Thursday, November 4, 2010

Beneath the Sands Of Time

Magnet # 385:  Egyptian Landmarks

Material:  Resin

Purchased By:  Me

One of the greatest discoveries of ancient artifacts ever was made on this day in 1922 when archaeologist Howard Carter came upon the entrance to King Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings.  Although he had no idea what lay in wait on the other side, he soon found out that it was the best preserved and most complete tomb of any pharaoh unearthed in the area.  And amazingly, Carter almost never made the discovery.  He had been searching for over a decade under the funding the wealthy British aristocrat Lord Carnarvon, who had finally grown weary of making no discoveries.  He agreed to bankroll Carter for a final season.  During this time, the archaeologist's water carrier actually found the steps to the tomb.  By the end of the month, with Lord Carnarvon and his entourage in attendance, Carter was able to sneak a peek inside the tomb through a small opening in the doorway.  What he saw was promising, but it's doubtful anyone in the assembly could have guessed the extent of the treasures that they'd soon recover.

Perhaps the most intriguing facet of the story surrounding the discovery of the tomb and removal of its contents is the claim that the Curse of Tutankhamun was visited upon any who dared to enter.  For the most part, not many take this legend seriously, but there a few peculiar details.  On the very day when the tomb was opened, a canary in Howard Carter's house was killed in its birdcage by a cobra.  As this reptile was the symbol of the Egyptian monarchy, some saw this creature's attack on Carter's home at nearly the same hour as when he pried open King Tut's tomb as a bad omen.  Before long, a very popular British author known as Mary Corelli was claiming that a "dire punishment" might befall these intruders.  Soon, Lord Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito and accidentally cut the wound while shaving, causing infection.  The resulting blood poisoning  brought about his death seven weeks after the official opening of the tomb.  And when he passed, a couple of strange occurrences were said to have happened.  At his English estate, his dog howled and also died, and a blackout hit Cairo - which, admittedly, was not an irregular occurrence at the time.  And about half a year later, when the first autopsy was performed on King Tut's body, a healed lesion was discovered on his cheek.  Unfortunately, no one was ever certain if it was in the same location as Lord Carnarvon's wound.  Still, much of the public was gripped by fear of the Curse of Tutankhamun.  Even writer Athur Conan Doyle joined in, suggesting that the curse could have brought about Carnarvon's death.  Some reporters went so far as to claim that warnings of a curse had been found at the tomb, but this was simply untrue.  But when Carnarvon's younger brother died suddenly five months after his death, it only surged interest in the supposed curse.  And there was another unusual incident reported.  Apparently, Carter gave a mummified hand adorned with a scarab that threatened fire, water, and pestilence to anyone who moved the body to a colleague of his.  The poor man's house burned down not long after, only to be flooded after he rebuilt it.  But many refute the curse on the grounds that so many of the participants on Carter's team lived long after the crypt had been emptied.  Carter himself spent about ten years there, cataloging the items as they went.  He was hardly a believer in the curse, but did once note the strange appearance of jackals nearby in the desert.  They were tied to Anubis, the god of the dead, and in the 35 years he'd spent in the desert, that was his only sighting of them.  He later died in 1939 of lymphoma.  The length of time between the opening of the tomb and his death convinced many that there was no curse.  And others in the party passed away years after Carter.  In fact, Lord Carnarvon's daughter, one of the first to enter the tomb, lived until 1980.  Still, there are some who are not convinced.  Years later, a guard who looked after the funeral mask while it was on display in San Francisco suffered a mild stroke and sued for compensation, holding that the curse was to blame.  The judge must not have been a believer - he threw the case out.

Ever since King Tutankhamun's tomb was found and all of its treasures were removed, they've belonged to the Egyptian government, which has generously shared them with the world.  They're usually kept at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but as early as the 1960's, some of the smaller artifacts were sent to be displayed in cities in the United States and Canada as part of the Tutankhamun Treasures exhibition.  Later, even more items were sent to an exhibition in Japan, where they drew in about 3 million attendees.  And in 1972, a new exhibit, The Treasures of Tutankhamun, debuted at London's British Museum.  This included far more artifacts than any previous version, including the iconic burial mask of the young pharaoh.  Some visitors waited as long as eight hours to see these artifacts, and this was the museum's most popular exhibition in its history.  Soon, the treasures were traveling around the globe and being shared with audiences in Russia, France, and West Germany.  Getting it to the United States wasn't easy, but with President Richard Nixon's involvement, it opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Fine art in 1976, complete with several items that hadn't been featured before and drew in over eight million visitors.  The exhibition traveled to other U.S. cities and one in Canada, pulling in millions more.  And in the 2000's two new exhibits, Tutankhamun:  The Golden Hereafter and Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs had been created and were sent around the world.  I caught up with the second exhibit in December of 2008 at the Dallas Museum of Art with my family when I was home for Christmas.  They'd done a very nice job creating interesting spaces for the very impressive pieces, which belonged to both King Tut and other Egyptian pharaohs.  However, when I came to the end, I was surprised.  I realized that I hadn't seen the most famous item of King Tut's tomb, his ornate golden burial mask, anywhere.  I even went back to look for it, but had no luck.  I was really looking forward to seeing it in person.  Later, I learned that it's been deemed to fragile to travel and is on permanent display in Egypt.  But what really bothered me is that the Dallas Museum plastered this image all over promotional materials for the exhibit, even covers of magazines and pamphlets, without bothering to mention that it wouldn't be on display there.  That seems pretty deceitful, and even smacks of false advertising.  So be warned - if you see this treasure featured on any advertisements for exhibitions outside of Egypt, you're not likely to actually find it there.  Regardless, I still had a great time seeing all of these amazing items for myself and having a chance to appreciate Howard Carter's greatest achievement all of these years after it was made.  As far as the curse goes, I haven't noticed anything out of the ordinary since our visit to view the treasures of the tomb - I guess so far, so good!


  1. I also saw the exhibit in Dallas and thought it was very well presented.

  2. Yes, it really was a nice exhibition.