The golden funerary mask of Tutankhamun is probably the most recognizable object from the tomb. This detailed depiction of the young man's face wearing a royal headpiece was found on Tut's linen-wrapped mummy.
Among history's great leaders, King Tut doesn’t rank highly for his legendary adventures or world-changing triumphs.
But after the boy king died, he became quite the newsmaker.
Until Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered in 1922—more than 3,000 years after the young pharaoh’s death—the contents of Egyptian royal tombs were mostly a topic of speculation, as tombs were commonly emptied by grave robbers, according to JoAnn Zeise, curator of history at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia. Illustrations of the treasures buried with rulers were visible on temple walls, but the graves themselves were frequently looted.
Then, with English archaeologist Howard Carter’s discovery, the buried treasures were at last revealed—to touch, to examine, to study. The world was fascinated. Crowds thronged to see the treasures wherever they were displayed. Revelations about Egyptian royalty, culture and burial practices spilled forth.
Now on exhibit at the State Museum, Tutankhamun: Return of the King displays 124 replicas of the treasure cache buried with King Tut after his untimely death at age 18 or 19. While the originals remain on permanent exhibit in Cairo, these meticulously crafted replicas give modern audiences an up-close view of royal possessions, sacred burial objects and Tut’s African heritage.
“Unless you’re one of the few who are going to fly to Cairo to see the originals, this is the closest you can get to seeing them,” says Tut Underwood, the museum’s director of public information and marketing.
Crafted by Egyptian artists using techniques that are thousands of years old, each replica is, Zeise says, “still a work of art.”
Carter himself was overwhelmed by the burial objects when he first peered into the tomb by candlelight. In his diary, he wrote: “It was sometime before one could see...but as soon as one’s eyes became accustomed to the glimmer of light the interior of the chamber gradually loomed before one, with its strange and wonderful medley of extraordinary and beautiful objects heaped upon one another.”
High on most visitors’ must-see lists is Tut’s well-known golden funerary mask, depicting the face of the young king. Found covering the head and shoulders of Tut’s mummy, the original mask was created from two sheets of gold, hammered into shape and colorfully decorated.
Crowds also flock to the linen-wrapped mummy, adorned with jewels, amulets and gold ornamental sandals. Nearby is a replica of the elaborately decorated coffin in which Tut’s mummy was found—the original was solid gold, weighing nearly 300 pounds, nested inside two other magnificent coffins.
Also intriguing, Zeise says, is the ceremonial footrest that accompanies Tut’s golden throne, as well as the pharaoh’s ornate wooden court sandals. On the footrest and on the bottom of the sandals are images of the pharaoh’s enemies—“so the king always had them under his feet,” she says.
Some behind-the-scenes stories reveal more about Tut’s world and Carter’s discovery, according to Zeise:
- Tut’s young wife feared that, as his widow, she would be married off to an older man, so she wrote to a neighboring king to ask that he send one of his sons to marry her instead. “She wrote, ‘Send me a son, and I will make him a king,’ ” Zeise says. Sadly, the prince was killed on his way to Egypt, and the young woman was married to Tut’s older successor.
- The unsung first discoverer of Tut’s tomb was actually a young local boy who brought water to the excavation team, Zeise says. The boy noticed a stone step and pointed it out to Carter—it was the first step leading to the tomb.
- The rumored curse associated with Tut’s tomb, played up in the media for years after the discovery, was just a titillating story. “Hundreds of people went through the tomb in the first year, and only a couple died,” Zeise notes.
The exhibit is making a return appearance to the State Museum, where it drew more than 120,000 visitors 10 years ago—the most popular exhibit in the museum’s 25-year history.