The tale of the boy king, whose tomb was discovered in 1922, is not yet complete.
Archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of ancient Egypt's King Tutankhamun one hundred years ago. Carter's life would never be the same again. Neither was the afterlife of the young pharaoh.
Newspapers all over the world ran stories about Carter's discovery of a long-lost pharaoh's grave and the wonders it might hold, catapulting the abrasive Englishman to international fame. A once-obscure boy king rose to become the most famous of pharaohs (SN: 12/18/76).
Tutankhamun came to power when he was about 10 years old, around 1334 B.C. His reign lasted nearly a decade before he was assassinated. Tutankhamun, despite being a minor figure among Egyptian pharaohs, is one of the few whose lavishly appointed burial site was discovered largely intact.
Carter, an unusually meticulous excavator for his time, oversaw a 10-year project to document, conserve, and remove over 6,000 items from Tutankhamun's four-chambered tomb. While some objects, such as Tut's gold burial mask, have become iconic, many have been stored and hidden for decades. That is about to change. When the new Grand Egyptian Museum, near the Pyramids of Giza, opens, approximately 5,400 of Tutankhamun's well-preserved tomb furnishings will be on display.
"The [Tut] burial hoard is something very unique," Shirin Frangoul-Brückner, managing director of Atelier Brückner in Stuttgart, Germany, which designed the Tutankhamun Gallery at the museum, said in an interview released by her company. The exhibit will include, among other things, a gold burial mask, musical instruments, hunting equipment, jewelry, and six chariots.
Even as more of Tut's story emerges, here are four facts to know on the 100th anniversary of his tomb's discovery.
It all began on November 4, 1922, when Carter-led excavators discovered a step cut into the valley floor of a previously unexplored section of Egypt's Valley of the Kings. The team had discovered stairs leading down to a door by November 23. The tomb of King Tutankhamun was identified by a hieroglyphic seal on the door.
1. Tut may not have been frail.
Tutankhamun was known as a frail young man who limped with a clubfoot. Some researchers believe his weakened immune system contributed to his early death.
"Recent research suggests that portraying Tut as a fragile pharaoh is incorrect," says Egyptologist and mummy researcher Bob Brier, an expert on King Tut. Tutankhamun and the Tomb That Changed the World, his new book, chronicles how 100 years of research shaped both Tut's story and archaeology itself.
According to Brier of Long Island University in Brookville, New York, clues from Tutankhamun's mummy and tomb items improve his physical standing. The young pharaoh may have even fought in battle.
Military chariots, leather armor, and archery equipment buried with Tutankhamun demonstrate his desire to be remembered as a hunter and warrior, according to Brier. Inscribed blocks from Tutankhamun's temple, which were reused in later building projects before being identified by researchers, depict the pharaoh leading charioteers in undated battles.
Brier believes that if more blocks showing battle scenes with dates turn up, Tutankhamun most likely participated in those conflicts. Although inscribed scenes may have exaggerated their heroism, Pharaohs typically recorded dates of actual battles depicted in their temples.
The shaky plot is based in part on the possibility of discovering a deformity in Tut's left foot, as well as 130 walking sticks discovered in his tomb. According to Brier, ancient Egyptian officials were frequently depicted with walking sticks as symbols of authority rather than infirmity. Furthermore, researchers disagree on whether images of Tut's bones reveal serious deformities.
X-rays of the recovered mummy from the 1960s reveal no evidence of a misshapen ankle, which would have resulted in a limp. Neither did CT images examined in 2005 by Egyptologist and former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Zahi Hawass' Egyptian Mummy Project.
The team reported that a 2009 reexamination of the CT images by the same researchers revealed that Tutankhamun had a left-foot deformity commonly associated with walking on the ankle or the side of the foot. Sahar Saleem of Egypt's Cairo University, the team's radiologist, says the CT images show Tutankhamun had a mild left clubfoot, bone tissue death at the ends of two long bones that connect to the second and third left toes, and a missing bone in the second left toe.
|Tutankhamun's mummy is being prepared for scanning in a CT scanner by researchers. CT scans of the pharaoh's bones have revealed disputed evidence of a clubfoot, which may have resulted in a noticeable limp. PHOTO: DANITA DELIMONT/ALAMY STOCK|
According to Saleem, the king's foot problems would have "caused him pain when he walked or pressed his weight on his foot, and the clubfoot must have caused limping." According to her, a labored gait, rather than an appeal to royal authority, could explain the numerous walking sticks found in Tutankhamun's tomb.
Brier, on the other hand, is skeptical of that scenario. According to him, Tutankhamun's legs appear symmetrical in the CT images, indicating that any left foot deformity was too mild to cause the pharaoh to walk with excess weight on his right side.
Whether the boy king limped through life or not, the discovery and study of his mummy revealed that he died around the age of 19, on the verge of adulthood. Tut's cause of death, however, remains unknown.
Hawass and colleagues argued in a 2010 analysis of DNA extracted from Tutankhamun's mummy that malaria, as well as the tissue-destroying bone disorder mentioned by Saleem in the CT images, hastened Tutankhamun's death. However, other scientists, including Brier, disagree with that conclusion. More ancient DNA research using powerful new tools for extracting and testing genetic material from mummies could help solve the mystery.
2. Tut’s initial obscurity led to his fame.
Following Tutankhamun's death, ancient Egyptian officials worked hard to erase all historical references to him. His father, Akhenaten, was a "heretic king" who alienated his own people by forbidding the worship of all Egyptian gods except one.
Brier claims that "Akhenaten is the first monotheist recorded in history." Ordinary Egyptians who had previously prayed to hundreds of gods could now only worship Aten, a minor sun god.
Faced with fierce opposition to his prohibition of cherished religious practices, Akhenaten — who named himself Aten — relocated to an isolated city, Amarna, where he lived with his wife Nefertiti, six girls, one boy, and approximately 20,000 followers. Residents of the desert outpost returned to their former homes after Akhenaten died. Egyptians resurrected their ancient religion. Tutankhaten, Akhenaten's son, became king, and his name was changed to Tutankhamun in honor of Amun, the most powerful of the Egyptian gods at the time.
Later pharaohs omitted all mentions of Akhenaten and Tutankhamun from written records. Tut's tomb was treated in the same dismissive manner. Nearly 200 years after Tutankhamun's death, huts of craftsmen working on King Ramses VI's tomb were built over the stairway leading down to Tutankhamun's nearby, far smaller tomb. The construction site was littered with limestone chips.
The huts stayed put until Carter arrived. Carter discovered evidence that the boy king's tomb had been broken into twice after it was sealed, but no significant objects were taken.
According to UCLA Egyptologist Kara Cooney, "Tutankhamun's ignominy and insignificance saved him" from tomb robbers.
3. Tut’s tomb was a rushed job.
Pharaohs typically built their tombs over decades, creating many rooms to house treasures and lavish coffins. Egyptian traditions required that a mummified body be placed in a tomb about 70 days after death. Brier believes that amount of time would have allowed a mummy to dry out while still retaining enough moisture to fold the arms across the body inside a coffin.
Tutankhamun had no time for elaborate tomb preparations because he died so young. Furthermore, the 70-day burial tradition left craftsmen with little time to complete critical tomb items, many of which took a year or more to make. A carved stone sarcophagus encasing three nested coffins, four shrines, hundreds of servant statues, a gold mask, chariots, jewelry, beds, chairs, and an alabaster chest containing four miniature gold coffins for Tutankhamun's internal organs removed during mummification are among the items on display.
Many objects from other people's tombs were repurposed for Tutankhamun, according to evidence. Even so, time was running out.
Think about the sarcophagus. Two of the four goddesses on the stone container are missing their fully carved jewelry. Employees painted missing jewelry components. The carved pillars on the sarcophagus are also incomplete.
Another clue to the workers' frantic efforts is Tutankhamun's granite sarcophagus lid, which is mismatched with the quartzite bottom. Brier believes that something happened to the original quartzite lid, so workers carved a new lid from available granite and painted it to look like quartzite.
The new lid was broken in half during the carving process, according to the repairs. Brier claims that Tutankhamun was buried with a cracked, mismatched sarcophagus lid.
Tutankhamun's sarcophagus may have been designed for Smenkare, a mysterious figure who some researchers believe is the boy king's half-brother. According to Brier, little is known about Smenkare, who reigned for about a year after Akhenaten's death, just before Tutankhamun. However, Smenkare's tomb has yet to be discovered, leaving the sarcophagus puzzle unsolved.
According to Harvard University archaeologist Peter Der Manuelian, objects such as the young king's throne, three nested coffins, and the shrine, as well as tiny coffins for his internal organs, contain evidence of having originally belonged to someone else before being modified for reuse.
Tutankhamun's tomb may not be what it appears to be. Since 2015, Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves of the University of Arizona Egyptian Expedition in Tucson has claimed that the boy king's burial site was meant for Nefertiti. He claims that Nefertiti was given the title Smenkare after briefly succeeding Akhenaten as Egypt's ruler.
Nobody has discovered Nefertiti's tomb yet. However, Reeves believes that one of Tutankhamun's burial chamber walls will prevent access to a larger tomb where Nefertiti is buried. He claims that the painted scenes and writing on that wall depict Tutankhamun performing a ritual on Nefertiti's mummy. And Egyptian artists used the gridded structure of those paintings years before Tutankhamun's burial, but not at the time of his interment.
However, no evidence of a hidden tomb has been discovered in four of five remote sensing studies conducted inside Tutankhamun's tomb. Nefertiti, like Smenkare, is an enigma.
4. Tut’s tomb changed archaeology and the antiquities trade.
Carter's astounding discovery came at a time when Egyptians were protesting British colonial rule, and it fueled that movement. Carter and his financial backer, a wealthy British aristocrat named Lord Carnarvon, sold exclusive newspaper coverage of the excavation to The Times of London, which enraged Egyptian officials. Beginning in early 1924, Egypt's government barred Carter from entering the tomb for nearly a year.
Egyptian nationalists desired political independence, as well as an end to decades of foreign adventurers returning to their home countries with ancient Egyptian finds. Tutankhamun's resurrected tomb pushed Egyptian authorities to enact laws and policies that contributed to the end of the British colonial state and reduced the flow of antiquities out of Egypt, according to Brier, though it took decades. Egypt gained complete independence from England in 1953. A law passed in 1983 prohibited the export of antiquities from Egypt (though those removed before 1983 are still legal to own and can be sold through auction houses).
Brier claims that in 1922, Carter and Lord Carnarvon considered many objects in Tutankhamun's tomb to be theirs to take. For the previous 50 years, Valley of the Kings excavations had worked in a system that divided finds equally between Cairo's Egyptian Museum and an expedition's home institution. Bringing personal mementos was also popular.
Carter's casual pocketing of various artifacts while painstakingly clearing the boy king's tomb is still emerging. "Carter didn't sell what he took," says Brier. "However, he believed he had a right to certain items as the tomb's excavator."
|In February 1923, British archaeologist Howard Carter and an Egyptian member of his team examine Tutankhamun's remains after removing the lid from the king's carved stone sarcophagus. ALAMY STOCK PHOTO/PICTORIAL PRESS LTD|
Brier's book describes recently discovered letters from English Egyptologist Alan Gardiner from the 1930s, in which Carter gave Gardiner several items from Tutankhamun's tomb, including an ornament used as a food offering for the dead. Beads, jewelry, a headdress fragment, and other items taken from Tutankhamun's tomb by Carter and Carnarvon have been found by French Egyptologist Marc Gabolde of Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 University.
However, one of Tutankhamun's greatest legacies, thanks to Carter, is the precedent set by the excavation of his tomb for future excavations, according to Brier. Carter began his career as an artist who copied painted images on Egyptian tomb walls for excavators. He later learned excavation techniques in the field while working with Flinders Petrie, an eminent English Egyptologist. Carter took tomb documentation to a new level, assembling a formidable team that included a photographer, a conservator, two draftsmen, an engineer, and an expert on ancient Egyptian writing.
Their ten-year effort also enabled the Grand Egyptian Museum to open a new Tutankhamun exhibition. Not only will museum visitors have unprecedented access to the pharaoh's tomb trove, but so will a new generation of researchers.
"Most of Tutankhamun's [tomb] objects have received little to no study beyond what Carter was able to do," Cooney of UCLA says.
That won't be the case for much longer, as the Valley of the Kings' most famous tomb enters the next stage of its public and scientific afterlife.
Tutankhamun and the Tomb that Changed the World, by B. Brier, Oxford University Press, 2023
Ancestry and pathology in King Tutankhamun's family, by Z. Hawass et al. American Medical Association Journal, Vol. 303, February 17, 2010, p. 638. doi:10.1001/jama.2010.121.