Category: helen-atkinson

Tutankhamun Curator David Silverman Defends the Controversial King Tut Exhibit

The image being used on all the posters for the current exhibitions is from a smaller coffinette holding King Tut's liver (Left), and not the Golden Mask (Right). Image Copyright - Sandro Vannini.Dr. David Silverman is delighted at the thought that visitors to Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, one of two King Tut exhibitions touring North America right now, would come away as I did – with an itching interest in Akhenaten, who was almost certainly King Tuts father.

Hes also enthused at the idea that viewing the vast exhibition at the Discovery Time Square Exposition, with 130 significant objects from King Tuts tomb and the 100 years preceding the boy kings life, will spur people to go take a look at King Tuts funerary urns up at the Met, or the other fascinating Ancient Egyptian things on display at the Brooklyn Museum.

What he’s less enthused about, however, is the fact that people keep on complaining about the conspicuously absent golden death mask, and the almost-identical golden image that is used in all the posters. Somewhat wearily, he speaks to Heritage Key about the controversies surrounding the exhibition of the year in New York.

Pulling in the Non-museum Crowd

What Silverman would really love is to attract people who never normally go to museums, but are spurred into action by the broad appeal of Tutankhamun. He knows very well how powerful that appeal is, having curated the U.S. leg of the blockbusting Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition in 1977.

King Tut Chariot (One of Six)I want to approach the audience that doesnt come to museums, said Dr. Silverman. He explained that, so far, audience surveys for the two exhibitions (the other one is Tutankhamun The Golden King & the Great Pharaohs), both arranged by Arts & Entertainment International in conjunction with National Geographic, show that around half of those visiting are not the museum-going sort at all.

Part of the success in pulling the non-museum crowd may well be about the fact that the exhibition is housed in the glitzy commercial space of the Discovery Exposition, which opened last year in the old New York Times building that gave the square its name years ago, where New York is at its trashiest and most overpriced. The space is huge, which gives a marvelous opportunity to spread out the material into a true adventure of discovery as you walk through a maze of room after room. It also has very little of the Shhh! feel of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, forty blocks away on the edge of Central Park.

Not that the exhibition isnt an awe-inspiring show its just that it doesnt feel like the grown-ups have taken all the fun out of it. Its an opportunity to approach a museum-like exhibition thats not in a museum, Silverman explained. That, in turn, he hopes, makes it an attractive jumping off point for delving deeper into whats on show to the public in other, more initially intimidating institutions.

New York’s Other Exhibition Venue

When I write about an exhibition, I write about whats in the exhibition, he explained, rather wearily. In any exhibition, theres always something you cant have,

Still, the location of this exhibition has stirred some controversy, not least by Zahi Hawass, the outspoken Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt and minder of King Tuts treasures, who, at the press preview of Golden Age exhibition last week, staged a humiliating little dig at his partners in the exhibitions by demanding an explanation, as if he didnt already know, as to why the exhibition was not on show at the Met (which housed the 1977 King Tut show).

The answer, of course, was money. The Met declined to meet Hawasss ambitious demands for profit-sharing (he is fervent about raising money for the huge new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza, and rightly so).

Silverman wishes people would focus on the exhibition more than questions of venue. Im a very practical person, Silverman said. I think about the amount of space, the number of artifacts, and what will allow people to see and read as much as possible. The bigger the space, the more chances there are to do that. In 1979, the King Tut exhibition in Seattle ended up in a convention center, not the Art Museum, and that worked out just fine, he points out.

The Fuss Over the Absent Death Mask

Silverman is also dismayed by the attention being given to the absence of King Tuts famous golden mask. Although I understand that the mask has now been declared too delicate to travel, and that there is much to be said for encouraging people to visit Egypt if they really want to experience the full range of Ancient Egyptian treasures, I asked Silverman why he didnt at least put in a little explanation about what the mask was and why it wasnt there.

Click To Watch Video
Tutankhamun’s Golden Death Mask (Shot in King Tut Virtual)
One of the most famous artefacts ever discovered in the history of Archaeology is without question The Golden Mask of King Tutankhamun. See it over at Heritage Key VX – the online, virtual experience!

When I write about an exhibition, I write about whats in the exhibition, he explained, rather wearily. In any exhibition, theres always something you cant have, he continued, citing the wooden torso he used on the cover of his first book, Masterpieces of Tutankhamun, as something that can no longer travel and is a wonderful piece you cant see without going to Egypt.

Silverman suggests that anybody who knows the material would know the image being used on all the posters for the current exhibitions was from a smaller coffinette holding King Tuts liver, and not mistake it for the golden mask (I have to say, I disagree here; even I was fooled.) Besides, he said, in the 1970s, the Chicago Field Museum used a reversed imaged of the coffinette to advertise King Tut. Nobody asked: Why did they use that, he protested.

Next up: Denver

All in all, King Tut is bound to produce a range of strong emotions, which is, of course, part of his appeal. I simply allow the artifacts to tell the story, explained Silverman, adding that the items were chosen by the Supreme Council of Antiquities before he came on board in any case. He realized there was a great opportunity, through Tutankhamun and The Golden Age of the Pharaohs, to talk about the most important part of the 18th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt, because the items included the Boy King and about 100 years before his reign, including great grandmothers.

So King Tut is back and this time hes brought his family! he enthused. The other exhibition, Tutankhamun The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs, which is just moving from Toronto to Denver, gives a broader idea of what life was like in Ancient Egypt. What was palace life like, what was the religion? he said. That exhibition also focuses on the myriad uses of Egyptian gold the ready supply of which is what really shaped and powered the civilization, in many ways. Not a bad way to introduce the general public to the wonder of 2,500 years of history.

If you’re not satisfied by the coffinettes and want to see King Tut’s golden death mask in full 3-D glory, visit King Tut Virtual. There are no crowds, no entry fee, and no embarrassing comments about how you should be at the Met!

New York Tutankhamun Exhibit Deserves the Met, not Times Square, Says Zahi Hawass

The coffinette of King Tutankhamun. Image Credit - Andreas F Voegelin, Antikenmuseum Basel and Sammlung LudwigFor me, the press preview of the Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs exhibition, which opened in New York today, was a momentous event because I’ve never met Dr. Zahi Hawass before, and I got to look him in the eye and shake his hand and even ask him a question. I’ll come to all that in a minute.

The exhibition is impressive. I can’t deny that. There was a moment when I actually stopped dead in my tracks, mouth open (soon to be hustled out of the way by a pushy New York journo). This happened when I came upon a huge bust of Akhenaten, King Tut’s autocratic probable Dad, high, high atop a great slab of honeyed stone, lit with a powerful spotlight, his face astonishingly realistic, the lips curved, cruel, sensual. I felt like Shelley’s “traveler from an antique land” finding the ruined statue of King Ozymandias in the desert:

“…whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'”

Indeed, if you’re not careful, you’ll leave this exhibition more interested in Akhenaten than in King Tut. The Boy King’s story isn’t short on drama, of course. He ascended the throne at 9 years old, 3,300 years ago, and died, with mysterious abruptness, at 19. He was buried in the somewhat hastily prepared tomb initially designed for his much-older, non-royal advisor, Ay, who then took over the rule of Egypt and was, ironically enough, buried in the tomb originally begun for Tutankhamun.

Meet the (Probable) Parents

King Tut did plenty during his short reign, but much of it involved sorting out the megalomaniacal mess left by his father, Akhenaten, who made the rest of Ancient Egyptian rulers look positively shy and retiring. Akhenaten tried to force his people to abandon the traditional roster of gods, worshipping only one sun god, Aten, and moved the capital from Memphis (Thebes) to Amarna. He even messed with art, as the arresting bust shows, encouraging a new, much more realistic style that showed the human face with curves rather than straight lines.

All of this turned out to be a public relations disaster to say the least, and King Tut quickly restored public confidence in the divine right of kings in the third year of his reign by moving the capital back to Memphis and restoring a nice juicy pantheon of gods to worship, as well as changing his own name from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun to demonstrate his respect for the god Amun rather than Aten. (Names, as I’m sure you know, had all the power of magical spells in Ancient Egypt. A traditional saying spelled out high across a wall in the vast interior of the exhibition warns that to speak the names of the dead is to bring them back to life.) All in all, King Tut was a populist way before he caused Tutmania in the 70s during the famous tour of treasures from his tomb that changed museum-going forever. But Daddy. I mean, wow. He was quite something.

Click the image to open a slideshow of some of the artefacts on the New York leg of the tour.

The Man Without the Golden Mask

In any case, this is really all about Tut, and the organizers hope it will bring a resurgence of the breathless enthusiasm about this most famous of Ancient Egypt’s kings that swept the nation 30 years ago. It may well do so, but that brings me to a crucial point. There’s a ton of fabulous stuff in this exhibition, but there are none of the golden coffins, or the iconic golden death mask that covered King Tut’s mummified head on display in the 70s tour.

Click To Watch Video
Tutankhamun’s Golden Death Mask (Shot in King Tut Virtual)
One of the most famous artefacts ever discovered in the history of Archaeology is without question The Golden Mask of King Tutankhamun. See it over at Heritage Key VX – the online, virtual experience!

Okay, if you read the small print, you find that the mask, in any case, has been declared a national treasure and is never to leave Egypt again. But the ads for the show and the posters outside – in fact, absolutely every piece of promotion for the show – feature, exclusively, an image that looks very much like that famous mask, and only those who have been to the exhibition or are true experts on King Tut treasures would notice that this is a big picture of a very small golden coffin made for viscera (this one held King Tut’s liver).

The exhibition that toured in the 70s most definitely included the mask, and several other headline treasures missing from here. While the exhibitors makes every effort to get you to “meet King Tut”, including showing an extraordinary replica of his mummified body, I can’t help feeling it would have been worth making a replica of some of the big-ticket items so that people got a real sense of the full scale of the grandeur of King Tut’s burial trappings. Instead, there’s a very impressive video running on the wall of the room most related to the actual tomb; an animated film stripping away the outer wooden boxes, then the golden sarcophogi, then the golden coffins, revealing the mask at last. But in the center of that room, there’s just a smooth plinth with a fuzzy image on it. Frankly, it feels like Elvis has left the building.

Does King Tut Exhibit Deserve the Met?

King Tut's Senet Game Board is one of the artefacts on tour.I can’t help wondering if this is why the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which hosted King Tut in 1979, declined this exhibition, and it ended up at this relatively new and somewhat less grown-up venue. Dr. Hawass certainly had some harsh things to say about the choice of venue. “I have to say, I am not happy to see Tutanhkamun next to 42nd Street and Times Square, because it’s very commercial,” he lamented at the press conference, on Wednesday.”I think King Tut deserves to be at the Metropolitan Museum. Priceless artefacts should be at the Met rather than in this hall.”

He went on to publicly press John Norman, president of Arts and Exhibitions International, which organized the exhibition along with National Geographic, for an answer to his disappointment. Norman, put on the spot, gave a rather rambling explanation about months of negotiation, 6 years back, with the Met’s then-director, Philippe de Montebello, that basically revolved around money. “We couldn’t make it work,” Norman finally said.

Indeed, the exhibition looked destined to skip the biggest US city entirely, until Norman got a call last year from the director of the Discovery Times Square Exposition, offering up the newly-opened 50,000 square-foot space for the Boy King. Promised climate-control and water-tight security, Norman and Hawass agreed, and they were able to expand the exhibition substantially, giving it a truly New York scale. It is, indeed, luxuriously laid out, with enough twists and turns to give you a sense of real discovery as you move through a maze of rooms, one more fascinating than the last. Don’t get me wrong, this is a thoroughly worthwhile exhibition, and it’s beautifully presented. It just avoids the central question – dude, where’s the mask? – and would have been much better off addressing it head on, as it were.

Dr Zahi Hawass Takes to the Stage

Dr. Hawass is certainly a flamboyant and entertaining speaker and, aside from thoroughly embarassing his colleagues with bringing up the business with the Met, stole the limelight by announcing that one of King Tut’s chariots was on its way from Egypt, traveling outside the country for the first time, to augment the exhibition in its last manifestation before returning (allegedly permanently) home. He also claimed that a substantial part of the family tree of King Tut would be worked out within a month thanks to DNA testing. Stay tuned for more on that.

Further, Dr. Hawass is not afraid of addressing the subject of money. Pectoral with solar/lunar emblems and scarab.  Kenneth Garrett/National GeographicThe exhibition is expensive ($27.50 for adults), he says, because half of the profits go towards the fabulous new museum – the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) – being built in Cairo to house King Tut’s tomb treasures and other wonders. And how can anyone complain, after all, he argues, when coffee at his hotel that morning cost $13 before tip?

So far, in the last four years, King Tut’s travels have raised $100 million for preserving Egypt’s heritage, and the organizers hope this stint in the Big Apple will attract 1.5 million visitors more, producing another $20 million for the Grand Egyptian Museum‘s coffers. In an exhibition dripping with gold, and all the symbolic gravitas it brings, and was meant to bring, the subject of money feels totally relevant, and even refreshing. However, you’ll see the show does its best when it is extracting the less countable currencies of awe and respect.

I asked Dr. Hawass, if someone could take away one piece of learning from this exhibition, what would it be? He said he hoped that people looking on this “brilliant art work” would understand that they were in the presence of a golden age when rulers exercised their power with “mait” (pron. “might”), a word for justice and truth, he said. (Mait was an Ancient Egyptian goddess.) “We have to learn how to rule the world this way,” he declared.

No small ambition, there. Indeed, there is much to mull over in this exhibition about power and the way it is exercised. One way or another, we still live in the shadow of these ancient cultures, where arrogance, pride, and self-regard seem to have been given absolute free rein. Don’t forget the symbols of power carried by King Tut in nearly every representation: not just a crook to show he was the shepherd of his people, but a flail too. Those of us who don’t know better would do well to note that this was an instrument for removing human skin while the owner was still very much alive. They’re still making rulers like this. The human appetite for power remains undiminished, its ravening scope controlled, often solely, by what the ordinary masses are prepared to put up with. King Tut knew that. It’s worth remembering it now.

Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharoahs runs at Discovery Times Square Exposition until 2nd January 2011. Click here for more details.

Bonus! King Tut’s Chariot Set to Roll Into New York Exhibition

King Tut Chariot (One of Six)Dr. Zahi Hawass, the charismatic Secretary General of Eygpt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, and chief bodyguard of Egypt’s ancient treasures, likes to make revelations to the media -and he didn’t disappoint atWednesday’s press preview of the final leg of ‘Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs’, set to open at the Discovery Times Square Exposition onApril 23th. He announced, with a typical flourish of portentousness, that King Tut’s chariot will be arriving in about a month to augment the exhibition, which has already toured 7 cities and attracted 7 million visitors.

“It is a masterpiece that has never travelled,” said Hawass, adding it’s quite possible Tutankhamun was riding this very chariot when he had the accident that may have killed him. Hawass said he was just finishing up the paperwork to get the chariot over to New York. “It will be the biggest news in town!” he declared.

The Chariot of Tutankhamun is one of six chariots discovered by Howard Carter at the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Most were elaborate vehicles with golden overlays, designed for use in celebrations or when the king led his forces in battle. This chariot is different. It doesn’t look like any of the others, and it has a simpler and lighter construction than the others. Maybe it was King Tut‘s hunting chariot, or just a fun, nimble knock-around – the 18th dynasty’s equivalent of a privileged young man’s sports car.

Sandro Vannini - King Tut Hunting Box

A preview of the exhibition, and more on Hawass follows shortly.

Jobs for Egyptomaniacs – Movie Stars Needed for New York King Tut Exhibit

Are you an expert at navigating King Tut Virtual? Maybe it's time to take your skills into the real world!It could be the job of your dreams – working among the treasures of the Boy King, and helping the great unwashed explore the mysteries of Ancient Egypt. Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs is seeking positive and team-oriented individuals for its Audio Tour and Movie team.

The exhibition – which promises to be a blockbuster along the lines of King Tut’s last visit to the city, more than 30 years ago – is wrapping up its American tour in New York’s new cultural institution, Discovery Times Square Exposition, for nine months beginning April 23, 2010.

The job spec, as advertised on Craigslist, is as follows:

All Audio Tour and Movie Assistants will be responsible for delivering excellent customer service and fulfilling the responsibilities of the Audio Tour and Movie operations, including register operations, inventory management, and equipment troubleshooting.

Full and part-time temporary positions available.
Applicants must be comfortable working in a busy environment.
Weekends and some holidays required.

To apply, please send your resume to with “Audio Tour and Movie Assistant” in the subject line. Serious applicants should also swot up on the key Tutankhamun facts and treasures in King Tut Virtual, and watch one of Heritage Key’s videos about the treasures of the boy king, such as the video in which Zahi Hawass talks about his favourite Tutankhamun treasures.

Giant Anubis Poses as Ticket Tout in New York King Tut Exhibition Stunt

You live long enough in this city and you’ll see things you couldn’t even imagine – like a 25-foot tall Anubis statue being towed around New York harbour, which is what happened yesterday morning. Anubis’s arrival heralds the one-month countdown for the exhibition, Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, which opens April 23 at the Discovery Times Square Exposition in Manhattan, on the final leg of its journey round North America. Tickets for the show went on sale the same day.

The exhibition has already wowed Tutaholics in San Francisco, and exhibitors hope that Tut will cause the same sensation in New York as he did in 1979, when King Tut fever swept the city faster than looters in a blackout. King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs – a King Tut exhibition which is also touring North America – was a blockbuster in Toronto, and possibly surpassed the boy king’s previous visit in the 70’s. Tickets are now on sale for the exhibition’s Denver debut.

Arts and Exhibitions International, which is running the New York National Geographic exhibition, says the show has already attracted 7 million visitors in museums across the country, and has “spurred a new generation of ‘Tutmania‘.” Judging from the number of school children wearing King Tut head-dresses who turned out to see the 7-ton statue of Anubis as it was towed under such landmarks as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and the Manhattan skyline, I’d say this has captured the imagination of the city’s youth already.

The exhibition includes material never before seen in New York. Fifty of the 130 objects are from Tutankhamuns tomb, only a handful of which were part of the 1979 exhibition, and an additional 80 objects come from the tombs of his ancestors and other notable ancient sites. In February 2010, Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypts Supreme Council of Antiquities, announced new discoveries about the lineage and cause of death of Tutankhamun based on DNA evidence. A new gallery exploring these revelations has been added to the New York presentation of Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs. The new material will focus on the mystery surrounding Tuts death and the recent findings from DNA testing that revealed further details about the boy kings family. The exhibit ‘Tutankhamun’s funeral’, featuring objects from Tut’s funeral cache found before Carter and Carnarvon’s discovery of the tomb, is also on at the city’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohswill be at New York’s Discovery Times Square Exposition, Thursday 1 April 2010 to Sunday 2nd January 2011. Stand by for a review from your doughty New York Correspondent. In the meantime, you can spot King Tut treasures near you, swot up on the key Tutankhamun facts and treasures in King Tut Virtual, and watch one of Heritage Key’s videos about the treasures of the boy king, such as the video in which Zahi Hawass talks about his favourite Tutankhamun treasures.

My Favourite Ancient Spot in London – the Female Gladiator

Two Female GladiatorsWith all the buzz going on about the Ancient World in London Bloggers’ Challenge 2 competition, Ithought I’d weigh in with my own favourite ancient site in London – the grave of the Female Gladiator in Southwark.

Now, admittedly, this is a classic case of the experience of the ancient world involving standing in front of one of those blue ceramic plaques imagining what a wild find was made there, since there’s nothing else to see. However, this is pretty inspirational stuff. The site, at 159 Great Dover Street in Southwark, was excavated in 2000 by the British Museum.

The grave sparked some controversy and debate, because it seemed fairly clear from the contents that it was the grave of a great gladiator. And yet it was in Southwark which, I hate to break it to residents of that fine Borough, has never exactly been a salubrious part of the city.

It turns out that women were a rarity in the male world of gladiators – they would go top of the bill at the Colosseum as a special “treat”. So, typically, the female who works in a traditionally male job paid not only with her life (hazard of the job, fair enough) but with her “respectability”. Hence, the speculation is, she rose to greatness in the arenas of Europe, and was honored hugely, but, because she was “just” a woman and shouldn’t have been seen out in leather armour in front of the jeering masses, she was buried somewhere a little bit out of the spotlight.

Women were a rarity in the male world of gladiators – they would go top of the bill at the Colosseum as a special “treat”.

Well, you can chew on the implications of all that as you take a walk over the Thames to the British Museum, where you can view a beautiful relief of two female gladiators fighting, located in Room 69. According to museum scholars, the relief was carved on the occasion of the missio (honourable release) of two women fighters, ‘Amazon’ and ‘Achilia’, who had probably earned their freedom by giving a series of outstanding performances. The carving constitutes one of the key pieces of evidence that, yes, women as well as men fought to the death in front of roaring Roman crowds. As the relief shows, they didn’t wear helmets – presumably to show clearly to the audience that they had long hair and girly features and really were women after all. Apparently, they also often fought by night, raising the dramatic effect to feverishness, no doubt. Stay tuned for the inevitable Hollywood interpretation, starring Angelina Jolie.

Reserve King Tut Tickets Now! Advance Booking Now Open for Denver Tutankhamun Exhibition

King Tutankhamun will be making his Colorado debut in January 2011, including a ten-foot statue of the boy king. Image copyright - Sandro Vannini.King Tutankhamun would have approved of the exclusivity of it all: members of the Denver Art Museum can now buy advance tickets at a special low price for the upcoming show opening July 1, Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs, which runs through Jan. 2, 2011.

With Egyptomania still in full swing, it’s pretty clear already that this show, hailed by the Museum’s publicity as a “Rocky Mountain exclusive” will be a blockbuster. Considering it is his Colorado “debut”, I’m sure the Boy King will be glad they’re giving first dibs to his serious fans.

“Early-bird” tickets for new or existing members are $14 for weekdays and $22 for weekend days during the run of the show. Beginning April 1, member prices increase to $20 and $22.

Tickets for the general public go on sale May 14. They will be $25 for weekdays and $30 for weekend days. Membership of the Museum costs $45 for teachers and students, $50 for individuals, and $70 for couples or families.

This exquisite exhibition will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for visitors from Denver and the Rocky Mountain region to experience the art of ancient Egypt, said Christoph Heinrich, DAM director. Our expanded campus provides us with the space and infrastructure to serve the community with a wide variety of art experiences, and we are excited to be hosting Tutankhamun.

Same Tut, Same Time, Same Continent… Different Exhibitions

Confusingly, this exhibition is one of two King Tut spectaculars doing the rounds in North America simultaneously, both sponsored by National Geographic. Both include many items never before seen in North America. The other exhibition, King Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, which has been on tour for longer, is at the de Young Museum in San Francisco until March 28, after which it will run April 23 – Jan. 2, 2011 in the New York Discovery Times Square Exposition.

“This exquisite exhibition will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for visitors”

The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs has been touring the continent since its landfall in Atlanta in November 2008, where record-breaking crowds gathered to see 50 objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun, including the gold sandals that adorned the mummy’s feet and an elaborately adorned canopic jar that mummified his internal organs.

The exhibition is currently busting the box office at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, where it will remain until April 21, accompanied by an extensive series of lectures. See our preview of the Toronto exhibition here, including details and photos of many of the treasures that will be making their way to Denver.

Unlike the life-changing show in the 1970s, neither exhibitions include Tutankhamun’s golden deathmask, which is now considered to be too fragile to travel, and remains in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. For see that particular object, along with several others that are too delicate for the rough and tumble of the world tour, you will need to visit King Tut Virtual, where these objects are re-created in fantastic detail.

VIDEO: King Tut’s Death Mask on Display in Heritage Key VX

If King Tut Virtual has whetted your appetite but you can’t make it to Denver to see these incredible artifacts, check our guide to seeing Tut around the world.

Was Göbekli Tepe a Temple… or a Playpit?

Gbekli Tepe

An article in the most recent issue of Newsweek magazine that basically constitutes an invitation to pause in wonder at the fantastic age of the Gbekli Tepe – or “potbelly hill” – site in southeastern Turkey, believed to be 11,500 years old, is a great reminder that, the further back in time an event occured, the easier it is to talk preposterous rot about it.

The Newsweek feature, which is admirable at least in the sense that it dedicates a whole three pages (in full colour, too) in a major mainstream magazine to an archaeological subject, nevertheless talks a lot of nonsense about ancient man. They would have us believe the that main reason for people coming together all those years ago was, first and foremost, for the purposes of performing acts of religious worship. It quotes German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt’s theory that “it was the urge to worship that brought mankind together in the very first urban conglomeration.”

What Came First – Temples or Tig?

Schmidt’s argument is solipsistic, at best. You decide the oldest human structure that’s ever been dug up is a temple, so

Concluding that civilization sprang from religion and not the other way around is both intellectually dubious and socially irresponsible.

therefore the purpose of the earliest man-made structure must be worship. What if the buildings at Gbekli Tepe are not temples?

Supposing we make the analogy that Mesolithic man was as a child. Certainly, he did not have the luxury of paying attention to much more than his most primal urges. Weather, sustenance, and predators took care of most of his brain-space, no matter how sophisticated his emotional and intellectual capacities were. In other words, he was like a child. What do most children do, once they’re up and about and begin to have the freedom to bring their will to bear on theoutside world?Do they build Lego temples and solemnly gather together to pay homage to the great divine? They do not! They play with one another. They form essential human connections through apparently trivial interactions.

Gbekli Tepe Pictographs

In the case of the average 10th millenium BC bloke, those kinds of connections might well later save his life. Indeed, as humans, we’re still hard-wired to seek out companionable agreement and respond to lack of social acceptance as a mortal threat, precisely because we haven’t evolved very far from the men and women who needed every friend they could get when the woolly mammoth was upon them. Furthermore, anthropology tells us that humans like to compete in order to establish who carries the best genetic material in their eggs or sperm, and games therefore serve another function, which is to allow that ranking to occur. Gbekli Tepe looks to me just as much like an arena or entertainment space as it does a temple.

Concluding that civilization sprang from religion and not the other way around is both intellectually dubious and socially irresponsible. There are enough spurious facts out there for religious nutters to latch on to without Newsweek adding to the pile. The article reminds me of a review I once read by Rebecca West of a sociological book published in the 1950s that announced that adults were not especially emotionally attached to their children until the 19th century. As she wrily pointed out, if true, this must have caused much bewilderment among Shakespeare’s contemporary audiences.

My suspicion is that, if the buildings at Gbekli Tepe are, indeed, temples – that is, buildings constructed purely for the purpose of ritualized acknowledgement of matters beyond the everyday – then it will turn out that the organized concentration of human habitation vastly predated them. Man, after all, invented God – not the other way around – and it seems highly unlikely that this was his first order of business.

India’s Ajanta Caves Are Simply Stunning

My recent travels in India took me to Ajanta, about two hours’ drive outside of Aurangabad, in the Indian state of Maharashtra (where they’re making perfectly drinkable wine these days, by the way).

The nearby small town of Ajanta gives its name to the collective of 29 caves carved out of a sheer wall of rock in a horseshoe-shaped river canyon, completed in the period 200BC to 500AD in the name of Buddhism. Several are temples, but most are dormitories originally built for temporarily housing Buddhist monks, as well as travellers and itinerant spice traders. The spice route passed through here on the way from Southern India, where they still grow wonderful black pepper, on its way to the main port at what is now Mumbai, where spices were loaded for shipment on to Arabia and Europe. Ihad read about the caves in guide books, and had to wrangle a little with my husband to make the time to see them during our woefully short visit to India, but despite a complex and long journey, they were thoroughly worth it.

Obviously, the caves are an astonishing achievement, not just artistically, but from an engineering point of view. They were cut in and down, and there wasn’t much room for error. The breadth of some unsupported ceilings is impressive, as is the finely symmetrical architectural work.

Click the image to open the Ajanta slideshow.The paintings depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha are still, thankfully, plentiful, and their artistry is breathtaking. There’s an awful lot to see here. We weren’t able to cover it in a single visit. Sanjay, our guide, responded to our rapturous wonder with enthusiasm, but also pointed out that the caves hadn’t been terribly well looked after in the past. The caves were, indeed, completely lost to common knowledge for 2,000 years before they were rediscovered in 1819 by some English chap called John Smith on a tiger hunt. (You couldn’t make this stuff up. Okay, actually, you could. That’s the thing about India. It’s made of the stuff of tall tales.) Then the British decided to try to preserve some of the murals by slathering them with varnish. Sadly, they hadn’t figured out that the paintings had survived this long by being able to breath with the damp rock, and sealing them off like that, instead of preserving them, caused them to fade to a grainy black and white. Luckily, however, there were so many of them, in such good condition, that the British weren’t able to good-naturedly ruin them all. And, hey, it’s not like the Indians are doing such a great job of keeping the caves safe from the eager little hands of visiting school groups. But, then, how would any country, even one far wealthier than India, play conscientious caretaker to the vast number of ancient treasures there are in this mad, eclectic, exuberant nation? As Sanjay said, “In India, we are very good at making history, but not so good at keeping it.”

How to Save Cash and Live Forever: Brooklyn Museum Exhibition Reveals Secrets of the Thrifty Egyptians

Ancient Egyptians faced tricky compromises over how they would be seen dead, a new exhibition at New York’s Brooklyn Museum reveals. “To Live Forever: Art and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt,” emphasizes the often unpalatably expensive options that lay before Ancient Egyptians when considering burial. They had to think long and hard about what they could afford in the afterlife.

As has often been pointed out, the phrase “you can’t take it with you” had absolutely no purchase in Ancient Egypt, and the lengths to which humans were expected to go to demonstrate material wealth in the next life made the one before it truly onerous. The average Ancient Egyptian was beholden to an elaborate shopping list of mythological, symbolic and practical must-haves quite aside from the essential body parts normally required for burial, including elaborately decorated coffins, amulets, miniature workmen, food, wine, shabtis, jewellery, weapons, statuary, charms and spells from the Book of the Dead. This racket went on for thousands of years.

Funeral Expenses

The bottom line, as this excellent exhibition explains, is that furnishing a tomb was the biggest expense in an Ancient Egyptian’s life. The coffin alone could cost more than one year’s salary for an artisan. What set this all off? Apparently, it was the myth that grew up around Osiris, mythical first Pharaoh of Egypt, who was murdered by his jealous brother Set, but magically revived by his Queen, Isis, (giving her the opportunity to conceive their son, Horus), and who then embarked upon a new shadow life as god of the underworld or afterlife.

Presumably, this myth was meant to salve the ordinary man’s grief over dying kings, or death itself, since what was the point of toiling in the fields all day, every day, if it was all going to come to nothing in the end? The imaginative effort to answer this question over the millenia, and the abuse of the longing behind it, is responsible for forms of human silliness so elaborate as to threaten to eclipse everthing else we do. But this particular version had the unfortunate consequence of creating a durably convincing idea that life after death was so credible, so real, so very much, in fact, like life itself, that you best stock up with all the things you needed in this world against a similar need in the next one.

If you weren’t rich enough to be buried in a gilded sarcophagus, surrounded by black granite statuary and finely carved symbols of all the materials you might need in the next life, the exhibition explains, there was a range of options – “substitute, imitate, combine, and reuse” (which really ought to be the title of this exhibition).

Limestone, for example, isn’t as hard as black granite or granodiorite, but it’s commonly available and cheap, and will serve as a material for statues and busts. And, gosh, if you can’t even afford that, you can paint terracotta to look like granite. Yellow paint streaked with red looks a little like gilding, and white patches of paint lined with blue look like inlaid semi-precious eye pieces on a sarcophagus if you squint a bit. The exhibition lays out the contrasting options in a really simple and powerful way. A good example is the two exhibits about half way into the exhibition on the right – two head-and-shoulder pieces from separate sarcophagi (83.29 and 69.35). One is crudely made from terracotta, and painted in an inexpert, almost childish way. The other, pictured above, is a wonder of sophistication in linen, gilded gesso, glass and faience (ceramic made from sand).

Recycled Shabtis

There’s also a shabti – a symbolic figurine meant to help out with agricultural labor in the afterlife – that SAYS it belongs to Amunemhat, but when you examine it closer, Amunemhat’s name seems to have been added in later, over a scratched out piece of text. Brooklyn Museum Curator of Egyptian Art, Edward Bleiberg, speculates that Amunemhat may have indulged in a sneaky bit of Ancient Egyptian recycling. An even clearer example is the stunningly beautiful and elaborately painted Coffin of the Lady of the House Weretwahset (37.47Ea-d), below, which was used twice – the first time at the beginning of the 19th Dynasty, and again, with some repainting, at the end of the 20th Dynasty, a good 200 years later.  25 3/8 x 19 11/16 x 76 3/16 in. (64.5 x 50 x 193.5 cm) Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund Brooklyn Museum

This piece has been in storage since 1937 – another testament to the Brooklyn Museum’s embarassment of riches when it comes to ancient Egyptian artefacts, as well as its thoroughly admirable efforts to keep bringing its treasures out onto the museum floor for all to see.

I asked Bleiberg how the recycling thing worked. Wasn’t there a taboo against digging up graves and taking stuff out? Bleiberg admits there’s very little information available about how Ancient Egyptians justified these practices, but he pointed out that most tombs were family tombs, and so the option was, discreetly, to decide that great-great grandma must have made it to the other side by now, so why not save a bundle and reuse her coffin?

“These objects were considered vehicles,” Bleiberg explained. However, it wasn’t something to brag about, like getting married in your grandmother’s wedding dress. Discretion, it seems, was called for. This is demonstrated in the evidence of a government program in Thebes, around the end of the New Kingdom (c.1070 BC), for recycling funeray items, about the same time that Weretwahset’s coffin was getting a new coat of paint. The documentation, according to Bleiberg, takes the form of a government officer who says he’s located the tombs the Mayor mentioned, and he’s ready to dig them up, but he needs the Mayor there to give the disinterrment sufficient authority. Clearly, there was a taboo on digging up old graves; one powerful enough to give an underling pause before carrying out his superior’s instructions.

Beating Inflation

But the heat was clearly on, and Ancient Egyptians were forced to make do and mend when it came to tombs and coffins. Bleiberg points to massive inflation as a driving force behind such changes in practise. The cost of a coffin went up from 75 deben to 200 deben about this time, he said.

Cheapskate! This is terracotta painted to look like granite. Funerary Vessel of the Wab-priest of Amon, Nefer-her, Painted to Imitate Stone ca. 1479–1279 B.C.E. Pottery, painted 8 1/4 in. (21 cm) high x 4 17/16 in. (11.2 cm) diameter Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund Brooklyn Museum

The exhibition, which opened Feb 12 and runs through May 2 before embarking on a second leg of its ongoing nationwide tour, is beautifully put together. Upon entering, you’re immediately presented with a wonderfully simple and memorable explanation of the story of Osiris, Isis, Horus, and Set, laying out the powerful mythology about the afterlife in a truly accessible way.

However, the lighting is at times a little too atmospherically dim, and you have to search around for the informational blurbs about some of the bigger pieces that are in the middle of the room, such as the very impressive Large Outer Sarcophagus of Royal Prince, Count of Thebes (08.480.1a-b).

Furthermore, the small amount of interactive material – a screen showing YouTube videos about the exhibition, and a feedback screen at the end – was disappointing, even taking account of some initial technical difficulties at the press preview I attended.

The true value, here, is in seeing the comparisons in materials and sophistication laid out so clearly. It turns out Ancient Egyptians fretted over how much to spend on ultimately useless items, just like you and me – they just put them in their tombs instead of in glass cabinets in the living room.

“Once you get beyond the unusual beliefs, you discover the ancient Egyptians had exactly the same problems we have,” said Bleiberg. “It’s like I tell my teenage son: You have to make choices. Are you going to buy this or are you going to buy that?” The exhibition helps people see that Ancient Egyptians were “real human beings, even though they lived four thousand years ago,” Bleiberg said. The benefit of that insight, Bleiberg believes, can be huge. “It allows us to have sympathy for people we initially find very different from us,” he argued. “That’s very useful in today’s very interconnected world.”