Britain: The Pharaoh of Dorchester

The treasures of Tutankhamun in Dorset? Yes, as good as, complete with animal-headed gods and realistic smells. Emma Haughton goes tomb raiding for a family visit
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The Independent Online
A rural county town may seem an unlikely setting for Egyptian treasure, but the Tutankhamun exhibition in Dorchester, Dorset, offers a compact yet fascinating tribute to one of the greatest archaeological discoveries ever made. This exhibition was put together when damage to the original artefacts prompted the Egyptian government to cease foreign exhibitions, so it replicates (most faithfully) the ancient loot that attracted such huge crowds in the Seventies.

The high point is an atmospheric mock-up of the young king's antechamber and tomb. As you walk in, your senses are assailed by herbal smells that recall the unguents and aromatic oils used in the original tomb, and by the voluptuous beauty of the treasure it contained. The antechamber shows exactly how these riches were arranged when Howard Carter first broke into it in 1922; curiously, they seem not so much displayed as dumped wherever there was space, giving the air of a musty and forgotten corner of an exclusive junk shop. The burial chamber itself is dominated by the huge gold coffin, captured at the moment that Carter first opened it up to reveal the famous gold mask covering the bandaged mummy.

There are plenty of other exhibits and information on the treasure, including the Rosetta stone and its role in the discovery of the tomb to a fascinating account of the political machinations that rumbled on behind the throne, and may well have led to Tutankhamun's death by murder at the tender age of 18 (though recent research by Professor Robert Brier, of Long Island University, has suggested that the boy king suffered a long, slow death at the hands of his chief adviser). Beyond the spine-tingling atmosphere of the tomb itself, there's a good dose of yuck factor for the kids, including some rather gruesome photos of Tutankhamun's mummified remains, and a life-size mock-up of his body. Having got their attention, the surrounding displays then get in a bit of education by the back door, covering each stage of the 70 days it took to embalm the body and prepare it for burial.

Some of the most spectacular exhibits are the painstaking replicas of the jewellery and other objects that accompanied the king - the opulent solid gold collars, the richly decorated pendants and amulets and, most famous of all, the gold mask which came to epitomise this most romantic of all discoveries for the world.

But it's perhaps the religious figures - the jackal Anubis, god of embalming; Hathor, the cow-headed goddess; and the hawks symbolic of the god Horus - that steal the show, their eerie and inscrutable majesty still as potent today as it must have been nearly 3,000 years ago.

The visitors

Lisa Faiers took her three children, Ned, seven, Monty, five, and Archie, two.

Lisa: I've been to the exhibition once before, and both times I've thoroughly enjoyed it. What I liked best was having all the aromas and the noise in the tomb; it really feels as if you're in there. All in all, the atmosphere feels authentic. I'm sure it's the next best thing to going to Egypt; in fact, it made me feel I wanted to go and see the real thing for myself.

I could have done with several hours of peace and quiet to take it all in. It's maybe better for older children, who can read all the information that's on offer, but, having said that, I can see it's fun for the younger ones as well, especially the mummified body - although it's not a real mummy. But don't take the kids unless they're old enough and brave enough to cope with that, along with being spooked by the strange sensations in the tomb.

I think, if I go again, I'll go over some of the information about Egypt with the boys beforehand, so they are better prepared about things like how a mummy is made.

Monty: The scariest bit was the tomb. It was really dark and spooky. It smells horrible, and the music scared me, but the rest didn't. I liked the willy on the mummy, the golden chair in the tomb and the people with the stabbers - I think they're called spears. They were golden. I liked the person who had a whole mask which was an Egyptian head, and I liked the golden dog.

The Egyptians were people who were around a long, long time ago. They built mud houses and Pyramids, and they had flat teeth because sand and stones blew into their bread from the desert. I wouldn't really want to live in Egypt, though, because I'd be dead by now.

Ned: I liked seeing the treasures and looking at the mask. It was a sort of golden face with a long blue beard, but I'm not sure he looked like that in real life. It was exciting to see the mummified body. His teeth and toes were all white where you could see the bones sticking out. The pretend tomb was good, too; it was really smelly.

I really like the Egyptians. They lived in Egypt most of the time and they liked treasures, and they didn't like killing animals - in fact they worshipped snakes and scarab beetles. Tutankhamun was an Egyptian king but he was only 18 when he died. I really enjoyed it at the exhibition and it made me think I'd quite like to go to Egypt, too.

The deal

Getting there: the Tutankhamun Exhibition (01305 269571) is in High Street West in Dorchester town centre.

Opening times: daily 9.30am-5.30pm, except for three days at Christmas.

Admission: adults pounds 3.50, children over five pounds 2.25. A family ticket for two adults and two children costs pounds 9.95.

Facilities: There is a well stocked shop, including books covering every aspect of ancient Egyptian civilisation and all kinds of Egyptian paraphernalia, activities and novelties for both children and adults.

Access: A ramp enables wheelchairs to negotiate two steps; thereafter the exhibition is on the flat.