A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Met curator Dorothea Arnold takes a fresh look at the leftover materials from Tutankhamun's mummification.
More than a century ago, a rather unspectacular discovery was made in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. Excavations funded by American lawyer Theodore Davis uncovered a cache of large ceramic jars filled with ratty scraps of mummy wrappings, linen bags with embalming material seeping out the seams, and collars of dried flowers. Some 14 years later, in 1922, Howard Carter, who had been on Davis's earlier expeditions, used this cache to help locate the tomb of a pharaoh—today known simply as King Tut—that lay some 110 meters away. The cache, which consists of the leftover materials from Tutankhamun's mummification, provides rare insight into the days leading up to the young pharaoh's burial. (The recently discovered KV 63 is another embalming cache from about the same time as Tut.)
In the collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art since 1909, these items are now the subject of an exhibition, "Tutankhamun's Funeral," on view through September 6. Dorothea Arnold, curator in charge of the museum's Department of Egyptian Art, spoke with ARCHAEOLOGY's Eti Bonn-Muller about Davis's discovery and the light it sheds on the ancient world's most well-known burial. (See our review of the exhibition, "The Funeral of Tutankhamun," with additional images of the finds.)
Who was amateur archaeologist Theodore Davis?
Theodore Davis was a New York lawyer who went into retirement and apparently decided that archaeology was for him, so he spent his time and money in the Valley of the Kings. He had a concession there and he employed, sensibly, young archaeologists for this work. Howard Carter, for instance, worked for him for a while. Carter was, at the same time, an official government inspector of the area. So he did some of the digging. And then there were others like the photographer Harry Burton who worked for Davis for a while. It was quite an assembly of people. And the outcome was not only finds, important finds, but also a series of very beautiful books, which we use still today. This find [the embalming cache] he gave to the Metropolitan Museum almost immediately. He's one of our great donors. These objects were excavated in the winter of 1907/08. He had a "good nose [hand]" as we say. You also have to have luck as an excavator—and he certainly had it.
Can you tell me more about this discovery?
This particular discovery was, for him, not very important. Actually, he was pretty disappointed. There was a shaft or little square pit and they found it full of big jars, which they transported back to their dig house. As Herbert E. Winlock describes in his famous text, which we have reissued in the book that accompanies the exhibition, they opened the jars up and they thought they would find something very important. But it was "only," as they thought, bits and pieces of linen, these natron bags, and some pottery. And so he thought, rubbish! At that time, this museum was still starting its collection. So it was very eager to get whatever it could. And, of course, J. Pierpont Morgan was the president here and so he must also have asked if the museum would have this find. And apparently Davis said, "Take it." At that time, the head of the Antiquities Authority was also involved and gave its permission. Egypt did not keep any of these items because, again, they weren't considered important enough.
So these things came here and nobody really knew what they were until Winlock, our great excavator, found in his excavations on the eastern side of the mountain in the Valley of the Kings, many instances where people had buried the remains of mummification beside tombs, near the entrance. So one day, we don't know quite exactly when, Winlock suddenly thought, well, that's what this is. And actually, he must already have informed Howard Carter at that time about his new understanding of the Davis find, because, as Carter writes in his volume of the publication of the Tutankhamun tomb, this was one of the leads he had for looking in that specific area for the tomb. So the find made by Davis had its importance in that respect. Of course, more generally speaking, it has the importance of showing us what went on at a funeral in ancient Egypt, which wasn't just laying out the body, but a long ritual process.
From these finds, what do we know specifically about Tutankhamun's funeral as opposed to Egyptian funerals in general?
Our knowledge is predominantly general because most that we know is based on representations in non-royal tombs. But in Tutankhamun's own burial chamber, there are some representations that fit so well to what we know about the non-royal funerals that we can sort of think the main events were the same, whether it was the king or a high official or whatever.
First came the washing of the body and the removal of the organs. Then there was this long period of drying the body out with natron, this white, salty material, which according to Herodotus, took 70 days. According to the Bible, in the Book of Genesis, on the other hand, it took 40 days to embalm the body of Jacob. So there is not a unified view of how long, but it took quite some weeks.
What happened next?
Then came the very important point when the body was wrapped in linen. We are often just fascinated by these preserved bodies from thousands of years ago. But for the Egyptians, this was only one part of the funeral. Because after the drying out and the preservation, came this wrapping. And this was what made out of a body a "mummy." And only as a mummy the deceased became the god Osiris, a divine entity that would live forever. So this wrapping—accompanied by the hymns and rituals—was very important. And that's why the cloth and the linen and this find are so important.
Was the linen woven exclusively for use as a mummy wrapping?
Each piece has its own history. Many pieces come from the household linen. When they didn't use it anymore, they tore it into bandages. One of the pieces of linen on display has an inscription in ink. They commonly wrote the date it was woven so that the estate manager knew how old it was. On a larger sheet in the exhibition, we have an even older inscription, which apparently was done before the sheet was washed because you see the writing is washed out and also the side of the linen is destroyed. And then they apparently hemmed it at one side and re-inscribed it with this famous date: Year 8, which is the last year of Tutankhamun who reigned for nine years. So the sheet has a history, you see? The sheet is like a person. I really liked that when I researched this.
For Tutankhamun, however, they also wove special, we might say "custom-made" bandages. We have one in the exhibition that looks like the gauze we may find in a first-aid kit. This was unused and there were many others of the same type in the Davis find. To be able to study these linens is very important because so much resin had been poured over the actual mummy of Tutankhamun itself that the wrappings became one compact, half-disintegrated mass and Carter could not really analyze what kind of bandages and sheets were used for the wrapping. So what we have is the best-preserved lot of Tutankhamun wrappings, even if it's the "extra" pieces. But still, we learn, for instance, about the bandages—that were made especially for him, which again means they had some time during which they could prepare. During the same time, of course, they also prepared the treasures.
What else needed to be done to prepare the body for burial?
They needed to gather the amulets, the gold that goes on the feet, etcetera. Apparently, these items came in sacks and in boxes. That's where the seals on view in the exhibition come from. The Egyptians packed things in boxes and sacks, tied them up with string, put a piece of soft clay on it, and impressed their ring. Before you used it, you had to break this seal. So you know that if it's not broken, nobody has used it, and if it's broken, there's something wrong. This is where the remains of our seal impressions come from. So we even see a little bit into the economy of such a royal funeral. There's an interesting seal impression that has the king's name and then it says "[beloved of] Ptah," who is the god of Memphis, a city 500 miles north of Thebes. It could be that particular sack came from Memphis. So we get a little bit of an insight into these practical things that went on. That is quite illuminating.
Were there any other rituals that needed to be conducted?
The peak of the funeral was this ritual of "opening the mouth"—that's the Egyptian name of it. If you made a statue or a mummy it had to become "alive" in order to take in the offerings. Clearly, that's why you have to open the mouth magically. So at the entrance to the tomb, the mummy was put upright in its coffin, or just as a mummy, and then there was this ritual of opening the mouth. From then on, the mummy was living again magically and could receive offerings.
Do we have any evidence of those who would be preparing the body and performing these rituals?
On view in the exhibition we have head covers, which I think were worn by the embalmers. One of them was dyed blue, which is also a great thing. It's one of the early indigo dyes. But also it's repaired—very, very carefully repaired in two places. I believe the embalmers must have worn these for quite a while, maybe during the embalming of several different people. Others argue such a head cover was put on the mummy during the ritual. Either way, these pieces certainly have a history.
What makes you think they belonged to the embalmers?
It makes the most sense. In the exhibition, we put out a little figure of a nurse who wears something like this on her head. Some scholars have said it's the khat headdress that was worn also by kings and queens. But the khat was also worn by women who played the roles of the goddesses Isis and Nephthys at the funeral. That again points to our head covers having been worn by participants of the embalming process and the funeral. But you could have another Egyptologist here and he or she might tell you something else.
There are also some floral collars in the show. Can you tell me more about them?
Well, as you know, 3,300-year-old plants are not something you have everywhere! Mostly, things like that don't remain. There was a huge floral collar—we see it in the famous Harry Burton photograph—of the same plants on the innermost coffin of Tutankhamun. The remains of that are in Cairo. It wasn't as well preserved as the ones in our collection. There are more plant remains that once decorated mummies. But they are usually just a single string of leaves. Something as elaborate as the ones from the Davis find just don't exist otherwise. A specialist in Germany has identified the plants—most of them—with certainty and one type with a little question mark. This identification makes it possible to say at what time these plants bloomed in Egypt, which is between the end of February and into April, so that must be the time of the funeral. And then you go back your 70 days and you know that he died in late December or early January—according to our modern calendar.
How many collars would have been used in a single funeral and where would they have been placed—inside other coffins or on the neck of the deceased?
This is also an open question. Winlock, who—as I said—was the first to explain the Davis find, had this lovely idea, I'm sure inspired by the American Thanksgiving. He said that eight Egyptians sat around a table at a funeral, wearing these collars. But not only are ancient Egyptian tables too small for eight people to sit around, but there is also no evidence for such a meal having taken place by the tomb as thought by Winlock. I think the floral collars were intended to be placed on the mummy; maybe even during the rituals they were put there for a while. Then they were either taken off again, or the embalmers had made too many. Anyway, in the end they were deposited with the leftovers.How did you feel about tackling such a well-known subject—King Tut—when preparing for the show?
Don't touch Tutankhamun! Right? There is something about that. But on the other hand, if you have a collection, and we are privileged to work in this collection, it is always good to have another look at objects you think you know. These hadn't been out of their cases for a long time. And not only could we clean them again and look at their condition, but they made us rethink the issues. And that's what we're here for. This fresh look made me try to understand the implications of the Davis objects better and then personally, as I said, it is great to come close to objects such as the linen sheet. It is a very humble thing compared with the treasures that we know about from the tomb of Tutankhamun. But on the other hand, people don't just want to look and say "ooh!" They want to get close to ancient times and human beings of long ago. And that's what such a presentation makes possible.
Eti Bonn-Muller is the AIA online senior editor.