King Tut is part of pop culture as much as history. Inspiring everything from Hollywood mummy movies to breathless tales of King Tut’s curse, everyone knows the legend, but how much do we know the truth?
To separate fact from fiction, don’t miss Pacific Science Center’s “Tutankhamun: The Golden King and The Great Pharaohs.” The exhibition features over 100 items from King Tut’s tomb including jewelry, ceremonial items, statues and more. Seattle is the last stop for the touring exhibit, which is on display for the last time in North America. Catch it before it closes January 6, 2013.
To learn more, the Pacific Science Center is hosting the “Ancient Egypt Distinguished Speakers Lecture Series” on select Tuesdays, October 16 – November 27, at Town Hall. Dr. David Silverman, one of the world’s leading Egyptologist experts and curator of the current exhibit, chatted with The Seattle Lesbian about his research and upcoming lecture, “The Curse of the Pharaohs.”
You’re one of the world’s foremost Egyptologists and curated both the 1977 “Treasure of Tutankhamun” exhibit and the current “Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs.” What sparked your interest?
My earliest memory of liking things about Egypt comes from trips I used to take with my brother to visit my aunt in New York. She would take us to museums. My brother liked the sciences and I thought the Egyptian items were fantastic. Museums were sort of in my blood by the time I could walk. It shows you how important museums are for influencing kids and their interests.
Pop culture has an enduring fascination with King Tut – mummy movies, Steve Martin’s “King Tut” song and more. Does that amuse or frustrate you?
If Hollywood were to write about how everything was discovered, you couldn’t do it better or be more exciting than the real-life story. Howard Carter (who discovered the tomb in 1922) waited and waited for the opportunity to work in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. One person after another told him there was nothing left to be found. After several unsuccessful seasons and a break due to WWI, Lord Carnavon (who financed the search) said that it was costing a lot of money, nothing was found and it was time to stop. Carter said that he had a premonition he’d find King Tut’s tomb. He’d pay for the season himself – and it would be the last. The Lord was impressed and agreed to fund one more season. Carter got on a boat to Egypt and found the tomb roughly two weeks later – a discovery beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations.
What are some questions you’d still like to answer regarding King Tut?
A burning question is how did he really die? I don’t know if the mummy can provide more information. It’s now quite clear from examination – X-rays and CT scans – that the idea that he was hit over the head is totally incorrect. There is no evidence of foul play. We still don’t know exactly, though, how he died. There is evidence of a fracture (in his leg) that occurred shortly before his death. Maybe it didn’t heal and he died from complications. We still don’t really know.
What are some of your favorite pieces in the exhibit that are worth visitors taking a second look?
I have a special fondness for the Block Statue of Hetep in the section about the Pharaoh’s court. He comes from one of the tombs I worked in and the statue rarely comes out of Egypt. It’s a wonderful piece to include because there isn’t anything else in the exhibit like him. He doesn’t look like anything we associate with Egyptian art. It’s an opportunity to see that the Egyptians went further in their art than just trying to imitate nature. Most of it seems very lifelike, but that statue does not. It’s very strange; the heads, arms and legs are flat. It’s probably the closest the Egyptians came to abstraction in art.
What is something that people may not realize about King Tutankhamun and his time period?
What’s so important that people forget is that this was part of the most controversial few decades in all of the thousands of years of Egyptian history. There is a 20-year period when everything that came before changes during the reign of Akhenaten (Tutankhamun’s father) – art changes, writing, language, architecture – it was all due to a change in religion. Until that time, hundreds of gods were worshipped and then there was only a single god. These are questions that still need to be answered, why? I’ve studied it and talked about it in two books, but the final answer isn’t there yet.
How is studying ancient Egypt relevant to today?
If you compare the ancient Egyptians to today, there are a lot of similarities. They weren’t that different than we are today. For example, Tutankhamun’s roles, he was head of state, head of the religion, chief of the army. In terms of modern government setups, it’s very similar.
If we look at their accomplishments in architecture, art and science, they were quite advance. I wouldn’t say that we haven’t done great things, like the technology progress in the last 20 or 30 years, but when you think how much the Egyptians accomplished so far back, maybe we shouldn’t be so proud sometimes.
On October 23, you are speaking as part of Pacific Science Center’s “Ancient Egypt Distinguished Speakers Lecture Series.” Your talk is entitled, “The Curse of the Pharaohs.” Do curses really exist?
The curse is one of those things that follows the exhibit (legend is that disturbing a mummy’s tomb results in a curse and that many members of Howard Carter’s expedition met early deaths). When you start to examine the facts, Howard Carter lived to nearly 70 (64 years), which wasn’t a shortened life at that time. That doesn’t mean, though, that there weren’t curses in ancient Egypt. There were some really serious curses!
For your personal playlist, Steve Martin’s “King Tut” or the Bangles’ “Walk Like an Egyptian”?
I was trying to do serious talks in the 1970s and was constantly plagued by Steve Martin’s song! At a talk in Ft. Lauderdale, someone dressed up as Steve Martin and scantily-clad women lip-synched to the song. It’s not easy to take the stage after that! So, “Walk Like an Egyptian” by the Bangles!
Dr. David Silverman presents at Town Hall on October 23 at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $10, $5 for Pacific Science Center members and students at the door. For more info, visit www.pacsci.org or www.townhallseattle.org.