Dr Neal Spencer: Now all the world can witness this ancient marvel


The unmasking of King Tutankhamun has captured the world's enduring fascination with ancient Egypt and, in particular, the life of this young pharaoh whose death remains a mystery.

When the tomb of Tutankhamun was opened in the Valley of the Kings in 1922 by the British archaeologist Howard Carter, it was at the beginning of the age of mass media. Pictures of the tomb and its extraordinary contents were seen around the world in newspapers and on newsreels.

Yesterday, the delicate task of transferring the mummy of Tutankhamun to a climate-controlled case in the burial chamber in Luxor to ensure it is preserved to be seen and studied by future generations was beamed live around the world to an audience of young and old. It is a testimony to the continuing appeal of the story of the tomb's discovery and the life that preceded it more than 3,300 years ago.

The mummified face of Tutankhamun had previously been seen by only about 50 people, said Dr Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who supervised yesterday's transfer. Now many others will be able to look into the eyes of an ancient king.

The move was necessary for conservation reasons. The tomb of Tutankhamun is the smallest in the Valley of Kings and becomes hot and humid due to the number of visitors. When that humidity dries it forms salt crystals which could damage the remains.

The tomb of Tutankhamun is the only original resting place of a pharaoh to have been discovered more or less intact in the Valley. Indeed, it is among few intact tombs found in Egypt. Inside it were 5,398 artefacts, from the famous gold mask to musical instruments and linen, all of which were to accompany him to the afterlife. Those artefacts were transferred to the Cairo Museum but since the excavation by Carter, the sarcophagus, the coffin and the mummy have remained in the tomb.

Egyptology now is a very broad subject: specialists can spend decades researching verbal forms of a certain period, or beer-making techniques in an ancient city. There are many avenues of research, but Tutankhamun and his tomb remain the story with most enduring popular appeal.

And there are many unanswered questions, not least the way he died so young. The latest theory is that he suffered a bad leg wound and died from complications related to it. That research, based on recent CT scans of the mummy, has not yet been fully published and we must remember we are dealing with something that happened 3,300 years ago. We may never know for certain how Tutankhamun died.

But his remains and the contents of his tomb are an incredibly rich resource for Egyptologists and students of ancient cultures. The method used by Carter and his team to remove the jewellery on the mummy would not be used by modern archaeologists but they also left a detailed record of the tomb and the position of everything inside it, including stunning photographs by Harry Burton. Many items went around the world in the late 1960s and 1970s. Some came to the British Museum in 1972 for the famous "King Tut" exhibition that was seen by 1.7 million people, the biggest exhibition in modern history.

A new Tutankhamun exhibition is opening in London this month. Every new film and documentary about the pharaoh means millions of people learn something of his story every year. Several will go on to become Egyptologists, furthering our understanding of this fascinating ancient culture. For others it is a glimpse of an exotic world of tombs and temples and kings that continues to prove endlessly fascinating.

The writer is curator in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum

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