In 1908, while excavating in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, the American archaeologist Theodore Davis discovered about a dozen large storage jars. Their contents included broken pottery, bags of natron (a mixture of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium sulphate, and sodium chloride that occurs naturally in Egypt), bags of sawdust, floral collars, and pieces of linen with markings from years six and eight during the reign of a then little-known pharaoh named Tutankhamun. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was given six of the vessels and a good part of their contents in 1909.
In time, Herbert Winlock, curator and field director of the Metropolitan's Egyptian excavations and in the 1930s director of the Museum, came to realize that the natron and linen were the embalming refuse from the mummification of Tutankhamun. He also suggested that the animal bones, pottery, and collars might have come from a funeral meal. Winlock's analysis was an important clue that led to Howard Carter's 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb some 110 meters away.
The exhibition features jars, lids, bowls, floral collars, linen sheets, and bandages that were used at the pharaoh's mummification and the rites associated with his burial, as well as related objects such as a sculpted head of the youthful Tutankhamun and several facsimile paintings depicting funerary rituals. Archival photographs from the early twentieth century by Harry Burton, the Museum's expedition photographer, provide an evocative background.
Although few facts are known about the brief life of Tutankhamun (reign ca. 1336–1327 B.C.), scholars studying the funerary cache have been able to reconstruct details of his death and burial. For example, botanical analysis of the well-preserved, more than three-thousand-year-old floral collars indicates that the plants they contain bloom in Egypt between late February and mid-March. Since the complex process of mummification took about seventy days, it is now believed that Tutankhamun probably died in December or January.
Often called the "boy king," Tutankhamun was about nine years old when he ascended the throne of ancient Egypt; he died approximately nine years later, possibly owing to causes that include disease and a broken bone. His death may have been unexpected, so that his own tomb was still unfinished; the rather small tomb in which he was actually buried had been started for another person, not for a king. Eventually, workmen's huts completely hid the entrance to the tomb, and its location was forgotten. The discovery of the storage vessels and the accurate identification of their contents were instrumental in leading Howard Carter to his great discovery.
The exhibition is made possible by the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund.
The catalogue is made possible by The Friends of Isis, Friends of the Department of Egyptian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.