Thursday, October 4, 2012


The gold mask which covered the head of King Tutankhamun is one of the most familiar of Egyptian icons. The most moving reproduction of the mask is this photograph, less familiar than those which show it after it was cleaned. This was the first record of the mask, taken when it was uncovered by Howard Carter in the king's tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The dust and the remains of the garlands which were placed in the king's coffin give this image a living, deeply moving quality.

But the noblest of all the representations of Tutankhamun, which emphasises his divinity and the majesty of his office, is the immense gold mask which was placed over the head of his mummy, in the innermost of the coffins; after the Pyramids it is perhaps the most universally reproduced of all Egyptian artifacts. This is not the portrait of a slender boy but of a god-king, living for ever and ever. Few photographs do the mask justice: gold is a difficult material to photograph without it assuming the consistency of brass. The most successful is perhaps the first to be taken, by Harry Burton, the American photographer who was present in the tomb from the time of its opening.

In Burton's photograph the mask appears still wreathed with the garlands which were laid around it more than three thousand years before. The presence of the flowers and the little smudges of dust which Burton and Carter did not remove, to avoid destroying the garlands, give the mask an extraordinary living presence.

When cleaned and cleared of the scattering of flowers the mask is magnificent, a triumph, if not of high art, then certainly of the highest craftsmanship. But it is clearly an artifact whereas, in Burton's photograph, the king lives.

The impact of the discovery of Tutankhamun can perhaps best be appreciated by comparing the finding of his tomb with the near-contemporary excavation of the Royal Tombs at the Sumerian city of Ur by Sir Leonard Woolley. For barbaric splendour combined with grand guignol, the great death pits at Ur should totally have eclipsed Tutankhamun, yet they did not do so.

Woolley found a number of burials, sunk deep in what was evidently a royal or sacred burial site, on the outskirts of Ur, one of the most important of Sumer's city-states. The burials were much earlier than Tutankhamun's, c. 2600 BC, and thus earlier even than the Giza Pyramids. Altogether Woolley found sixteen burials which he believed were of royal personages. In the stone-lined vaults, deep in the earth, were found the remains of highstatus burials, attended by the most elaborate panoply of death. The principal occupants of the tomb were attended by ranks of courtiers, musicians, soldiers, wagoners (with their wagons and the oxen which drew them) all neatly laid out, for a carefully organised ceremony of death.

The artifacts which were buried with them were of the most superb craftsmanship, elegant, austere but at the same time extremely rich in material and adornment. They are, it must be said, very un-Sumerian in design and craftsmanship.

Unlike the excavation of Tutankhamun's tomb, which has never been professionally published, Woolley unleashed a stream of sumptuous and detailed reports on his excavations, supported by many popular publications. 7 Yet for every thousand people who know the name Tutankhamun there may be one who recognises Ur and its royal burials, even when it carries its biblical ascription `of the Chaldees' with its putative connection with Abraham, the Friend of God.

The reason for the lesser impact of the Royal Tombs of Ur is that they were not redolent of the archetypes in the way in which the tomb of Tutankhamun was so liberally provided. Sumer, despite the fact that it is probably the culture in which writing evolved into something more than a simple device for the convenience of accountants, has never caught the world's imagination in the way in which Egypt has done. Waiting in his tomb for three thousand two hundred years, Tutankhamun was the heir to all the immense accumulation of wonder and respect which Egypt had engendered and, in his own person, was to be identified as an archetypal figure such as only Egypt could apparently produce.

Tutankhamun was the last lineal descendant of Ahmose, who had founded the Eighteenth Dynasty more than two hundred years earlier. What has been interpreted as the marks of a blow behind his ear and a displaced piece of bone, possibly dislodged from the interior of his skull, have prompted suggestions that he was murdered. He left no heir though two female foetuses were found in his tomb, perhaps his children who had been born prematurely. He had married a daughter of Akhenaten, Ankhesena'amun, whose name had been changed from Ankhesenpa'aten. She brings her own small element of tragedy to the decline of the Thutmosid house. Evidently bereft at the death of Tutankhamun, for they are often depicted, like two flower children, charmingly engaged in simple pleasures (and she it was who scattered flowers in his tomb), she appealed to the great King of the Hittites, Suppiluliumas, to send her one of his sons, that he might become King of Egypt. That such a message was sent at all is a measure both of the desperation of Ankhesena'amun and those around her and of the state of Egypt. Suppiluliumas agreed and despatched his son Zennanza with a suitable escort south to Egypt. He never reached Ankhesena'amun for he was murdered on the way. Of Ankhesena'amun, nothing more is ever heard.

No comments: