Monday,18 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)
Monday,18 December, 2017
Issue 1370, (23-29 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

New gold of Tutankhamun

Gold appliqué sheets from Tutankhamun’s chariot were put on display at the Egyptian Museum this week, revealing the technology used to decorate ancient Egyptian vehicles, writes Nevine El-Aref  

 

The bow-case decorated with golden sheets photos: Khaled El-Fiqi

The Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square was buzzing with visitors this week who had flocked to the institution’s second floor to catch a glimpse of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s unseen treasures.  

Glittering against black backgrounds inside glass showcases, a collection of gold appliqué sheets that once decorated the boy-king’s chariot had been put on display for the first time 95 years after its discovery.

When British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, he stumbled upon a collection of decorative gold sheets scattered on the floor of the treasury room near the chariot. Due to its poor conservation, Carter put the collection in a wooden box that has remained in the depths of the museum’s storage rooms ever since.

In 2014, a joint project by the Egyptian Museum, the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, the University of Tübingen and the Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz carried out an archaeological and iconographic analysis of this important but largely ignored collection supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, a research body, and the German foreign office. It is this collection that has now been placed on display.

Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany described the exhibition as “special and important” because it not only highlights a very significant subject but also celebrates the 60th anniversary of the reopening of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo after its closure in 1939 due to World War II.

“The exhibition is a good opportunity for the public to admire for the first time one of the golden king’s unseen treasures,” El-Enany said, adding that several artefacts from Tutankhamun’s treasured collection were still hidden in the Egyptian Museum.

“This will not last long,” El-Enany promised, saying that all the boy-king’s unseen and non-exhibited artefacts would be transported to the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) overlooking the Giza Plateau after its soft opening at the end of 2018.

Director of the German Archaeological Institute Stephan Seidlmayer said that studies carried out on the appliqués had revealed that they once adorned the horse-trapping, bow-cases and sheaths of weapons associated with Tutankhamun’s chariot. They exhibited unusual stately and playful designs, combining ancient Egyptian patterns with Levantine motifs, he said.

“They attest to the large network of social and cultural interconnections which has characterised the eastern Mediterranean from antiquity to the present time,” Seidlmayer said. He added that scientific analyses using the latest technology had revealed the sophisticated composition of the artefacts which rank among the highest products of ancient craftsmanship.

They reflect the wide-ranging trade network which incorporated the nearer and farther regions of the Near East and the Mediterranean that extended into parts of Middle and Western Europe. Raw materials, food products, and luxury goods were traded along different routes by land and sea. These longstanding relations had a huge impact on ancient Egyptian culture, especially technology and art, a fact evidenced by Tutankhamun’s tomb furniture.

German restorer Christian Eckmann, who restored the gold appliqués, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the gold-sheet appliqués were decorated with an extensive repertoire of figural and ornamental motifs of three types.  

The first depicts ancient Egyptian motifs showing a typical post-Amarna decorative style and scenes of the king smiting his enemies or in the shape of a sphinx or a lion. Others show the king driving over enemies in his chariot while shooting at a target in the shape of a copper ingot or kneeling Nubian and Asiatic representatives adoring the royal cartouches.


El-Enany and Eckmann admiring one of the gold-sheet appliques

The second type of decoration bears patterns called the “international style” that was well-known in the eastern Mediterranean in the second half of the second millennium BCE. It includes images of animals, symmetrically arranged capsids nibbling on trees, plant and spiral bands, and diverse iconographic traits from the Near East, Egypt and the Aegean.  

The third type combines elements from the first two types of decoration.

Eckmann said that when the restoration project started, the gold sheets had disintegrated into thousands of fragments. It was therefore essential to carry out extensive sorting and joining work. The fragments had cracks, fissures, distortions and wrinkles, he said, forcing the team to concentrate on the legibility of the damaged depictions in order to make them accessible for further archaeological and scientific study.  

“A research-orientated concept of restoration formed the basis for the work,” he said.

The first step was to provide a detailed description of the objects together with a comprehensive catalogue of the fragments and the photographic documentation of their condition. The delicate gold foils were carefully unfolded using wooden tools and the fragmented pieces joined together. Cracks and fissures were supported in a time-consuming procedure using tiny strips of Japanese paper glued onto the reverse with acrylic resin.

The exhibition will last for 45 days, after which the gold foils will be transported to the GEM. The present exhibition also celebrates the 115th anniversary of the opening of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square.

“Of course I admire what I have seen of the collections of Tutankhamun. I have read that these things were discovered more than 100 years ago, ” Shi Yuwen, cultural counsellor of the Chinese Embassy in Cairo, said of his visit. “The things presented here today have not been presented before, and this is a kind of passion for foreigners, especially those who have come to see the treasures of king Tutankhamun.”

“When they hear that there are things that have not been presented before and are being presented for the first time, it’s very encouraging for tourists, ” Walid Batouti, advisor to the Ministry of Tourism, said. 

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