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IMAG History & Science Center displays artifact replicas from the tomb of Rameses VI in exhibition titled “Tutankhamun: Return of the King”

One hundred years ago in the Valley of the Kings, Thebes, Egypt, archaeologist Howard Carter’s water carrier, Hussein Abdel-Rasoul, scratches the dirt with a stick, wishing he could play a more important role on his idol’s team. The stick strikes stone and the 12-year-old boy stooped to brush away the sand just as he’d seen Carter do hundreds of times himself.

Within seconds, he exposes a step chiseled into the rock near the base of the tomb of Rameses VI. This was November 4, 1922 and Abdel-Rasoul has just found the very thing that Carter has been searching frantically for since the end of World War I; the stairs leading down to the concealed entrance to the tomb of Tutankhamun, the 12th pharaoh of the 18th Egyptian Dynasty – the boy king who reigned just ten years, from 1332 to 1323 BCE.

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Shrine of Anubis which housed Embalming Equipment

Over the ensuing ten years, Carter catalogued and carefully removed 5,398 artifacts, which can be viewed in person at the just-opened $1 billion, 500,000-square-foot Grand Egyptian Museum on the Giza plateau outside Cairo. Or you can take in meticulously hand-crafted replicas at the IMAG History & Science Center in Fort Myers, which is hosting an exhibition titled “Tutankhamun: Return of the King.”

While the experience of seeing the original artifacts is unsurpassable, IMAG Executive Director Matt Johnson says there are enormous benefits to viewing the reproductions in this exhibition.

Marketing Manager Richard Smith, Senior Director of Communications Kelli King and Exec. Director Matthew Johnson.jpg
Tom Hall, WGCU
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IMAG History & Science Center Marketing Manager Richard Smith, Senior Director of Communications Kelli King and Executive Director Matthew Johnson

“This exhibit is made up of faithfully-reproduced replicas of all the treasures that were found in the tomb. Many of them were created in Egypt by Egyptian artisans in the same manner and using the same tools as they would have done 3,500 years ago,” said Johnson.

“A lot of them are authentic in their materials, authentic in their design, but what’s neat about these is that while they’re amazing pieces of art in themselves, they’re not priceless antiquities. So, we don’t have to put them behind glass with an armed guard standing next to it. I think you can be a little more immersive and engaged and feel a little more of a connection to these pieces than maybe you would if it was the original piece. So it’s a different experience than the original one, but I think it’s a unique one in itself.

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Right Guard to King Tut's burial chamber

While artists, artisans and art lovers may linger for minutes to hours over each individual reproduction, a large part of the King Tut mystique lies in the vast number of objects that Carter found inside Tutankhamun’s tomb. Anyone who’s seen “National Treasure” and its sequel, “Book of Secrets,” will easily recall the films’ astonishing treasure trove reveal scenes. Here, the treasure was real, possibly the most valuable trove ever discovered.

“That’s part of the fascination with this,” said Johnson. “It’s not one particular thing, and there’s some really neat pieces, but the breadth of how much was in this relatively small space and how much was needed just for a pharaoh to exist in his after-life.”

Perhaps it’s best to let Howard Carter himself express his reaction upon laying sight on just a portion of the trove for the very first time:

At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment—an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by—I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, 'Can you see anything?' it was all I could do to get out the words, 'Yes, wonderful things.'"

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Photograph by Howard Carter's official photographer Harry Burton of the opening of fourth inner shrine to King Tut's tomb

IMAG has arranged the artifacts in a way that simultaneously reflects the immensity of Carter’s find while nonetheless evoking the tight confines of the tomb, which included an antechamber, annex, burial chamber and treasury. From the hundreds of artifacts contained in the IMAG exhibit, Director Johnson singles out a half dozen as sure-fire fan favorites.

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The first two are located in IMAG’s antechamber: an alabaster chest and opposing golden shrine. Made of gilded wood, decorated in sunken reliefs and crowned with a frieze of carved cobras, the shrine held the chest which, in turn, housed the canopic caskets containing King Tut’s embalmed organs.

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Alabaster Canopic Chest with Golden Shrine in Background

“He literally needs these organs for the after-life, and so the organs are protected in canopic jars, protected in shrines, protected by the goddesses, but his heart is left inside because he needs that because the first thing he’s got to do is get his heart weighed,” said Johnson.

“So, if you’ve ever heard the term ‘a heavy heart,’ it means you did bad things in life, and so you’re going to be judged on those things. If your heart is light, then you’ve had a good life. You did good things in life and you’ll be judged accordingly,” Johnson explained.

Around the corner is the Pharaoh’s gold-inlay funerary mask. At IMAG, the mask is displayed on a pedestal, but in the actual tomb, it covered Tutankhamun’s head and shoulders. Removing it turned out not to be all that easy.

“They ended up cutting his neck off and removing it that way and then they took the head out afterwards,” said IMAG Marketing Director Richard Smith.

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Replica of King Tut's Golden Chariot

There’s Tut’s golden state chariot, which may have ultimately led to the 19-year-old Pharaoh’s death, and Tut’s Golden Throne and Ceremonial Footrest, which Johnson explains, has a story of its own.

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Replica of King Tut's golden throne and ceremonial footrest

“A pharaoh’s feet never touched the ground. They would be carried everywhere. They would have something laid out in front of them any time they walked anywhere, and whenever they put their feet down, whatever they put them on, would have representations of their enemies because that was the greatest insult that you could do at the time was put your feet on someone.”

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Replica of King Tut's outermost gilded coffin

Without a doubt, the headliners of the exhibit are the innermost, middle, and outermost gilded coffins and the stone sarcophagus in which they’d been placed. Of the tomb’s four chambers, the burial chamber was the smallest. So small, in fact, that Carter and his team had to concoct a system or ropes and pulleys to lift the lids of the sarcophagus and coffins so that he could get to Tutankhamun’s mummy.

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Royal Mummy of Pharaoh Turankhamun

Interestingly, the ropes and pulleys, as well as Tutankhamun’s mummy, are part of the IMAG exhibition, but are not on display at the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza. That’s because the Pharaoh’s mummy has been reinterred in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

For most of the past century, what most people know of King Tut’s tomb and its artifacts come from the pictures taken on site by the dig’s official photographer, Harry Burton. To capture the iconic images that have since become part of popular culture, Burton not only had to set up a dark room in the nearby tomb of an Egyptian noble, he had to devise a system of mirrors to draw sunlight into Tutankhamun’s tomb. The addition of a number of Burton’s photographs adds depth and dimension to the exhibition.

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Tom Hall, WGCU
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Photographer Harry Burton

IMAG had intended to open “Tutankhamun: Return of the King” in October but, of course, nature had other ideas. So rather than a red-carpet gala, IMAG is holding a pay-what-you-can Inspiration Day Nov. 12. There will be food trucks, vendors and representatives from the Center for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife and the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge on Sanibel.

However, the real draw is the boy king, who’s now part of pop culture thanks to America’s enduring fascination with all things royal, “The Mummy” and Indiana Jones franchises and the Curse of the Pharaoh. Whatever your particular fascination might be, this is an exhibit which, in Matt Johnson’s estimation, has something for everyone.

“It’s an amazing art exhibit. It’s an amazing history exhibit. It’s an amazing science exhibit. If you want to come and just be in awe of the artistry, I think you’ll be happy. If you want to come and read every sign and just be in awe of the history, I think you’ll thoroughly enjoy it,” said Johnson.

“If you want to come and just be in awe of the effort and the science of whether it’s digging in or being able to photograph in a dark hole, or mummification of a body and those sort of things, I think you’ll come out interested in that as well. So we’d love to have everybody come out and see this. It’s an important part of our world heritage. This is one of those stories that needs to be told.”

“Tutankhamun: Return of the King” is on exhibit through March 31.

FAST FACTS:

  • According to Grand Egypt Museum Project Director Nicolás Gutiérrez Martínez, the presentation of the more than 5,000 artifacts removed from Tutankhamun’s tomb will be “theatrical,” with dramatic lighting that will make the ceiling look like a star-filled sky. Downlights will illuminate key objects in the displays. The aim is to create an atmosphere that captures the feeling of death emerging into a new beginning, in keeping with ancient Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife.
  • The Origins Museum Institute created and produced this exhibit. For more than three decades the institute has been providing museums throughout the world with the wonders of the past, magnificently recreated by the most skilled hands from the foremost preparation labs of the great museums to the studios of Egypt’s Pharaonic Village and the jewelry workshops of St Petersburg. Seen by millions of delighted visitors, these revered exhibitions bring the treasures of the world’s finest institutions to those who might not have a chance to experience them otherwise.
  • Subsets of the IMAG exhibit have been touring the United States since 1998. A much smaller version of “Tutankhamen: Return of the King” visited the Southwest Florida Museum of History (now the Collaboratory) in 2004.
  • In the late 1970s, more than eight million people viewed the first exhibition of Tutankhamun treasures to ever tour the U.S. ‘Tut-mania’ swept America, culminating in Steve Martin’s now famous musical parody on Saturday Night Live (which you can listen to here).
  • The last and final tour of Tutankhamun artifacts took place in 2019. While that exhibition included many objects that had never before left Egypt, it only included about 150 artifacts from Tut’s tomb (such as the six-foot gilded wooden statues that guarded the tomb), but not the famous gold funerary mask, which was deemed by that time to be too fragile to make the trip. "No artifact of King Tut will travel again; this is the last exhibit," reported the exhibition’s organizer and renowned Egyptologist Dr. Zahi Hawass at the time. "If anyone in the future wants to see King Tut, he has to come to Egypt."
  • Among the seven biggest treasure troves ever found, only three are considered priceless: the Caesarea Sunken Treasure found in the seabed near the harbor of Caesarea National Park in Israel that consists of nearly 2,000 gold coins of several different denominations that had been minted between the 10th and 12th centuries; the Panagyurishte Treasure, consisting of a golden ceremonial drinking horn, golden decanters and more than 13 pounds of solid gold carved into elaborate and intricately decorated shapes; and the Backtrian Gold, comprised of more than 20,000 gold ornaments dating to the first century BCE. However, none of these compare either in artistic merit or historical significance to the artifacts found by Howard Carter in Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings.  
  • Although the character of Indiana Jones is fictional, the film’s producer, George Lucas, has said that he was inspired by the work of real-life archaeologists and explorers Howard Carter and Hiram Bingham III.
  • Many historians doubt that ancient Egyptian mirrors could have been used to properly light a pyramid or any large chamber. Historical mirrors were simply too crude. "This is why scenes in films like 'The Mummy,' where mirrors bounce daylight back and forth down a series of passages to light up an underground chamber, are totally unrealistic," claims Ancient Egypt Magazine. Howard Carter’s official photographer, Harry Burton, had access to modern mirrors and did, in fact, employ a cleverly-designed system of mirrors to light the interior rooms of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
  • Tutankhamun had two trusted advisers, a vizier named Ay and a general named Horemheb. Both Ay and Horemheb became kings of Egypt after Tutankhamun's death. Ay succeed Tutankhamun first, taking over the throne at about the age of 70 and marrying one of Tut's widows, Ankhesenamun. He reigned less than four years, from 1325 to 1321 B.C., and was succeeded by Horemheb, whose reign lasted almost three decades. He was the last monarch of the 18th Dynasty. Both Ay and Horemheb have been named as possible assassins of King Tut. However, according to the BBC, Tutankhamun's death was likely the result of an infection resulting from a broken leg. The events surrounding his death are the subject of a “nonfiction thriller” by James Patterson titled “The Murder of King Tut: The Plot to Kill the Child King,” which Patterson touts as “the ultimate true crime story of passion and betrayal, where the clues point to murder” In the book, Patterson and Martin Dugard dig through stacks of evidence-X-rays, Carter's files, forensic clues, and stories told through the ages-to arrive at their own account of King Tut's life and death. “The result is an exhilarating true crime tale of intrigue, passion, and betrayal that casts fresh light on the oldest mystery of all.”

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.

Spotlight on the Arts for WGCU is funded in part by Naomi Bloom, Jay & Toshiko Tompkins, and Julie & Phil Wade.

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