, but they covered the four miles in 15 hours. None of the 5,000 objects was damaged, and there has been no damage since, either at the National Museum in Cairo or on tour.

For the 1976 Washington opening, two U.S. Navy ships transported the Tut treasures from Alexandria, Egypt, to Norfolk, Virginia. The ships were able to transport the priceless treasures during normal rotation home, thus guaranteeing top protection at minimum cost. Before the treasures were loaded aboard in Egypt, a specialized English firm packed each object in styrofoam specially cut to fit it, much like a complex puzzle. The styrofoam packings were then cradled in wooden shipping crates often two or three times the size of the object inside. Thus objects such as the animal-headed funerary couches couldn't travel, because the large crates that would have been necessary could not have fit through conventional doorways.

Care in packing and unpacking could not have been greater, or security tighter. Two Egyptian experts, including Ibrahim el-Nawawy, First Curator of Cairo Museum, came to oversee the process and supervise the installation (See box). Handlers wore white gloves during the unpacking, and experts took photographs and studied them at each step.

When moving by road in the United States, the treasures are protected by city and state police. In Chicago, extra men have been added to the Field Museum's security force and the guards—all trained in firefighting, bomb disposal and medical emergencies—have been screened for security by the FBI. Each display case has a sonic security device in it, with extra devices in each room during non-public hours. Where possible, cases are bolted to the floor. Obviously, the Pink Panther will have no luck here.

How do you measure the value of such an exhibition? Though covered by federal insurance under the new U.S. Arts & Indemnity Act, the treasures are, in reality, uninsurable. They are priceless, their worth clearly beyond mere dollars. Aside from their value to historians' scholars and lovers of beauty, however, the treasures will bring joy and good will to millions of Americans.The director of the National Museum in Cairo, Abdel Quadar Selim, puts.it simply. "We are pleased to see our objects exhibited and known by the whole world—and especially in the United States."

And further joy will come to America with still another exhibition—a general survey of Egyptian art planned for 1980, after the treasures of King Tut are back in Cairo, safely home from their longest journey.

Joanna Shaw-Eagle has taught art history in universities in Delaware, Maryland and Washington, D.C., and written on art for such publications as The Washington Post, Art News, Art in America and Art Gallery magazine.

El-Nawawy: Guardian of the Tresures

As Ibrahim el-Nawawy, First Curator of Cairo's National Museum, began unpacking the Tutankhamen treasures in Chicago, he was greeting old friends.

For he had done it in London, Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and Washington, D.C., before. He will know the Tutankhamen objects even better by April 1979, when the two-and-a-half-year traveling exhibition finishes its lengthy U.S. visit. El-Nawawy served as curator of the Tutankhamen treasures in Cairo for five years before being promoted to First Curator of the museum. In America, he sees that the priceless treasures are handled with the same care exercised by his staff in Egypt, where every one of the 5,000 objects from King Tut's tomb is examined individually by experienced curators once a year.

It's an awesome responsibility, but the 42-year-old Tutankhamen expert has prepared himself for it over a long and distinguished career as archaeologist, museologist and curator. Trained in Egyptian universities, el-Nawawy has excavated in the tombs of the nobles in Luxor, as well as clearing the passage of he King Seti I tomb there. Egypt is divided into some 40 antiquities divisions, where examination, study, restoration, security and improvement projects are constantly under way, and el-Nawawy knows the network of field areas well. "We cover every inch of the country," he says. In 1971-72 he helped establish the Sudan National Museum in Khartoum.

All this has helped the Egyptian curator deal with the intense Tutankhamen excitement in the United States, which he handles with tact and un-flappability. Large crowds—over 7,000 persons a day swarmed to the opening exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington—seem to delight, rather than worry him. El-Nawawy seems marked by a quiet confidence in the fact that all is secure and has been done as well as possible, and he and Egyptian colleagues with him exude their delight in being able to share these remarkable treasures with others. "We will try to accommodate any country which requests the Tut exhibition," el-Nawawy says. "It's only a matter of time."

What accounts for Tutankhamen's enormous popularity in the U.S., with people waiting up to eight hours in a line? El-Nawawy feels that because America is a young nation, only 200 years old, it is particularly fascinated with a culture that flourished more than 3,000 years ago. Also, he said, "The mass media have been very generous in their coverage, so the treasures have acquired substantial fame from their previous travels." Of course, el-Nawawy adds, the culture of ancient Egypt is widely taught in school and many scholars consider it to be the beginning of civilization. Another reason for the response, as The Washington Post has speculated, is that seeing the Tut treasures is this year's "in" thing to do. Many older people also remember the international excitement and headlines of half a century ago when the tomb was discovered intact and then opened.

Who chose the Tut objects for the U.S. tour? The Egyptians work with the hosts to decide what is suitable for each exhibition, el-Nawawy says. In London it was I. E. S. Edwards, former keeper of Egyptian antiquities at the British Museum and in the U.S. it was Metropolitan Museum of Art Director Thomas Hoving and the museum's Egyptian curator Christine Lilyquist. American critics have praised the Metropolitan's selection for its balancing of familiar objects with a well-chosen group of less familiar pieces not previously seen outside Cairo.

Among them is the beauteous goddess Selket, who has become a top favorite with American audiences. El-Nawawy emphasizes that although the experts strive for a representational selection, security, of course, is always a prime concern.

Each time the exhibition travels, el-Nawawy says, "We try to make improvements in design, security and transport techniques." In London, he feels, the display was too dark. In both Washington and Chicago brighter colors and lighting were used. "The main idea," he says, "is to focus light and attention on the objects."

The focus in American museums for now is clearly on the treasures of King Tut: their beauty, craftsmanship and historical significance. And they will continue to delight U.S. audiences for another two years.

This article appeared on pages 22-27 of the May/June 1977 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1977 images.