How King Tut shaped the art of protest

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo
British archaeologist Howard Carter described the moment he first set eyes on Tutankhamun’s glittering funerary mask with quiet reverence. It was 1923; more than 3,000 years had elapsed since anyone had gazed upon the coffin of the 18-year-old pharaoh who had become, he scribbled in his notebook, “little more than a shadow of a name”.

“In contrast to the dark and sombre effect, due to [the anointing] unguents, was a brilliant, magnificent, burnished gold mask of the king,” he wrote. The mournful face of the dead teenager was crowned with a headdress of gold and lapis lazuli; below it was a broad collar encrusted with semi-precious stones. On his forehead was a vulture and a cobra: symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Discovering Tutankhamun, a new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford that opens later this month, explores the circumstances surrounding the 1920s dig and its impact on the popular culture of the day after The Times published the first pictures. Around the world, “King Tut” fever took hold, says Paul Collins, one of the show’s curators — the bejewelled funerary mask of the child-king was immortalised in songs, films and tacky merchandise, examples of which will be on display alongside photographs and papers detailing the dig. But in Egypt, as the state took control against the backdrop of a rising nationalist movement (sending Carter’s wealthy patron Lord Carnarvon packing back to Highclere Castle), the image of the boy king and his iconic mask came to symbolise much more: resistance and victory against European imperialism. Now, Collins points out, it has again been appropriated in contemporary Egypt in a way that would have astonished the unelected teen demi-god — as a symbol of revolution against an oppressive state.