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The Mask of Tutankhamun

The gold death mask of Egypt’s Boy King, Tutankhamun, is one of the most recognisable icons from ancient Egypt. It was found almost 100 years ago but new things are still coming to light about this enigmatic artwork and the Pharaoh it protected for over 3000 years. Let’s take a closer look at this globally renowned artefact.

The Discovery 

Tutankhamun is best known for his short-lived tenure as Pharaoh. Ascending to the throne in about 1332 BC at the age of 8 or 9, he only ruled for about 9 years before passing away in unconfirmed circumstances in his late teens. Usually, his short reign would mean he would live on as a historical footnote, not having achieved much of significance or leaving any direct heirs. However, it was an archaeological expedition launched in the early 1920s that sealed his position as one the world’s most famous Pharaohs. 

Pharaoh Seti I, detail of a wall painting of a pillar at the Tomb of Seti I
Pharaoh Seti I, detail of a wall painting of a pillar at the Tomb of Seti I . By Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP is licensed under CC-BY

Archaeologist Howard Carter had been working with sponsor and Egyptophile Lord Carnarvon since 1907. After searching for treasures in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, they had unearthed artefacts mentioning the name of Tutankhamun, but his tomb had not yet been discovered. This led Carter to suspect that it still lay somewhere close by, hopefully not a victim of looting like the other tombs had been. After a few years of fruitless excavations, they decided to have one last hurrah and in November 1922, Carter finally uncovered the steps to the entrance of King Tut’s tomb. It was hidden away at the base of another tomb, meaning that it had largely escaped the notice of robbers through the ages.  Once Carter broke through to the main chamber, and made a small hole to peer through, Lord Carnarvon asked if he could see anything. Carter replied: “Yes, wonderful things.” There were indeed wonderful things in the tomb, most of them made of gold. But the crowning glory was the sarcophagus of the Boy King himself, found inside four shrines, inside the burial chamber. It took another year before Carter and his team were prepared enough to lift the coffin’s lid. And finally, inside the third nested coffin they opened, they uncovered the mummy of Tutankhamun, sporting his now world-famous gold mask. The mask was removed and sent to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in 1925 where you can still see it to this day. 

The Mask

It’s a fair bet that you will have seen photos or likenesses of the death mask, if not the actual object on one of its several trips around the globe. So what’s so special about it anyway? Well, for starters, it’s 22 pounds (or 10 kilograms) of gold and semi-precious stones.Gold was significant to the ancient Egyptians as it doesn’t tarnish and is also associated with the sun god Ra due to its glow. Tutankhamun’s death mask is 1 foot 8 inches (54 cm) tall and bears the face, neck and collar-covered shoulders of the Pharaoh wearing a “nemes” headcloth. There is also the plaited effect symbolic beard which weighs 5.5 pounds (2.5kg) by itself. The face of King Tut is made of a slightly lighter gold and silver alloy to make it shine, with the headcloth being a darker 22.5 karat shade. His iconic heavy eye makeup is made from lapis lazuli while his eyes are quartz and obsidian.

His headcloth is made of gold with blue glass stripes and has the figures of two goddesses in the centre, the vulture goddess, Nekhbet, of Upper Egypt, and the cobra goddess, Wadjet of Lower Egypt. These two goddesses show that Tutankhamun was king over all Egypt and also serve as a protective symbol. 

The highly detailed collar is inlaid with quartz, lapis lazuli and green feldspar and curves up to a falcon head at each end, representing Horus, a god highly revered in Ancient Egypt and associated with Pharaohs and kingship.  A triple-string beaded necklace was also found on the mask in the coffin but this is not usually displayed. 

The mask is also interesting from the back with the headdress coming together in the middle to form a neat ponytail.  There is also an inscription in hieroglyphics bearing a spell from the Egyptian Book of the Dead covering the rest of the gold sheet. This spell was to give the king protection and guidance in his journey to the underworld.

As a work of art by itself, the mask is impressive. Given that it’s over 3000 years old and came from the first almost intact pharaoh’s tomb discovered in the modern era, it’s priceless. With its status as such a valuable artefact, you’d think that the utmost care would be taken with it at all times. Well, you’d be wrong. The fake Pharaoh’s beard, symbolising the wearer as a divine being, was apparently not attached to the mask when Carter broke open the tomb in the 1920s. In 1944 a fix was made by attaching it with a small wooden dowel and there it happily stayed, giving King Tut the gravitas he deserved for several decades. Then in 2014 when the display case for the mask was being cleaned, the beard somehow broke off. Instead of maybe, you know, fessing up to what had happened or alerting a professional, the museum workers panicked and basically just tried to glue the beard back on. They ended up doing this a total of four times, attempting to scrape off the visible remains of the previous glue remnants each time and causing damage to the priceless artefact. Incredibly, they got away with it for about a year until it became obvious that the beard was looking wonky and the dried glue under the Pharaoh’s chin became increasingly more noticeable. The professionals were finally called in and in 2015 a team made up of German and Egyptian restoration experts managed to clean off the glue and reattached the beard using the more traditional ancient Egyptian method of beeswax. Eight museum employees including the director and head of restoration were due to face trial over the damage in 2016 but there has been no resolution to the case thus far. 

The Identity Question

One other noticeable feature of the mask is the fact that it has large holes in the earlobes. These would have been used to hold earrings that would have been made separately but there weren’t any in the coffin with Tutankhamun. “So what?” you might think. “Wasn’t gold jewellery all the rage back in ancient times?” Well, sure, but according to contemporary artwork, adult male pharaohs did not traditionally wear earrings, only queens and children did. So why were the piercings made on King Tut’s mask? Yes, we refer to him as the “Boy King” but he would have been considered an adult at the time of his death. Also, when Carter found the mask, the holes were actually covered over with thin pieces of gold, possibly meaning that the mask had been altered to become more appropriate for Tutankhamun. There are a few other clues that bring the mask’s identity into question too. References to Neferneferuaten, now known to us as Nefertiti were found inside the coffins Tutankhamun was buried in. His name was inscribed over hers, making it look like the coffin and mask were originally intended for her. 

The face itself also adds to the mystery. While Carter took for granted that it was a lifelike portrait of Tutankhamun, it was common for Pharaohs to be granted the likeness of gods like Osiris to ease their passing and grant them ruling status in the underworld. It was also so that the spirit of the dead king could recognise his body after death and be reunited with it in the afterlife. If this was what King Tut looked like, we can all agree that he was a pretty good looking chap. In reality though, he may have had a few flattering filters on when the artists came up with this image. While previous reconstructions of his face have been made, in 2014, a 3D computer rendering of King Tut was made using thousands of scans taken of his still in-situ mummified corpse. The result was a club-footed Pharoah with a weak chin and buck teeth, not anything remotely like his famous golden image. When you remember that Nerfertiti was famed for her beauty and there’s a definite feminine cast to the mask’s features, it’s another hint that maybe the death mask now synonymous with Tutankhamun may not have been originally intended for him at all. Let’s just hope that he did manage to recognize himself after death and isn’t still floating around somewhere looking for a deathmask that looks more like him.

The tomb and mask of Tutankhamun grant us a clear window into ancient Egypt. The artefacts, symbols and details reveal much about ancient Egyptian’s religious beliefs, the political status at the time of Tutankhamun’s death and just their culture in general. It shows off the Egyptian’s artistic prowess and the wealth of the country at the time.  It took Carter and his team a decade to catalogue and legally empty out most of the artefacts of this relatively small tomb, leaving us to wonder what might have been in the other much larger tombs that had long before fallen prey to thieves. Currently there are no plans to let the mask travel out of Cairo again but some archaeologists believe there may still be more surprises hidden in King Tut’s tomb, so watch this space. 

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