The Why Files The Why Files --

2 archeologists exclaim: 'We dig common people!'
POSTED 10 MAR 2005

gold mask with textTut glut
The great leader Tutankhamun, pharaoh of the golden tomb, Boy King of the ages, is hitting the road again, accompanied by an awesome assemblage of grave goods from his own, and nearby, tombs. More than 100 artifacts, 3,300 to 3,500 years old, are sure to draw droves to the museums.

Tut is one mummy with his own frequent-flyer number. In the late 1970s, on his last American idyll, Tut attracted 8 million visitors. This time around, you can even ogle the bejeweled crock holding Tut's vital organs.

Why the excitement? Just glance at Tut's golden mask -- and ask if it wouldn't bring out the latent grave-robber in you...

The mask and other phenomenal gold work explain the sensational reaction to the discovery of Tut's tomb in 1922 by Egyptologist Howard Carter.

Long linen dress with sleeves, stained and worn with age.Tombs of many pharaohs were plundered over the centuries. Tut's tomb, cleverly disguised, was not.

You can visit Tut in L.A., Chicago, Fort Lauderdale or Philly over the next couple of years.

A dress from 2686 to 2181 BC, from an Old Kingdom tomb about 130 kilometers south of Cairo. Photo: University College London

Tomb boom
Give Boy King our best. But while you line up for a ticket for the monumental mummy, we Why Filers are wondering about the rest of us. What was life like for the masons who built Tut's tomb? For the farmers who grew his daily bread, or the bakers who baked it? What about Egypt's brewmeisters?

What does archeology say about everyday life?

Husks of emmer wheat from Egypt's Predynastic Period (3100 to 5300 BC). What can archeology tell us about the life of the farmers who grew this wheat? Photo: The Petrie Museum

Collection of ancient brown wheat husks.The question is easy to ask, but hard to answer. Rich folks like Tut got buried in tombs. Average Joes didn't get the pyramid treatment, not to mention a visit to the mummifier. Rich folks were often buried with nifty, glitzy grave goods -- objects intended to ease their passage into the afterlife. Poor people got the odd knife, blanket or bowl, if they got anything at all.

Early archeologists started by looking at obvious remains, says Mark Varien, research director at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Colorado. In the Western Hemisphere, the Aztecs, Maya and Incas all left monumental works that naturally attracted attention, much like the Egyptian pyramids. "Archeology focused on the material remains in the past that were the most obvious," says Varien. "In most cases, that resulted in focusing on the biggest temples, and the most politically and economically complicated societies of the past, because the material remains they left behind were the most grandiose, the most spectacular, and easiest to find."

 L: Severely shredded shirt from ancient Egypt. R. Distressed, modern jeans.
L: Notice the pleating near the top of this dress, found in an Egyptian tomb from 3000 to 2300 BC.
R: Modern jeans are perfectly in synch with the mummy look.
Left, courtesy: University College London

What are we learning from Egypt's ordinary skeletons?


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2022, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.