Friday, 16 November 2007

the body vulnerable – an icon disrobed

the independent showed this unusual image on its front page last week, unusual in that it is the antithesis of the prevailing representation of ancient Egypt. the face of a teenage boy, desiccated and exposed, it is a world away from the immortal boy king we have come to know, encased in gold and almost overwhelmed by his symbols of earthly and divine power. that image is instantly recognisable, redolent with the weight of all that is iconic and trite about indiana jones style archaeology – mysterious, distant, othered, ‘the past as another country’. the signifier of the dubious glamour of the tomb raider, the treasure hunter; the death mask of tutankhamen is the sum of archaeology’s enduring appeal.

this new face of the boy king is the flip side to our relationship with the past, foregrounding several burning contemporary issues – the persistent newsworthiness of archaeology, as the vehicle for bringing ‘the past’ to life; the centrality of the image, of the visual as the medium of communication; the abiding fascination with excess, status and power; the impact of the physicality of the body to foster a sense of shared humanity across time and space.

tutankhamen is an archaeological superstar, a global icon, recognisable anywhere in the world. second perhaps only to the dinosaur he is every school child’s favourite subject, epitomising all that is popular about history and archaeology – the actual materiality of the past, the scale and sophistication that we feel we share with many ancient civilisations with their flashy buildings, recognisable urban planning, complicated engineering, familiar and re-assuring plumbing systems, plus a dash of intrigue, mystery and murder for good measure.

the boy king is regal, grand, powerful, entombed with all the trappings of status and success but as this new image illustrates he is vulnerable too, vulnerable both to the machinations of the power politics of the times, a familiar concept to us here and now, and to the weaknesses of his mortal body. it is these contradictions that have kept him in the headlines since the sensation and controversies surrounding his discovery and excavation by Howard Carter in 1922.

these dual aspects to his enduring appeal are aptly illustrated by the twin stories and headlines circulating at the moment. on the one hand we have the unwrapping and delicate preparations to return this newly preserved and revealed body to his final resting place, his tomb in the valley of the kings; on the other we have the export version, the symbols of power that mask and surround the boy/king, the smoke screen of majesty, the sarcophagus, the gold, the baubles and treasures, the marvels of ‘wonderful things’ currently exhibited and already visited by charles and camilla, our home grown dynastic family, our own embodiment of state/religion in the body of the royal family.

the 02 show is undoubtedly a showstopper, the first opportunity in this country since the 1970’s to see the myth and magic of ‘a wonder of the ancient world’, but the real story, the real magic is much simpler, captured in the face of a young man with a slight overbite, face to face with fragile human being, surviving and intruding into our own world via a shared obsession with immortality and celebrity.

the real wonder of archaeology is perhaps captured in this image of his feet, exposed as if he has just drawn his blanket up round his newly naked ears, bereft of all those trappings of power and glittering trinkets that no doubt litter the latest show. i think i might prefer to miss the bling of the dome and pop over to the manchester museum instead where you can wander to your hearts content amongst mummified cats and snakes, spot a pair or two of preserved sandals and if you are really eagle eyed a rather fetching sock that the boy king might appreciate….

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