Tutankhamun’s tomb is over 3,300 years old and to this day is still the only Pharaoh tomb found intact. All others have fallen victim to grave robbers and their many treasures have been lost.
As a king, he was buried with everything he’d need to take him into the afterlife. Solid gold sandals, socks designed for flip flops, a chariot, miniature boats and crews that’d come to life, board games, gold toe caps to make sure his feet didn’t deform, 30 jars of wine and several changes of underwear. The ancient Egyptians thought of everything. They even mummified 48 packed lunches, including a duck and other cuts of meats. Wrapping them in bandages and appetisingly dousing them in embalming fluid. The opening of the mouth and eyes ritual was carried out so Tut could eat, drink, breathe and hear. His penis was mummified at a 90-degree angle for reasons…
These delights were almost never found. British Archaeologist Howard Carter had spent 8 years searching the Valley of the Kings for the tomb of Tutankhamun. An obscure pharaoh whose name he’d found inscribed on a cup while excavating another tomb. His work had been funded by Lord Carnarvon who’d grown frustrated and tried to call off the hunt. Carter pleaded for one more season and miraculously it paid off. On the 4th of November 1922, his workers were taking a break, when his young water boy, who’d been playing with a stick in the sand, discovered a stone step. The first in the staircase leading down to Tutankhamun’s burial chamber. They cleared the sand and rubble, summoned Carnarvon and broke into the tomb. Carter was the first to look. When asked if he could see anything he replied ‘Yes, wonderful things.’ He was right, inside were over 5000 treasures, many gilded with gold. Each room shone.
The Canopic Shrine
One of the largest and shiniest treasures of the tomb is the canopic shrine. A spectacular golden box, 6.5ft tall, intricately decorated and protected by the statues of 4 goddesses including Isis, Nephthys, Neith and Selket, the scorpion goddess. Inside the shrine is a second box, carved from solid alabaster. Inside that, 4 canopic jars. If you don’t know what canopic means you’d be forgiven for thinking that such an elaborate shrine might contain impressive gems and incredible wealth. And, if you were a grave robber, you’d be incredibly disappointed and pretty grossed out.
Canopic jars contain the organs of the deceased that are just too squishy to be mummified with the body. To preserve a body in a life-like state, good enough for the afterlife, all moisture needs to be extracted. Trying to mummify a body with guts is just asking for rot. It was a process that took 70 days and was undertaken by trained embalmers.
First, the organs would have to be removed. The important ones like the stomach, liver, lungs and intestines were each placed in their own canopic jar. The heart, considered the keeper of a person’s intelligence, was the only organ left in the body. The brain, deemed unimportant, was mushed up and pulled out of the person’s nostrils with a hook and discarded. Next, the body was dried with natron, a type of salt. Ffinally, the body was wrapped with linen bandages and decorated. There were extra steps for VIPs, like amulets, protective inscriptions and golden death masks but that’s the basic gist.
Two main things stand out about Tutankhamun’s mummy. Firstly, he was buried without a heart. This would’ve caused him massive problems as it was believed that after your death your heart would be weighed against the feather of Ma’at – the symbol of justice and truth. The result would determine whether or not you’d committed good deeds on Earth and how the god Osiris decided whether or not you were worthy to live forever in the afterlife. On the occasions that the heart couldn’t be preserved, a heart scarab could be substituted in its place, but none was found in Tutankhamun.
The second irregularity about his embalmment was that he was mummified with an erect penis, something not seen on other mummies. It’s possible that he was embarrassingly underendowed as he suffered various disorders as a child of incest. Therefore, mummifying him erect, would provide him with a, much needed, extra couple of inches in the afterlife.
However, a kinder interpretation is that it was a political decision. Tutankhamun’s father, Akhenaten, had tried to revolutionise Egyptian religion. He wanted to switch from a system of polytheism to one of monotheism, focusing worship around one god, the Aten. He even went so far as to destroy images of the other gods.
Tutankhamun disagreed with this and worked during his reign to reverse the changes. His death seemed to be used as a way to raise the importance and profile of the gods his father had tried to erase. This can be seen in the paintings in the tomb. Traditionally, kings were depicted being greeted by Osiris, the god of the underworld. The paintings in Tutankhamun’s tomb show him, not being greeted by, but actually becoming Osiris. The erect penis symbolises Osiris’s regenerative powers so mummifying him in this way helped him resemble the god. And the embalmers didn’t stop with his penis, they also doused him with an enormous amount of black liquid thought to resemble Osiris’s skin tone.
This transformation might even explain Tutankhamun’s missing heart. In one story, Osiris is cut to pieces by his brother, Seth, and his heart is burned. So if Tutankhamun was to become the god, his heart would have to be removed too.
Unfortunately, in this life at least, the adjustments to the mummification process didn’t turn out too well for Tutankhamun. The black liquid somehow managed to ignite inside the sarcophagus and his body was found burnt and charred. Worse than this partial cremation, his penis, which was erect when first uncovered, somehow snapped off and was declared missing in 1968. Initially, many believed it had been stolen, possibly by Egypt to prevent the King’s penis being shown to the world. Not to protect his dignity, but because the mummification process causes everything to shrink and it was giving the men of Egypt a bad name. Fortunately, it was rediscovered by Egyptian Archaeologist, Professor Zahi Hawass in 2005 when doing a CT scan of the mummy. It had simply broken off and fallen into the sand surrounding the body, not a government penis conspiracy after all.
The Extra-terrestrial Iron Dagger
Next to the rooms filled with golden artefacts, including a chariot and a gilded hippo bed, it’s easy to overlook one of Tutankhamun’s most incredible treasures. A fairly simple iron dagger that was discovered wrapped inside his bandages. Of course, it had to have a bit of bling and did have a gold sheath decorated with a lily and jackal. But amongst all the gold of the tomb, the grey iron was considered far more valuable.
Why? Tutankhamun was mummified in 1323 BC, the bronze age. Iron was incredibly rare and it was valued 10x more highly than gold. Only small amounts of the ore were accessible at the time and it was of such low quality that it was only used for makeup, dyes and artistic purposes rather than for making tools. To craft a dagger, a larger and higher quality source of the metal was needed and they got it from space. Not from the pyramid building aliens of course, they harvested it from meteorites. Ancient Egyptians called it ‘iron of the sky’ or ‘metal from the heavens’.
The material from Tutankhamun’s dagger has since been analysed using portable X-ray Fluorescence spectrometry to confirm its extraterrestrial origins. The specific levels of iron, nickel and cobalt removed all doubt it came from a meteorite and scientists even managed to find out which one. The Kharga meteorite, discovered in Mersa Matruh, a seaport 150miles west of Alexandria. Understandably, the Ancient Egyptians believed objects that fell from the sky to be gifts from the Gods. So, crafting a meteorite into a dagger for Tutankhamun was fitting.
Tutankhamun’s meteorite dagger isn’t the only treasure with cosmic origins. Amongst the 104 pieces of jewellery discovered in the tomb, the scarab breastplate that Carter found in a treasure chest could’ve been easily overlooked. Particularly as the central winged scarab seemed to be made out of nothing more impressive than chalcedony, a common pale yellow/green variety of quartz.
However, its true nature began to be uncovered in 1932, when British Geographer, Patrick Clayton, discovered glass in the Great Sand Sea between Egypt and Libya. It was very similar to quartz but had a different crystal structure and trace amounts of unusual elements like nickel, iridium and cobalt.
We now know it as Libyan Desert glass. One of Earth’s rarest minerals. It formed over 26 million years ago when a meteorite exploded over the desert, generating a heat burst of over 2000oC. Hot enough to melt the sands below. Similar to the formation of trinite, the glassy residue created by the testing of nuclear bombs in the desert. The similarities between Libyan Desert Glass and Tutankhamun’s scarab were noted straight away. But, it wasn’t until 1998 when the breastplate was analysed that the material was confirmed.
Whether or not King Tut’s jewellery designers were aware they’d crafted him a scarab out of one of the rarest minerals on Earth will never be known. And why a scarab? A dung beetle doesn’t seem like the obvious choice for jewellery. It’s hard to think of something worse, tapeworm maybe? However, to the Ancient Egyptians, the scarab represented much more than a creepy faeces collecting insect.
The dung beetle was a symbol of the eternal cycle of life. This was probably based on the misconception that the dung ball was created by males as an egg. In fairness to the ancient amateur insectologists, females would burrow into the buried dung balls and lay their eggs inside so that their young have something to eat when they hatch. A nice first meal. For someone observing the baby dung beetles emerging, it looked as though the male had disappeared underground and emerged as a youngster, without any females involved. This led to the belief that the scarab had incredible regenerative powers. Just what you’d need with you if you wanted to be reborn in the afterlife.
The ball of dung became symbolic of the Sun. Ancient Egyptians believed that Khepri, the scarab faced god of the Sun, sunrise and the renewal of life would roll the Sun across the sky like an enormous burning ball of faeces and bury it at sunset. In the morning, Khepri would dig it up on the other side of the horizon and the Sun would be reborn. So, it made sense that the scarab was the reincarnation of Khepri, but with no stars to roll, they had to make do with shit instead.
Weirdly though, dung beetles do have some relationship with the Sun and stars. They use it to navigate as they roll the dung to their burrows, occasionally stopping to climb their balls to check that they’re heading the right way. At night, they use the stars. How did scientists prove this? They made little hats for some of the dung beetles that blocked their view of the sky. Compared to the hatless, they’d stagger around, getting lost and incredibly confused. As if the life of a poo collecting insect wasn’t humiliating enough.
Tutankhamun’s Golden Throne
One of the more heartwarming of Tutankhamun’s treasures is the golden throne. A throne was incredibly important to the Ancient Egyptians as it was the emblem of the Goddess Isis. To sit on a throne was to sit in the lap of the Goddess as her Son, Horus. Therefore, a King was sacred as he was literally Horus, the son of a Goddess.
Of the 6 thrones buried with Tutankhamun, the golden throne depicting a scene of him and his wife is usually considered the most beautiful. Unlike some of the other treasures, it wasn’t solid metal. Instead, it was carved from wood and covered with sheets of gold, inlaid with precious stones and quartz and decorated with, rare at the time, silver.
The main scene that covers the back of the throne shows Tutankhamun and his wife, Ankhesenam. Most who’ve studied it believe it to depict an incredible love between the couple. She’s shown rubbing oil and perfumes into his shoulders, a great act of affection. They’re also each wearing only one sandal, indicating that they shared everything.
If it were a true love story, it was an incredibly tragic one. Not only did Tutankhamun die at the young age of 18, he wasn’t buried alone. In his tomb were two tiny coffins, containing two carefully mummified bodies, wrapped in linen and wearing gold masks. They’ve been identified as stillborn female foetuses, one of 5 months gestation and the other 9 months. X-rays have revealed that both had the same scoliosis and related genetic conditions as Tutankhamun, indicating they were his unborn daughters.
Tutankhamun’s Gold Burial Mask
Of course, the most famous and incredible treasure of Tutankhamun is his solid gold death mask. It’s 54cm tall, weighs 10.23kg and is crafted from 3 layers of high carat gold. As if the gold weren’t enough, the mask is also inlaid with lapis lazuli, carnelian, amazonite, turquoise and faience. And the eyes are expertly crafted from quartz and obsidian. It’s truly an incredible feat of both art and engineering. Unfortunately for the King, it might not actually have been made for him.
Study under a microscope has revealed that his name wasn’t the first to be inscribed on the mask. The original inscription read, Ankhkheperure. A name linked to Nefertiti, one of the wives of Tutankhamun’s Father. Whether or not she was Tutankhamun’s mother is still up for debate.
The name isn’t the only irregularity that suggests it wasn’t meant for him. The mask has its ears pierced, something seen in women and children of the time, not men. The gold faces of the canopic coffinettes have the piercings too. It’s now thought quite likely that many of his treasures were not made for him, but for Nefertiti who died before him.
Was she robbed of her mask? Possibly. She worked with Akhenaten, Tutankhamun’s father in his religious revolution. Even renaming herself as Ankhkheperure-Meryt-Neferkheperure Neferneferuaten (Living Manifestation of the Sun God, Beloved of Akhenaten, Beauty of Beauties of the Disk of the Sun). When Akhenaten died, she co-ruled with Tutankhamun, who was only 8 at the time, and tried to find a middle ground between the 2 religions.
During her reign, she probably planned for a glorious afterlife and burial as a full pharaoh, including the gold death mask. However, on her death 2 religiously traditional generals took control, with Tut as a Puppet Pharaoh. They politically downgraded her and she was likely buried as a queen and not a pharaoh. Her most expensive funeral items were therefore unused and handed down to Tutankhamun instead.
The other theory is that after her husband’s death, she became entitled to something much better than she’d initially planned and gave her cast-offs to Tut. The search for her tomb is still ongoing. Whether it’ll be the grave of a queen or the tomb of a pharaoh, boasting even more incredible treasures than Tut’s, remains to be seen.
As if having to wear your Mum’s or Step Mum’s hand me downs for eternity in the afterlife wasn’t enough, Tutankhamun’s mask was to bring yet more humiliation. The long braided beard was made separately and attached with a simple mechanism and small dowel. In 2014, workers in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo had to move the mask to fix the light in the display case. When they went to return it they accidentally knocked the beard off. Presumably, they panicked, as instead of reporting it and conducting a simple fix, they decided to use quick-drying epoxy glue to stick it back on. Wonkily. The job was so shoddy that some of the glue leaked out of the side and they tried to scrape it off with a spatula, leaving visible scratches in the gold.
Their mishap was obviously discovered. It’s one of the most famous and photographed Ancient Egyptian artefacts of all time. To say people were furious would be an understatement. Fortunately for the mask, it was sent to experts in Germany to restore using traditional materials, like wood and beeswax. Unfortunately for the museum workers, including a former museum director and former head of restoration, they face dismissal, fines and are due to stand trial.
While the 8 workers clearly shoulder much of the blame, some was also given to declining standards in the museum. Retiring staff and old infrastructure had led to the neglect of many of the mummies and relics of the Pharaohs. With the support of many and the anger of others, most of the antiquities and the entirety of Tutankhamun’s collection are now being transferred to the Grand Egyptian Museum. A €750 million project in Giza, due to open in November 2022. Hopefully, the treasures will be safe there and nothing else will be scratched, broken or snapped off.
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