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Tut'22: 3,500 years in the making

The exhibition ‘Tut’22: the life of Tutankhamun’ - at Experience Barnsley Museum to March 18, 2023 - has been almost three years planning, writes Prof Joann Fletcher.

Way back in December 2019, pre-pandemic, we were having a meeting of the Egypt Exploration Society's Local Ambassadors here in York and began thinking about how we could best mark the centenary of the greatest archaeological discovery of all time, the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1922.

Tut'22 curator Prof Joann Fletcher with bust of Tutankhamun. Photo: Simon Hulme/The Yorkshire Post

Certainly growing up in Barnsley in the late 1960s, the story of the discovery combined with the colourful pictures of ancient Egyptians in my parents’ history books really sparked something in me before I could even read.

So when the Tutankhamun exhibition came to the UK in 1972 for the 50 year anniversary, I was so captivated by his image all over the press and tv I couldn’t stop talking about it.

And when my Mum told me it was possible to actually be an Egyptologist as an actual job, that was it – career path chosen by the age of 6.

Of course it also helped that Barnsley library also had really great books on the subject and that my aunt was also a massive Egypt fan too. So when she retired in 1981, we both went to Egypt for the first time, with me about to do my O-Levels and my parents wanting to make sure this was what I really wanted to do as a career.

And it certainly worked. With my mind blown by everything I saw, from the overwhelming size and noise of Cairo to its medieval architecture and friendly people, we saw all the Tutankhamun treasures as then displayed in Cairo Museum plus his famous tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

Then after finishing off my education in Barnsley I did an Egyptology degree at University College London virtually next door to the British Museum, really loving the whole learning experience. Yet by refusing to ‘lose the accent’ as some advised,

I was certainly made aware that I would never be part of ‘the establishment’ and felt very much out of place in a subject which is still far too dominated by the south-east.

But as I persevered with a PhD, I also began finding all sorts of unexpected connections between Yorkshire and ancient Egypt, and some amazing people from our county who’d made a massive contribution despite being airbrushed from the history books.

From York-born scholar George Sandys who explored Egypt as early as 1611 and wrote the first accurate account of the pyramids in the English language to the first professional female Egyptologist who went to Egypt in the 1830s and came from Scarborough,

I even discovered that I was not even the first Egyptologist to come from Barnsley. For this accolade belongs to the brilliant Harold Jones.

Harold Jones. Photo courtesy of Carmarthenshire Museum

Born close to the town centre in 1877 and the first to recognise the significance of the then little-known name ‘Tutankhamun’ he’d begun to find in the Valley of the Kings in the early 1900s, Jones was not only a friend of fellow artist-turned-archaeologist Howard Carter, but was talent-spotted by Lord and Lady Carnarvon who invited him to stay at their family seat Highclere Castle (the setting of Downtown Abbey). Then when Jones died tragically young in the Valley of the Kings aged only 34, his lifelong struggle with tuberculosis cutting short a career which quite likely could have culminated in finding the tomb of Tutankhamun himself, his funeral was arranged by pals Carter and Carnarvon who were then able to build on Jones’ legacy to finally find the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.

By 2016 these kinds of connections between Yorkshire and ancient Egypt had grown so numerous that we launched a trio of successful exhibitions held simultaneously around Barnsley’s main venues, followed by new plans for the Tutankhamun centenary as it fast approached.

But suspecting that most of the world’s attention would be on the pharaoh’s tomb and death, we decided to focus on Tutankhamun’s life, on his birth and childhood at the city of Amarna some three and a half thousand years ago.

Now for this we needed ancient Egyptian objects from Amarna, some of the finest of which are part of the world-class collection of Bolton Museum which we’ve been studying since 1988. And with Bolton very generously allowing us to borrow some of their star items, we even discovered that Bolton Museum’s very first curators, father and son William and Thomas Midgley, originally came from a Barnsley family who worked for the Spencer Stanhopes of Barnsley’s Cannon Hall.

All shared links which we feature on our colourful new displays accompanying the Tut’22 exhibition, this is a story combining local history with roots extending back to ancient times when Egypt’s most famous pharaoh was born in the ancient Egyptian city of Amarna c.1345 BC.

With the exhibition setting the scene by first introducing visitors to Tutankhamun’s family, these are some of the real superstars of ancient Egypt including his father Akhenaten and stepmother Nefertiti.

Tutankhamun family busts in Tut'22 exhibition. Photo: Simon Hulme/The Yorkshire Post

There are also objects relating to birth and childhood, such as the baby’s feeding bottle and the poppy-shaped container for the opium which ancient medical texts recommended to ‘stop the infant crying immediately’.

Another display focuses on the Nile-side environment of Amarna itself, along with spectacular furnishings which once embellished the city’s royal palaces - ceramic bunches of turquoise grapes hung from the ceilings to create a vineyard-like atmosphere for royal drinking sessions, with golden thrones and well-stuffed cushions set upon tiled and painted flooring. Images of the royal family enjoying the finest food and wines are also complemented by some of the food itself, the decorative palace tableware enhancing the vintage wines we know Tutankhamun and his family drank in large quantities. And of course given the need for Egypt’s royal family to look the part at all times, we have a linen tunic from the royal wardrobe, a selection of colourful jewellery, cosmetics, perfume vessels and hairstyling equipment all used on a daily basis by Egypt’s most glamourous ancient dynasty.

Another section covers writing and painting, and with a display of some of the actual paint pigments discovered at Amarna, the archaeologists excavating a room in one of the city’s royal palaces in the 1930s found the floors and lower walls covered in streaks of this same coloured paint, concluding that this must be the playroom of the royal children, Tutankhamun and his six half-sisters.

Such intimate glimpses into the lives of ancient Egypt’s most famous family have only been made possible by the generosity of Bolton Museum and its multi-talented curator Ian Trumble, combined with help and advice from experts including Dr. Mohamed Solieman, Marie Woods, Dr. Stephen Buckley and Marc Chica.

And with the current Lady Carnarvon another wonderful supporter, we’ve been able to maintain that magical link between Barnsley Egyptologists and the ongoing story of Tutankhamun himself.

Then in a final bit of very special magic, FrontRowLive have been working with us for months to create the most iconic object from the whole of ancient Egypt, the spectacular gold death mask, which appears in the exhibition thanks to the powers of augmented reality.

So bring your phone to Barnsley and have a selfie with history’s most famous king.

Tut'22 Preview: Video by Graham Walker/ The Star & The Yorkshire Post


Jo at Abu Simbel_edited.jpg

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