It became clear to you that most people think King Tut is famous because he was a great king of Egypt, and you are going to give a little Egyptology lesson to set the record straight. Hopefully by the end of this your readers will come away with some knowledge to help them better understand how to appreciate ancient Egyptian art in future exhibits.
For you, walking through this exhibit is not about looking at pretty things that were looted from a tomb. It’s not even about admiring the craftsmanship or their technology. It is getting a glimpse of their culture and belief system and its relationship to politics. Yes, you can see all of that from a piece of artwork. Because for Egypt, it is much more about the “why?” than the “how?”
First: a Crash Course in Meaning and Function
The first thing anyone needs to know about ancient Egypt is that they had no concept of “Art.” This may come as a surprise to most people. It is a very foreign concept that a culture could exist that did not have “art for art’s sake” but it is true. Consider this the next time you see an ancient Egyptian artifact: everything that was built, carved, forged, created, painted, decorated in ancient Egypt was done to accomplish a specific goal, usually to serve the Pharaoh in his afterlife, or honor a particular god. Let’s get started…
A bit about kingship: The Pharaoh was considered semi-divine. His job was to ensure that the sun set and rose each day and that the Nile flooded each year. His main purpose, as high priest, was to communicate all of this to the gods through a series of rituals. Since it was impossible for him to spend each waking hour performing rituals (there needs to be time for king-stuff like making sons and going to war), these rituals and incantations would be carved into the walls of temples.
What? You mean those carvings were not just there for decoration? No. In fact, they weren’t even considered “just carvings.” All of that text surrounding them was carefully selected and once completed, it was “activated” by a priest who would go through and say each of the incantations aloud, bringing them “to life.”
This is why their human and godlike forms are always depicted in a way that looks so “Egyptian.” Meaning, all four limbs are visible, and all body parts. It was believed, that these depictions were not meant to represent the Pharaoh, they were actually the Pharaoh (in a spiritual sense). So if you didn’t depict him with two arms, two legs, and the gods in the same way (read: any way other than perfect), then in the afterlife, someone wouldn’t have all of their limbs and this is bad news. Did they know this for sure? No, of course not. But they sure as hell weren’t going to risk it when the rising and setting of the sun depended on it. And this brings you to your next point…
Every image of the Pharaoh was based on the The individuality of the kings came in the form of how they chose to depict themselves. This is especially present in royal portraiture. People don’t seem to realize that nothing about royal portraiture was realistic. At all. It is disappointing because you want to think you know what Ramses II looked like. The unfortunate truth is that you don’t. This is because everything about portraiture was meant to be symbolic.
You mean everything. The shape of the nose, the size and placement of the ears, how they were dressed, how they were positioned, their eyes. You imagine the exchange between the new Pharaoh and his portrait artist went something like this:
Pharaoh: Alright, listen up. I have big plans for Egypt. I need to evoke the old, great kings, like those that built Giza!
Artist: Great sir! Very well. How about we give you a Khafre-esque nose. Oh, and let’s give you an eye shape that says: Old Kingdom
Pharaoh: Excellent! And while you’re at it, no more of this flat mouth crap. I want big, full lips and almond-shaped eyes. After all, I need to be distinctive, but still let them know that I’m in charge.
Artist: Of course, my King. Almond eyes it is.
Pharaoh: And you know what, we have some money saved up from my father’s reign, why don’t you go ahead and make this one out of red granite.
Even the material that the statue was made out of had a symbolic significance. Red granite, for example, was associated with the sun. A statue made out of it would evoke a solar energy and solar gods (it would also mean that Egypt was doing somewhat well economically, because red-granite was quarried in Nubia, and only if he had control of that area, would he be able to obtain it). Essentially, a red-granite statue said a lot.
Something made from black granite however, would be associated with Osiris and the king’s afterlife. These statues would be placed indoors, in burial chambers and most likely show the king making offerings to gods of the underworld. This material would evoke the king’s death and reincarnation into a god.
As you can see, there is a lot going on here. You are not surprised that going to an exhibit like this is so exciting for you. Most people look at a gold necklace and think: “wow, pretty.”
Now onto King Tut.
He is known famously as “the boy king” of Egypt. He assumed power when he was about 9 or 10 years old in something like 1330 BC and he died at the age of 18 or 19 from a broken leg that we now think was probably caused by a fall as a result of having temporal lobe epilepsy.
Like you mentioned before, most of the people who see the king Tut exhibit think that people line up to see one of the great kings of Egypt. He wasn’t. Not even close. Here is what you need to know:
- He did nothing significant during his lifetime, aside from being the son of Akenaten
- He is largely famous because his was the most complete tomb ever discovered, in a place that was thought not to have any unknown tombs left.
- His tomb, though packed with riches, was not that impressive when you compare it to what other, great Pharaohs had in their tombs.
We have learned a lot from his tomb.
As mentioned before, a king’s primary job was to ensure the rising and setting of the sun and all of that. But, that doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for going to war and building shit with your face on it. Of course, the Pharaoh’s time was divided into two life-long side projects. Building up his mortuary temple, and building up the state temple.
You won’t get into too much detail, but the quick and dirty difference between the two is that a mortuary temple is for the king, in honor of the king, and it is where all of the rituals will take place to see him well into the afterlife. Suffice to say, each Pharaoh has their own mortuary temple. One king. One temple. Examples include: the pyramids of Giza. A state temple by contrast, is built to honor a particular god (typically the patron god of the city, like Thebes or Abydos etc.) and this was a project that was ongoing and spanned the rule of many kings. Examples include: Karnak.
So we know that a Pharaoh will spend his entire life working on his mortuary temple, but we also know that Tut died when he was 18. That is not a lot of time, and there is ample evidence to suggest that his tomb was rather…thrown together in a hurry. More likely, it was meant to be for someone else, and then re-appropriated upon his death. The reason for thinking this is the actual layout of the tomb is not consistent with what has been found for others, it is much more crowded and doesn’t include certain features that one would expect to find. Additionally, all of the carvings are sunken relief, which is typically reserved for outdoor carving. Raised relief is what you typically find inside temples (unless you’re Ramses II) and it takes a lot longer to do. The indoor sunken relief suggest they needed to work quickly.
Finally, Egypt has always had an embarrassment of riches. Not only was gold used to measure wealth, it was also believed (back then) to be the material that comprised the skin of the gods. This shit was EVERYWHERE and if you have ever seen king Tut’s exhibit you will know that he had 3 sarcophagi made out of solid gold and that his two outer coffins were made of solid gold and the inner coffins were gilded wood. Also, you may recall king tut’s burial mask, the iconic representation of ancient Egypt, that was also very heavily laden with gold.
And this was put together in a hurry. Imagine if you had a lifetime to prepare for your death and afterlife like other Pharaohs. Imagine further still, not only are you a great Pharaoh, but you are wealthy compared to other Pharaohs. Naturally, all of the great Pharaoh’s tombs were looted of their gold long ago. It’s hard to resist if you are a tomb worker and you know where to find 8,000 lbs of it. Things like that don’t tend to stay secret for very long.
In conclusion, thanks to a happy accident of King Tut being so insignificant that his tomb was forgotten when after the 20th dynasty the valley of the kings was systematically dismantled. The completeness of his tomb has shed a lot of light on the life, and afterlife of the Egyptian kings and you are eternally grateful.