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An inside look at the King Tut chariot exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum

Image courtesy of the Milwaukee Public Museum

Today marks 99 years since King Tut’s tomb and all of its contents were discovered, capturing the world’s attention in 1922.

British archeologist Howard Carter unearthed Tut’s tomb after an intense six-year exploration according to Richard Hedderman, Milwaukee Public Museum’s education programs coordinator.

According to Hedderman, part of why this discovery was so significant was because it was the first time the tomb of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh was found intact and not damaged or looted.

Part of what made Tut so famous was that he was a boy king and also died very young, "but that was not unusual in ancient Egypt," says Hedderman. "In fact he was not the youngest pharaoh."

At the time of the tomb's discovery the world became quite obsessed with ancient Egypt, and the mystery and lore surrounding tombs, mummies, and curses. Despite Tut's level of celebrity, Hedderman says there weren't any curses on the people who excavated his tomb — just fabrications or exaggerations.

"No one associated with the discovery and excavation of the tomb died an unnatural death," Hedderman says.

There's a display of King Tut and his chariot at the Milwaukee Public Museum’s Crossroads of Civilization exhibit. It shows the boy king in a very dynamic form in "a more cutting-edge level of Tut scholarship in the last few years," says Hedderman.

"The first word that comes to my mind [when I think about the exhibit] is 'authenticity.' That whole exhibit of Tut driving his chariot is about as authentic as you can get," Hedderman says.

The pair of horses pulling Tut's chariot were modeled after what was found in Tut's tomb or based off of what was common for horses and chariots at that time.

Hedderman notes the horses during Tut's time were Arabians, and they were about 25% smaller than these horses are today. So the museum taxidermist got models of thoroughbreds and adjusted from there.

"[The taxidermist] had to literally carve and sand and shape those horse models not only to the authentic size of Arabian horses 3,000 years ago, but also the physical characteristics," explains Hedderman. "The chariot itself is modeled after one of six chariots that were found in Tut's tomb when it was excavated ... in fact even the model of Tut is as detailed as we could possibly make it."

Tut was created by using a forensic reconstruction of his facial features based on CT scans performed on his mummy. Hedderman says the museum also found a local young man who had the specific physical measurements that were very close to Tut's living stature to help model the rest of the body.

"Such is the level of genuine representation of detail, you can't see them, but underneath Tut's kilt he's wearing a pair of Tut underwear which we like to joke is 'the fruit of the Tomb,'" Hedderman says.

King Tut was thought to be a sickly person due to inbreeding, but the fact that he is shown physically leading what would be his troops into battle for this exhibit is no accident, said Hedderman.

"It's been thought that Tut was just too weak and too sick to be doing something active ... but the artwork at the time from Tut's era really focused on realism," he notes. "It was meant to depict things that actually happened... and there's no shortage of representations that depict Tut leading troops in battle."

"Our archeologist emeritus who designed that exhibit and oversaw the design of the Tut figure, and the chariot insisted that we show him in a very dynamic form. So that's what we really wanted to depict," Hedderman says.

Hedderman, who's also a poet, teaches school groups and visitors about mummies and King Tut. His poem "Mummies" was inspired by his conversations with children who are often fascinated with the entire concept:

MUMMIESMilwaukee Public Museum

When children ask if it’s frightening
when they come alive, I tell them yes,
of course it is, it’s absolutely terrifying,
and believe me, you don’t want to be around

when it happens, especially at night.
When they ask if the mummies walk
with their arms outstretched like mummies
in the movies, I tell them no, it’s nothing

like that. You see, I explain, the muscles
of their arms have atrophied from thousands
of years of disuse; they just can’t walk
around the way mummies do in movies.

In fact, I explain, their feet have been so
lovingly and carefully bound by strips
of linen, that’s it difficult for them
to walk at all which explains the halting

gate, the fear that at any moment they will stumble
and pitch forward, landing in a heap of rags.
Can they talk? No, they can’t talk, not after
all those years in tombs choked with the dust

of centuries and the weight of eternity
upon them. Can they see, they want to know.
Not any more, I say, for their eyes
were replaced with onions or stones,

stones as white as the sun. Finally, I explain,
they long only to wander forth as they used to,
so long ago and once again admire their reflections
in the shimmering Nile of the gallery floor.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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