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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 November 2007, 12:23 GMT
Tomb have and to hold

By Mario Cacciottolo
BBC News Magazine

The last Tutankhamun exhibition in 1972 saw queues around the block - which led Rod Coustan to meet his future wife Maja. Three children and 35 years later, the Magazine joined the couple for an exclusive preview of the new show.

The English, it is often said, like to queue.

While some other nationalities, this stereotype suggests, just stick out their elbows and get stuck into any line of people, the English wait patiently for something to actually happen.

Rod Coustan joined a queue 35 years ago. And something really happened.

Maja Coustan
He queue-jumped to get to me
Maja Coustan on the moment she met Rod

As he spent three hours in the snaking line outside the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum in London, he had an encounter that changed his life.

Somewhere up the line was Maja, a young Danish woman who had come to Britain with a friend to work as an au pair. Both were eager to see the relics from the tomb of the Egyptian boy king, in what was the blockbuster exhibition of the period.

Rod caught her eye, the two began talking, later fell in love and now, after 30 years of marriage, three children and much travelling, have come back for a sneak preview of the latest exhibition of relics from the famous tomb.

The moment

Through the tight security at the old Millennium Dome, now the O2 centre, and into the dim and eerie setting for the relics, Rod and Maja relive the moment they met.

Now and then
The Coustans at the exhibition and, inset, shortly after they met
As he peers into the glass cases and murmurs recollections, Rod - a towering man of 62 with a permanent twinkle in his eye - explains how as a 26-year-old he was waiting with a newspaper and a bar of rum and raisin chocolate when he caught the eye of Maja.

"I thought to myself 'I can't let that one go'," says Rod with a grin. "So I offered her some chocolate, we started chatting and went from there."

Maja, 54, giggles as she recalls the moment. "I had turned around and saw him looking at me over his newspaper. So I smiled, and threw my hair back over my shoulder. He was different to Danish guys because he was tall and dark, and I also found him quite handsome."

In this era when singletons go to ever increasing lengths to find a like-minded significant other, Rod and Maja found being in the same queue evidence enough of shared interests.

Grace and delicacy

"He queue-jumped to get to me," Maja explains, clearly still surprised by Rod's bold actions, as if someone from the queue all those years ago might suddenly appear and complain.

One of the new show's exhibits

"I can still see her face in the queue now," says Rod. "In fact, it's the strongest memory I have of the day, even more than the exhibition itself."

So do the memories come flooding back every time they hear mention of the name Tutankhamun?

"They certainly do," says Rod, as Maja nods her agreement. "I always tell people I met my wife in the queue for his exhibition."

The couple, who now live in Devon, have been joined for the trip by their three children - Lina, 26, Miriam, 24, and Sebastian, 21.

In two days this place will be swarming with members of the public. But for now, the Coustans can wander around in the darkness, occasionally punctured by glass cabinets and the light bouncing off the aged artefacts within - gold statuettes, ornate walking sticks, and other ornaments.

To see such beautiful objects, from so far away and long ago, created with such grace and delicacy, is a powerful experience.

Irritating music

It was this magic that drew people into hours-long queues 35 years ago, and has been drawing crowds ever since around the world.

Rod Coustan
The exhibition has emotional resonance for Rod Coustan
"It's much better laid out this time, there's much more space, although the music is getting on my nerves," says Maja gently, referring to the pseudo-atmospheric "aaahs" and "ooohs" leaking out from unseen speakers.

Upstairs the lighting is stronger and the exhibits larger, showing miniature boats which were intended to magically expand and be sailed in the afterlife.

It is here that Professor David Silverman who is the curator of the exhibition explains the significance of the 130 artefacts on display, and the 51 that directly relate to Tutankhamun.

Of those, 48 are from his tomb, while 80 of the items are from the 100 years before the boy king's life.

When asked the million-dollar question as to the reasons behind the enduring appeal of Tutankhamun, Prof Silverman smiles.

"I've been asked that many times, and there are many answers. These include the fact that many ancient cultures have images and language that are alien, but Egyptian art and language uses imagery that's recognisable.

"Even hieroglyphics uses symbols that are recognisable images that aren't scary. Also, never underestimate the power of movies."

Silver screen

Prof Silverman goes on to explain that classic films like The Mummy, from 1932 starring Boris Karloff, and the 1999 film of the same name starring Brendan Fraser, have done much to fuel the public's fascination with all things ancient Egyptian.

"I actually took Brendan through our exhibition and he's a big fan of it," says Prof Silverman with a dash of pride.

The Coustans' eldest daughter Lina Ficken, who is married to Neil, 29, is clearly impressed with the exhibition, not least because it brings to life a story which is a famous "family legend". But did the pair meet in a similar way?

"Not really," says Lina with an embarrassed giggle. "We met on the dance floor of a nightclub in Torquay."

King Tut would probably not approve.

Below is a selection of your comments:

I had to have two goes at seeing the 1972 exhibition. The first time, in August, the family queued all day and we got to the gates, only for the museum to be closed because of a bomb-scare. So Mum and I went back at half-term and got in then. It was a poignent time for us, as my late father - four years dead then - had seen the exhibits in situ in Egypt during his war service in 1943.
John Barton, Burgess Hill, UK

Ah... memories. I remember going to the King Tut exhibition - Mom, Dad, myself, my brother and my sister, all in the extremely lengthy queue. Unfortunately, my Dad was having back trouble at the time and couldn't stand for long, so we never did make it into the exhibition itself. I did come home with some very nice postcards though - my school friends were enthralled. It would be quite nice to see the new exhibition so that I can now complete the experience.
Ginger, UK

I've booked to see the Tutankhamun exhibition on the 1 December and I'm really excited as I've been waiting to go since 1972 (when I was only nine).
Shelley Cummings, Derbyshire

I will be booking tickets. I was 11 when the first exhibition was here and there were a certain number of children who were allowed to go from our school. Selection was by a lottery draw and I was not chosen! A visit is long overdue.
Suzanne Bond, The New Forest, England

I was at a Catholic teacher training college in London in 1972. We had Ascension Day off, so I queued up nearly all day in the forecourt of the BM to see Tutankhamen. I took sandwiches and a flask of coffee along. The people in the queue were very friendly and we developed a camaraderie. It cost 10 shillings to get in which was a fortune to a poor student on a grant. The exhibition had many more of the important finds than the present one (which I saw in Chicago last year). I remember being disappointed that you could not linger but had to keep moving - but it was, as Howard Carter remarked, truly "wonderful".
Rachael, Peru, Illinois

I waited with a lady friend from Bexleyheath along with others to see the exhibit and was very impressed with what we saw. Both of us being musicians it was intriguing to see the instruments from 3000 years ago matched our own era. It was a long time ago and I often ask myself whatever happened to my musical lady friend.
David Wilde, Albuquerque, NM, US

I am so sad that the exhibition I remember from first time around made no income for Egypt - no wonder that when it returned the world sneered at the way it was the presented in its own country. The 10 bob I paid to see it was worth something then and at 1.7m visitors that was a sizeable sum. I hope the country of origin is well compensated this time.
Michael Rodentus, Manchester

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