Tutankhamun, International Man of Mystery

January's lecturer, Dr. Marian Feldman, received her BA in Art History at Columbia University and her Ph. D. from Harvard. She is currently Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Art at the University of CA, Berkeley.  Dr. Feldman has published widely, with one of her most recent articles appearing in the newly published Oxford Encyclopedia of Egyptology.

Dr. Feldman's lecture was entitled: Tutankhamun, International Man of Mystery. She opened her lecture by reminding the audience that Tutankhamun ruled Egypt only briefly about 1330 BC, and  that many stories surrounded the discovery of his tomb, a number of which have lingered since. What, she suggested, might not be so well known or familiar, was the man himself who, as the head of one of the most  powerful political states of its day, was engaged in complex, international diplomacy and intrigue.  It is this “international man of mystery” she proceeded to explore.

In preparing her remarks, Dr. Feldman drew particularly upon the so-called “Amarna Letters”, which were found in the ruins at Akhetaten [modern day El Amarna].  When translated these letters - written in Akkadian, the diplomatic language of the day - proved to be correspon-dence exchanged between various rulers throughout the ancient Near East.  She also investigated the lavish and luxurious works of art that were the gifts exchanged between Great Kings, as well as given by vassal kings to their Great King - so-called, tribute gifts.  Dr. Feldman noted that several of the treasures found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, destined to accompany him into the afterlife, are clearly such gifts, and can be readily identified by their un-Egyptian decorative motifs.

Tutankhamun was probably born at Akhetaten. The city served as the administrative center for the empire during Akhenaten's [Amenhotep IV] reign.  Throughout the reigns of his 18th Dynasty predecessors, Egypt had grown steadily richer and more powerful, extending its empire south into Nubia, north well into the Levant, and as far east as Mesopotamia.  In particular, during the reign of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten's father, Egypt had reached exceptional levels of wealth and influence. Thus foreign dignitaries came and went routinely between Egypt and their homelands. Many of them are depicted in tomb and monument decorations from the period.

Though Akhenaten is believed to have had little time for diplomatic affairs, being fully engrossed in the religious changes he hoped to affect, he does not appear to have ignored international relations altogether. The Amarna archive of some 382 known letters, written on clay tablets in Akkadian, and using cuneiform script, dates from the Late Bronze Age.   Discovered in the 1880s and the early 1900s, the letters span the period from about regnal year 30 of Amenhotep III, to approximately the first year of Tutankhamun's reign when Akhetaten was abandoned and the capitol moved back to Memphis - a period of not more than 30 years.

The letters form two groups: international correspondence, that exchanged between the ”Great Kings“; and vassal letters, sent to the king by lesser states over which he exerted control. The international letters reflect correspondence between equals, in which both the sender and receiver address each other as politically independent rulers of equal status.  Among these we find the kings of Egypt, Hatti, Mitanni, Assyria, Babylon, Cyprus and the yet-to-be-located state of Arzawa, which was probably in Western Turkey. The letters describe equal relations between independent states. The vassal letters, on the other hand, are letters sent to the Egyptian king by the rulers of petty kingdoms who owed allegiance to Egypt, such as Byblos and Tyre. This group is comprised almost  wholly of letters sent to Egypt’s king, and reflect a clearly vassal relationship.  The greeting formulas are different from the inter-national letters, being exclamations of deference and obedience, and take such stereotypical formats as, “I fall at the feet of my lord, my sun, seven time and seven times”.  The relationship is clearly one of an inferior writing to a superior upon whom he is dependent. Dr. Feldman noted, however, that such obsequious protestations do not necessarily accurately reflect the relationship between the correspondents, due to the highly stylized and formulaic rhetoric, which played such an important part in the foreign affairs negotiations of the day.

Comparative texts found elsewhere include a cache of letters excavated at Hattusa, the capitol of the Hittite Empire - a kingdom which rivaled Egypt throughout this period. The Hattusa cache covered a much greater span of time, beginning in the late 14th century BCE and ending in the 13th century BCE.  Fragments of more than 100 letters, exchanged between the kingdoms of Egypt and Hatti, have survived, including the famous request from an Egyptian princess, asking for a Hittite prince in marriage. Many of the documents concern relations between Egypt and Hatti during the reigns of Egypt's king Ramses II, and Hatti's king Hattushili III.

These letters offer some interesting insights into the diplomacy of the Late Bronze Age. Dr. Feldman noted that, ”written in 1st or 2nd person, they preserve an immediacy and directness of personality generally suppressed in more ’historical‘ or annalistic documents.  As diplomatic documents, they are [nonetheless] carefully composed and conform to an accepted protocol regarding standard phrases and greetings, the structure of the main body, and the types of inform-ation communicated.“  They provide a means of viewing the international relations of these ”palace-based communities of rulers that formed a network of interactions over the entire extent of the ancient Near East“, as well. Their vassals did not play in this power game for the most part, though some enjoyed considerable autonomy and there was clearly constant maneuvering to better one‘s position in the hierarchy.  Assyria, for example, ultimately rose to great power, overcoming its Mitanni overlord, which ultimately became Assyria‘s vassal.

According to Dr. Feldman, the international relations between the great powers had a ”clearly defined nature and followed strict conventions of form, structure and content“, which can be readily seen in the letters. Elaborate, opening salutations are followed by the main body of the letter, which is couched in very personal terms. Particularly, the terminology used to define the relationship between the Great Kings was as a brother addressing a brother on equal terms. Thus alliances became a ”kinship“, which was ”fashioned to [reflect an] extended international ’family‘“, and formed a continuous cycle of exchanges. Opulent gifts, me-ssengers who physically carried the letters, and daughters who were sent to become wives to the king, as well as a vast array of lesser "greeting" gifts, gave ”concrete form to [this] ephemeral exchange“.
Dr. Feldman noted that the ”importance of the reciprocal exchanges surfaces repeatedly and conspicuously as a nec-essary component of international relations“. She noted that this fact is clearly spelled out in a draft of a letter from the Hittite king to the new Assyrian king. He states: ”It is the custom that when kings assume kingship, the [other] kings, his equals in rank, send him appropriate greeting gifts“  (Kbo 114 recto 3-10).  Any disruption in this cycle of reciprocal correspondence and gift giving brought on a reprimand as well.

A close examination of the burial goods from Tutankhamun‘s tomb reveals various objects which are distinctly unEgyptian in their decoration. Dr. Feldman addressed several of these objects, stating that she believes that ”based on their decorative motifs and iconography,  [they] may, in fact, have been exchanged as gifts during diplomatic interactions or interdynastic marriages, [and that] they were internationally produced and crafted to serve a diplomatic function of strengthening ties between [rulers of equal rank]“.
The first object investigated is a gold dagger whose handle is inlaid with alternating bands of gold and lapis lazuli, housed in a decorated gold sheath. The sheath is gold-embossed, with ornate animals and vegetation. Most of the animals form attack scenes in which hunting dogs or wild cats leap upon gazelles or calves attempting to sink their teeth into the animal. The gazelle or calf, in turn, is shown springing into action.  The plant motifs include a very distinctive volute-palmette, and smaller, vine-like plants which spiral throughout the scenes. Tutankhamun‘s cartouche is embossed at the very top of the sheath.  Bearing a similar decorative motif are gold foil panels, which originally decorated a royal chariot.  Again the predominate motif is of vicious animals attacking springing gazelles, with the same volute-palmettes as appear on the knife sheath. A third object bearing this distinctive decoration is an inlaid wooden chest. Though the young king and his queen appear on the cover of the chest, the sides have the same animal attack scenes interspersed with similar vegetation.

An alabaster ointment jar, topped with a reclining lion, is incised with animal attack scenes, volute-palmettes, and other lush vegetation, which fills the spaces between the attack vignettes. All are stained blue. The king‘s cartouche is incised on the back of the young lion.
Finally, an exquisite linen tunic bears decoration along the hem and around the neck that contains the same animal attack scenes and volute-palmettes, along with a cartouche of the king incorporated into the neck decoration.

Dr. Feldman stated that these decorations all contrast strikingly with traditional Egyptian decorative styles seen on the rest of Tutankhamun‘s grave goods.  Instead, they compare favorably with material found at such sites as Ugarit, Kition in Cyprus, at Mycenae, in Anatolia, and with ivories found on the island of Delos in the Aegean.

Dr. Feldman believes that what we are seeing is a ”shared artistic tradition composed of: 1) the skilled working of high-value materials; 2) a common inventory of object-types, 3) a restricted repertoire of iconographic themes; and 4) a consistent compositional deployment of these themes. Most commonly the objects are, ”furnishings or furniture attachments, containers, and military instruments [e.g., weapons, chariot decorations], all made from luxury materials such as gold, silver and ivory“. The main themes are comprised of combative attacks/hunting scenes and/or ”antithetical animals“ and stylized vegetation arran-gements. When hunting animals are incorporated both the hunter and the prey are depicted with their legs extended horizontally, in what Dr. Feldman refers to as a ”flying gallop pose“. The vegetation always includes the volute-palmettes, which generally bracket attack vignettes, forming associative relationships, vice narrative ones. When, occasionally, humans are incorporated they are insignificant to the action and the design.

Dr. Feldman stated that the underlying meaning of these themes can be found by examining traditional decorative themes from Mesopotamia and Egypt, from which she believes they were derived. She defined these motifs as ”bespeak[ing] a universalized statement of kingship, embracing the paired aspects of protection and benefaction, [in which] the animal combats refer to military prowess and control of natural forces. The elaborate vegetation relates to agricultural fertility and prosperity of the land, symbolically depicted as harmonious and ordered in the.compositions“.  Yet, no attributes specific to any one of the cultures or religions of the period can be tied directly to these motifs. Instead they are generic. Scholars have sought, over the years, to tie the volute-palmette to the ”sacred date palm“ of Mesopotamia or to the combined lotus and papyrus of Egypt, but the elements are so hybridized that no one source can be attributed. Thus the luxury objects such as the gold dagger, unguent jar, and inlaid chest can only be connected with each other based on their decorative motifs, and through their archaeological context. All are identifiable to the Late Bronze Age, and all are associated with royalty, i.e., Tutankh-amun.
Dr. Feldman summarized that ”the use of motifs drawn from different cultural regions and combined in consistent ways on small-scale luxury items expressed an artistic tradition [that was] not specifically assoc-iated with any one region“. Where we know the archaeological context, it is always associated with the highest levels of society and the iconography is associated with kingship. She stated that, ”taken together, the evidence points to the use of these luxury goods by royals or high official elites spread over a geographically diverse range of cultural and political regions.“

The letters generally tell little about the gift items, save that they were made of precious materials by skilled craftsmen. Only occasionally is an object described sufficiently to tie it to a known object. Such is the case of ”one gold container with one ibex in it‘s center“ (EA-14) which is listed among gifts sent to Akhenaten by the king of Babylonia, and which seems to describe an object found in Tutankhamun‘s tomb.

Dr. Feldman commented that there are parallels between the letters and the types of gifts in terms of ”form“ and ”content“.  In other words, they ”represent parallel manifestations of a single phenomena, namely an international community of palace-based kingdoms bound together by widespread reciprocal exchanges“.  The gift and letters, in fact, formed ”a visual vehicle for the formation and maintenance of ties that bound the disparate polities into a tightly knit community.”

Much anthropological work has been done over the years on ”reciprocal exchanges manifested physically in the form of gifts“. Dr. Feldman noted that according to these studies, ”gift exchange creates obligatory ties binding the participants in a continuous cycle of positive interaction, allowing otherwise unrelated individuals to maintain close, personalized bonds; ”a relationship between equals that is independent, and unchanging“. She believes that the letters from Amarna and Hattusa confirm this situation. She also noted that this process can be used equally well for manipulation, in pursuit of bettering one‘s position or level of prestige, relative to other participants in the game.  Though the ideal was ”parity among ’brothers‘“, the reality was often somewhat different.

Dr. Feldman concluded by stating that ”it was essential that Tutankhamun, as the ruler of Egypt, participate in the international game of the day, including the deployment of messenger-ambassadors who carried important salutations between rulers [and].the exchange of priceless luxury goods that physically manifested friendly feeling and well-wishing. By associating himself with such hybridized, unEgyptian appearing luxury goods [as those described above] we catch a brief glimpse of the young Pharaoh as an international man and diplomat.“

  • Nancy Corbin
For a membership packet either write
ARCE Northern California Chapter
P.O. Box 11352
Berkeley, CA 94712-2352

or email Membership Director, Betty Bussey

Contact Joan Knudsen by email at pakhet@uclink4.berkeley.edu for further information on ARCE/NC events or by mail at P.O. Box 11352, Berkeley, CA., 94704-2352.
Return to Archives

Return to Homepage

Page Design and Content by Al Berens. All Rights Reserved
Copyright 2001 by Suredesign Graphics