Review – Tutankhamun: treasures of the golden pharaoh

5 mins read

Almost a century after the discovery of arguably the most-famous pharaoh’s tomb, some of Tutankhamun’s grave goods are on display in London. Lucia Marchini visited to find out more.

An alabaster chalice shaped like an open lotus blossom
This beautiful alabaster chalice (called the ‘wishing cup’ by Howard Carter) was found in the entrance to the antechamber of the tomb of Tutankhamun. Shaped like an open lotus blossom, its two handles take the form of lotus flowers with kneeling figures that, according to Carter, symbolise eternity. [Image: Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo, Italy]

‘May your spirit live, may you spend millions of years, you who love Thebes, sitting with your face to the north wind, your eyes beholding happiness.’

These words inscribed on the west London gravestone of Egyptologist Howard Carter are taken from one of the first objects found in 1922 by Carter’s team in the tomb of Tutankhamun (c.1342-1326 BC) in the Valley of the Kings. The exquisite alabaster chalice, shaped like an opened lotus blossom, carries the names (the praenomen and nomen) of the boy king on one side, and, around its rim, the wish for the spirit or ka’s long life – a desire that earned the object the name of ‘wishing cup’.

Tutankhamun's canopic coffinette
Tutankhamun’s embalmed liver was placed in this small, detailed canopic coffinette, dedicated to Imseti and Isis [Image: Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo, Italy]

This wish is one that preoccupied ancient Egyptians, and the extensive preparations made for Tutankhamun’s ka to pass through the Netherworld and enjoy a long life can be seen in the dazzling objects that are currently on display at London’s Saatchi Gallery as part of the exhibition Tutankhamun: treasures of the golden pharaoh. The 18th Dynasty king’s body was mummified to preserve it, and was generously laden with amulets and richly embellished bands with protective spells in hieroglyphs. His internal organs were removed, embalmed, and stored in four small, detailed canopic coffinettes, which were placed in individual compartments of a calcite chest, each sealed with beautiful stoppers sculpted with a kingly visage.

The Opening of the Mouth and Eyes ritual was carried out on the mummy or coffin so that Tutankhamun’s spirit could eat, drink, breathe, speak, and see. Objects used for the ritual and vessels containing liquids offered to the gods in the ceremony were all found in the tomb. Once the mouth had been opened, the ka could live off the bounty of food and drink that was placed in the tomb. Painted wooden boxes contained different cuts of meat – although sometimes their contents were not what was indicated on the label.

Spells from the Book of the Dead are dotted around the exhibition, adding to visitors’ understanding of the significance of these objects and the preparations made to enable the spirit to live on. The gods played their part and these divine beings are represented in a range of exquisitely crafted gilded wooden figures, some with features outlined in black resin and obsidian eyes. Ptah, who created the universe and all the other gods, plays a critical role in the Opening of the Mouth ceremony; in one gilded wooden statue he is depicted wearing a glass skullcap in a beautiful cobalt-blue, the colour of eternity, and holding a sceptre marked with the hieroglyphs ankh (life), djed (stability), and was (sovereignty).

A wooden shabti with an ebony wig, bronze uraeus, and gold collar
This wooden shabti wears an ebony wig made up of rolls of tight short curls (a style popular during the 18th Dynasty), a bronze uraeus (the cobra that symbolises royalty and divinity), and a gold collar. It is one of 413 found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. [Image: L Marchini]

Other figures from Tutankhamun’s tomb are a varied spectrum of shabtis, carved from a range of materials including wood, quartzite, calcite, limestone, granite, and coloured faience. The pharaoh was buried with 413 of these shabtis, an army of labourers that would ensure he never had to work and all his needs would be met in the afterlife: 365 small workers (one for every day of the year), 36 larger overseers (roughly one for every ten-day week), and 12 foremen (one for each month). These shabtis wear different types of crowns and wigs, and are equipped with a total of 1,866 miniature tools, among them hoes, picks, yokes, and baskets.


Tutankhamun is depicted engaging in various activities in objects throughout the exhibition. One gilded wooden figure shows him standing on a skiff throwing a harpoon. His unseen target, a powerful hippopotamus representing the evil god Seth, was considered too dangerous to be depicted, as it was believed that images and words would come to life in the afterlife. The pharaoh, wearing the tall crown of Upper Egypt, is also seen standing on something rather different: the back of a walking black panther. The panther is linked to Mafdet, a goddess who protected the sun through its journey at night, and performed the same function for the king, himself assimilated with the sun god Ra, carrying him through the darkness of the Netherworld.

A gilded wooden figure showing Tutankhamun on a skiff, poised ready to strike with his harpoon
This gilded wooden figure shows Tutankhamun on a skiff, poised ready to strike his prey with a harpoon. The dangerous hippopotamus, representing Seth, was not depicted as it was believed it would come alive in the afterlife. [Image: Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo, Italy]

Many of the objects have left Egypt for the first time for this touring exhibition (all handily marked with an asterisk on the corresponding object label) and will return to their new home, the Grand Egyptian Museum, in Giza, which is expected to open in 2020. The quality of the craftsmanship and the state of preservation are outstanding. There is a remarkable range of objects on view – intricate calcite vases, painted wooden models of boats (35 of which were found in the tomb, all facing west towards the setting sun), ornate gilded compound bows and a bow case, a pair of tapestry gloves, carefully carved staffs and walking sticks (Tutankhamun, who had a club foot, was buried with 130 of these), and more.

It is easy to see why these discoveries gripped the world in the 1920s, earning Howard Carter the fame that ensured his spirit has lived on. For Tutankhamun himself, his journey to an endless afterlife was not quite so simple. Part of a colossal quartzite statue, originally over 5m tall, towers over you at the end of the exhibition. It is one of a pair found at a mortuary temple on the West Bank of Luxor initially built by Ay (Tutankhamun’s successor) and completed by his own successor Horemheb. While the back pillar and the belt buckle carry the name of Horemheb inscribed over the name of Ay, the face closely resembles that of Tutankhamun seen in the many representations of the pharaoh from his tomb.

During the reign of Horemheb, inscriptions naming Tutankhamun were erased and his statues defaced. His name was omitted from official king-lists in the 19th Dynasty. But despite these attempts to remove his name from history and the following millennia of anonymity, thanks to Howard Carter and his team, Tutankhamun’s fame now far surpasses that of Horemheb, and it is the boy king’s name that lives on. Not bad work for an archaeologist of whom Sir Flinders Petrie (for whom Carter had worked as a draughtsman) had said in 1892, ‘It is of no use to me to work him up as an excavator.’

Further information
Tutankhamun: treasures of the golden pharaoh runs at the Saatchi Gallery, London, until Sunday 3 May 2020. Tickets cost from £24.50 (off-peak) and from £28.50 (peak) for adults plus booking fees (concessions are available). Visit for tickets and more details.

This review appeared in CA 358. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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