Editor’s note: In late 1922, archeologist Howard Carter and his team discovered a stone step under eons of sand in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Carter had been searching for the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun for over a decade, and now he felt he had struck gold. He sent word of his discovery to his patron, Lord Carnarvon, who embarked from England to be there when the tomb was opened.
Almost exactly one hundred years ago, on November 26, 1922, Carter peered through a small breach in a corner of the door at the bottom of the steps. The aristocrat asked, “Can you see anything?” and the Egyptologist replied, “Yes, wonderful things!”
Fast forward to the late 1970s and King Tut’s treasures were barnstorming their way across America, engendering turn-away crowds at each of the six U.S. museums that hosted the exhibition—comedian Steve Martin scored a hit with a novelty song and Saturday Night Live performance parodying this Tut mania.
The Tut extravaganza made its last stop at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in December 1978, and the Voice sent the artist, playwright, and all-around Renaissance woman, Rosalyn Drexler, to get the lowdown on all that had glittered in Egypt 3,000 years earlier. Drexler’s astute and sprightly prose captured the incredible sense of history inhabiting the objects while also conveying the absurdity of the surrounding hoopla.
Drexler was born on November 25, 1926, four years after Tut’s tomb was opened, and she is still working today. Happy Birthday to her, and here’s hoping that Tut has found peace in his fame. —R.C. Baker
Three thousand years from now, when the archaeologists discover my burial place, they will find no gold, alabaster, lapis lazuli, or bits of fine linen clinging to my bones; they will find a funky, green-satin quilted traveling bag, a box of therapeutic minerals and vitamins, sweat pants, T-shirt, Nike running shoes, an Olympic barbell set, a Royal typewriter, a ream of 60 percent rag paper, an adjustable secretarial chair, and a telephone book— all a commoner-writer-athlete needs to take with her to the other world. I’m not even sure I’ll need all that stuff … does a skeleton need to keep in shape? And what thoughts would a box of bones want to record? You see, the Egyptians knew the value of keeping body and soul apart, preserving the body just in case one had to use it again. Decay and putrefaction was the enemy. Nowadays, who has time to soak in brine for 70 days? The happy thought that a dead person was merely going to take up residence elsewhere led the Egyptians to populate the tombs with his or her possessions, not neglecting to include many servants (in the shape of small faience dolls called shawabty) packed tightly into wooden boxes, one foreman to a crew of ten … didn’t you know that there’s manual labor in heaven, for instance, oiling the chariot of the sun god Ra.
Tutankhamun, known as the boy king because he was about 11 when he ascended the throne, went to the West at the tender age of (historians think) 20, thus wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt for a mere nine years. There is some doubt as to who Tut’s father was … was Tut Akhenaton’s son? Or his younger brother? Was his mother Nefertiti? Did he marry his father’s third daughter who was his sister? Did his father take his own daughters to bed when Nefertiti said no? Did Tut inherit Akhenaton’s elongated skull? Anyway, after Akhenaton died, his son Smenkhkara ruled for a while, and after Smenkhkara died, Tut held the crook and flail. Immediately, the priests packed all his toys away, and shaved his head (saving the small bundles of hair in an alabaster casket to be put into his tomb when he died) so that the pharaoh’s wig and crown could be placed upon his head. All this happened somewhere around 1334 B.C. After an uneventful reign, the boy king died suddenly, mysteriously, precipitously, and suspiciously … maybe poisoned … possibly a political decision … it left him without a tomb to call his own, so they put him into one that was being prepared for his aged vizier, who was Nefertiti’s father and possibly his grandfather. Into this less than grand series of necro-chambers went all the extravagant and beautiful things a pharaoh would need on his trip through eternity: Anubis, the jackal god of embalming; Hathor, the cow who suckles the young and also guides dead souls through the portals of heaven; a chariot (unassembled, and without instructions enclosed); a rigid stool with wooden seat painted to resemble a leopard skin; artfully carved canopic jars of alabaster containing the young king’s guts (Tut guts); 20 pounds of gold mask inlaid with carnelian, quartz, obsidian, green feldspar, and turquoise; alabaster lamps to light the way; graceful goddesses, their arms outstretched to protect a shrine holding mummified remains; a demigod in the form of a gilded serpent, and many containers of baked clay holding provisions for the long journey.
The question is, why are all these personal treasures in New York, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, instead of with the sun god Ra? Has this been the boy king’s destination all along? Is this the hereafter after all? In this, the land of the dead, a ThermoHygrometer keeps the temperature at 50 degrees in each one of the sealed glass display cases, and the entrance to the antechamber is protected by track lighting. I, as an innocent viewer, was reassured by the controlled atmosphere, and was reasonably sure that the curse of the gods would not strike me dead: Lord Carnarvon, who along with Howard Carter discovered Tut’s tomb, was bitten by a mosquito at Luxor soon after and died, confirming the superstition that they who disturb the ashes of departed Egyptians incur the wrath of the gods. I rather think the sale of Tutankhamun souvenirs might do that: An “exact” replica of the goddess Selket, who in the original wears a graceful, flowing, pleated tunic that is almost transparent in its delicacy, but here appears opaque and clumsy, as if the goddess were the result of a do-it-yourself kit in the hands of a baboon, going for $1850.
Luckily, it is impossible to translate some of the best art, for instance an exceptional ivory headrest that has no parallel in all of Egyptian art (that’s what it says in the illustrated brochure); Shu, god of the air, holds the curved support for the head.
According to legend, Shu brought chaos to an end at the creation of the universe by raising the sky high above the earth; this action had to be maintained continuously for otherwise the sky would fall and chaos would return. To indicate that the base of the headrest represents the earth, the artist has included two lions, symbolizing the mountains on the eastern and western horizons between which the sun rose and set. I first heard rumors that the sky was falling from Chicken Little who also predicted, on the White House lawn, that nuclear bombs would make it fall even faster … Shu and Chicken Little knew what they were talking about.
Treasures of Tutankhamun is a glitzy, spotless, perfect, ‘WOW’ tourist attraction non-pareil, that is the toughest ticket in town, but you won’t find any answers to the urgent philosophical questions of life and death there. And why should you? This is an art show. Yet the show is impersonal. Observing the priceless objects, traditional though superior tomb stuff, one does not receive an intimation of what the boy king was really like (not that I want a videotape of his sleeping habits, or what foot he used to kick his dogs with) … it is as if Tutankhamen himself is extraneous … only his possessions of interest. It would have been meaningful if he could have been present, in mummified form of course. In photos, he has a pleasant, relaxed expression in spite of protruding teeth, his hands folded across his chest, his royal genital preserved for all to see (and realize that here was a man). We have always been fascinated by mummies, tombs, ancient rites, death itself … However, this exhibition is a denial of death: no dust, no decay, no hand of an artisan revealing itself as unsure.
An admission: I could hardly look at all those treasures without wanting to touch them. I had a distinct urge to plunder the exhibit; the vandal in me was only restrained by tight security, and years of civilized patterning. By the time I reached the souvenir area, I was ready for action. Only a lack of funds, and a highly developed sense of what quality merchandise really is, saved me from purchasing huge quantities of tomorrow’s kitsch … I settled for five postcards at 20 cents each.
To house this exhibition, a good part of the permanent Egyptian collection of the museum is now stored behind locked doors … a great deal of it will not be seen again until 1980. This is a loss … statues of the first female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, are waiting in the wings, along with much jewelry of the 18th dynasty, the papyrus copybooks of children, letters, toys, etc.
What I did see of the permanent collection was wonderful, and more amazing and satisfying than the Tut show: Pages from The Book of the Dead beautifully illustrated with drawings and hieroglyphics, hundreds of shards, some only as big as your fingernail, painted with lotus and papyrus design, a small golden ring that had adorned the childish hand of Tut, the skin and bones of a gazelle (curled comfortably in death) that had been the pet of a princess and was buried with her, many monumental mummy cases painted inside and out with symbols, gods and hieroglyphics, a pair of tiny carved animals, a carved group of two men and one boy who appear to be happy, heads with pale carved hands as headdresses, goddesses suckling infant pharaohs as they have throughout history, figure sketches on fragments, so free they appear to be modern …
So, if you can’t get to see Treasures of Tutankhamun, don’t feel too bad, see the other Egyptian art at the Met, walk beside the waters at the Temple of Dendur, traverse the corridor leading to the permanent Egyptian collection, it is lined with wall friezes that remind one of the glory that remains in the Valley of the Kings … and realize that history is people, that people make art, and that art lives! Almost forever. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 23, 2022