Wondering like an Egyptian

2 Nov

Fascinating pendant from King Tut's tomb from the Egypt Archive via Wikimedia Commons

Just over a week ago, I finally fulfilled my inner 9-year-old’s wish: to see artifacts from King Tutankhamen’s tomb. In this case, it was a relatively short journey, to Times Square rather than Egypt. One of these days, I’ll actually see the pyramids and the Sphinx.

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs Hairston, introduced me to both science and the wonders of King Tut. After learning about ancient Egypt in class, I came home and dug through my parents’ back issues of National Geographic that included the layered cellophane images of nested sarcophagi all the way down to Tut’s shriveled mummy.

I was too young to see Tut when he last came to the United States, so I decided to visit while the artifacts were in my backyard, at the Discovery Times Square Exposition. I’m guessing that the 1970s show was a bit less commercialized. The kicker for me came in the amusement park style photos taken as we arrived that we could buy for a cool $20 at the end complete with digital Egyptian backgrounds– so tacky that they crossed the barrier to amusing. And, yes, it’s overpriced.

But the artifacts are still stunning– the artistic detail, the materials. And I was struck by some of the old photographs of the tomb when Howard Carter opened it: these priceless items were piled up like old furniture and knickknacks in a storage unit. And the exhibit space has done a 21st century upgrade of my old National Geographic magazine, using light and projection and space to show how the nested sarcophagi fit together, even without the coffins themselves.

Considering the wealth of history and culture in Ancient Egypt, the attention lavished on the decade of Tutankhamen is out of balance with the thousands of years of Egyptian history. And I live in a city with two wonderful Egyptian collections: the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. But the Tutankhamen artifacts hold a kind of magic: they inspire wonder, curiosity, and creativity. Partly, they carry the illusion of being shiny, new and untouched despite their age. I walked out a little awe-struck.

As my husband noted as we left, “we’d know a lot less about the Ancient Egyptians if they’d believed in cremation.” The 9-year-old me is glad they didn’t.

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2 Responses to “Wondering like an Egyptian”

  1. Mark Fuerst November 8, 2010 at 10:33 am #

    Mrs. Hairston should be congratulated for her inspiration and motivation in the making of such a good science writer.

    I long have used the Brooklyn Museum’s Egyptian collection to get my kids to visit. We always went to view the mummy before we’d go anywhere else in the museum. My 17-year-old son Ben visited the museum yesterday with a classmate for a school video project and, sure enough, the first place he went was the mummy! So the tradition continues.
    Mark Fuerst

    • webbofscience November 8, 2010 at 11:22 am #

      Thanks, Mark. Mrs. Hairston was a treasure. Sadly, she passed away several years ago. But we had reconnected in my adult life, which was a wonderful gift.

      I’m glad the mummies have a special place in your family, too.

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