See 1,000 Perfect Replicas of Objects Unearthed From King Tut’s Tomb

A traveling exhibition on view in Washington, D.C. blends education and entertainment, letting visitors get up close and personal with the ancient Egyptian pharaoh’s treasures

Replica objects of artifacts from Tut's tomb
The exhibition features recreations of the tomb's antechamber, burial chamber and treasury. Exhibition Hub

In 1924, two years after British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, an exhibition in London promised to immerse visitors in a “complete replica” of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh’s final resting place.

Working off of published photographs and drawings of the tomb, artist William Aumonier spent eight months painstakingly recreating such artifacts as an ornate throne, a wooden bed and a statue of the boy king, who reigned in the 14th century B.C.E. Though the display wasn’t an exact mirror of the site in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, its reproductions exhibited an impressive level of attention to detail and commitment to accuracy—thanks in part to Egyptologist Arthur Weigall, who’d witnessed Carter’s excavation firsthand.

But at least one person disapproved of the venture: Carter himself. The archaeologist sued the event’s organizers for copyright infringement—and lost. Ultimately, more than 25 million people attended the exhibition, which counted the replica tomb among its greatest hits.

One of the chambers of Tut's tomb, as photographed by Harry Burton
One of the chambers of Tut's tomb, as photographed by Harry Burton Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A century later, a separate exhibition in Washington, D.C. is recreating Tutankhamun’s tomb on an even grander (and less exploitative) scale. Featuring more than 1,000 reproductions crafted by Egyptian artisans, “Tutankhamun: His Tomb and His Treasures” offers a sense of the sheer extravagance of the king’s funerary trappings. The show also makes a clear argument for the value of replicas as educational tools, particularly when the originals are largely inaccessible to the public. The Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo owns all 5,000 artifacts found in the tomb, but its opening (and planned display of the vast assortment of treasures) has long been delayed.

Melinda Hartwig, an Egyptologist at Emory University and a special adviser to the exhibition, says the show allows visitors to “follow in Carter’s footsteps” by drawing directly on the archaeologist’s excavation notes and photographs. Early on, the exhibition transports visitors into recreations of the pharaoh’s burial chamber, antechamber and treasury, all presented as they appeared when Carter first saw them. Later sections focus on the artifacts themselves, grouping replicas of Tutankhamun’s shabtis (funerary figurines), nested coffins, canopic jars and more.

A replica of one of Tut's coffins
A replica of one of Tut's coffins Exhibition Hub

According to Hartwig, Egyptian craftspeople, lapidaries and sculptors spent around four years recreating the artifacts found in the pharaoh’s tomb, from his wooden chariot to his iconic golden mask. First, they cast the objects in plaster, and then they covered the models in resin. Finally, they used alloys and glass appliques to add color and depth.

Unlike Aumonier, these artisans had access to extensive primary source material, as well as 3D scans of the original artifacts. Still, it’s impossible to know whether Carter, who died in 1939, would have been any more impressed by the contemporary replicas than he was by the ones created 100 years ago.

Semmel Concerts, a German live event promoter and producer, debuted “Tutankhamun: His Tomb and His Treasures” in Zurich in 2008. Created in conjunction with Egyptologists, the immersive experience spent the next decade-plus traveling across Europe, attracting more than seven million visitors.

More than seven million people visited the exhibition while it was touring Europe. Exhibition Hub
A replica of one of Tut's gilded wooden burial shrines Exhibition Hub
Tutankhamun was buried in a series of nested coffins. Exhibition Hub
A replica of Tut's wooden chariot Exhibition Hub

Reviewing a Czech staging of the exhibition in January 2009, Egyptologist Jaromír Málek praised the artisans’ attention to detail as “astounding,” writing that “there are few things with which one would seriously like to quarrel.”

The scholar added, however, that “it must be admitted that replicas, no matter how good, do not allow one to experience the frisson of being face to face with the original items removed from Tutankhamun’s tomb. Some of the original objects, such as furniture, would have been used by the king in his lifetime, and the idea that Tutankhamun’s bottom once rested on the chair in front of us is mind-boggling.”

Semmel Concerts and its various local partners have never claimed to be the real thing. As the San Diego Natural History Museum noted in 2014, when it hosted an iteration of the show, the reproductions are not intended to replace the real artifacts, but rather to complement them “by allowing visitors to experience the tomb and the indescribable treasures of … Tutankhamun just as they were when he died.” Unlike the fragile originals, replicas “enable us to recreate archaeological sites that have long since been dispersed, to bring together objects that are now in different locations and in some instances no longer available for public display.”

TUTANKHAMUN - His Tomb and his Treasures

In Tutankhamun’s case, the original artifacts are all owned by the same entity: the Grand Egyptian Museum, which has been under construction since 2005. But the Cairo cultural institution’s opening has repeatedly been pushed back, from 2018 to 2020, 2021 and so on. An official opening date has yet to be announced, though the museum does offer limited guided tours of certain spaces, including the Grand Staircase, which features 60 artifacts from the collections.

Even if the Grand Egyptian Museum were open, its treasures wouldn’t be traveling internationally, as they did to great fanfare between the 1960s and the 2000s. At more than 3,300 years old, the objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb are incredibly fragile, making it difficult—and very expensive—to transport them safely. Additionally, Málek wrote in 2009, “The Egyptians point out that these are antiquities of their own past, and … it is only appropriate that they remain on display in Cairo where they can be seen by ordinary Egyptian visitors, such as schoolchildren.”

In lieu of a visit to Cairo or Tutankhamun’s mostly empty tomb in the Valley of the Kings, replicas are among the easiest ways to experience the grandeur of ancient Egypt. As Hartwig explains, “Tutankhamun: His Tomb and His Treasures” blends entertainment and education; the exhibition’s wall panels are changed with each iteration of the show, reflecting updated understandings of the pharaoh’s life and legacy. For instance, recent research suggests he was a warrior king, rather than a sickly, infirm ruler.

Replicas of statues found in Tut's tomb
Replicas of statues found in Tut's tomb Exhibition Hub

Initially a skeptic regarding the traveling show, Málek admitted, “somewhat reluctantly,” that he had “become a convert,” adding, “This exhibition can do things which no other, perhaps with the exception of future virtual reality shows, is able to.”

Hartwig, for her part, says she loves the exhibition “because you experience the objects. They’re not behind glass. They’re not separated from context.” And, in perhaps the greatest departure from the standard museum experience, you can even reach out and touch the replicas, tracing the hieroglyphs that spell out Tutankhamun’s name on the back of his throne or running your hands across the smooth surface of his death mask.

Tutankhamun: His Tomb and His Treasures” is on view at the Rhode Island Center in Washington, D.C. through July 31. Tickets are available online.

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