I celebrated the new year by getting tickets to the King Tutankhamun exhibit during the last days of its stay at the Denver Art Museum. (It closes January 9, 2011).

This canopic coffinette is a miniature of the gold coffin King Tut was buried in. About 15 inches tall, this one held his stomach.

What a way to indulge the senses! As a longtime ancient Egypt lover, I was dazzled, but even more important, I felt the exhibit embodied the artistic spirit of the Nile region 3,300 years ago—and in 1922 when Egyptologist Howard Carter opened the boy pharaoh’s tomb.

Witnessing stunning jewelry, solid-gold sandals, and even gold finger and toe coverings, I got a sense of how much the ancient Egyptians cared about the afterlife of their pharaohs, who were considered human embodiments of the gods.

Each time a pharaoh came into power, he (or she, in a few cases) immediately began building a tomb and commissioning the best Egyptian artists to carve statues, create fine beadwork, paint exquisite frescos and generally make beautiful items that would accompany the pharaoh in the afterlife. The result is a treasure trove of incredibly fine art that has endured for millennia.

This gilded-wood leopard head was worn during a ritual in which a priest magically opens the mummy's eyes, nose, ears and mouth so the owner could use his senses in the afterlife. Photo: Matthew Prefontain

The irony is that Tut took the throne at age 9 and died when he was 19—so he was just a youth who didn’t have time to become politically powerful—or to amass much funerary art.

One can only imagine the riches buried with pharaohs with more longevity and historical clout—yet their tombs have been plundered over the millennia. In fact, it was probably Tutankhamun’s obscurity that protected his tomb.

Fine Art for All Time

Though the King Tut exhibit bears just one famous pharaoh’s name, on display were artifacts from other Egyptian royals, courtiers and even tomb builders.

This collar necklace is a fraction of the jewelry buried with the pharaohs.

I had expected the gold items to be breathtaking, but I was also captivated by the graceful stonework and carving, including statues of Queen Hatshepsut and a sarcophagus of Prince Thutmose’s cat.

(Cats were much revered in ancient Egypt as my own purring feline likes to remind me.)

Suspense in Finding Tut’s Tomb

Also effective was the exhibit’s emphasis on Howard Carter’s experience of discovering and excavating Tut’s tomb in 1922—as it was the archaeological find of the 20th century. Vintage photos of how the tomb appeared when it was opened gave me the feel of how excited Carter’s team was at having found a relatively untouched site. Seeing the glimmer of all that gold must have been incredible.

Archaeologist Howard Carter examines King Tut's mummy in 1922.

Now my desire to visit Egypt’s wonders has intensified—the thought of going to the source of all this wonderful art pulls me there.

If you go to the museum exhibit—and you must—be sure to rent the audio tour, narrated by actor Harrison Ford (because of his film character Indiana Jones).

A canopic stopper found in Tut's tomb.

And if you can’t catch the exhibit in Denver, it travels next to St. Paul, Minn.

Don’t let long lines deter you! After all, if Tut’s tomb went unscathed for 3,300 years, can’t we moderns endure a few spellbound crowds?

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Showing 8 comments
  • Claire Walter

    I went twice — once with my husband plus a friend, an amateur Egyptologist who has been to Egypt 14 times — never on a tour but always with a car and driver and his own knowledge. He provided a running commentary about gods, pharaohs, dynasties, tombs and his own travels. He is getting on in years and is no longer very steady on his feet, so the exhibition provided him with the opportunity to “visit” Egypt once more. The second time at the DAM was with three women friends. I rented the audio tour — informative but impersonal (of course). I spent 10 days in Egypt two years ago, and every exposure I have to this complicated ancient country makes me want to return.

    • Laurel

      How lovely to go to the exhibit with a seasoned Egypt scholar. He probably gave you far more insight into the world of the ancients than any tour!

  • Page Lambert

    Laurel, we haven’t gotten to the exhibit yet, but are hoping to. Thank you for tempting us even further with your post and the photos, of course, bring it all to life (no pun intended). My family and I were in Cairo in 1965 and the experience was intense for a 13-year-old. The world was a much different place 45 years ago!

    • Laurel

      Hurry out as soon as you can. (If you go on a weekday, the price is a few dollars cheaper and the crowds won’t be as intense.

      How exciting to have been in Cairo at age 13. I would have loved it then…and I need to start planning my trip now. Egypt is number one on my to-visit list.

  • Kathy Kaiser

    One of the things that deterred me from seeing this exhibit was the $30 ticket (plus $3.75 from TicketMaster). But your review makes me wish I had seen it. Thanks for giving me a virtual tour.

    • Laurel

      Yes, the price was high–and I especially loathe the TicketMaster fees–but I asked for tickets for Christmas. Plus, because I’m so passionate about ancient Egypt, I just knew I had to go, regardless of price.

  • Beth Partin

    Great review, Laurel. My husband and I went to Tut at Twilight in November, and that was nice because there were no strollers. Where did you get those beautiful photos? Were you able to take them yourself?

  • Laurel

    No, none of the photos are mine. Most are from promotionals for the exhibit. I don’t even think you could take your camera into the exhibit. Once, I leaned down to tie my shoe and a guard gave me the evil eye. Good to know the security is very tight!

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