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Today I visited the Tutankhamen exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota.  Since I have not yet had the opportunity to visit Egypt, this is the next best thing.

The exhibit included artifacts from the tomb of Tutankhamen and other artifacts from a 2000 year range of ancient Egyptian history.  One thing that is very striking to me is how the style of ancient Egyptian art remained very similar for that whole range.  Looking at a statue of Khafre, the king who built the 2nd largest pyramid, it seems amazing that it was carved over 4500 years ago.  By the time of Tutankhamen, the Pyramids were already 1200 years old.

The famous golden coffin of Tutankhamen was not included, but a selection from the vast number of artifacts found in the tomb were there.  These included a bed, a chair, a lid for a canopic jar (used to keep internal organs of a mummified body), some shabti statuettes (supposed to do the work of the deceased in the afterlife), and various gold amulets and jewelry that were found on the mummy.  The gold objects are still in excellent condition after 3300 years.  

The audio and video material included in the exhibition had a lot of Zawi Hawass, the publicity seeking head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service.  Since the Egyptian revolution, Hawass has had his ups and downs.  He resigned from his post, then was put back in after claims that only he could protect the large number of archeological sites.  He currently is appealing a jail sentence that arose after a court said he had defied a court ruling about the gift shop in the Cairo Museum.  He is so powerful that a lot of Egyptologists may be reluctant to criticize him, since he could damage their careers.

During and after the Egyptian revolution, the protection of the archeological sites and artifacts has been suspect, and there are conflicting reports about looting and damage to artifacts.  There are hundreds of sites and many storage locations for artifacts, and it is difficult to protect them all.  It seems clear that most Egyptians want to protect their ancient heritage, but Egypt is a poor country and there is a temptation for the desperate.  Hopefully a more stable government (that is also democratic) will improve the antiquities situation.  The Egyptian economy needs the tourist revenue.

Tutankhamen's father was Akhenaten, a much more significant figure in history because of the religious revolution Akhenaten promoted.  See this dairy by Ojibwa for a description of Akhenaten's reign.  Tutankhamem's original name was Tutankhaten (Living Image of Aten), after Aten, the monotheistic god of Akhenaten.  After Akhenaten's death, Tutankhaten's name was changed to Tutankhamen (Living Image of Amen), after Amen (or Amun) the chief state god of the Egyptian New Kingdom.  Tutankhamen was about 9 years old when he came to the throne.  During his reign, the old gods and priesthood were restored.  Eventually the Egyptians tried to eliminate all references to Akhenaten from history, erasing his name or image wherever they found it.

Tutankhamen apparently was about 19 when he died.  Study of his mummy indicates that he had had a broken leg, and may have had malaria.  Some have believed that he was murdered, but most Egyptologists do not think there is any evidence for that.  

After his death there was a bizarre episode involving his widow Ankhesenamun.  Ankhesenamun was probably Tutankhamen's half sister, but it was common in ancient Egyptian royalty to marry siblings or other close relatives.  A letter was found in an ancient Hittite capital that is likely from Ankhesenamun.  It is translated as: "My husband has died and I have no son. They say about you that you have many sons. You might give me one of your sons to become my husband. I would not wish to take one of my subjects as a husband... I am afraid."  Apparently she did not want to marry Tutankhamen's vizier and successor Ay.  The Hittite king eventually sent a prince, but he died en route, possibly murdered.  Ankhesenamun might have married Ay after all, but she then disappears from history.

There is one thing I always think about when Tutankhamen comes up.  He died after a short reign, at the end of a time of social crisis.  His tomb is the smallest royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and hurriedly prepared.  Yet as the only unlooted tomb it contains fabulous artifacts.  But imagine what the tombs of the greatest New Kingdom pharaohs must of contained.  What incredible riches must have been in the tombs of Thutmose III, Amenhotep III, or Ramses II?

Originally posted to Thutmose V on Sun May 08, 2011 at 07:52 PM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks and Community Spotlight.

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