Unravelling the Secrets of Tutankhamun

Unravelling the Secrets of Tutankhamun
Una Griškeviča
After a lengthy period of preparatory and organisational work, “The Amber of Tutankhamun”, the closing exhibition of the “Amber Vein” thematic line of the “Riga 2014” Programme, opened at the Art Museum Riga Bourse on the 15th of November. “We wanted to organise the exhibition so that it would be interesting for any visitor,” the head of the museum and one of the curators of the latest exhibition, Daiga Upeniece tells the “Riga 2014” culture portal. She is very happy that the exhibition showcases several truly unique items that tell about the far places that Baltic amber travelled to in the past, and which have never been exhibited in Latvia before.

As the Art Museum Riga Bourse Head Daiga Upeniece begins to tell us the story of the exhibition, she explains that “The Amber of Tutankhamun” is one of the oldest projects in the “Amber Vein” thematic division: “Maybe it even goes further back in the past as we actually had the idea of organising such an exhibition even when the “Amber Vein” thematic line of the “Riga 2014” Programme did not even exist yet. At that time, we were already working in Egypt, going on scientific expeditions, and then President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga was our patroness. There was an international group of scientists, including representatives of France, Germany, Latvia, which went to the Karnak Temple to measure the pylons and on to the Djoser Pyramid. This is when we met Egyptologists, and later on visited the Louvre, the Department of Egyptian Antiquities – they, too, are very active Egyptologists who work at various excavation sites in Egypt, taking all kinds of measurements.

We had the idea of issuing a scientific catalogue in Riga, and decided to do this in collaboration with the Department of Egyptian Antiquities of the Louvre, the representatives of which said after arriving in Riga and seeing our museum’s collection that, albeit small, it was very valuable!” 

During the later expeditions to Egypt, our museum representatives met the very energetic Egyptologist Alain Zivie, who still continues to work in Egypt. Commenting on this meeting, Daiga Upeniece says: “Some coincidences in life are quite odd: there he found the tomb of Meryre, and it is the sculpture of this priest that is the best item of our collection! That’s how our friendship began, we have even organised exhibitions together, and Alain Zivie also attended the opening ceremony for our exhibition.”

When the idea of the “Riga 2014” thematic line “Amber Vein” was suggested, the exhibition “The Amber of Tutankhamun” was already conceptualised. It was meant to tell about the faraway places that amber from the Baltic Sea had travelled to in the past, including what was possibly the furthest point – the tomb of Tutankhamun and the legend that pieces of amber found on Tutankhamun’s chest had arrived from the Baltics. “We were intrigued and began our study.

And wherever the project took us, the legend was always the same – it was, indeed, Baltic amber!”

However, no analyses have been performed and no scientific researches have been done, and nor are there any facts to confirm this. That is why representatives from our museum went to Egypt to see firsthand what it actually was.

“Of course, Tutankhamun [or his mummy, to be more precise] are no longer in the tomb, it has been moved to the Cairo Museum. At the time, Latvian Ambassador to Egypt Iveta Šulca also got involved, and we went on a joint expedition to the Cairo Museum to look for Tutankhamun’s amber. It was disheartening that, while studying the items exhibited at the museum – multiple bracelets, jewellery, armour – we saw a lot of gemstones that resembled amber. But it turned out that, although Tutanhkamun did want to have Baltic amber very much, our lands are too far away, which is why carnallite was used instead – a mineral that can be found in the desert and that is visually similar to amber – but is not amber.” These items were then sorted to determine which of them contained carnallite and which – amber. “Eventually we concluded together with the Cairo Museum’s experts that amber was most probably incorporated in his breastplate. It is a very complex piece of armour, made of small pieces of enamel, resembling small fish scales. There were a lot of symbols, including four small amber pendants – right over the heart to protect the pharaoh.”


Daiga Upeniece reminds us that amber is also known as the Sun Stone, whereas for Ancient Egyptians, the sun god Amun-Ra was the chief deity. It can therefore be concluded that amber was considered a very valuable gemstone in Egypt.

“We would like to think that it is Baltic amber. However, given that this item has not been taken out of the showcase for a very long time, and taking into account its respectable age… Nonetheless, our exhibition is about amber, therefore we named it “The Amber of Tutankhamun”. We’ll leave it up to future researchers to finally do a spectral analysis on this amber item some day.” 

On the other hand, spectral analysis has been performed on some other very valuable artefacts – Ancient Greek jewellery from colonies in Southern Italy. One of these is the so-called Alianello Diadem, which has travelled to Riga from Basilicata: “Our amber was very popular at this Greek colony in the 7th-4th centuries BC, and it was used extensively in jewellery. It needs to be added that they have enough of amber in Southern Italy, so the question is – why did they need our amber? So we did the analysis to determine what kind of amber they used, and laboratory tests confirmed that amber used in making the Alianello Diadem was indeed from the Baltics.” 

Daiga goes on to say, “For instance, the part of the exhibition that tells about the Amber Road will offer visitors the opportunity to enter the world of Tutankhamun and inspect his armour.” This, however, will only be possible virtually because, as we have already mentioned, the pharaoh’s armour has long fallen apart and is located in the Cairo Museum, in such condition that makes transporting these artefacts anywhere impossible. “But there are photographs of the armour, and one such photograph can also be seen at the exhibition.” This part of the exhibition also tells about the very beginnings of the Amber Road, showcasing the oldest objects dated about 4th millennium BC. “These are our finds that come from the National History Museum of Latvia. The exhibition continues with the said artefacts from Greek colonies, located halfway between Egypt and the Baltics.” And it is in this section of the exhibition where the Alianello Diadem is displayed:

“I believe this item keeps the story of “Amber Vein” and amber roads together. The diadem, found by chance, has now become the central object of the entire project.”

The ancient diadem was created by Phoenicians, in a place that is now part of Syria. From the Phoenician workshops it travelled to Southern Italy, where a Greek colony was located. “The Alianello Diadem comprises little pieces of amber, Mediterranean seashells, Phoenician glass beads (for which the Phoenicians were famous, as not only amber, but glass beads were valuable jewellery at the time), ivory and Egyptian scarabs, all woven onto a single strand. So you might say that this diadem is where all the countries and civilisations of the ancient world meet each other,” says Daiga Upeniece, adding though that the origins of ivory in the diadem has not yet been established. “The ivory could have come from India or Africa – either way, it had travelled a very long distance to finally become part of the diadem. Just like the amber pieces did.”

Of course, the Alianello Diadem will have a very special display case, so no one would even think of touching it. This is a unique exhibit, as it was made in the 7th century BC.

Has anyone tried to determine how Baltic amber ended up in Southern Italy, and whether there were routes along which it could be transported? Daiga Upeniece replies that quite a lot of research work has been done, and the catalogue released by the museum also features Ilze Loze’s version of how Baltic Amber Roads came into being. “But there’s just as many opinions as there are people. After all, we have to remember that the roads are completely different today – an item is loaded into a vehicle at point A, then unloaded at point B so the recipient could begin to use it. At that time, it could just as well take several generations for an item of amber to travel from the Baltic Sea to Southern Italy.”

Daiga Upeniece says of the “Amber Road” section of the exhibition, it is the museum staff’s interpretation of the phenomenon. “We have been keenly following all the “Amber Vein” exhibitions, each of which dealt with the Amber Road in one way or another, including the exhibitions at the Museum of Natural History, the National History Museum, and the Museum for History of Medicine. We are the last ones in this thematic division, and we wanted the closing exhibition to top it off with a nice emphasis, make it the icing on the cake – and that is what the Alianello Diadem is!” 

The exhibition, which is essentially devoted to Ancient Egypt, brings together, for the first time, the Ancient Egyptian art collections of the Baltic museums, Daiga Upeniece emphasises. “For the first time, we have analysed how the collections were created, and, surprisingly enough, the process was quite similar in all three countries: the latter half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century were the most fruitful periods, which is also when the first Egyptologists emerged, including in Latvia. At the heart of the exhibition are items from what used to be the Oriental Office of the University of Latvia, created and cherished by Latvian Egyptologist Francis Balodis (1882–1947), the private collection of Sergei Kovler (1881–1960), and Ancient Egyptian artefacts from Kurzeme Province and Dom Museum.

The Estonians’ experience is a little different – the Egyptian art collection of their History Museum started out in the first half of the 19th century as a collection of antiquities and rarities, and Ancient Egypt, of course, was always part of such collections. But this particular collection has some truly excellent items, which neither we nor the Lithuanians have.”

The famous Riga mummy is also displayed at the exhibition, although the most noteworthy element thereof is a portrait on the lid of the sarcophagus, an outstanding work of art.

The mummy itself, however, has not been preserved too well as the mummification process had not been meticulous enough. Furthermore, the exhibition showcases not only mummies but also individual mummy parts. There are such items – mummy legs and arms – in the museum’s collection, but they were never displayed before for ethical reasons. This time, however, it was decided that now is the right time to show them to the public, as well as fish and cat mummies. “By the way, we determined during expert examinations that our mummy is a “boy”, albeit without a name,” comments Daiga Upeniece.

Artist Martins Vizbulis was commissioned to work on visualisations for the exhibition. In the Main Hall of the museum, he has arranged light sources so as to resemble the lighting techniques employed by Ancient Egyptians – with the help of mirrors, and Daiga Upeniece is very pleased with the result. She also reminds that, to a great extent, the exhibition tells about the afterlife as most exhibits have come from tombs.

One more important exhibit is top-quality reproductions of the Papyrus of Ani, also known as the Book of the Dead. The Papyrus of Ani is a 24-metre scroll with beautiful illustrations held in the collection of the British Museum.

Hollywood films may give the impression that Ancient Egypt was a place full of horrors, where mummies attacked people and scarabs tried to crawl under your skin, adds Daiga Upeniece. “But in reality Ancient Egypt had very refined culture, very well-developed science and art, a colourful and vibrant country! To this day, Ancient Egyptian temples bear yellow, red and green colours of paintings, and the colours in the said Papyrus of Ani have also been preserved. Egypt is not something gloomy and dark, on the contrary – Egypt stands for very vibrant colours. I therefore hope that the exhibition will create the right impression – not the kind of beliefs popularised in the 19th and 20th centuries, but a true picture of Ancient Egypt,” says Daiga Upeniece, urging the public to come and see the exhibition.

Finally, Daiga Upeniece reminds us that visitors at the museum have a chance to participate in the interactive game “The Gate to Egypt” – opportunity to study artefacts in virtual environment with the help of stereo 3D and Kinect technology. Every exhibit can be viewed closer in the virtual environment, a chance to see and discover something new that would be impossible to see if a given item was in a display case. In addition, the exhibition is accompanied by a number of related events: the “Conversations in the Museum” series, “Pharaoh’s Workshop”, lectures, the game for Families with Children – “Ancient Egypt: Tomb Explorer”, and others. More information is available at the website of the Art Museum Riga Bourse.


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