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Few Pharaohs have captured the public imagination over succeeding generations than the young Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Ever since Howard Carter discovered his tomb in 1922, the world has been enthralled with the splendour and vast richness of his burial. The pharaoh’s comparatively young age and the mystery surrounding his death have combined to fuel the world’s fascination with King Tut, his life and ancient Egypt’s epic history. Then there’s the fabled legend that those who dared to violate the boy king’s eternal resting place faced a ghastly curse.

Initially, the Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s young age saw him dismissed as a minor king at best. Recently, the pharaoh’s place in history has been reassessed and his legacy reevaluated. This boy who sat on the throne as pharaoh for only nine years is now seen by Egyptologists as having returned harmony and stability to Egyptian society after his father Akhenaten’s turbulent reign.

Facts About King Tut

  • The Pharaoh Tutankhamun was born around 1343 BC
  • His father was the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten and his mother is thought to be Queen Kiya and his grandmother was Queen Tiye, Amenhotep III’s chief wife
  • Originally, Tutankhamun was known as Tutankhaten he changed his name when he restored Egypt’s traditional religious practices
  • The name Tutankhamun translates as “living image of Amun
  • Tutankhamun ruled for nine years during Egypt’s post-Amarna period c. 1332 to 1323 BC
  • Tutankhamun ascended to Egypt’s throne when he was just nine years old
  • He died at the young age of 18 or 19 in c.1323 BC
  • Tut returned harmony and stability to Egyptian society after his father Akhenaten’s turbulent reign
  • The splendour and vast wealth of the artifacts found in Tutankhamun’s burial fascinated the world and continues attracting huge crowds to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo
  • An advanced medical inspection of Tutankhamun’s mummy revealed he had a club foot and bone issues
  • Early Egyptologists pointed to damage to Tutankhamun’s skull as evidence he was murdered
  • More recent evaluations of Tutankhamun’s mummy revealed the embalmers inflicted this damage when they removed Tutankhamun’s brain
  • Similarly, other injuries resulted from his body’s forcible removal from his sarcophagus in 1922 when Tutankhamun’s head was separated from his body and the skeleton was physically prised loose from the bottom of the sarcophagus.
  • To this day, stories abound of a mysterious curse, which falls upon anyone who enters Tutankhamun’s tomb. This curse is credited with the deaths of nearly two-dozen people associated with his magnificent tomb’s discovery.

What’s in a Name?

Tutankhamun, which translates as “living image of [the god] Amun,” was also known as Tutankhamen. The name “King Tut” was an invention of the newspapers of the time and perpetuated by Hollywood.

Family Lineage

Evidence suggests Tutankhamun was born around c.1343 BC. His father was the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten and his mother is thought to be Queen Kiya, one of Akhenaten’s minor wives and possibly his sister.

By the time of Tutankhamun’s birth, the Egyptian civilization was nearing 2,000 years of continual existence. Akhenaten had imperilled this continuity when he abolished Egypt’s old gods, closed the temples, imposed the worship of a single god Aten and moved Egypt’s capital to a new, purpose-built capital Amarna. Egyptologists have come to refer to this period of Egyptian history towards the end of the 18th dynasty as the post-Amarna period.

Initial research by archaeologists into King Tut’s life suggested he belonged to the Akhenaten lineage. One reference discovered at the imposing Aten temple at Tell el-Amarna suggested to Egyptologists that Tutankhamun was in all probability the son of Akhenaten and one of his numerous wives.

Advances in modern DNA technology have been supported these historical records. Geneticists have tested samples taken from the mummy believed to be that of the Pharaoh Akhenaten and compared it to samples taken from Tutankhamun’s preserved mummy. DNA evidence supports the Pharaoh Akhenaten as Tutankhamun’s father. Moreover, the mummy of one of Akhenaten’s minor wives, Kiya, was connected to Tutankhamun by DNA testing. Kiya is now accepted as King Tut’s mother.

Additional DNA testing has connected Kiya, known also as the “Younger Lady,” with the Pharaoh Amenhotep II and Queen Tiye. Evidence suggests Kiya was their daughter. This also means Kiya was Akhenaten’s sister. This is further evidence of the ancient Egyptian tradition of intermarriage between members of the royal family.

Tutankhaten’s wife Ankhesenpaaten was around five years older than Tutankhaten when they married. She was previously married to her father and is believed by Egyptologists to have had a daughter with him. Ankhesenpaaten is believed to have been just thirteen when her half-brother took the throne. Lady Kiya is thought to have died early in Tutankhaten’s life and he subsequently lived with his father, stepmother and numerous half-siblings in the palace at Amarna.

When they excavated Tutankhamun’s tomb, Egyptologists discovered a lock of hair. This was later matched with Tutankhamun’s grandmother, Queen Tiye, Amenhotep III’s chief wife. Two mummified fetuses were also found inside Tutankhamun’s tomb. DNA profiling indicates they were the remains of Tutankhamun’s children.

As a child, Tutankhamun had been married to Ankhesenamun his half-sister. Letters written by Ankhesenamun following King Tut’s death include the statement “I have no son,” suggesting King Tut and his wife produced no surviving children to continue his lineage.

Tutankhamun’s Nine-Year Reign

Upon his ascension to the Egyptian throne, Tutankhamun was known as Tutankhaten. He grew up in his father’s royal harem and married his sister at a young age. At this time his wife Ankhesenamun was called Ankhesenpaaten. King Tutankhaten was crowned as pharaoh at nine years of age in Memphis. His reign lasted from c. c. 1332 to 1323 BC.

Following of the Pharaoh Akhenaten’s death, a decision was taken to reverse Akhenaten’s religious reforms and revert to the old gods and religious practices, which worshipped Aten and a host of other deities rather than Amun alone. Both Tutankhaten and Ankhesenpaaten changed their official names to reflect this change in state religious policy.

Politically, this act effectively reconciled the young couple with the entrenched forces of the state representing the vested interests of establishment religious cults. In particular, this bridged the divide between the royal family and the wealthy and influential cult of Aten. In King Tut’s second year on the throne, he relocated Egypt’s capital from Akhenaten back to Thebes and reduced the status of the state god Aten to that of a minor deity.

Medical evidence and surviving historical records indicate Tutankhamun died at 18 or 19 years of age in only his ninth year on the throne. As King Tut was just a child when crowned and ruled for a comparatively short time, analysis of his reign indicated his impact on Egyptian culture and society was minor. During his reign, King Tut benefited from the protection of three dominant figures, the general Horemheb, Maya the treasurer and Ay the divine father. These three men are believed by Egyptologists to have shaped many of the pharaoh’s decisions and overtly influenced his pharaoh’s official policies.

As was to be expected, most of the construction projects commissioned by King Tutankhamun remained unfinished at his death. Later pharaohs had the task of completing the additions to the temples and shrines ordered by Tutankhamun and replaced his name with their own cartouches. Part of the Luxor temple at Thebes comprises construction work initiated during Tutankhamun’s reign yet bears Horemheb’s name and title, even though although Tutankhamun’s name is still evident in some sections.

The Search for Tutankhamun’s Tomb KV62

By the early 20th-century archaeologists had discovered 61 tombs in the Valley of the Kings outside Thebes. Their excavation produced tombs with elaborate wall inscriptions and colourful paintings, sarcophaguses, coffins and a host of grave goods and funerary items. Popular opinion was that this area had been fully excavated by competing expeditions of archaeologists, amateur historians and their wealthy gentleman investors. No major discoveries were thought to be waiting to be discovered and other archaeologists moved on to alternative locations.

Surviving historical records from the time of King Tutankhamun held no mention of the location of his tomb. While archaeologists discovered several tantalising clues in the tombs of others suggesting Tutankhamun was indeed buried in the Valley of the Kings, nothing was found to substantiate a location. Edward Aryton and Theodore Davis unearthed three artifacts referring to Tutankhamun’s location in the Valley of the Kings during several excavations conducted from 1905 through to 1908. Howard Carter pieced these scant clues together as he searched for the elusive pharaoh. A key part of Carter’s deductive reasoning was that Tutankhamun made efforts to restore Egypt’s traditional religious practises. Carter interpreted these policies as further evidence Tutankhamun’s tomb was waiting to be discovered inside the Valley of the Kings.

After six years of fruitless excavations in his search for the elusive pharaoh, which sorely tested the commitment of Lord Carnarvon Carter’s sponsor, Carter made one of the richest and most significant archaeological discoveries of all time.

Wonderful Things

In November 1922, Howard Carter found himself with his final chance to discover King Tutankhamun’s tomb. Just four days into his final dig, Carter moved his team to the base of Ramesses VI’s tomb. Diggers uncovered 16 steps leading to a resealed doorway. Carter was confident of the identity of the owner of the tomb he was about to enter. King Tut’s name appeared all over the entrance.

Resealing the tomb indicated the tomb had been raided by tomb robbers in antiquity. Details found in the tomb’ interior showed ancient Egyptian authorities had entered the tomb and restored it to order before resealing it. Following that incursion, the tomb had lain untouched for the intervening thousands of years. Upon opening the tomb, Lord Carnarvon asked Carter if he could see anything. Carter’s reply “Yes, wonderful things” has gone down in history.

Having worked their way methodically through a staggering amount of precious grave goods, Carter and his team entered the antechamber of the tomb. Here, two life-size wooden statues of King Tutankhamun guarded his burial chamber. Within, they discovered the first intact royal burial ever to have been excavated by Egyptologists.

Tutankhamun’s Magnificent Sarcophagus and Mummy

Four beautifully gilded, intricately decorated funerary shrines protected King Tutankhamun’s mummy. These shrines were designed to provide protection for Tutankhamun’s stone sarcophagus. Inside the sarcophagus, three coffins were discovered. The two outer coffins were beautifully gilded, while the innermost coffin was fashioned from gold. Inside Tut’s mummy lay covered with a breath-taking death mask made of gold, protective amulets and ornate jewellery.

The amazing death mask itself weighs just over 10 kilograms and depicts Tutankhamun as a god. Tutankhamun cradles the symbols of the royal rule over Egypt’s two kingdoms, the crook and the flail, together with the nemes headdress and the beard linking Tutankhamun with the god Osiris Egyptian god of life, death and the afterlife. The mask is set with precious lapis lazuli, coloured glass, turquoise and precious gems. Inlays of quartz were used for the eyes and obsidian for the pupils. On the back and shoulders of the mask are inscriptions of gods and goddesses and powerful spells from the Book of the Dead, the ancient Egyptian guide for the soul’s journey in the afterlife. These are arranged two horizontal and ten vertical lines.

The Mystery of King Tutankhamun’s Death

When King Tut’s mummy was initially discovered, archaeologists found evidence of trauma to his body. The historical mystery surrounding King Tut’s death unleashed numerous theories centred on murder and palace intrigue amongst the Egyptian royal family. How did Tutankhamun die? Was Tutankhamun murdered? If so, who was the primary suspect for the murder?

Those initial examinations by a team led by Dr Douglas Derry and Howard Carter failed to identify a clear cause of death. Historically, many Egyptologists accepted his death was a result of a fall from a chariot or a similar accident. Other more recent medical examinations query this theory.

Early Egyptologists pointed to damage to Tutankhamun’s skull as evidence he was murdered. However, the more recent evaluation of Tutankhamun’s mummy revealed the embalmers inflicted this damage when they removed Tutankhamun’s brain. Similarly, the injuries to his body resulted from its forcible removal from his sarcophagus during the 1922 excavation when Tutankhamun’s head was separated from his body and the skeleton was brutally prised loose from the bottom of the sarcophagus. The resin used to preserve the mummy caused it to stick to the bottom of the sarcophagus.

These medical studies have indicated King Tutankhamun’s health was never robust during his life. Scans showed Tutankhamun suffered from a clubfoot complicated by a bone disorder requiring the aid of a cane to walk. This may explain the 139 gold, silver, ivory and ebony walking canes discovered inside his tomb. Tutankhamun also suffered from bouts of malaria.

Preparing King Tut for the Afterlife

Tutankhamun’s status as an Egyptian pharaoh necessitated a highly elaborate embalming process. Researchers estimate his embalming took place sometime between February and April following his death and required several weeks to complete. Embalmers removed King Tutankhamun’s internal organs, which were preserved and placed in alabaster Canopic jars for burial in his tomb.

His body was then dried using natron. His embalmers then treated with an expensive mixture of herbs, unguents and resin. The pharaoh’s body was then covered in fine linen, to both preserve his body shape in preparation for its journey into the afterlife and to preserve it to ensure the soul could return to it every evening.

Remnants of the embalming process were discovered in the vicinity of Tutankhamun’s tomb by archaeologists. This was custom for the ancient Egyptians who believed all traces of the embalmed body should be preserved and buried with it.

Water vessels typically used during purifying funeral rites were found in the tomb. Some of these vessels are delicate and frail. A variety of bowls, plates and dishes, which once contained offerings of food and drink were also found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

King Tut’s tomb was covered with elaborate mural paintings and furnished with ornate objects, including chariots and superb gold jewellery and slippers. These were the everyday objects King Tut would be expected to use in the afterlife. Accompanying the valuable funerary objects were highly preserved remnants of rennet, blue cornflowers, picris and olive branches. These were decorative plants in ancient Egypt.

The Treasures of King Tut

The burial of the young pharaoh contained a phenomenal treasure trove of over 3,000 individual artifacts, the majority of which were created from pure gold. King Tutankhamun’s burial chamber alone held his multiple golden coffins and his exquisite golden death mask. In a nearby treasury chamber, guarded by an imposing figure of Anubis, god of mummification and the afterlife, held a golden shrine housing the Canopic jars containing King Tut’s preserved internal organs, wonderful jewelled chests, ornate examples of personal jewellery, and model boats.

In all, it took ten years to painstakingly cataloguing the enormous number of funerary items. Further analysis revealed Tut’s tomb was hastily prepared and occupied a significantly smaller space than usual given the scope of his treasures. King Tutankhamun’s tomb was a modest 3.8 metres (12.07 feet) high, 7.8 metres (25.78 feet) wide and 30 metres (101.01 feet) long. The antechamber was in total chaos. Dismantled chariots and golden furniture were haphazardly piled into the area. Additional furniture together with jars of food, wine oil and ointments were stored in Tutankhamun’s annex.

Ancient attempts at tomb robbing, a quick burial and the compact chambers, help explain the chaotic situation inside the tomb. Egyptologists suspect the Pharaoh Ay, King Tut’s replacement, accelerated Tut’s burial to smooth his transition to Pharaoh.

Egyptologists believe that in their haste to complete Tut’s burial, Egyptian priests entombed Tutankhamun before the paint on his tomb walls had time to dry. Scientists discovered microbial growth on the tomb walls. These indicate the paint was still wet when the tomb was finally sealed. This microbial growth formed dark spots on the tomb’s painted walls. This is yet another unique aspect of King Tut’s tomb.

King Tutankhamun’s Curse

The newspaper frenzy surrounding the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s lavish burial treasures converged in the imaginations of the popular press with the romantic notion of a handsome young king dying an untimely death and a series of events following the discovery of his tomb. Swirling speculation and Egyptmania create the legend of a royal curse upon anyone who entered Tutankhamun’s tomb. To this day, popular culture insists those who come into contact with Tut’s tomb will die.

The legend of a curse started with the death of Lord Carnarvon from an infected mosquito bite five months after the tomb’s discovery. Newspaper reports insisted that at the precise moment of Carnarvon’s death all Cairo’s lights went out. Other reports say Lord Carnarvon’s beloved hound dog howled and dropped dead in England at the same time as its master died. Prior to the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, mummies were not considered cursed but were seen as magical entities.

Reflecting on the Past

King Tutankhamun’s life and reign were short. However, in death, he captured the imagination of millions with the magnificence of his opulent burial, while a spate of deaths amongst those who discovered his tomb spawned the legend of the mummy’s curse, which has enthralled Hollywood ever since.

Header image courtesy: Steve Evans [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons