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Tut gets extreme makeover

Andreas F. Voegelin
Click for slideshow: A coffinette that contained Tutankhamun's mummified

liver is exquisitely crafted, even though the container is only 4 inches (11

centimeters) wide and 16 inches (39.5 centimeters) long. Click on the picture to

see the full coffinette and other artifacts from New York's King Tut exhibition.

King Tutankhamun's treasures have been on the road for a long, long time: Over the past five years, precious artifacts have been criss-crossing America, heading over to London, then back to Egypt, then back to America. Everywhere those artifacts have gone, museumgoers have gone crazy over the boy-king, just as they did during a traveling Tut exhibit in the 1970s. (Remember Steve Martin's classic Tut tribute, circa 1978?)

Tut mania continues to reigns supreme, especially now that the big tour has reached New York City, its last U.S. stop.

"A different generation of Tut mania is everywhere," Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, observed during a walkthrough of the "King Tut NYC" exhibition in midtown Manhattan.

But the Tut of today - or at least the image that Hawass and other experts have of the "golden boy" from 3,300 years ago - is not the Tut of 30 years ago, or even five years ago. High-tech studies of the mummy have led to an extreme makeover in the story that's told by the golden treasures.

The made-over story suggests a solution to the mystery surrounding Tut's death at the age of 19: He suffered from congenital ailments (including malformed feet) and likely died from a combination of a badly broken leg and a serious bout of malaria.

DNA tests have confirmed that Tut was the son of Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh whose monotheistic beliefs shook up Egypt's religious establishment. (Tut put things back the way they were, with that old-time polytheistic religion.) Genetic analysis also suggests that two tiny gilded coffins in Tut's tomb held the remains of his stillborn children, likely carried by Ankhesenamun, Tut's wife and sister (or half-sister).

David Silverman, an Egyptologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum who serves as the curator for the traveling exhibition, told me that the signs explaining the artifacts have had to be rewritten to reflect fresh findings.

"In our genealogical chart, we had question marks all over," he said. "Now, instead of those question marks, we can put in some solid lines connecting to Tutankhamun."

Yet more lines may become clearer in the weeks ahead. Hawass told me that he expected to make an announcement next month that would shed new light on the status of Nefertiti, Akhenaten's principal wife, and her daughter Ankhesenamun. Some speculate that the DNA will show Nefertiti to be Tut's mother, and Ankhesenamun to be Tut's full sister. The royal inbreeding of the 18th Dynasty may help explain Tut's congenital defects as well as the stillborn children.

All in the family

Family ties are a major theme in this King Tut exhibit - more so than in the "Treasures of Tutankhamun" show that toured back in the 1970s. Silverman was involved in curating both exhibitions, and he has structured the current show to begin with Tut's relatives.

"When I do exhibitions, I let the artifacts tell the story, and what I saw was, 'Here are the members of my family,'" Silverman said.

So, some of this exhibit's most stunning pieces actually feature the family: for example, the gilded funerary mask and coffin of Tjuya, Tut's great-grandmother ... or the seemingly modernistic bust of Akhenaten ... or the gilded wooden chair of Princess Sitamun, with its braided seat still intact.

But there's plenty of Tut's stuff as well: A painted wooden mannequin of the boy-king, which looks as if if were from the 1930s rather than 1330 B.C., marks the shift in focus from the family to Tutankhamun himself.  About 50 of the 130 artifacts in the exhibit have come from the treasure-filled tomb whose discovery created such a sensation in 1922.

The highlights range from a 16-inch-long golden coffinette that served as a receptacle for Tiut's mummified liver, to a golden vulture-and-cobra diadem that Tut actually wore in life and in death, to a golden ceremonial dagger and sheath that was placed among the mummy's wrappings.

Hawass explained to TODAY host Matt Lauer that the dagger was provided so the resurrected king could defend himself against wild beasts that got in his way.

"So he fights his way to the afterlife using this dagger?" Lauer asked.

"Yes," Hawass replied. (We have a slideshow that features the dagger and more than a dozen other artifacts from the exhibition, plus a TODAY video about Lauer's tour with Hawass.)

Missing artifacts, and a mummy

There are a couple of well-known treasures you won't find in the exhibition - at least not yet. Tut's golden funerary mask, which made such a splash during the earlier tour in the 1970s, must now be kept in Egypt because the government considers it too fragile to send abroad. And a chariot from the tomb has been held up in transit, due to the air-traffic disruption caused by Iceland's volcanic ash cloud.

The chariot will be put in one of the last rooms of the exhibition space, as a visual reference to Tut's death. It's now thought that Tut may have sustained his fatal leg injury as the result of a chariot accident. In the very last room you'll find another, even more graphic reminder of Tut's mortality: a full-scale replica of the unwrapped mummy.

Brendan Mcdermid / Reuters
Click for video: Zahi Hawass (center), secretary general of Egypt's Supreme

Council of Antiquities, shows a replica of King Tutankhamun's remains to Salah

Montaser during a preview of New York's King Tut exhibit. Click on the image to

take NBC News' video tour with Hawass and TODAY host Matt Lauer.

It may sound gruesome, but the glassed-in mummy was a hit with the schoolkids who went through the exhibition with me on Thursday - and it was a hit for Hawass as well. He said he hoped spectators would experience something like the thrill he felt when he gazed upon the actual mummy for the first time.

"When I met him face to face, it was one of the best moments in my life," Hawass said. "I felt the golden boy tremble in my heart."

It's been a great run over the past five years, but the Tut tour may finally be drawing to a close. "This may be the last exhibition of Tut artifacts traveling," said the show's creative director, Mark Lach of Arts and Exhibitions International.

Five years from now, you might have to go to Cairo to get a dose of Tut mania. Even today, Cairo is the best place to be if you're a fan of the pharaohs. But at least until next January, the next-best place is New York, New York.

More Tut tidbits:

  • The exhibition, titled "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," is on display at the Discovery Times Square Exposition through Jan. 2, 2011. Organizers include National Geographic, Arts and Exhibitions International, and AEG Exhibitions, with cooperation from the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. The latest Tut revelations will be the subject of an upcoming cover story in National Geographic.
  • Hawass created a stir during this week's New York visit by saying he wished the exhibition was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art rather than at the exposition facility, which he thought was "too commercial." He also called for the repatriation of Egyptian artifacts, including a 3,300-year-old mummy mask currently held at the St. Louis Art Museum.
  • New York's Tut exhibit may be making the biggest splash this week, but there's another traveling Tut show that's currently in Toronto and will be moving to Denver in July. Philadelphia's Franklin Institute is getting ready for a Cleopatra exhibit in June, and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts has an Egypt exhibit that focuses on a 4,000-year-old mummy mystery.
  • Most exhibitions offer books that explain how artifacts fit into a wider context, and the New York show is no different. The book version of "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of Pharaohs" is written by Hawass and published by National Geographic. If you're looking for a good overview of ancient Egyptian culture that's not tied to any particular exhibition, Silverman recommends his 2003 book, "Ancient Egypt." That sounds like a suitable selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club.

Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. You can also check out my book, "The Case for Pluto." This evening, I'll be signing copies at the Columbia Alumni Book Fair in New York.