Tutankhamun: So who was the golden boy?

A new exhibition of artefacts from Tutankhamun's tomb is coming to London. Only now are we starting to unravel the mysteries of the boy-king, reports Michael Ridley

Monday 24 January 2005 01:00

"At first, I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing my candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold - everywhere the glint of gold."

"At first, I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing my candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold - everywhere the glint of gold."

With these words, Howard Carter described his first glimpse of the greatest archaeological discovery ever made. Nothing before nor since has equalled the splendour and magnificence of the tomb of Tutankhamun, a minor pharaoh of 18th-dynasty Egypt.

Until November 1922, when Howard Carter together with his sponsor, Earl Carnarvon, entered his sealed burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings, no one was even sure that Tutankhamun had existed. His name was absent from the ancient chronicle lists of Egyptian kings and only a few fragmentary inscriptions bearing his name had ever been found.

However, that all changed when the amazing news of the discovery and contents of the tomb spread world-wide. The tomb proved to have been almost untouched and was a time capsule of ancient Egyptian art. But it was perhaps the gold that captured the public's imagination. Never before had such riches been seen - three golden coffins, one of solid gold and perhaps most amazing of all, a magnificent gold funerary mask.

Apart from the opulence of the treasures, the tomb had wonderfully preserved evidence of the everyday things that Tutankhamun, his family and the court would have been familiar with. In numerous chests and boxes were clothes, and other personal items. The clothes were not of gold thread or silk but of fine linen, in simple styles, with cosmetics - which both men and women would have used, and toiletries, such has a copper handled razors and ewers.

Evidence of the funeral feast and the baskets of food intended to accompany Tutankhamun on his journey through the nether world give an insight into the dietary habits of the King and his court. These in turn give us an idea of the diet of the time, scaling down according to status.

Bread and cakes were discovered as well as quantities of raw grain as well as the ingredients to make beer.

In the ante-chamber of the tomb was the ancient equivalent of tinned beef in two-piece whitened boxes, along with meat from cattle, sheep, ducks, geese as well as legumes, pulses, spices, fruit, nuts and honey. Evidence was also discovered of wine, identified in a recent study as red.

Millions of people have made their way to Egypt to see the Tutankhamun treasures, now in Cairo. And touring exhibitions, such as one containing 50 objects from the tomb which is due to go on show at the Millennium Dome in London in 2007, draw huge crowds.

Although the treasures of Tutankhamun have made this young King known world wide, we really know little about his life. We are not even sure who his parents were. Indeed, his parentage is a subject which keeps scholars busy supplying a steady stream of new theories.

Since the discovery of his tomb in 1922, however, research has brought to light some intriguing facts which have begun to paint a picture of his life.

Perhaps the most convincing and currently acceptable theory about his parentage is that he was the son of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten. His mother was not Akhenaten's famous wife, Nefertiti, but probably a minor wife of the King. Another theory makes Tutankhamun the son of the Pharaoh Amenophis III and his queen, Tiye, and thus a half brother of Akhenaten.

Whoever his parents were, it is certain that he was a member of the Royal House of Amarna, and that his claim to the throne was strong enough for him to succeed as Pharaoh of all Egypt in about 1333 BC, when he was only nine years old.

His relationship to the heretic King Akhenaten almost certainly caused the downfall and death of Tutankhamun. For his short reign of about nine years seems to have been taken up with rectifying the chaos and errors bequeathed to him by Akhenaten.

Tutankhamun or as he was first called Tutankhaten, was born in a time of great change and upheaval. The 18th Dynasty of Egypt had, until the reign of Akhenaten, been a prosperous one. The pharaohs had been great warriors. They had added to their country's wealth, and to Egypt's territories, from which came valuable minerals and particularly gold.

Akhenaten was the complete opposite of these early kings. He was a dreamer not a warrior, a philosopher more interested in theoretical theology and the arts than in mastering the art of kingship. He brought great changes to a conservative land. He introduced the worship of the sun-disc, the Aten, as the official religion, removing the royal patronage from the god and priests of Amun. He moved the capital from Thebes to a new site 240 miles to the north, which he called Akhetaten "The Horizon of the Aten".

However, Akhenaten neglected to secure Egypt's borders, and chaos broke out, vassal princes broke away and the economy fell into ruins. Thus at his death, he had the establishment, the old priesthood, and the people against him. It was against this background that Tutankhamun succeeded to the throne. In line with Egyptian tradition, the young Tutankhamun secured his position by marrying his half sister (or sister or niece, depending on which theory of his birth is correct) Ankhesenpaaten, the third daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.

His first three years were spent at Akhetaten, during which time his relative, Ay, ruling as regent, tried to rectify the errors perpetrated by Akhenaten. To return the country to stability, it was necessary to restore the old order. Eventually during the third year of Tutankhamun's reign the court re-established itself at Thebes, where the young King was crowned. The old religion of Amun was restored and the King changed his name from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun, his wife changing her name from Ankhesenpaaten to Ankhesenamun.

For the next few years, attempts were made to put right everything that the pharaoh Akhenaten had done wrong. Egypt gradually settled back into some resemblance of stability. We have little evidence of what really went on at the time. But suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, it is thought in the young King's 18th year, Tutankhamun died. How and why, is a mystery, but circumstantial evidence points to murder.

The mummy of Tutankhamun was anatomically examined on 11 November 1925. The autopsy by Douglas Derry, the Professor of Anatomy at the Egyptian University, created a macabre scene.

The mummy was intact, although not in as good a condition as was hoped. Few royal mummies survive today which have not at some time or other been rifled by robbers, who have torn the wrappings and left the corpses damaged and exposed to the atmosphere.

The first problems soon became apparent as the magnificent gold death mask which covered Tutankhamun's head, shoulders and part of his chest was stuck to the bottom of the coffin in which they had rested for so long. This was due to unguents which had been poured over the mummy after it had been placed in the coffin, which with the passing of time had dried to a stony hardness.

The linen bandages were in a fragile condition and crumbled at the slightest touch. It proved impossible to unwrap the mummy layer by layer as had been hoped. They had to cut the bandages.

Enclosed in the many layers of wrappings were a vast number of personal and mystical ornaments. The King lay with his arms across his body, each covered from the elbow to the wrist with bracelets of gold, silver and semi-precious stones. It was not until the greater part of the bandages had been removed, that Tutankhamun's remains could be lifted from the coffin.

The bandages that covered the head of the King seemed to be in a better state of preservation. The removal of the final bandage from the King's face was a delicate operation, as the danger of damaging the King's features was uppermost in Dr Derry's mind.

The face of the young pharaoh, whose reign had ended over 3,000 years earlier, was then revealed. A serene, refined and cultured face, it had well formed features and lips clearly marked. His skin was brittle and cracked. His eyes were partly open and had in no way been interfered with, except to be covered with fabric impregnated with resin.

Dr Derry concluded that Tutankhamun would have been between 18 and 20 when he died. But there was no visible clue as to whether or not he had met his death naturally.

The first indication that something was amiss did not come until the King was x-rayed in his tomb in 1968 by a team led by Professor Ronald Harrison of Liverpool University.

X-rays of his skull suggested that Tutankhamun may have suffered a severe blow to the head. Harrison observed a small piece of bone in the left side of the skull cavity. While noting it could be part of the ethmoid bone which had become dislodged from the nose when an instrument was passed up the nose into the cranial cavity during the embalming process. He suggested that the piece of bone may also have fused with the overlying skull which would be consistent with a depressed fracture which had healed. This could mean that Tutankhamun died from a brain haemorrhage caused by a blow to his skull from a blunt instrument.

The wound, however, showed some signs of healing, and thus early observers have dismissed it. It now seems probable that this healing could have taken place while Tutankhamun was in a coma, and that the blow was sufficient to have killed him. Whether the blow was sustained by accident or by intent cannot be proved.

Forensic examination of Tutankhamun's mummy has thrown little light on the probable cause of death. More evidence is needed.

Computer tomography scans were carried out on Tut's mummy in December last year.

It was removed from its resting place within the stone sarcophagus in the tomb, and subjected to a detailed scan. The scan organised by Zahi Hawass, the secretary-general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities was carried out in a specially equipped van in the Valley of the Kings.

The results are awaited with some excitement but it is unlikely that they will provide much in the way of new evidence. At best, they will be able throw more light on the x-rays and clarify whether Tutankhamun died from a blow to the head. What they will probably not be able to do is to indicate whether the King died from an accident or whether he died as a result of a deliberate blow.

What is really needed is more evidence on his parentage which could come from DNA tests on his mummy and the other Amarna royal mummies.

Circumstantial evidence, however, suggests that the young King, undoubtedly influenced by his early years at the court of Akhenaten, may have shown signs of moving his policies more in line with those of his predecessor. This would have been sufficient to cause alarm, not only to the court but also to the priesthood, and it may have been to prevent chaos returning to Egypt that Tutankhamun was killed.

What is clear is that Tutankhamun died unexpectedly and without heirs. His tomb was unfinished and it seems that he was buried in a tomb originally intended for Ay.

Nothing fires the public's imagination like the discovery of gold treasure or a good mystery. Tut provides both.

Dr Michael Ridley is director of the Tutankhamun Exhibition in Dorchester.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments