Tutankhamun was a tomb robber

Historical Notes
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ON 18 January 1907 the American millionaire Theodore Davis discovered a mysteriously desecrated tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. Known as Tomb 55, it was unlike any Egyptian tomb ever found. Apart from the mummy in its gilded coffin, the tomb was almost empty. However, broken clay seals from treasure boxes found littering the floor revealed that the tomb had once been lavishly furnished. Strangely, this plundering was not the work of simple tomb robbers. A late 18th-dynasty royal seal found imprinted in the plaster of the bricked-up entrance showed that the desecration had been officially sanctioned by a contemporary Egyptian king.

Royal insignia on the coffin identified the occupant as a pharaoh, yet all evidence of his identity had been deliberately removed: names had been hacked out of inscriptions and the golden face-mask had been torn away. Even the usual wall decorations, meant to show the occupant's funeral and his subsequent passage to the afterlife, were completely absent. In ancient Egyptian belief, if someone was buried without their name then they could not enter the next world. It was also believed that so long as the mummy remained then so did its spirit. This mummy had been denied entry into the afterlife, yet its spirit had been expressly allowed to survive. It would seem that Tomb 55 was not so much a final resting place as a prison. In the eyes of his contemporaries, the occupant must have committed a crime so heinous that oblivion was not considered sufficient punishment. He had been sentenced to spend eternity sentient and alone inside this dark, empty tomb.

Forensic tests carried out in 1963 verified that the mummy was a man around 20 years of age. As the tombs of all but two of the late 18th-dynasty kings had been found, and one of these kings had been much older, then the mummy could only be the remaining pharaoh: Smenkhkare, an enigmatic young man who ruled Egypt for a few months around 1347 BC. Smenkhkare is thought to have been the elder brother of the renowned Tutankhamun.

It was, it seems, Tutankhamun himself who had been responsible for the bizarre desecration of Tomb 55, as many of Smenkhkare's personal funerary goods were discovered in the boy-king's own tomb. Many of the most intimate and essential burial effects found there had been made for Smenkhkare. Most notable of all was the famous golden coffin.

Egyptian mummies of the period were interred in a nest of three coffins, like a set of Russian dolls, one inside the other. Only one remained in Tomb 55 but another of them appears to have been used for Tutankhamun's burial. In Tutankhamun's tomb the middle coffin did not bear the young king's own image: the facial features were very different from those depicted on the other two coffins and the death-mask covering the mummy's face.

The identity of the original owner was revealed inside four golden coffinettes which contained Tutankhamun's mummified internal organs. Identical miniatures of the middle coffin, they were clearly part of the same funerary equipment. Remarkably, the interior of the coffinettes were still inscribed with Smenkhkare's name.

Although the middle coffin is of less material value than the burial mask, not being made of solid gold, it is its image that the world has come to recognise as Tutankhamun. It is found reproduced in photographs to promote all manner of Egypt-related material: posters to publicise books, brochures to advertise Egyptian holidays and literature to support Egyptian exhibitions. It is not, however, Tutankhamun at all but his disgraced and almost forgotten brother, Smenkhkare.

Graham Phillips is the author of `Act of God' (Pan, pounds 5.99), published on Thursday