He was the most famous of all the pharaohs, but how much do you really know about Tutankhamun or, indeed, about the man who discovered his tomb?
From 2 November 2019 to 3 May 2020 the Saatchi Gallery is offering the chance to find out more about this ancient king and the world he inhabited as the largest collection of treasures from Tutankhamun’s tomb ever to leave Egypt come to London in their final world tour.
It’s a display of extraordinary wealth and intricacy. Exquisitely preserved pieces, from carved arrows and encrusted jewellery, to gold leaf statuettes and ebony caskets, dominate the exhibition. Each has a story to tell about the pharaoh and the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians.
Details about this belief system, centred as it was on symbolism and magic, are dotted throughout and help explain the sheer variety and opulence of the objects on display. The Egyptians believed that after his untimely death, the young Tutankhamun would face a daunting passage through the 12 gates of the Netherworld, a place full of danger and evil. Only by completing this journey could he eventually reach paradise and many of the objects within his tomb were placed there to help him on this quest – scale models of wooden boats to help him navigate, ornate carvings of the gods on the footboard of a gilded wooden bed to protect him.
Amid the gloom of this exhibition, with these golden artefacts and amulets gleaming and the extraordinary blue of lapis lazuli beetles glinting from huge necklaces, it’s easy to fall under the spell of this magical world. Quotes from the Book of the Dead – a collection of almost 200 spells which together provided a roadmap through the Netherworld – also help, as do the many depictions of Ancient Egypt’s charismatic and animal-headed gods.
Running parallel to the ancient tale of the king is that of Tutankhamun’s discoverer. ‘At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley, a magnificent tomb with seals intact…’ wrote British explorer Howard Carter to his financier Lord Carnarvon on the discovery of the tomb in 1922. It was a last-ditch attempt. After many years of searching, it was only with the help of a young Egyptian waterboy, who stumbled upon a suggestive stair, that Carter finally found what he’d been looking for. Quotes from the now-famous archaeologist can be heard via the audio guide and in a number of short videos and soundscapes. These also include photographs of the original excavation and additional details about some of the objects from the exhibition’s curator.
Though little is known about Tutankhamun’s life, this exhibition conjures up the world he lived in so that it’s almost possible to imagine the boy king decked out in gold and sat atop his minature chair. To trace his path through the afterlife, 150 objects are on display. When it ends they will return to Cairo to be permanently housed with the full collection at the Grand Egyptian Museum. It means this collection is the last chance to see these artefacts outside of their homeland – a must for anyone tempted by the extraordinary world of the pharaohs and their most famous member.