By Lenore Skenazy
On Nov. 26, 1922, Howard Carter took out the little chisel his grandmother had given him on his 17th birthday when he, an English lad, was already obsessed by ancient Egypt. Now pushing 50, a middle-aged archeologist who had seemed promising, then washed up, then possibly promising again, Carter was standing in a hole in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, sweating.
Hoping against hope, he tapped his childhood chisel on the doorway of what looked like it could be a tomb, or at least some kind of repository. Once he made a hole, he poked a candle through.
“Can you see anything?” asked his companion and benefactor, George Herbert.
“Yes,” Carter replied.” Wonderful things.”
And I just saw them, too: The gold and glories—and tchotchkes—of King Tut’s tomb.
At “The Discovery of King Tut,” a midtown exhibit that faithfully recreates exactly what Carter saw when he became the first human in 3,000 years to lay eyes on Tut’s tomb, you wander through room after room of amazing artifacts, with the special excitement of seeing them just the way they were when first discovered.
The room full of “amazing things” that Carter saw looks exactly like the attic of an eccentric aunt. There are beds shaped like animals, wheels leaning against each other like a bunch of ancient bike tires, trunks, stools, vases and—oh yes—a baby throne made out of gold. It is sitting in the back, abandoned as any highchair you’d put in your attic once your child-king outgrew it.
Weirdest of all are the dozens of egg-shaped containers slightly larger than footballs. These held food for the afterlife—the sacred lunch boxes of their day.
As you wind your way through the exhibit, chock-a-block with dazzling golden coffins and surprising hieroglyphics (including a whole wall done in a baboon motif), your audio guide informs you of the fact that Carter had been searching for King Tut’s tomb ever since he learned that the statue of a later pharaoh once actually had another name on it: “Tutankhamun.” The later pharaoh had chiseled Tut’s name off the front and replaced it with his own—missing Tut’s name on the back.
A cup also inscribed with Tut’s name made Carter increasingly certain that history had not accounted for King Tut, and neither had archeologists. But who was Tut? There was no other trace of him. If he had ruled, where was he buried? Why had no one found him yet?
Carter convinced Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, to fund his search, and spent years digging fruitlessly, searching for Tut’s tomb. Carnarvon was about to call it quits when Carter begged him for one more season of funding. Reportedly worried that Carter would find the tomb just when he pulled out, the earl signed another check. (Weirdly enough, you can see how the earl could have afforded this hobby if you watch Public Television: “Downton Abbey” is filmed in his home.)
But back to Egypt: At around the time of this final, funded season, one of Carter’s minions—a boy who brought jars of water to the workers—dug into the sand to make a little hole to hold one of the jars. He always did this, to make them stand upright. But this time, his hand hit a smooth, flat surface.
It was the top of a long-buried staircase.
The rest is ancient history. But the exhibit is so vibrant, this history doesn’t feel that far removed. In an era when ISIS is blowing up monuments because it wants to erase the past, Tut’s successor chiseling his name off of statues seems familiar. And once you learn the soap opera of Tut’s family—his grandfather was a great and beloved ruler, his dad reversed everything the grandpa had done, even changing the country’s religion and capital, then Tut changed all it back—the young king doesn’t seem so unreachable. You see the tiny coffin that contained his stillborn daughter. You learn there were flowers still on his casket when Carter uncovered it.
Then you exit back to the modern kingdom of New York City, dazzling, magnificent, invincible. And you wonder: Who will wander the exhibit about us?
“The Discovery of King Tut” is at 417 Fifth Ave at 38th Street. Mon. – Thurs, 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. www.tutny