After he died, King Tut was mummified according to Egyptian religious tradition, which held that royal bodies should be preserved and provisioned for the afterlife. Embalmers removed his organs and wrapped him in resin-soaked bandages, a 24-pound solid gold portrait mask was placed over his head and shoulders and he was laid in a series of nested containers—three golden coffins, a granite sarcophagus and four gilded wooden shrines, the largest of which barely fit into the tomb’s burial chamber.
Because of his tomb’s small size, historians suggest King Tut’s death must have been unexpected and his burial rushed by Ay, who succeeded him as pharaoh. The tomb’s antechambers were packed to the ceiling with more than 5,000 artifacts, including furniture, chariots, clothes, weapons and 130 of the lame king’s walking sticks. The entrance corridor was apparently looted soon after the burial, but the inner rooms remained sealed. The pharaohs who followed Tut chose to ignore his reign, as despite his work restoring Amun, he was tainted by the connection to his father’s religious upheavals. Within a few generations, the tomb’s entrance had been clogged with stone debris, built over by workmen’s huts and forgotten.
King Tutankhamen (or Tutankhamun) ruled Egypt as pharaoh for 10 years until his death at age 19, around 1324 B.C. Although his rule was notable for reversing the tumultuous religious reforms of his father, Pharaoh Akhenaten, Tutankhamen’s legacy was largely negated by his successors. He was barely known to the modern world until 1922, when British archaeologist Howard Carter chiseled through a doorway and entered the boy pharaoh’s tomb, which had remained sealed for more than 3,200 years. The tomb’s vast hoard of artifacts and treasure, intended to accompany the king into the afterlife, revealed an incredible amount about royal life in ancient Egypt, and quickly made King Tut the world’s most famous pharaoh.
Genetic testing has verified that King Tut was the grandson of the great pharaoh Amenhotep II, and almost certainly the son of Akhenaten, a controversial figure in the history of the 18th dynasty of Egypt’s New Kingdom (c.1550-1295 B.C.). Akhenaten upended a centuries-old religious system to favor worship of a single deity, the sun god Aten, and moved Egypt’s religious capital from Thebes to Amarna. After Akhenaten’s death, two intervening pharaohs briefly reigned before the 9-year-old prince, then called Tutankhaten, took the throne.
Carter’s patron, Lord Carnarvon, died four months after first entering the tomb, leading journalists to popularize a “Curse of the Pharaohs,” claiming that hieroglyphs on the tomb walls promised swift death to those who disturbed King Tut. More than a dozen deaths have been attributed to the curse, but studies have shown that those who entered the tomb on average lived just as long as their peers who didn’t enter.
Early in his reign Tutankhamen reversed Akhenaten’s reforms, reviving worship of the god Amun, restoring Thebes as a religious center and changing the end of his name to reflect royal allegiance to the creator god Amun. He also worked in concert with his powerful advisers Horemheb and Ay—both future pharaohs—to restore Egypt’s stature in the region.
King Tut was tall but physically frail, with a crippling bone disease in his clubbed left foot. He is the only pharaoh known to have been depicted seated while engaged in physical activities like archery. Traditional inbreeding in the Egyptian royal family also likely contributed to the king’s poor health and early death. DNA tests published in 2010 revealed that Tutankhamen’s parents were brother and sister and that his wife, Ankhesenamun, was also his half-sister. Their only two daughters were stillborn.
Because Tutankhamen’s remains revealed a hole in the back of the skull, some historians had concluded that the young king was assassinated, but recent tests suggest that the hole was made during mummification. CT scans in 1995 showed that the king had an infected broken left leg, while DNA from his mummy revealed evidence of multiple malaria infections, all of which may have contributed to his early death.
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By the time he discovered Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter had been excavating Egyptian antiquities for three decades. At the time of the discovery, archaeologists believed that all the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, across the river from ancient Thebes, had already been cleared. Excitement about the new tomb—the most intact ever found—quickly spread worldwide. It took Carter and his team a decade to catalogue and empty the tomb.
Artifacts from King Tut’s tomb have toured the world in several blockbuster museum shows, including the worldwide 1972-79 “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibitions. Eight million visitors in seven U.S. cities viewed the exhibition of the golden burial mask and 50 other precious items from the tomb. Today the most fragile artifacts, including the burial mask, no longer leave Egypt. Tutankhamen’s mummy remains on display within the tomb, his layered coffins replaced with a climate-controlled glass box.
On January 3, 1924, British archaeologist Howard Carter, who had been excavating the burial chamber of Tutankhamen in Egypt's Valley of Kings for nearly two years, uncovered the tomb's greatest treasure—a stone sarcophagus containing a solid-gold coffin that contained the remains of the boy-king. King Tut’s tomb and the riches it contained would fuel a worldwide obsession with ancient Egypt in general and the long-dead ruler, who reigned for just one decade some 3,300 years ago, in particular. Explore six surprising facts about the teenage pharaoh and his final resting place.
When Carter first entered King Tut’s lost tomb in November 1922, his financial backer George Herbert—a wealthy lord with a passion for Egyptology—was at his side. Four months later, Herbert died of apparent blood poisoning from an infected mosquito bite. Newspapers speculated that the Englishman had fallen victim to a “mummy’s curse” supposedly outlined on a clay tablet outside Tut’s tomb. Rumors flew anew after the sudden deaths of others who had visited the Valley of the Kings. It turns out, however, that frenzied journalists fabricated the story of the inscription. And in 2002, scientists examined the survival rates of 44 Westerners who had been in Egypt during Carter’s excavation, concluding that they were not at elevated risk of dying early.
For years, it was speculated that King Tut’s death at age 19 came courtesy of a blow to the head, inflicted, perhaps, by a murderous rival. More recently, however, experts have determined that the damage to his mummy’s skull occurred after death, either during the embalming process or at the hands of Carter’s crew. So how did the boy king die? In 2005 a study revealed that he broke his leg and developed an infection in the wound shortly before death. According to one theory, the pharaoh sustained the injury by falling from his chariot during a hunt. Meanwhile, DNA testing in 2010 suggested that Tutankhamen had malaria, which might have exacerbated a leg infection or caused him to fall in the first place. Alternate theories about King Tut’s demise still abound, however, including the hypothesis that he succumbed to the lethal bite of an enraged hippopotamus.
Historians describe Tutankhamen’s reign as largely uneventful, but the young pharaoh did institute at least one major reform. His father, Akhenaten, considered the god Aten to be the Egyptian pantheon’s most important deity and encouraged his worship above all others. Akhenaten also transferred the Egyptian capital from Thebes to a new site devoted to Aten. Tutankhamen is thought to have reversed these unpopular religious changes, restoring the god Amun to his former glory and moving the capital back to Thebes. He abandoned his original name, Tutankhaten (“living image of Aten”), for Tutankhamen (“living image of Amun”).
In 2010 researchers performing DNA analyses on the remains of King Tut and his relatives made a shocking announcement. The boy king, they believed, was the product of incest between the pharaoh Akhenaten and one of his sisters. Inbreeding was rampant among ancient Egyptian royals, who saw themselves as descendants of the gods and hoped to maintain pure bloodlines. Experts think this trend contributed to higher incidences of congenital defects—such as King Tut’s cleft palate and club foot—among rulers. Tutankhamen himself would eventually marry his father’s daughter by his chief wife—his half-sister, Ankhesenamun.
As Carter ventured further into Tutankhamen’s tomb, he discovered a treasury room brimming with priceless funerary objects, including gold figurines, ritual jewelry, small boats representing the journey to the netherworld and a shrine for the pharaoh’s embalmed organs. The chamber also held two miniature coffins that contained two fetuses. Recent DNA tests suggest that one of the mummies is that of Tutankhamen’s stillborn daughter and that the other was likely his child as well. Experts believe King Tut left no living heirs, perhaps because he and Ankhesenamun could only conceive offspring with fatal congenital disorders.
For several years following Carter’s discovery, no ruler was more popular than Egypt’s boy king. Formerly a minor footnote in the tome of Egyptian history, Tutankhamen took the world by storm. Women donned snake bracelets and gold dresses inspired by his iconic funerary mask, mummies haunted the silver screen and showgirls at the Folies Bergère in Paris performed a Tut-themed review. “Tutmania,” as it was known, once again swept the United States when a collection of objects from the pharaoh’s tomb toured the country from 1977 to 1979. The craze reached such a fever pitch that comedian Steve Martin mocked it in his 1978 song “King Tut.”