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King Tut: Curator Q&A

A Chat with Curator David Silverman about “Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs”

David Silverman—known as the “Ultimate Ancient Egypt Insider”—is the noted Egyptologist from the University of Pennsylvania who also served as a curator during the 1970s Tutankhamun tour.

While in Houston for the opening of Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs at the MFAH in October 2011, he answered questions during a live chat on Facebook and Twitter.

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Q) What piece from the King Tut collection is your favorite, and why?
A) Two answers! First, from the non-Tut pieces: the cube/block statue of Hetep, because it is unique for its time; led to a new form of statuary; and is the closest the Egyptians come to abstract art. Also, the colossal statue of Tut [slideshow image #2], because it is the largest figure we have [over 9 feet tall] and the one with the most color still remaining.

Q) What is the most valuable piece in the exhibition?
A) That depends on what you mean by valuable! They're all priceless. Lots of gold, unique statues, important historical pieces. These works of art are not replaceable.

Q) You’ve been involved with King Tut since the 1970s. What has changed in past few decades?
A) Technologies, first of all. The ability to present info in a variety of different ways. For example: video labels, video text panels and murals, and contexts for each part of the exhibition to help relate the art objects to their original environment. Plus, all of the scientific info made available because of advanced medical technologies. And, oddly, the ticketing systems! Now, instead of waiting in long lines, people can buy online.

Q) What is one thing you wish you knew about King Tut? A piece of the puzzle that hasn’t been solved yet . . .
A) We have come so close to unraveling the genealogy of the king, it would be great now to identify for certain the name of the mummy now named as the father of Tutankhamun.

Q) Tut was so young when his father died. What were their ages at the time?
A) Tut’s father died at about age 40, when Tut was about 7 or 8 years old.

Q) How do historians think Tut died?
A) We rely now on scientific evidence. Information from CT scans, X-rays, and blood studies tells us that it wasn’t murder or foul play. Probably complications coming from the fracture to his left leg that happened shortly before his death at age 19.

Q) King Tut’s original name was Tutankhaten. Even if his father’s legacy was not welcome, why was changing his name so important?
A) His original birth name, Tutankhaten, refers to the Aten, the disk of the sun, which was the focus of his father’s revolutionary religion. Once the decision had been made to return to the traditional religion of many gods, the focus on the chief god Amon was reestablished; so, the young king adjusted his birth name to reflect his devotion to this god and changed his name to Tutankhamon. This action is the reverse of that of his father: He had changed his original birth name from Amen-hotep to Akhen-aten.

Q) Why no mask in this presentation? Can the mask not leave Egypt anymore?
A) After the last Tut exhibition ended its course in the early 1980s of the last century, it was decided that the gold mask—an iconic piece—would not travel again.

Q) Thank you for bringing a piece of my home in Egypt to my other home here in Houston. What is the most unique item in the exhibition?
A) Many artifacts in the exhibition have unique properties. For example, the majority of them are unique in that they have not traveled to the United States before, and all of the Tut pieces are unique in that they were part of the largest amount of royal burial equipment ever found. Of that material, the Shabti figure is one of the largest ever found.

Tut’s golden sandals [slideshow image #3 above] are unparalleled. Tut’s chair is the smallest royal throne ever found; his bed was the only type used for royalty ever found. The figure of the god Sened is the only one found in the New Kingdom. In regard to the other artifacts, the statue of Hetep is unique for the reasons given in the next answer, and the same for the colossal figure of Tut [image #2]. The sarcophagus for a royal cat is unparalleled. The terra-cotta head of Amenhotep III is the only one of that type ever discovered.

Q) Why do you think that King Tut’s tomb has been the only one discovered whose artifacts had not been plundered like the rest?
A) First, his tomb was not the only tomb discovered with many of its items almost intact. Several tombs at Tanis in the Delta belonging to rulers of the 21st to 22nd Dynasty were also found in almost pristine condition. They, however, were from a later period, not in the Valley of the Kings, and contained fewer objects.

Tut’s tomb probably survived due to several factors: It was not the one originally meant for his burial; it was located in an area not generally used for pharaohs of his time period; his name (and those of his father and successor) were removed from the later king lists (so memory of them would cease to exist); and over time, natural occurrences such as torrential rainstorms, mudslides, and later building of workmen’s huts over the tomb obscured the location.

Q) With all the unrest in Egypt, how can the Tut collection be secure there? It would be a shame for all the artifacts to be lost forever to vandals or black market.
A) Good question! At this point the security police are in good control of all the museums in Egypt.

Q) I know that Zahi Hawass [author of the exhibition catalogue] is very protective of the ancient Egyptian artifacts and is their protector. How does he feel about these wonderful artifacts touring outside Egypt?
As the exhibition has traveled throughout its course, every care has been taken (and continues to be taken) to ensure that the artifacts receive the best treatment to preserve them. All of the Egyptian people feel that these artifacts and all of those from ancient Egypt are part of the legacy of the ancient Egyptians to the world.

Q) Thank you for bringing the King Tut exhibition to Houston. Were there pieces that you just didn’t have room for? How did you decide what pieces to use?
A) Every curator would like to exhibit as much as possible! Space is one of the limiting factors; ease of transport is another; condition of the piece is another; and its relevance to the other artifacts counts as well. The amount of space we have at each of the institutions determines how much we can exhibit; the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities makes decisions on what can travel; and the artifacts need to conform to the story line of the exhibition.

Q) How do you feel about King Tut’s role as a pop-culture phenomenon? Can you believe the Steve Martin song from the 1970s is still so well known? He even did a new bluegrass version last year!
A) I can believe it, because ancient Egypt itself is a pop-culture phenomenon. Witness the original Mummy movie in 1932—only a decade after the discovery of Tut’s tomb—and the many sequels that have followed, into the 21st century.

Q) What about the legendary Curse of King Tut?
A) Real curses did exist, but the King Tut curse is indeed the stuff of legend. In reality, the curse was made up—primarily to sell newspapers!


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