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The Mysteries of King Tut’s Tomb

When the tomb of Ancient Egyptian boy king Tutankhamun was finally entered by Howard Carter and his team in the early 1920s, it was an archaeological discovery that got the whole world interested. In his book, “The Tomb of Tutankhamun”, Carter wrote “…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.” 

We know about the sarcophagus and the golden death mask but the tomb also housed other wonders and a fair few mysteries that persist to this day. Let’s take a look at what else was in the tomb.

King Tut Himself

You may not have realised that the original owner still resides in KV62, Valley of the Kings, Egypt. His mummy is housed, Snow White-like in a climate controlled glass box after his original coffins were removed for restoration and eventual display at the new Grand Egyptian Museum. As of 2021, it hasn’t been decided whether the mummy could or should also be moved to the Museum where, if it was, it would be reunited with over 5000 artefacts from the tomb. 

Inside Pharaoh Tutankhamun's tomb, 18th dynasty
Inside Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb, 18th dynasty. By EditorfromMars, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The way Tutankhamun’s body was buried is pretty mysterious in itself. When Carter opened his sarcophagus in 1925, it was found that the mummy had had an excessive amount of embalming liquid poured on it, negating a lot of the normal preservation techniques mummification achieves and causing a chemical reaction something like spontaneous human combustion. After later analysis, it was also found that oil had been poured into his skull twice and the way it had set meant that the poor deceased king had been suspended upside down for a time. The reasons for this are not known. The excess liquid may have been an inexperienced embalmer, some sort of revenge tactic or maybe somebody just slipped over while carrying a huge bowl of oils right by the Pharaoh’s corpse. Anyway, Carter found more things buried with King Tut, in between the various layers of the mummification bandages. When unwrapping them in what must have been the world’s gooiest game of pass the parcel, Carter’s team found bonus pieces of jewels, weapons and armour. Unfortunately, they were not particularly respectful or careful with the body after they’d taken everything worth having off it, leaving it badly damaged and with parts missing which clouded future investigations into his cause of death. 

One other notable thing about Tutankhamun’s body is that it had no heart. Hearts were important in death rituals to Ancient Egyptians as they would be weighed in the afterlife to see if you were a good person or not so this might have scuppered Tut’s chances of being king after death. However, his mask was made in the image of Osiris who, in his life, had been dismembered and his heart had been buried before he was resurrected so maybe Tutankhamun didn’t really need one in the afterlife either. Symbolic heart scarabs were found in Tutankhamun’s layers of wrappings but heart scarabs were usually still placed inside the chest cavity, not in the outer wrappings. Other theories are that his heart was removed as it was too damaged to be mummified or that it symbolises that he died far from home. It could also be that different dynasties just had different ways of doing things or maybe his funeral director was just really crap at his job but as with so much of his short life, we’ll probably never find out the actual truth.

Over the years, the body of the boy king has been x-rayed, scanned, DNA tested and digitally reconstructed to find out more about him and how he might have died. There have been various theories from genetic disorders to hunting accidents to murder but what is agreed is that he was still in his teenage years at the time of his death. The young age at which he died may explain why it took so long for his tomb to be discovered. It’s possible that because his early death was unexpected, he had to be buried in a tomb that had been prepared for someone else as his presumably much grander final resting place would not have been ready. 

Other Residents

Tutankhamun receives flowers from Ankhesenamun
Tutankhamun receives flowers from Ankhesenamun.

As well as the corpse of King Tut, the archaeologists also found two mummified foetuses in the treasury chamber of the tomb. They were in a wooden box with no identifying marks apart from those of Osiris. While it’s been assumed that they were the stillborn children of Tutankhamun and his wife Ankhesenamun, another theory states that they may not be related to him at all but were just placed there to enable him to be resurrected as a newborn. As well as these three mummies however, Egyptologists are also still open to the idea that King Tut’s tomb may hide other, secret rooms that house the final resting place of another long lost member of Egyptian royalty, Nefertiti. She was Tutankhamun’s stepmother and also mother in law. Yeah, Ancient Egyptian royal family trees are a bit of a mess. It has been claimed by some that she took over as Pharaoh before Tutankhamun using another name but as nothing concrete is known about her since her name disappeared from the records in about 1336 BC, nobody knows where or when she died or where she was buried. There are mentions of her name in Tutankhamun’s tomb itself and also on his coffins. There are several instances of his name being added over hers, pointing to the fact that the coffins had been made for Nefertiti. Even his famous death mask has holes for earrings which were again covered over, suggesting that it had originally been intended for a female. So is it possible that Tut’s tomb was originally supposed to be for Nefertiti and that she may still be there? There have been several surveys done of the tomb over the last few years, basically all contradicting each other. Hidden doors have been suggested and apparent voids parallel to the tomb have been found using ground penetrating radar although different teams have had different results. Interference from modern ventilation systems and anomalies coming from inconsistencies in the bedrock around the tomb have made it hard for researchers to get a clear picture of what might potentially be beyond the existing walls. You also can’t just knock a hole in the wall and peer through although that would be the quickest way to solve the mystery. Unfortunately that method would risk destroying the 3000 year old artwork on the walls for potentially no gain. Some Egyptologists think it’s more likely that if there is another burial chamber there, it would belong to Tutankhamun’s wife, Ankhesenamun. This might be more probable than Nefertiti being buried there as she was married to Akhenaten, the so-called “Heretic King” and they were both proponents of monotheism under the god Aten. This religious and political swing away from the traditional plethora of ancient Egyptian gods made them an unpopular couple after death so it’s perhaps more probable that if Nefertiti was even afforded a royal burial, it would have been nearer Akhenaten’s tomb in Armana, away from the Valley of the Kings. 

Space Knife

Pharaoh, the king of ancient Egypt,
Pharaoh, the king of ancient Egypt.
By Jeff Dahl, is licensed under

So what other trinkets did Carter find amongst the 5000-odd pieces in the tomb? One of the most interesting was a dagger that had been wrapped up with the Pharaoh’s body. Even after over 3000 years, the blade wasn’t rusty which was pretty surprising seeing as it was made of iron. At the time of Tutankhamun’s reign, Egyptians weren’t really bothered about using iron and hadn’t acquired much skill in working with it. So what was special about this dagger with an intricately carved gold handle and sheath? Well, in 2016, findings from a test using x-ray fluorescence spectrometry were published, showing that the dagger blade had high concentrations of nickel, as well as cobalt and iron. And where else are similar concentrations of these elements found? In meteorites! King Tut was buried with a knife made out of meteorites. Ancient Egyptians seemed to be familiar with meteorite showers, calling what fell to Earth “iron from the sky”. Given their religion and the importance placed on ceremony and death rituals, this special iron seemed to be reserved for the Pharaohs. A bracelet and headrest also found with Tutankhamun’s mummy were made from possibly two different meteorites meaning that this sort of metal was actively sought out for the purpose.  As previously mentioned though, iron work wasn’t prevalent among Ancient Egyptian society at this point so it might also have been a gift from another nation. Whatever the origin, it’s pretty cool being buried with a knife from outer space. 

The Curse of the Pharaohs

If you’ve ever seen any Hollywood action movie involving mummies or archaeology you know bad things are going to happen if you enter an ancient tomb or accidentally read something out loud that invokes some sort of evil spirit. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb was not immune from rumours of such curses. The year after it was discovered, Carter’s sponsor and fellow Egyptophile, Lord Carnarvon died under mysterious circumstances. Well, they weren’t that mysterious, he got blood poisoning and died but because it had happened so close to the tomb being opened, the media ran wild with it. None other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spread rumours about “elementals” guarding the tomb while other people whispered about a deathly curse that came from opening the sarcophagus, poisoning everyone with some sort of fungus. A few people peripherally connected to the excavations or relatives of the main party did die prematurely, not all of them having even visited the Valley of the Kings, but Howard Carter managed to avoid dying until 1939. Carnarvon was the only one of the twenty or so frequent visitors to the tomb site to expire close to the tomb being opened so if there was a curse, it was not particularly effective.

Another curse linked to the tomb of Tutankhamun is one relating to a pair of trumpets found there. With one made of silver and the other of copper or bronze, these could be the oldest working trumpets ever found. While “The curse of Tutankhamun’s Trumpets” sounds like a rejected Sherlock Holmes title, they reportedly have the power to start a war every time someone blows into them. The first time they were played after being discovered was to a worldwide audience during a BBC broadcast in Cairo. As soon as they were blown, so the story goes, there was a power cut and the recording had to be made by candlelight. This was in 1939. I think you can guess what happened shortly after. They also apparently heralded the Six Day Arab-Israeli war in 1967 and the Gulf War in 1991. If this is true, I would please ask people to stop blowing the magical trumpets. 

Perhaps in a bid for world peace, they were stolen from the Cairo museum in 2011 during the Egyptian revolution, which they may or may not have started, but were anonymously returned a few months later. Thankfully they’re now deemed too fragile to ever be played again.

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