King Tut's Golden Shrines

King Tut's Golden Shrines

Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews

A view inside the innermost Shrine of Tutankhamun

Just behind the blocking of the Burial Chamber entrance in the Tomb of Tutankhamun, Howard Carter and his assistants were met by what appeared to be a wall of gilded wood inlaid with dazzling blue faience. What they were actually seeing was the outermost of a group of nested shrines that protected the king's sarcophagus. It was a carefully built construct mostly built of cedar and held together by tenons of oak, Christ's Thorn wood and bronze. Within this shrine were contained a pall frame, a second, third and fourth inner shrine and then the sarcophagus.

Each shrine was copper-bound at its lower edge and fitted at its eastern end with double folding doors. The doors were held shut by ebony bolts sliding within massive, silver-coated staples. Two other staples on each door were intended to receive a cord binding and seal. However, on the outermost shrine, neither the cord nor the sealing was present, though on the second and third shrines, these corded seals not only remained, but were intact. The door of the fourth (innermost) shrine had never been sealed.

Isis and Nephthys spread  their wings protectively over the interior end panel of the third ourter  Shrine (No 238).

These shrines were extremely fragile when discovered by Carter. Their gilded gesso surfaces had parted in places due to the shrinkage of the base wood. Furthermore, the shrines so closely filled the confines of this hot, stuffy chamber that their disassembly into 51 sections, some weighing as much as half a ton, and their removal from the tomb was no easy task. According to Howard Carter, "We bumped our heads, nipped our fingers, we had to squeeze in and out like weasels, and work in all kinds of embarrassing positions". Not until the end of the second season, after "eighty-four days of real manual labour", was the work of dismantling completed. At that point the panels of the shrines lay propped against the walls of the Burial Chamber, while their roof sections were in the Antechamber of the tomb. Conservation began in 1928, which used up over half a ton of paraffin wax. Only two seasons later were the shrines strong enough to be transported to the Cairo Museum where they could be properly examined.

Outer Shrine (no. 207)

The ourtermost Shrine,  no. 207.

The first shrine that Carter saw, the outermost one, measures 5.08 by 3.28 meters and was 2.75 meters (about 9 feet) high. With its battered walls and double-sloping roof, it bears a striking resemblance to the sed-festival pavilion in which the king achieved rejuvenation and rebirth. However, in Carter's view, the shape was chosen just as much for aesthetics as for ritual requirements.

It was built of heavy cedar panels some 32 millimeters thick. Both the inside and outside of these panels were gessoed, gilded and inlaid. The sides and rear panel of the shrine are decorated with double tyet-knot amulets of Isis and djed (stability) hieroglyphs of Osiris, all set against a brilliant blue faience background. A pair of protective Wadjet-eyes decorate what was intended to be the shrine's north side, but as erected these eyes actually faced south. The two doors are each adorned with a rectangular panel with sunk reliefs. The one on the left depicts a headless and pawless leonine creature, while the one on the right has a seated divinity with twin feather headdress, grasping an ankh (life) sign.

One of the sides of the  outermost shrine of Tutankhamun

In opposed to the exterior, the inside surfaces of the shrine are heavily inscribed with extracts from the Book of the Dead, spells 1, 134 and 141-2, and also from the Book of the Divine Cow (the legend of the Destruction of Mankind). The inside of the roof, the middle section of which was incorrectly inversed, is decorated with winged solar discs and 13 vultures.

Linen Pall (no. 209)

The Linen Pall of King Tut's funerary shrine

Situated between the outer shrine and the first inner shrine was poorly constructed, nine-piece gabled framework of gessoed, varnished and gilded wood measuring 4.32 by 2.93 meters. It stood 2.78 meters high. Over this framework had been carelessly spread a coarsely woven, dark brown linen pall, itself measuring 5.5 by 4.4 meters. It was actually made up of several widths of material that were sewn together.

Decorating the cloth were large, 4.7 centimeter marguerites of gilded bronze which had been sewn onto the fabric at intervals of 19.5 and 22 centimeters. J. H. Breasted thought that this pall was "like a night sky spangled with stars." Regrettably, while Carter and his team had expended considerable time and ingenuity trying to preserve this extremely fragile item, which had torn apart from the weight of its bronze sequins, it suffered extensive damage due to its having been left out in the open during the period that the American team was locked out of the tomb and laboratory (See the politics of the King Tut excavation). While Carter was extremely agitated on discovering the ruined condition of the fabric upon his return to work, he limited his remarks by saying that, "Well, anyway, it's your pall, not mine, and it's the only one in the world."

Professor Newberry and  his wife unroll the linen pall (no. 206) from the shrine of King Tut.

The Second Outermost Shrine (no. 237)

The Second Outermost Shrine (no. 237)

The second outermost shrine was different from the first both in its dimensions (3.75 meters deep by 2.35 meters wide by 2.25 meters high) and in its shape. Unlike that of the outermost shrine, the second shrine had a sloping roof which reached its maximum height above the entrance doors. The shrine appears to imitate, in its basic form, the shape of the Per-wer, the ancient shrine of Upper Egypt.

This shrine was made of 16 heavy wooden sections. Most of the surfaces, both inside and out, had been gessoed and covered with a layer of gold leaf. The roof was covered with thick black resin divided into squares by gilded bands of incised decoration. The exterior surface of each door was adorned with a superbly crafted depiction of the king before Osiris (left) and Re-Horakhty (right), executed in sunk relief. On the back of the shrine stand Isis and Nephthys, who as the sisters of Osiris would have been the principal mourners at the deified king's funeral. The remainder of the outer surface is decorated with texts and vignettes from various funerary compositions, including the Book of the Dead spells 1, 17, 26, 27 and 28, as well as a unique cryptographic funerary book which has as its theme the triumph of light.

The Second Outer Shrine

Inside, the decorative theme of this shrine is dominated by a figure of the winged sky-goddess Nut surmounting the hieroglyph for "gold" which, together with five vultures having outspread wings, decorates the ceiling. To either side of the goddess are spells from the Pyramid Texts and the Book of the Dead. The inside surface of the right-hand door carries a depiction of a donkey-headed herald and a ram-headed guardian of the underworld, while that of the left door panel carries a similar underworld guardian and a human-headed figure wearing a close-fitting cap. Above is text from spell 144 of the Book of the Dead, invoking the keepers of the gates of the underworld.

The right and left side panels of the shrine are decorated with sunk-relief vignettes illustrating the Book of the Dead spell 148 (the seven celestial cows, the bull of heaven and the four rudders of heaven). Another vignette depicts spells 141-2, with additional texts from spells 130, 133, 134 and 148. The back panel of the shrine is inscribed in finely delineated hieroglyphs with Book of the Dead spell 17, a statement of the solar doctrine.

One interesting feature of this shrine is that it has been re-inscribed. The more brilliant gilding of the cartouches reveals that the nomen "Tutankhamun" was written over an original name, a component part of which, according to Carter, was '-aten."

The Third Outer Shrine (no. 238)

The Third Outer Shrine (no. 238)

The third outer shrine is very similar in form to the second, with a sloping roof and, of course, somewhat smaller dimensions. It was 3.4 meters long by 1.92 meters wide with a maximum height of 2.15 meters.

This structure was built using ten separate sections, and like the first shrine, it is gilded over its entire surface and decorated in sunk relief with vignettes and extracts from various Egyptian funerary texts. The roof of the third outer shrine depicts a winged solar disc and a vertical row of eight spread-winged birds, including four vultures, two mythical serpent-headed vultures and two falcons. The sides of the shrine are inscribed with abridged versions of the second and sixth divisions of the Book of What Is in the Underworld (the Amduat). The outer faces of the doors and the back panel of the shrine are inscribed with extracts from spell 148 of the Book of the Dead, and are adorned with four ram-headed guardian figures and four heralds, each grasping one or two knives, and variously represented as human-headed, antelope-headed or crocodile-headed.

The Third Outer Shrine  of Tutankhamun

The decorative theme of the top of this shrine is balanced on the side of the roof with a similar decoration, consisting of a winged disc, five vultures, a serpent-headed vulture, a sixth vulture and a falcon. The inner walls of the shrine are decorated with processions of various gods, while on the inside door panels and end are shown Isis and Nephthys, their wings again outspread to protect King Tut.

The Innermost Shrine (no. 239)

The Innermost Shrine of Tutankhamun

The final, innermost of King Tut's four shrines measures 2.90 meters deep by 1.48 meters wide and 1.9 meters high. It was constructed from only five separate sections. We believe that it is a reconstruction in miniature of the prehistoric "Palace of the North", the Per-nu. Its has a barrel-vaulted roof, decorated in bas relief with kneeling figures of Isis, Nephthys, Selkis and Neith, alternating with Wadjet-eyes, recumbent Anubis dogs and vultures, each on a pylon. The right and left side panels depict, respectively, a procession of Imsety, Anubis, Duamutef and Geb, and Hapy, Anubis, Qebhsenuef and Horus between figures of Thoth supporting the sky. The end panel and the outside door panels show protective images of the winged Isis and her sister, Nephythys.

The ceiling of this shrine is adorned with a magnificent representation of the goddess Nut, again with outspread wings, flanked by the falcon-headed Horus. Once more, Isis.and Nephthys guard the doors, while the interior wall panels carry the text of spell 17 from the Book of the Dead.

The Sarcophagus

The Sarcophagus of King Tut, with its cracked lid

The Sarcophagus of King Tut, with its cracked lid

The sarcophagus measures 2.74 meters long by 1.47 meters wide and is 1.47 meters high. It was carved from a single block of the hardest quartzite and was supported at each corner upon a block of calcite (alabaster). According the J. H. Breasted:

"When Carter and I opened the doors of the third and fourth shrines and beheld the massive stone sarcophagus within, I felt for the first time the majesty of the dead Pharaoh's actual presence."

The sloping lid of the sarcophagus, with its winged sun disc at the head end and three vertical columns of incised hieroglyphs, was made of red granite, painted to match the yellow of the sarcophagus box. Obviously, the lid was not a match to the box, and Carter suggested that it was possibly a replacement for the intended lid, which had not been ready in time for the funeral. The lid was even cracked across the center, perhaps due to some accident at the time of its hurried installation. This crack was then filled with gypsum, which was itself touched up to blend in with the new color of the lid.

Drawing of the  Sarccophagus of King Tutankhamun

The decorative theme of the sarcophagus is dominated by the four tutelary deities, Isis, Nephthys, Selkis and Neith, carved in high relief to the traditional proportions of the Pre-Amarna, 18-square grid and delicately picked out in colors. They stand at each of the four corners of the sarcophagus box, their winged arms outstretched to envelop the box in a protective embrace. The box has a cavetto cornice at the top edge, which is balanced at the bottom by a dado of double tyet and djed amuletes. Each long side of the sarcophagus is adorned with one horizontal and six vertical columns of deeply incised hieroglyphs and at its westernmost end is an incised Wadjet-eye. The east and west ends of the box are similarly inscribed with a single horizontal band of text and fourteen vertical texts.

King Tut's coffin in his  sarcophagus

Carter says that "the crack (in the lid) greatly complicated our final effort, the raising of (the sarcophagus) lid." However, by passing angle irons beneath the long edges of the lid, permitting "it to be raised by differential pulleys as one piece", the difficulty was resolved. On February 12th, 1924, the tackle was brought into play. The ropes tightened and the ton and and a quarter granite lid slowly lifted into the air. According to J. H. Breasted:

"The sarcophagus lid trembled, began to rise. Slowly, and swaying uncertainly, it swung clear.

At first we saw only a long, narrow, black void. Then across the middle of this blackness we gradually discerned fragments of granite which had fallen out of the fracture in the lid. They were lying scattered upon a dark shroud through which we seemed to see emerging an indistinct form...."

See Also:

Tut's Tomb






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