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Tutankhamun's treasures return to London for anniversary of discovery by Carter

By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Art Correspondent

 Gold Inlaid Canopic Coffinette of Tutankhamun Dedicated to Imseti and Is
Gold inlaid canopic coffinette of Tutankhamun dedicated to Imseti and Isis: Image (c) IMG

For many the name of Tutankhamun personifies the glamour and glory of the ancient Egyptian civilisation. The legend of the boy king whose short reign from the age of nine to nineteen (1336-1326 BCE; succeeding his father, Akhenaten) has captured imaginations ever since the sensational discovery of his tomb by British Egyptologist Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon on the 4th of November 1922.

“Yes, wonderful things” was Carter’s now immortal reply to Lord Carnarvon’s anxious enquiry of “Can you see anything?” that day as Carter peered by candlelight through a tiny opening made through a doorway to what they hoped was Tutankhamun’s tomb. It was all he could do to get out those three words, Carter recalled later. As his eyes grew accustomed to the light he began to discern treasures of unimaginable strangeness and quality - and everywhere, the glint of gold.

Now, commemorating almost a century since the “the most significant archaeological discovery of our time”, 150 of those wonderful things are on display at the Saatchi Gallery in London. It is the largest collection of treasures from Tutankhamun’s tomb ever to travel out of Egypt - and 60 of the pieces have never before been outside Egypt.

For those of us old enough and patient enough to have queued (along with 1.6 million others) for the British Museum’s fabulous exhibition of Tutankhamun’s treasures in 1972, it may come as a surprise that there were only 50 artefacts on display back then - but what things they were!

Wooden Guardian Statue of the Ka of the King Wearing the Nemes Headcloth.
Wooden guardian statue of the Ka of the King wearing the Nemes Headcloth. Image (c) IMG

There are three times as many items on show at Saatchi - but Tutankhamun’s famous golden mask is not among them for it no longer travels outside Egypt. This may surprise those who have travelled through London recently as the posters for the show on the Tube and elsewhere carry an image that can easily be mistaken for the golden funerary mask.

The poster image is in fact a zoomed-in shot of the head of a miniature coffin - a canopic vessel that contained the pharaoh’s liver - and despite its being barely 40cm high, it is stunning. Made of beaten gold, coloured glass, and carnelian, defining Tutankhamun’s delicate features, kohl-lined eyes and regalia in some detail, it is one of four canopic coffins that contained the internal organs removed from the king’s body during the mummification process.

There is gold at every turnin this show - golden statuettes, sumptuous jewellery, the trappings from Tutankhamun’s mummy, gilded wooden shields - but it is the artistry that consumes you most, the craft and the detail. For instance, the carved lion’s feet on the gilded ceremonial bed that probably was made for Tutankhamun’s funeral, and carved onto the footboard to watch over the king’s eternal rest the divine figures of Bes, the guardian of newborns, and Tawaret (Tauret) the hippopotamus goddess.

this is “the last time that the Boy King’s treasures will be seen outside Egypt.”

Amid all this glitter some things are easy to overlook. A slim inlaid pen case displayed an early gallery is one. Yet, like the boomerangs and bows, or the woven gloves that he probably used when driving his chariot in the desert, or the ornate little chair made for him when he was a child - or for that matter, the plain wooden cases that held the food needed in the afterlife - it brings an exquisitely human touch to the show. They remind us that these items were the belongings of, or made for the tomb of a young boy turned king.

At times the exhibition is quite theatrical (piped muzak too in the galleries) but the objects are very well displayed. Light shines through translucent alabaster vases accentuating intricate and coloured inlays, it highlights scenes carved onto gilded boxes and shields, and there’s drama in the statuettes of the slender king balanced on the back of a black panther, or out on a reed skiff hunting with a spear.

Gilded wooden figure of Tutankhamun on a skiff, throwing a harpoon. Image: (c) IMG

The life-sized Guardian Statue of the King stands most imposingly and imperiously, much as its makers must have hoped. For this was one of two that flanked the sealed entrance to Tutankhamun’s burial chamber, and with its golden clothing, mace and staff, contrasting black skin, and piercing obsidian eyes it was meant to scare off tomb raiders.

This is not so much a scholarly exhibition as one intended to show off these extraordinary objects before they return to Cairo to be permanently housed with Tutankhamun’s full collection at the Grand Egyptian Museum currently under construction near the Great Pyramid at Giza.

And it does show off the artefacts well. It has a straightforward, two-fold storyline: that of Tutankhamun’s passage into everlasting life, showing how his funerary objects aided him on his perilous journey, and of the tomb’s discovery against the odds nearly one hundred years ago.

The London exhibition is the third stop in a ten-city world tour, which broke records in Los Angeles before going on to Paris and becoming France’s most attended exhibition ever with more than 1.4 million visitors. Saatchi hope that the London show will “live up to its title as the hottest ticket in town” and break that record. More than 250,000 tickets were sold within two days of its opening, and about 300 visitors are expected to walk through the Saatchi’s labyrinthine spaces every 90 minutes.

Wooden Guilded Mirror Case in the Form of an Ankh, Inlaid with Blue Glas
Wooden gilded mirror case in the form of an ankh (sign meaning 'given life'), inlaid with blue glass. Image (c) IMG

Unfortunately, the ticket prices are also record breaking, something that has quite reasonably been picked up by the media. Yet the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, the exhibition producers, and Dr. Zahi Hawass who spoke at the exhibition opening, flagged up that this is “the last time that the Boy King’s treasures will be seen outside Egypt.”

“To celebrate the 100th year anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, Egypt is sending 150 masterpieces to tour all over the world. Please see them, visit them, before they return back to Egypt forever,” said Dr. Mostafa Waziry, Secretary General of the Ministry of State for Antiquities, Egypt.

World-renowned archaeologist, Dr. Zahi Hawass said: “The UK has long had an affinity for the Boy King ever since his discovery by British archaeologist Howard Carter on 4 Nov 1922. Massive crowds are already preparing for the opportunity to behold his treasures one last time before they return to Egypt and their final home in the Grand Egyptian Museum.”



Saatchi Gallery, London

On until: 3 May 2020

For tickets and more information see:


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