Q & A w/ King Tut Curator, 18 Artifacts Now Missing from Cairo Collection

Grace Gouker


Dr. David Silverman is curator of the nationally touring King Tutankhamun exhibit soon to open at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Dr. Silverman curated the original King Tut traveling exhibit in the 1970s, and is now back at the helm again, this time with the renowned Dr. Zahi Hawass at his side.

Grace Gouker: Did incestuous birth have anything to do with Tut’s death?

David Silverman: Tutankhamun’s parents were most likely brother and sister.

When you have incest, there’s always the possibility of genetic problems with the offspring. Sometimes these genetic differences are negative, sometimes they’re positive—take Cleopatra, for instance. She somehow managed to be a genius even though her predecessors were morons.

With Tut, it’s unclear whether the things he died from were genetic. Excavations guided by artistic renditions of the pharaoh don’t make this easier — a lot of the representations of Tut that we find were guided by the royal workshops which depicted Tut they way he wanted to look like, or what the politics indicated he should look like.

GG: So what’s the explanation, then, for his death, if not from a culmination of genetic malaise?

DS: My guess is that he was in a weakened state. When you have a weakened immune system with the malaria and the necrosis, anything could have caused the death.

GG: Whatever happened to the hypothesis that he’d been struck in the head, causing a major — and mortal — fracture?

DS: Well, [the fracture] showed up on the X Rays in the 1960s. Because X Rays were rather limited, it wasn’t until they did the CT Scans that they realized that that was actually just a settling of the embalming material.

GG: Why are we still so fascinated with Tut? Despite his unsolved death, his teenaged rule doesn’t particularly stand out.

DS: There are historical texts that talk about his involvement in battle. We have to remember that he was 19 when he died, and 19 then and 19 now are two different things. Other rulers took over when they were in their very early teens, and were involved in battles shortly thereafter.

His involvement in the counter-revolution is also very notable. He restored the worship of Amun after [Akhenaten] passed.

GG: Is Tut’s unexpected death the reason for his tomb being the size and style that it is?

DS: That’s a difficult thing to know. When a king came to the throne, the first thing he did was prepare for his burial. So even though he became pharaoh at nine years old, it’s very likely they were preparing [his tomb] for him. Either they didn’t complete digging through all that bedrock to make the tomb, or his predecessor decided to give him his own tomb.

GG: Apart from the gold sandals and the coffinette, which piece in the exhibit are you most excited to have?

DS: This exhibit is very special to me. I was the curator of the first exhibit, but it was organized by the Met, so a lot of the pieces were picked before I was asked to come on board. This time I had the opportunity, along with Dr. Zahi Hawass, to choose some of the artifacts. 

Everybody thinks of the pharaohs as these god-like beings. Well, to bring them down to our level, we have a toilet seat in the exhibit.

GG: Well, they were only human.

DS: And we have a block statue of one of Tut’s courtiers, which is basically the closest that the Egyptians came to cubism.

GG: What’s your stance on “The Curse of the Pharaohs”? I know it’s probably the most irritating question you’re ever asked (and always asked), but I just have to know.

DS:Let me just tell you—there are things called, “Magical Bricks,” in Tut’s tomb. They’re placed in the four corners of the burial chamber to prevent evil demons from coming in from the north, south, east, and west. That is the only, “curse,” that is in Tut’s tomb. So that’s it! Magical bricks! The curse is really that people believe in something that doesn’t exist, and they don’t learn that what they’re talking about actually does exist, but not in the way they think.

GG: So the exhibit comes without the risk of permanent disfigurement, family deaths, asteroids destroying your house, and rivers running with blood upon seeing the jars that contained Tut’s internal organs upon mummification. Brendan Fraser will not need to guide you through this one. 

DS: Haha, indeed. 


After this interview, the political riots in Cairo were coming to a close upon President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. On February 13th, Dr. Zahi Hawass, Antiquities Minister in Egypt, confirmed that 18 pieces were missing from various collections within the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and that 70 pieces were damaged. Two of the missing pieces included gilded wooden statues of King Tutankhamun, with the most valued piece stolen being a limestone statue of Tut’s father, Akhenaten. 

The Egyptian Museum is currently being protected by heavy security, with efforts to track down the missing objects underway. Curiously, the security systems and workers were on guard when the looting occurred.