British archaeologist Howard Carter spent a decade-plus in the early 1900s fruitlessly sifting through the sands of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings for his patron, Lord Carnarvon. But after 15 years of unsuccessful toil, Carter finally struck gold in 1922: He found steps going down into the desert floor that would reveal a buried tomb, doors still sealed shut.
After its entrance was pried open, Carter held a candle into the darkness and gasped. When Lord Carnarvon asked if he could see anything, Carter famously replied “Yes, yes, wonderful things,” Toby Wilkinson writes in “Tutankhamun’s Trumpet: Ancient Egypt in 100 Objects From The Boy King’s Tomb” (Picador).
Eventually found to house the mummified remains of an Egyptian pharaoh named Tutankhamun, the discovery would ultimately be hailed as the “greatest archaeological discovery of all time,” Wilkinson writes. Nearly 5,400 cultural, political, religious, and historical objects were found inside. Combined, they depicted what life was like in the Nile Valley during King Tut’s reign more than 3,000 years ago.
Here are some of the most interesting items they found:
The Little Golden Shrine: A wooden shrine built atop a silver base, the piece is overlaid with gold foil and depicts 18 scenes of domestic bliss between King Tut and his young wife, Ankhesenamun. One of the most intimate shows Tut hunting while Ankhesenamun lounges on a river bank, with the queen handing the king an arrow. It shows the “black plain” of the Nile Valley rich with fish and wildlife, but the piece has a deeper meaning because “shoot” and “inseminate” are the same word in Egyptian and the arrow represents a phallus. The scene is thus a kind of ancient African porn, “a metaphor for sexual intercourse and procreation,” according to Wilkinson.
Six Golden Chariots: The horse-drawn chariot was invented by Indo-Aryans in Central Asia, but the Egyptians knew a good idea when they saw it. Egypt’s military adopted the chariot as a fighting vehicle and mastered them, using those foreign-born instruments to further the country’s regional dominance. Six such vehicles were found in Tut’s tomb, with D-shaped cabs whose leather floors helped absorb shocks and yokes to attach to 2 horses. Wilkinson writes that “the image of the pharaoh in his chariot became the quintessential icon of royal power,” which was ironic in Tut’s case as a 20th century autopsy indicated his death may have partly resulted from injuries suffered in a violent chariot crash.
The Canopic Chest: Many of the items in Tut’s tomb imply a lovely Egyptian life of decorative clothes and jewelry, delicious food and drink, elaborate toys and games — but the Canopic Chest reminds that the tomb is a graveyard, too. The chest entails four miniature coffins of gold placed in a solid block of calcite, each containing a body part of the deceased pharaoh. In one was his liver, another his lungs; in the third was his stomach and the fourth his intestines, all embalmed to stave off “putrefaction” so Tut could continue to use the organs as needed in the afterlife.
Daggers Made of Iron and Gold: While most of the booty found in King Tut’s tomb were spread over 4 large rooms, some were so invaluable they were placed preciously near to the pharoah’s body. Those artifacts included two daggers placed on his person: A gold one was tucked inside the linen wrappings of the mummified Tut’s waist and signified the pharaoh’s great wealth; an iron one was hidden in the wrappings of Tut’s right thigh and represented his reach, as iron was a “great rarity” in Egypt and thus the “ultimate status symbol,” Wilkinson writes. Only the rich had gold in Egypt and the powerful iron, with the pharaoh Tut possessing both.
Pectoral with Green Glass: Tut’s tomb was filled with jewelry made of gold and precious stones, including myriad rings, bracelets, necklaces, pendants, and pectorals (worn on the chest). One was a pectoral designed like a scarab beetle, its center a single green stone originally thought to be semi-precious chalcedony. Further investigation indicated the stone was likely a bit of green glass found among 100 meter high dunes in the remote and inaccessible Great Sand Sea. It’s rather a mystery where that green glass came from – pieces as small as marbles and as big as boulders — but the existence of the nearby Kebira Crater implies the glass might’ve been of otherworldly origin: a meteorite impact turning sand into stone.
The Coffin Texts: Included in Tut’s tomb was the Book of the Dead, including the “Negative Confession” from Chapter 125. Egyptians believed in order to gain entry into the afterlife, the deceased had to declare — twice! — before Osiris and a godly tribunal that he or she had not committed various sins, including “I have not killed,” “I have not impoverished my fellows,” “I have not taken milk from the mouths of children” and “I have not committed buggery.”
Footrest with Enemies: During his reign, King Tut had political enemies within Egypt who wanted to usurp his power and foreign enemies who wanted to invade. To prove his disdain for anyone challenging his authority, Tutunkhaman had a footrest made. Egypt’s oldest enemy was the Nubians, who they called the “bowmen,” and next to one of the spectacular thrones in Tut’s tomb was a footrest of the “Nine Bows,” meant to refer to all of Egypt’s enemies. “By resting his feet on an image of the Nine Bows, the king might symbolically trample his enemies every time he sat down,” Wilkinson writes.
Mummified Remains of Stillborn Daughters: Tutankhamun’s tomb means to imply he was an almost god-like ruler of unmatched strength and power, but numerous clues suggest otherwise. A small wooden coffin, with 2 smaller coffins inside, held the bodies of Tut’s 2 stillborn daughters, neither whom lived outside the womb. Their deaths would be the end of Tut’s lineage, as he died at only 19 before producing an heir. Tut was no god, in other words. Modern scientific study of Tut’s mummy show that he had an overbite and crooked teeth, a cleft palate and elongated skull, not to mention scoliosis, a withered leg, and a club foot. Scientists suggest that the long-term tendency of Egyptian royals to marry their siblings was — not surprisingly — in nobody’s best interest.