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Tut-Tut-Tut

Treasures of Tutankhamun

with commentary by I.E.S. Edwards, photographs by Lee Boltin
Ballantine, 176, 175 illustrations pp., $8.95 (paper)

Tutankhamun: His Tomb and His Treasures

by I.E.S. Edwards
Knopf, 256, 203 illustrations pp., $35.00

The Gold of Tutankhamun

by Arnold C. Brackman, by Kamal El Mallakh, with a preface by William Kelly Simpson
Newsweek Books, 16, black and white illustrations pp., $60.00

Egyptian Treasures from the Collections of the Brooklyn Museum

with commentaries by Robert S. Bianchi, photographs by Seth Jowel
Abrams, 64 pp., $10.95 (paper)

An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary

by E.A. Wallis Budge
Dover (reprint of London 1920 edition), 2 vols pp., $20.00 (paper)

Egypt Observed

by Henri Gougand, by Colette Gouvion
Oxford University Press, 130, 128 photographs, 64 in full color pp., $19.95

Ramesses the Great, Master of the World

by William MacQuitty, foreword by T.G.H. James
Crown, 64 pp., $4.95 (paper)

Tutankhamun: The Untold Story

by Thomas Hoving
Simon and Schuster, 384 pp., $12.95

The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen

by Howard Carter, by A.C. Mace
Dover (reprint of 1923 edition), 382 pp., $4.00 (paper)

The Ancient Egyptians: A Sourcebook of Their Writings

by Adolf Erman
Peter Smith, 381 pp., $10.00

The Wisdom of the Ancient Egyptians

by William MacQuitty
New Directions, 85 pp., $3.25 (paper)

Ancient Egypt: A Cultural Topography

by Hermann Kees
University of Chicago Press (Phoenix Books), 392, 25 illustrations pp., $6.95 (paper)

Egyptian Religion: Egyptian Ideas of the Future Life

by E.A. Wallis Budge
Routledge & Kegan Paul (reprint of London 1899 edition), 216 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Egyptian Magic

by E. A. Wallis Budge
Dover, 234 pp., $3.00 (paper)

The Egyptian Gods: A Handbook

by Alan W. Shorter
Routledge & Kegan Paul (reprint of London 1937 edition), 156 pp., $10.00

Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphs

by Barbara Mertz
Dodd, Mead (revised edition), 335 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Red Land, Black Land: Daily Life in Ancient Egypt

by Barbara Mertz
Dodd, Mead (revised edition), 385 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Ancient Egypt

by Warner Hutchinson
Grosset and Dunlap, 116 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid

by Piazzi Smyth
Multimedia (reprint of London 1890 edition), 628, 24 illustrations pp., $15.00 (paper)

Serpent in the Sky: The High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt

by John Anthony West
Harper & Row, 253 pp., $18.95

The First Practical Pyramid Book

by Norman Stark
Andrews and McMeel, 167 pp., $5.95 (paper)

The Shrines of Tut-Ankh-Amon

translated by Alexandre Piankoff, edited by N. Rambova
Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series No. XL:2, 176, 64 plates pp., $5.95 (paper)

The Egypt Story: Its Art, Its Monuments, Its People, Its History

with text by P.H. Newby, photographs by Fred J. Maroon
Abbeville Press, 264, 200 color illustrations pp., $39.95

I

By the time the Tutankhamun exhibition closes in San Francisco, it will have been seen by more than eight million people, almost all of whom had to apply for reserved tickets: the potential audience was probably twice as large again. Museum directors and their PR men have in the past decade become experts at what one critic nicely terms “the techniques of hype and hoopla,” the hard sell of cultural packages, from the Chinese show of 1973 to this year’s “Pompeii AD ‘79”: not surprisingly, since the windfalls that such happenings generate can be immense, and the “Tut craze” is the biggest money-maker of the lot. The New Orleans Museum of Art, for instance, let it be known that “a minimum of $69.4 million was pumped into the New Orleans economy” in no more than four months, as a direct result of the Tutankhamun exhibition being on view there.1

In The New Yorker‘s “Talk of the Town” column for December 25, 1978, there was an interview with Tutankhamun himself (“We found the boy king in the pale pink sitting room of his suite, wearing a Turnbull and Asser djellabah and sipping Perrier”), in which he was asked if his spectacle had a theme, and replied with commendable bluntness: “Yes, it’s about gold, man. Heavy metal.” So it is, and in more ways than one. When Robert Hughes characterized the art world in these pages as “the last refuge for nineteenth-century laissez-faire capitalism” he was not indulging in idle hyperbole. The Egyptian government alone anticipates making about $7 million out of Tut’s peregrinations in the US and Canada, all earmarked (despite some rumors to the contrary) for revamping the display facilities of the Cairo Museum.

Yet Ahmed Abushadi, press counselor to the Egyptian Embassy, has described the sum as “peanuts,” and is on record2 as saying: “We didn’t bring the show here for the money, or we’d have demanded a fair share of the millions made by cities around the country on it.” It is interesting, too, that a large amount of the cash-flow comes from what has been labeled “Tutsploitation” or the “Tut glut”: Tut beer mugs, T-shirts, tote-bags, stationery, posters, paper dolls, whiskey decanters, and, at a slightly more pretentious level, the replicas of Egyptian artifacts marketed, as an exclusive monopoly, by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These range from simple ankh pendants or crook-and-flail pins to a gold-surfaced copy of the exquisite statuette of the goddess Selket, going for $1,850, and unkindly described by Franz Schulze (above, note 1) as “neo-sleazo.” One can argue that museums are putting too much of their efforts into department store salesmanship, but the trend strikes me as comparatively harmless, having the advantage of bringing some attractive historical designs within reach of almost anyone who can appreciate them. No one is forced to buy the other items.

A far more intriguing question is just why a collection of grave goods from the tomb of a minor, and in his own day little esteemed, New Kingdom pharaoh (c. 1343-1325 BC: dates disputed) should have “managed to agitate almost the entire surface of American culture.” 3 Not all the hoopla, obviously, can be put down to clever promotion. You need an intrinsically magnetic commodity to market in the first place. Aside from the stunning artistic quality of the Tutankhamun material perhaps an even more potent factor is the prodigal use of what has always been the rare, royal, and ornamental metal par excellence, lustrous, indestructible, untarnishing, infinitely malleable and ductile, its smooth, soft, almost liquid yellow sheen a never-failing visual and tactile attraction.4

It is no accident, then, that the exhibition catalogue, Treasures of Tutankhamun (1976), the Met’s more elaborate survey, Tutankhamun: His Tomb and His Treasures (1976), and two publications sponsored by Newsweek, Treasures of the Egyptian Museum (1969) and The Gold of Tutankhamun (1978)—the latter one of the most sumptuous, well-researched, and exquisitely produced art books to have come my way in years—all blazon the young king’s famous gold-and-lapis mask over their dust jackets, or that they give pride of place, in full seductive color, to the other golden artifacts that cluttered his burial chamber in more-than-royal abundance: statuettes, shrine-panels, daggers, sandals, and, above all, coffin cases, one—the innermost of Tutankhamun’s three—weighing no less than 2,448 pounds of pure beaten 22-carat gold. Two of these volumes even have golden endpapers.

Their cumulative impact is undeniable. The contents of the Shaft Graves at Mycenae—gold masks and daggers there, too—look like provincial Edelkitsch by comparison. An art book such as Egyptian Treasures from the Collections of the Brooklyn Museum (1978), which has only one gold piece to offer—an exquisite fly necklace—and a limited range of other material, some of the highest quality, has, in a sense, been subsidized by the Tutankhamun treasure-trove. So has Robin Cook’s new novel Sphinx, complete with antiquities-smuggling, murder, a sexy female Harvard Egyptologist, and a putative Mummy’s Curse. Among more sensational finds, the Valley of the Kings has also given the world a barrel of romantic clichés, and Mr. Cook has just about scraped its bottom.

The effect is all the more arresting when we reflect that Tutankhamun died young, and that by royal Egyptian standards his burial was (it seems safe to say) a cut-rate and makeshift affair: he had had little time to accumulate heavenly treasure. If his tomb yielded such wealth, what must have gone into those, say, of Chefren, or Amenhotep III, or Rameses II, the victor of Kadesh (1300 BC), the grandiose builder of Karnak and Abu Simbel?5 The depredations of tomb robbers, mostly ancient, who made an almost clean sweep of the royal burials at Thebes, ensure that such a question must remain forever rhetorical (though from tomb paintings and documents we can glimpse something of that lost splendor). There is a nice eschatological paradox here, since the more visibly magnificent preparations an Egyptian made to ensure his own ultimate survival, the more liable he was to have his mummy destroyed—and with it, his chance of life hereafter—by ruthless thieves in pursuit of fabulously rich pickings.

A convicted tomb robber was impaled through the anus; but the long catalogue of rifled burial chambers makes it clear that many felt the enormous rewards more than justified the risk (which was, in any case, much reduced by the systematic bribery and collusion of court officials). Indeed, it is by pure luck that Tutankhamun’s own tomb survived intact. At least two near-successful attempts were made to rifle it soon after the boy-king’s death: the thieves penetrated the antechamber but missed the inner sanctum. Then Rameses VI (d. 1134 BC), excavating his own tomb slightly above and to one side of Tutankhamun’s, blocked the entrance to the latter with rubble, leaving it hidden—and forgotten—for three millennia. The sheer antiquity of this funereal treasure-trove, the dazzling glimpse that its priceless wealth and artistry offered into a lost world of wholly alien power and privilege, and—by no means least—the archaeological drama associated with its recovery from the silent earth: all these factors combined to ensure a powerful, and continuing, public fascination, not only with the relatively minor figure of Tutankhamun, but with the whole enigmatic, yet extraordinarily well-documented, civilization to which he belonged.

II

Even a cursory acquaintance with the diffuse modern literature on ancient Egypt makes it clear that the so-called “Tut craze” is part of a far wider, and older, phenomenon than mere goldmania or archaeological romanticism, let alone a well-publicized traveling exhibition. Each, of course, has its place in the overall picture: it is symptomatic of that persistent process of exploitation that began with the tomb robbers of the Twentieth Dynasty and has continued almost to our own day, a colorful saga of amateur eccentrics, quirky obsessional scholars, and con men. Sometimes, indeed, we find all three qualities united in the same person—Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1822), the Italian strong man turned collector, is a case in point.6 It was Napoleon’s savants who opened the way for the first scientific Egyptologists, men like Champollion and Mariette, but at the same time they made ancient Egypt fashionable, with horrendous results. What has been well described as “a surge of nationalistic lust for the precious and exotic” (Fagan, p. 361) led to an orgy of looting, a series of treasure hunts thinly disguised as “scientific investigation,” and carried out under the aegis of gunboat diplomacy. Private purchase became a well-organized and corrupt racket, surreptitious excavations and smuggling abroad of important finds were a commonplace. Museums, too, carried on a brisk under-the-counter traffic in stolen antiquities, justifying themselves with the familiar argument that at least they were rescuing priceless material from oblivion.

The excavation of Tutankhamun’s burial in 1922 by Howard Carter becomes more comprehensible when viewed against this louche background: it is entirely appropriate that the latest, and liveliest, account of it—stressing the shady private maneuvers as well as the public success story—should be by none other than Thomas Hoving, ex-director of the Metropolitan Museum, begetter of the Tut exhibition, master publicist, and (as several reviewers have pointed out), an entrepreneur whose own personality strikingly resembles that of his scheming hero Carter (if “hero” is the right word here).

Hoving reveals, inter alia, that Carter and his patron Lord Carnarvon privately, and illegally, “cased” the inner chamber before bringing in any official representatives of the Egyptian Antiquities Service; that they were, to say the least, high-handed in their disposal of artifacts (what may be described as “The Affair of the Lotus Head in the Fortnum and Mason Wine Case” is instructive here); and that they had, for some time, been involved in the clandestine sale of Egyptian antiquities to American museums. The minor inaccuracies scattered through Hoving’s text are irksome, but do not invalidate his main point: that such behavior was commonplace rather than anomalous. In obeying, all too literally, the Biblical injunction to spoil the Egyptians, Carter and Carnarvon were simply doing what all their predecessors had taken for granted; indeed, they were far more scrupulous than most. It is sad, but perhaps not surprising, that Carter, a maverick who never learned the art of compromise, was denied in his lifetime the academic recognition he so richly deserved; another minor scandal to add to the rest.7

Archaeological curiosity, then, laced with a dash of romance and scandal, and floated on the Tut revival, may partly—but by no means entirely—account for the current Egyptological craze, and consequent publishing boom. Publishers Weekly recently estimated a total of almost fifty Tut-related titles in print, and—to judge from a personal sampling—I would guess the overall tally to be far larger, much of it, significantly, in paperback. You can find titles (often reprints of works fifty and more years old) on Egyptian temples, archaeology, medicine, civilization, history, daily life, art, chronology, hieroglyphics (and language generally), literature, religion, and magic; a lot of this material is both arcane and technical, including facsimile reproductions that look marvelous and cost the earth. Who buys these books, and why?

  1. 1

    Cf. Franz Schulze, “On Blockbusters,” Art in America 67:2 (1979), p. 101; Carter Ratcliff, “Tut, Exxon and Anita Loos,” ibid., p. 94.

  2. 2

    See Grace Glueck, “Where Tut Money Is Going,” The New York Times, March 23, 1979.

  3. 3

    Ratcliff (above, note 1), p. 96.

  4. 4

    Cf. the percipient analysis by C.H.V. Sutherland, Gold: Its Beauty, Power and Allure (3rd rev. ed., London, Thames and Hudson, 1969), esp. pp. 20 ff. See also, for a comparable mood of controlled romanticism, the recent full-page advertisements placed in Time and Newsweek (in particular that of July 9, 1979) by the Gold Information Center.

  5. 5

    For a popular treatment of Rameses II see now William MacQuitty, Ramesses the Great, Master of the World (Crown Publishers, 1978). As T.G.H. James points out in his foreword, this pharaoh was no slouch at self-promotion, and did a PR job on his own much-puffed achievements that is producing results to this day.

  6. 6

    See the admirable, and aptly titled, monograph by Brian M. Fagan, The Rape of the Nile: Tomb Robbers, Tourists, and Archaeologists in Egypt (Scribner’s, 1975), for a vivid account of this process down the ages. Mr. Fagan’s well-documented sketch of Belzoni is particularly revealing.

  7. 7

    Thomas Hoving, Tutankhamun: The Untold Story (Simon and Schuster, 1978). Cf. the contrasting reviews by T.G.H. James, The New York Times Book Review, November 12, 1978, pp. 48, 52 (“the revelations, even if all true, are not as scandalous as they are made out to be”), and Karl E. Meyer, The New Republic, January 6, 1979, pp. 36-38, together with Meyer’s own exposé of the antiquities racket in The Plundered Past (Atheneum, 1973). It is fascinating, in the light of this new material, to reread that gripping report The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen, by Carter himself and A.C. Mace (repr. Dover Books, 1977, with a good new introduction by Jon Manchip White): rather like having a second shot at Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd after being alerted to the narrator’s significant omissions.

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