Tutankhamun artefacts reveal family secrets

By Amy Middleton 30 March 2011
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For the first time, artefacts from Egypt’s most famous pharaoh will be on display in Australia.

ARTEFACTS FROM THE TOMB of ancient Egypt’s most famous pharaoh, King Tutankhamun, have arrived in Australia for the first time.

The exhibition – Tutanhkamun and the Golden Age of Pharaohs – at Melbourne Museum, will show 130 striking objects: 50 from the tomb of Tutankhamun and 80 relating to other kings and queens who reigned during the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt about 3000 years ago.

The artefacts will appear alongside new information about Tutankhamun’s lineage, which was uncovered by DNA testing on the mummy conducted in 2010.

The DNA information revealed that Tutankhamun’s parents were siblings – Akhenhaten and his unnamed sister. The molecular information also showed that two stillborn babies found within the tomb of Tutankhamun are in fact his offspring; it is widely believed the pharaoh had relations with his half-sister.

Tutankhamun may have married within the family to keep the bloodline pure

Mark Lach, international creative director for the exhibition, believes this new family context may explain ailments suffered by the king during his short life. “The royals thought they were keeping the bloodline true,” says Mark. “But now we know some of these diseases, possibly Tut’s unusually shaped skull, possibly some of the ailments Tut suffered from… are from marrying within the family.”

Dr Susanne Binder, a lecturer in Egyptology at Macquarie University in Sydney, believes the DNA evidence is inconclusive. “The result of the DNA testing has shown that among those 11 tested royal mummies, there is a male and a female that are related to King Tutankhamun,” she told Australian Geographic. “It’s not at all definitive, but it is a major step forward.”

Much is still unknown about the mummified king and the 18th dynasty of which he was part. Tutankhamun’s death at the age of 19 is still shrouded in mystery. Ailments including malaria and scoliosis are believed to have plagued the king during his life, and a CT scan in 2005 showed evidence of a badly broken leg in the lead up to his death.

Tutankhamun’s flawless representations mirror today’s photoshopped versions of celebrities and leaders

Tutankhamun’s imperfections, such as the diseased left foot that gave him a lifelong limp, are not always portrayed in records of the king. According to Dr Andrew Jamieson, antiquities curator at Melbourne University, this is a sign of the times. “In Egypt, there was a youthful, athletic, idealised version of rulers that was portrayed, and that is indicative of the tradition,” he says. “So it is only through scientific applications that we get these insights.”

Creative director Mark compares the opulent, flawless representations of Tutankhamun to our modern society’s ‘photoshopped’ images of celebrities and leaders. But he says one of the most interesting artefacts found in the tomb with the king was a mobile seat to aid the physically impaired pharaoh during hunting, which was a customary royal activity.

Among Mark’s personal favourites in the collection are a miniature throne, occupied by the king when he ascended to power at the tender age of nine, and a hand-held wooden game buried with him when he died. “You can just see this kid down near the Nile, the king, playing his little game,” says Mark.

The exhibition also includes one of four separate coffinettes that housed the king’s organs, as well as some of the items that were discovered on the body, including a dagger that sat at his right thigh, and the crown he wore during his reign.

The exhibition opens on 8 April at the Melbourne Museum.