All that glitters is not gold: The top five errors on the internet about the treasures of Tutankhamen.

The colours and textures are too even.  Detail from an arm of the replica throne, Tutankhamun, his Tomb and his Treasures exhibition, Brussels.   Photo: Linda de Volder at Flickr:

So it had to come to this one day.  I wrote part of my last research on objects from the tomb of Tutankhamen, a famous 18th Dynasty Egyptian king.  Famous, because his tomb is the only royal tomb from Egypt to contain almost all of its grave goods when it was discovered in the early 1920s.

Because I studied this group of objects and perhaps also because I have a fairly accurate visual memory I tend to come up against the copies regularly in my travels.  Rather than write individual rants in response to these, I thought I would just write a brief best of bloopers, fakes and replicas masquerading as real objects from the tomb of Tutankhamen. 

These are basic errors, however, and will only be of interest to newcomers to the topic.  Or lazy sods who run history blogs (make more of an effort with your pics pls).

Left, the modern reconstruction with replicas.  Photo: Discovery of King Tut website  Right, colourised photo from the original excavation.  Photo: Harry Burton, © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford, Discovering Tutankhamun in Colour

The top five errors are:

1.  Photos of objects from the replica exhibition.
There is a whiz bang exhibition of replicas that is touring internationally called The Discovery of King Tut (US) or Tutankhamun - his Tomb and his Treasures (Europe).  As I write this, the exhibition has already toured Europe and South Africa, and is in the USA.  It is a travelling exhibition and it allows photography, so there is a sizable volume of photos circulating on the web.  There are also smaller replica exhibitions in various places.

Tutankhamun, his Tomb and his Treasures exhibition, Brussels.   Photo: Linda de Volder at Flickr

However, the objects from these exhibitions are not accurate copies.  Personally, I would be quite concerned if they were.  But the practical reality is that it would have been too expensive for anyone except an Egyptian king to reproduce these objects accurately.  That is way too much precious metal and fine workmanship for anyone’s budget.

The website of the major replica exhibition is:

Left, replica from the touring exhibit.  Photo: Discovery of Tut website  Right, Anubis within a display case in Cairo museum.  Photo: Jon Berghoff at Fine Art America

There are a couple of easy tips to identify the replicas when you are on the internet:

a)  No display cases:
In the photos the replicas are not displayed in airtight glass cases. But, the authentic objects from the tomb are not displayed in the open, as they must be kept in a controlled atmosphere to protect them. Old photographs from the Cairo museum show quite old fashioned display cases.  No doubt the new GEM museum at Giza will have fancy modern ones. 

Either way, the original objects must be photographed through glass, if they have not been, and they are still authentic the picture may have been copied from a well known book on Tutankhamen.  In the touring replica exhibitions the objects are displayed in the open in the museums and they are unprotected. So if they are photographed in the open, they are copies.

Backrest of the throne of Tutankhamen.  Left, replica, photo Gabriel A Sampedro at Flickr  Right, original throne. Photo from Christine Desroches-Noblecourt 1963, Tutankhamen, fig. VI.

b)  Too new looking:
The objects are too clean and shiny; the original objects often have damaged areas or their natural fibres have degraded.  They were shoved higgledy piggledy into rough piles in a tomb about 3350 years ago.  Even with sophisticated restoration techniques, the permanent damage must remain.

Also, on the real objects the colour and texture vary a bit, they can be uneven, faded or matt in places. Similarly the fine sheet gold used to cover many real objects is uneven, often a bit wrinkly or cracked, and there can be holes.  The copies are made in cheaper materials and are all unnaturally shiny, colours are saturated and they are therefore very new looking.  Sometimes the artists didn't even get the original colours correct, like for example, using black for blue inlays.

Detail from the small golden shrine.  Left, replica.  Source Ancient Origins.  Right, original scene.  Photo Hans Ollermann at Flickr

c) Inaccurate:
The last difference is from my own perspective, as if you look closely, the modern replicas are not good copies, they are tolerable copies, so often the finer details are just not very attractive or attentive to detail.  Whoever made them was not overly fussed about accuracy on the fiddly bits.  Again no doubt because this was not done on a pharaoh's budget. 

The international exhibition website is the main source for replica images to be appropriated from, but Flickr is another rich source for sharing without credit or accuracy.  Below are links to public photo streams from the replica exhibition. Many of these photos have been shared as authentic objects on history blogs, Facebook, Pinterest and Youtube.
Linda de Volder
Ars Clicandi
Mary Harrsch

“King Tut’s royal trotter” by Steven Alverson.  Photo Pinterest.

2.  The “gold” horse statue. 
This is a modern artwork called “King Tut’s royal trotter” by Steven Alverson.  It is listed on the website of The Trail of Painted Ponies, an American company that provides horse figurines for people to decorate. They also have in-house and guest artists, and photostreams of their work on the theme of painted horses.

It surprises me every time I see this image shared as authentic when it is blatantly not from ancient Egypt nor from this tomb.  Putting an ancient Egyptian pectoral and a uraeus cobra on a golden-ish horse statue doesn’t make it authentic... really, it doesn't.  Plastering it all over Pinterest with the caption King Tut also doesn’t make it authentic.  Trust absolutely no-one on Pinterest, they don’t give a damn.

Why it is clearly a modern artwork:
a) There were no horse statues in the tomb of Tutankhamen.
b) There are no horse statues from ancient Egypt, period, and if there were…
c) They would use Egyptian artistic conventions.
d) They wouldn’t put the royal cobra on a horse, this was for kings and queens, instead they would have put harness on a horse.

Iron bladed dagger with gold dagger below.  Image from Christine Desroches-Noblecourt 1963, Tutankhamen, fig. XXIa.

3.  The meteoric daggers
On the internet in supposedly legit articles (make more of an effort please) and random shares on Facebook one or two of the ceremonial daggers that were buried with Tutankhamen’s mummy are shown to illustrate this ‘astounding’ story.  Except it isn’t astounding, and often the wrong dagger is illustrated, or both daggers are shown and the heading claims the two daggers were meteoric.

This one irritates me.  After all, basic perception ought to debunk this.  You don’t need me for that.  How hard is it to differentiate gold from iron?  This ought to be relatively clear to anyone looking at the photos, gold is yellowish-orange and iron is a dark grey to purplish-black.  The iron dagger handle is decorated with gold and glass inlays that are similar to the gold dagger, which may be how the mistake is made, but this does not explain how a gold blade can be mistaken for an iron one.

This photo ticks boxes 1 and 3: Two identical replicas of the gold bladed dagger are shown to illustrate the iron bladed dagger on King Tutankhamun Facebook page

In addition, the ‘meteorite dagger’ is not an iron dagger.  It is a dagger with an iron blade.  Iron that came from a meteorite way back in prehistory.  The sheath and handle are gold, glass and wood.  Equally, it is not even remotely exciting that it is meteoric, because before the Iron Age nearly all iron objects found in archaeological contexts were made using meteoric iron in the Near East.  This is called exploiting available resources.  There were other iron objects in this tomb, they are also meteoric.  It would be much more of a big deal to archaeologists if they were made from mined iron ore.

Although I do understand that the phrase from outer space sounds way cooler than from industrial processes.

Acme Clockworks bracelet of Tutankhamen. Photo

4.  The gold bracelet by Steven Parker
This is an example of canny (or manipulative) marketing.  The company Acme Clockworks put a great deal of effort into creating a false story to promote some of their products on their website.  This is inclusive of a superficially believable article written by a fictional archaeologist Kent P. Streaver, Ph.D. (Parker) that elaborately constructs a back story of the discovery of the bracelet.  You would be advised to tread cautiously around the entire narrative and the archaeology contained in it.

Case in point: “Figure 6. A wall painting of the king, damaged by time and the elements, yet the trained eye can pick out Tutankhamen’s favorite bracelet."  
This is glorious bullshit. It is the god Amen and from the temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahari.

Like their fake Mesopotamian cylinder seal that is also shared around the internet as proof of nuclear technology in say 3000 BCE (lol), this article by Acme is a form of elaborate publicity stunt, come smug joke on the ignorance of the general public.  But no member of the public is ever going to be able to afford these expensive gadgets.  I personally find the attitude behind this highly questionable.  Rather like a bunch of marketing people creating a history blog to sell pseudoscience news to the less worldly in order to make quick cash (the amount of ads on a site is the clue).

The unbroken seal on the doors to the 3rd shrine. Photo: Harry Burton, © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford.
‘Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation’

5.  The unbroken seal on the door(s) to the tomb
The final object is the viral black and white photograph showing two looped handles tied together with rope.  The rope tie is clearly on metal plated double doors that have a few hieroglyphs visible.  This is a photograph taken in about 1923 by the Tutankhamen excavation photographer Harry Burton, so it is technically legit.  However, it is shared almost everywhere on the internet as the original seal on the outside doors to the tomb. 

It is not. 

Instead the photograph was taken in the Burial Chamber of the tomb, and in fact it is the rope seal on the unopened doors to the 3rd golden shrine, one of the 4 shrines that surrounded the king’s sarcophagus.  Perhaps the original error occurred with someone sharing the image and mentioning the stamp sealing on the clay bond on the rope tie, but that does not quite excuse the outcome. 

Close up of the broken clay seal from the 3rd shrine. Photo: Harry Burton, © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford.
‘Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation’

The real external doors to the tomb were plain and sealed with clay stamp impressions from various administrative seals. Many of these had the symbols of the Theban necropolis on them, which show bound prisoners (symbols of chaos).  There were 8 sealing types on the external doors to the tomb, not one seal.  Pinterest is again a leading offender for spreading this misinformation, but history sites also weigh in like Gizmodo, History Collection, and Rare Historical Photos, etc. There are in fact too many to name.

Photo: Harry Burton, © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford.
‘Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation’

And to close, images from the original excavation of this tomb were taken by the photographer Harry Burton and are copyright of the Griffith Institute at the University of Oxford.  Please get their permission to use their photos and credit your source, any history site or blog that has not done this breaches copyright law.

I thank the Griffith Institute for granting me permission to use their photographs.
Griffith Institute, University of Oxford, ‘Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an excavation’.

Alabaster jar.  Left, a general rule of thumb: don't put your name on dumb errors. This ugly beasty from the replica tour was labelled as an original by Facebook Egyptomanialovers.  Right, original jar in display case in Cairo museum.  Photo Hans Ollermann at Flickr

Beyond these errors that are perpetuated on the internet, there are of course random examples of modern art or tourist souvenirs now and then masquerading as the real object.  If you take an interest in this topic I recommend you read some credible books or go to the Griffith Institute website where nearly every object from the tomb is meticulously documented (with photographs).  I say nearly every, because a few objects slipped under the radar as gifts to the Egyptian king and to patrons.

Trust no-one on the internet ...

Andrea Sinclair

After diligently researching all this information, if you have nothing better to do and want a time consuming game that tests your new skills at recognising real Tut stuff, go to the Famous Pharaohs blog and take a stab at spotting the few authentic objects amongst all the dross.  It is not however a very good drinking game, there simply aren't that many.

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