Tutankhamun, Son and Heir of Akhenaten

Figure O-1. The funerary mask of Tutankhamun, made of solid gold with inlays of lapis lazuli and other stones. One of the finest portraits ever discovered in Egypt, this mask is a masterpiece of art and craft alike. However, recent forensic studies reveal that it is not a particularly accurate likeness of the young king – he had a pronounced overbite and a receding chin.


Pharaoh of Egypt for 9 years, ca. 1334-1325. He was originally crowned Nib-khuprau-Ri‘a Tut-ankh-Atan [nb-xprw-r‘ twt–‘nx-itn] “Lord of Ra’s emanations, living image of the Aten” – a two-part name customarily rendered Nebkheprura Tutankhaten.

He changed his nomen or personal name (the second element of the double name) from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun – “Living image of Amun” – about Year 2.

Current scholarship indicates that Tutankhamun was the son as well as the successor of Akhenaten. He married his older sister, Ankhesenpaaten, upon his accession. Her name became Ankhesenamun at the same time as her husband’s name-change.

Enthroned as a child of 9 or 10, Tutankhamun died at age 19 without leaving an heir. He is most famous today for the riches of his tomb (KV 62), the only royal burial to survive largely intact from pharaonic times. This modest tomb in the Valley of the Kings was discovered by the English archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922.

Figure O-2. Inscription from a carved block discovered in Hermopolis but originating in one of the Aten temples of Akhet-Aten. The hieroglyphs read [nsw s n Xt.f mry.f twt-‘nx-w-itn] or “king’s bodily son, his beloved, Tut-ankhu-Atan.”

a prince in akhet-aten

The future Tutankhamun was born in the city of Akhet-Aten at some point between Year 7 and Year 10 of Akhenaten. After decades of uncertainty and debate, the Egyptological community now largely agrees that he was Akhenaten’s son. The best evidence for his paternity is an inscribed block recovered from Hermopolis but surely originating in one of the temples of Akhet-Aten. Its inscription contains the phrase “king’s bodily son, his beloved, Tutankhuatan.” Since the context is Amarna, the royal father in question must be Akhenaten, while the phrase “king’s bodily son” implies that Tut is a recognized heir to the throne.

No similar agreement reigns with regard to the identity of the boy-king’s mother. For reasons not fully articulated, generations of Egyptologists have assumed that Nefertiti bore her husband only daughters, never a son.

They have therefore sought elsewhere for Tut’s mother. Currently, the favored candidate is Kiya, “Wife and Greatly Beloved” of Akhenaten, the only woman besides Nefertiti who was recognized as Royal Wife during the period when Tutankhaten was born.

However, current discussions of Tutankhaten’s parentage typically ignore a crucial item of evidence: the human remains discovered in KV 55, a small uninscribed tomb in the Valley of the Kings. On the basis of skeletal morphology and blood group, these remains have been identified by a succession of forensic specialists as those of a young man closely related to Tutankhaten – either his father or his brother. Since the KV 55 individual died when he was between the ages of 18 and 25, he cannot have been Akhenaten, who assumed the throne of Egypt as a young adult, reigned 17 years, and died in this thirties or forties. Thus this individual must have been an older brother of Tutankhaten, one who shared both parents with him. Our best guess is that he was Ankhkheprura Smenkhkara, who reigned as pharaoh at Akhet-Aten for at least one year before the accession of Tutankhaten.

Figure O-3. Tutankhamun seated in the lap of Lady Mai, his nurse. This relief from the tomb of Mai in Saqqara is a fine example of the art style of the boy-king’s reign, which combines the lyrical naturalism of the Mature Style of Amarna with the elegance and technical mastery typical of the artisans of Memphis. Although the scene represents Tut in early childhood, some years before his accession, he is nevertheless pictured in full kingly regalia. Both individuals also wear shabyu collars.

Clearly, then, the woman who eventually gave birth to Tutankhaten was already cohabiting with Amenhotep IV-Akhenaten at the very beginning of his reign, the period when the KV 55 individual was born. Yet Kiya is not attested until after Year 5 of Akhenaten. While the absence of earlier artifacts relating to her may simply be due to the accidents of preservation and recovery, it may conversely be an indication that Kiya is the wrong candidate.

On the other hand, no one denies that Nefertiti was associated with Amenhotep IV-Akhenaten from his first regnal year onward. She bore her eldest daughter, Maritaten, sometime between the last jubilee of Amenhotep III and the end of the first year of Amenhotep IV. This is the same period within which the birth of the KV 55 individual must have occurred. The case for Nefertiti is therefore quite strong: she was in the right place at the right time in the right role. If she actually was the mother of Akhenaten’s sons, then the older of the two would be her oldest or second oldest child, born just before or after Maritaten. Tutankhaten would be her youngest or second youngest, born just before or after Satapnara, her youngest daughter.

Regardless of the identity of Tutankhaten’s mother, we know the name of the woman who actually nursed him and cared for him in infancy. She was Lady Mai, who commemorated her relationship with the boy-king in her tomb at Saqqara, doubtless a gift from her former charge. Under this lady’s care, the infant grew into boyhood amid the gardens of Akhet-Aten.

Alone among Amarna royalty, the mummy of the future Tutankhamun has survived in relatively good condition, and in early 2005 it became the object of a sophisticated forensic analysis by a research group sponsored by Egypt’s Supreme Council on Antiquities and the National Geographic Society. So far, the results of this analysis, whose centerpiece was a CT-scan of the mummy, have been reported only in popular media.

Despite decades of intervening controversy, the new study confirms the findings of the earliest specialists to examine King Tut’s remains in the 1920s. The king died around his nineteenth birthday, with no clear indication of the cause of his premature death. In a news article on the CT-scan, science writer John Noble Wilford notes that the young king was “well-fed” and showed “no signs of malnutrition or disease in childhood.” His height was average for an ancient Egyptian man, about 5 feet 6 inches. He was “slightly built” with rather delicate bone structure and an “unusually elongated skull” that was, however, “a normal anthropological variation, not a result of disease or congenital abnormality.” His teeth were “in excellent condition,” and three of his wisdom teeth had grown in, leaving the fourth severely impacted. He had a pronounced overbite and a slightly cleft palate (the latter condition, however, would not have been evident either to him or to his associates).

These forensic data confirm that Prince Tutankhaten was a healthy child who exhibited no physical abnormalities, contrary to speculations that Akhenaten and his family suffered from some congenital deformity or morbidity, or that Tut himself was somehow “frail” or “sickly.” These data also confirm that, even though Amarna portraiture is not especially faithful to its subjects, it still reflects anatomical realities – specifically, the unusual elongation of the skull that is visible in all representations of Akhenaten’s daughters (who were also Tutankhaten’s older sisters).

Tutankhaten received the sort of education that was typical for royal princes of the Eighteenth Dynasty, as the evidence from his tomb demonstrates. Fifteen scribal palettes, six chariots, and more than forty bows were interred with him, testament to his instruction in reading, writing, chariotry, and archery. Although most of the palettes were apparently ceremonial objects, some had clearly been used by the boy-king during his lifetime. The latter group included both child-sized and adult-sized models.

Of the chariots, two were covered entirely in gold, just like the royal chariots described in inscriptions from Akhenaten’s reign. Whether these two were ever actually used, they were certainly functional vehicles. As such they provide unparalleled evidence of the chariots that used to be driven down the Royal Road of Akhet-Aten, during the prince’s childhood and later during his reign as king.

the accession of tutankhaten

The events surrounding the death of Akhenaten remain a mystery. A principal factor in this mystery is Nefertiti. Was she still alive when her husband died? If so, what was her status? Was she simply the senior of his Great Royal Wives, or had she metamorphosed into a female pharaoh, Ankhkheprura Nefernefruaten?

Another factor to compound the mystery is the “other” Amarna couple, Pharaoh Ankhkheprura Smenkhkara and Great Royal Wife Maritaten. They appear both separately and together in surviving inscriptions, and in the tomb of Marira II they are famously depicted side by side as sole monarchs. Did Smenkhkara begin his reign as co-regent with Akhenaten? Did he attain kingship immediately upon his father’s death? Or was he compelled to wait for the passing of Nefertiti before assuming the throne in his own right?

Until we can answer all of the preceding questions, we cannot present a coherent narrative of the accession of Tutankhaten. The biggest gap in our knowledge is the identity of the boy-king’s immediate predecessor, since Akhenaten, Ankhkheprura Nefernefruaten, and Ankhkheprura Smenkhkara all remain possibilities. The most we can assume is that his coronation occurred at some point during the two years following Akhenaten’s death. Tutankhaten’s age upon his installation was 9 or 10, while that of his sister-wife was between 13 and 16.

Figure O-4. Tutankhaten and Ankhesenpaaten in full ceremonial regalia, in a scene from the back of the gilded throne discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun. This traditional Atenist scene has been crudely reworked to replace the headgear and cartouches of the two figures. Such reworking, along with the fact that the throne is scaled to fit an adult rather than a child, makes it likely that this piece was originally made for Tut’s predecessor. Quite possibly, then, the king and queen originally depicted here were Smenkhkara and Maritaten, wearing headgear distinctly different from what we now see.

By the time they assumed their parents’ status, Tutankhaten and Ankhesenpaaten were the last survivors not simply of the family of Akhenaten but of the entire Tuthmoside dynasty. This line of Theban princes had ruled Egypt since the enthronement of the great general Thutmose I, more than 150 years earlier. The accession of Tutankhaten and Ankhesenpaaten repeated a dynamic that last obtained when their grandparents, Amenhotep III and Great Royal Wife Tiyi, began their career as child-rulers. This repetition may have seemed to ordinary Egyptians like a restoration of the great days of Amenhotep III. At the very least, it offered the promise that the social rifts opened by the Amarna revolution would now be healed.

Like their parents and grandparents, Tutankhaten and Akhsenpaaten were initially surrounded by familiar courtiers who had served their family for decades. Chief among them was Aya, Divine Father and Master of the Horse, and his wife Tiyi, Nefertiti’s nurse. Many Egyptologists have noted that Aya’s name and titles (especially it-nTr or Divine Father) recall those of Yuya, and that Aya apparently played the same role of mentor for Tutankhamun as Yuya did for Amenhotep III.

Aya’s principal rival, whose influence perhaps was not felt until a few years into the reign, was Harimhab, a scribe of northern origin who rose quickly to the rank of general of all the armies of Egypt. He may or may not have been the same person as Paatenimhab, a military man who bore almost identical titles late in the reign of Akhenaten.

Other important figures of the reign included Nakhtmin, a military officer who was Aya’s natural or adopted son; Maya, Overseer of the Treasury and Overseer of Works in the Valley of the Kings; and the viziers of the north and south, Usir-mantu and Pantju. The latter may have been the same Pantju who served Akhenaten as Chief Physician and who was rewarded with Tomb 5 in Akhet-Aten (Reeves 31).

An individual who has only recently been recognized as a major presence at the court of the new king is Lady Mai, his former nurse. Mai’s tomb in Saqqara lies not far from those of Harimhab and Maya. As Alain Zivie’s recent excavations have shown, the tomb’s substructure is unusually large and complex, and its relief decoration is as fine that of the king’s highest officials. One relief presents a remarkable scene of the king in full regalia, sitting on Mai’s lap as she offers him her bare breast (see Figure O-3, above). Both are wearing shabyu-collars, which retained the same significance as marks of royal favor that they held during the reign of Akhenaten. Indeed, Mai was apparently the only woman besides the king’s wife to be depicted wearing a shabyu-collar during Tut’s reign, while Lady Tiyi, the nurse of Nefertiti and eventually the Queen of Egypt, was the only woman so honored during the reign of Akhenaten. The evidence of Mai’s tomb strongly suggests that she remained a key figure in the boy-king’s inner circle for many years after her services as a wet-nurse ceased to be needed.

In the company of this elegant lady, as well as of his older sister and his family friends Aya and Maya, Pharaoh Tutankhaten spent the first year or two of his reign in residence in his father’s city. Worship continued in the major Aten temples, and the Mature Style of Akhenaten’s later reign remained the prevailing aesthetic at court.

the restoration of tutankhamun

Despite its brevity, we lack the information required to write a year-by-year chronicle of the reign of Tutankhamun. Indeed, the only text of any substance to survive from this period is the so-called “Restoration Decree,” which is attested on two stelae discovered in Thebes: one in the Great Temple of Amun and the other in the Temple of Mantu. The precise date of this decree is uncertain, but it was most likely issued about Year 2 or 3, shortly after the royal court abandoned Akhet-Aten and the king and queen expunged the Aten elements from their personal names.

Although the young pharaoh surely acquiesced in the promulgation of this decree, he just as surely did not compose it. His age at the time was between 11 and 12. Thus the most likely author of the decree was Divine Father Aya, who is widely regarded as the architect of policy during the first years of Tut’s reign. The following excerpts are based on the translation of William J. Murnane (212-214).

The Restoration Decree of Tutankhamun: Part One

When His Majesty appeared as king, the temples and cities of the gods and goddesses, from Aswan as far as the Delta marshes, were fallen into decay, and their shrines were fallen into ruin. They had become mere mounds overgrown with weeds. Their sanctuaries were like a place that has not yet come into being, and their halls were a footpath, for the land was in ruin.

The gods ignored our country. If an army was sent into Djahi to extend Egypt’s boundaries, it met no success. If anyone prayed to any god to ask a favor, the god never came. If anyone beseeched any goddess in the same way, she never came. Their divine hearts were weak because of the condition of their bodies, and they destroyed whatever was made.

But after some time had passed, His Majesty appeared on the throne of his father and ruled over the shores of Haru. The Black Land and the Red Land were under his supervision, and every land bowed to his power.

This opening section of the Restoration Decree describes the state of Egypt upon the accession of Tutankhamun. Although many Egyptologists have read this section as an indictment of the policies of Akhenaten, which supposedly resulted in economic depression, military defeat, and civil strife, the young king actually says nothing of the sort. His primary concern is the neglect of Egypt’s temples, a dereliction that extends especially to the “bodies” or cult statues of the gods, which have now become damaged or otherwise unsuitable for worship. We hear nothing about famine or social disorder, and even the reference to failed military expeditions is phrased in the conditional.

The Restoration Decree of Tutankhamun: Part Two

When His Majesty appeared in his palace, which is located in the Domain of Aakheperkara, like Ra in Heaven, His Majesty governed the land and managed the daily affairs of the Two Shores. Then His Majesty took counsel with his heart, investigating every excellent deed. Seeking benefactions for his father Amun, he fashioned the god’s noble image out of genuine electrum.

He gave more than had ever been given before. He fashioned his father Amun of a size to be carried upon thirteen carrying-poles, making the holy image of electrum, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and every precious stone. For the Majesty of this noble god was formerly carried on only eleven carrying-poles.

He fashioned for Ptah, South of His Wall, Lord of Ankh-Tawi, a holy image of electrum. He fashioned it of a size to be carried upon eleven carrying-poles, his holy image likewise made of electrum, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and every precious stone. For the Majesty of this noble god was formerly carried on only nine carrying-poles.

Our interpretation of the opening section is reinforced by the more straightforward narrative of the next section of the decree. Having surveyed the state of Egypt from his perspective as Ra, the Eye of the Sun, pharaoh now searches his heart for a plan of action, a course of “excellent deeds” that will redress the current situation. His stated choice of deeds underscores the fact that Egypt’s problems are religious in nature. The two chief temples in the kingdom, those of Amun in Thebes and Ptah in Memphis, need cult images. The king promises to have new ones fashioned of a size and splendor never before seen.

Left unstated are two other points that are implicit in the text of the decree. First, the choice of the House of Aakheperkara in Memphis as the site from which to issue this document is an indication that, for the first time since the founding of Akhet-Aten, Egypt’s king is residing elsewhere. The Atenist capital has been vacated, while the traditional seat of the Tuthmosides in Lower Egypt has been refurbished for the new reign. Second, the alteration of the royal nomen from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun indicates that the Aten himself has been demoted along with his holy city, while the imperial god Amun has resumed his status as foremost deity in the land.

The Restoration Decree of Tutankhamun: Part Three

And His Majesty made monuments for the gods, fashioning their statues out of the finest genuine electrum from foreign lands. He built their shrines anew as monuments for the length of eternity, endowed with possessions forever. He instituted divine offerings for them, consisting of regular daily sacrifices, and he provided their food-offerings on earth.

He gave more than had ever existed before, surpassing what was done since the time of the ancestors. He installed lay priests and higher clergy from among the children of the officials of their cities, and each one was the son of a man whose name was known. He multiplied their offering tables of silver, copper, and bronze, without any limit. He filled their work-rooms with male and female slaves from the tribute of His Majesty’s own capturing.

All the possessions of the temples and cities were increased twice, thrice, fourfold, consisting of silver, gold, lapis lazuli, turquoise, and every precious stone, royal linen, white linen, fine linen, moringa oil, gum, fat, incense, aromatics, and myrrh, without any limit to anything good. Out of the fresh pine of the hilltops, the choicest of the Negau region, His Majesty – to whom life, prosperity, and health! – hewed their river barges, worked with the finest gold of the highlands so they would light up the river. His Majesty – to whom life, prosperity, and health! – consecrated male and female slaves, as well as singers and dancers who had been maidservants in the king’s house: their service is assessed against the palace and against the treasury of the Lord of the Two Lands.

In the concluding section, pharaoh extends his gestures of restoration and reconciliation to the entire country. Thebes and Memphis are not to be the sole beneficiaries of his good will. Apparently every major city in Egypt will receive an infusion of wealth through the institution of the local temple. Not only will these local cults receive new cult images, new river barges for festival days, and costly offerings of precious metal, fine linen, and perfumes. New clergy will be installed in the principal temples, with all appropriate perquisites and compensation, and their ranks will be filled by established local families to ensure a continuity of privilege and status.

Perhaps even more significant in the context of local economies, the temples will receive male and female slaves to staff their work-rooms, where offerings in the form of raw materials are converted into finished goods for redistribution.

One putatively extravagant gesture that may actually be an instance of economizing is Tutankhamun’s donation of “singers and dancers who had been maidservants in the king’s house” to the various local temples. Even though their service will be “assessed against the palace” and the royal treasury, this reassignment of personnel is an indication that the great festivals of Atenist worship that were such a feature of life in Akhet-Aten are now a thing of the past. The palaces and temples of the solar city are being placed in standby mode, their pools drained, their courtyards sealed, and their staffs dispersed. Tutankhamun is turning a liability – the large numbers of female musicians who formerly served the Aten but who now have no employment – into a gift, by dedicating these otherwise unneeded individuals to understaffed temples around the kingdom.

Figure O-5. Ankhesenamun offers a bouquet of lotus blossoms to Tutankhamun. The wigs, jewelry, and garments of the two monarchs closely follow styles typical in the late reign of Akhenaten. Detail of a carved and painted ivory box lid discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun and now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

By Year 2 or 3 of his reign, then, the young king and his wife were established in Memphis in an antique palace, the House of Aakheperkara, which was built during the reign of their ancestor Thutmose I or one of his immediate successors. Like the pharaohs who reigned before Akhenaten, they must have traveled among the major cult centers of Egypt on an annual basis to officiate at the major religious celebrations – certainly the Ipat-Sut and the Beautiful Feast of the Valley in Thebes, the various festivals to Ptah in Memphis, and perhaps celebrations in such major cult centers as Iunu (Greek Heliopolis, home of the solar deities), Abudju (Greek Abydos, home of the afterlife deities), and Akhmim (home of Min).

Among the few achievements that can be attributed to Tutankhamun’s reign are architectural and sculptural programs in Thebes and Memphis. In Thebes the young king completed the beautiful colonnade of the Temple of Luxor, left unfinished at the death of his grandfather, Amenhotep III. He also erected an Avenue of Sphinxes, later usurped by Harimhab, and some colossal figures of Amun that bear his delicate features. In so doing Tutankhamun lived up to the promise of his revised name, “Living Image of Amun,” as he became the living model for a substantial number of divine images.

His work in Memphis is poorly understood, since the site of Memphis has never been systematically excavated. We can surmise, however, that Tutankhamun spent as much time in the northern capital as his ancestors had done. Like Amenhotep II and Thutmose IV, he left a monument near the Great Sphinx of Giza, just outside the city. In the early twentieth century, a so-called “hunting lodge” from his reign was identified there, only to be dismantled by its excavators. This royal villa on the Giza Plateau may have been a favorite place to pass leisure time, an escape from affairs of state and cult.

In addition to hunting, decorating temples, and commissioning sacred statues in his own image, Tutankhamun probably devoted a certain amount of energy to his marital duties. Two mummified fetuses were discovered in his tomb, in the chamber known as the Treasury. Each was interred in a nested pair of gilt coffins, and both coffins were placed in a plain wooden box that was jumbled – completely without ceremony – among other mortuary furnishings. At autopsy, both fetuses were determined to be female. The smaller of the two had been delivered prematurely. The larger was probably carried to term, to die during or immediately after birth.

Although they remain the focus of considerable debate, these two fetuses are commonly considered to be the offspring of Tutankhamun by Ankhesenamun, his only attested wife (Reeves 123-124). Given the physical immaturity of the king upon his enthronement, the older of these two females must have been delivered no earlier than Year 4, about halfway through his reign.

death in wartime

The last few years of Tutankhamun’s reign saw notable military activity, both in Nubia and in West Asia. This warlike turn of events is attested by various fragmentary inscriptions from Thebes, by the decoration of the Saqqara tomb of Harimhab, and by a crucial Hittite document named The Deeds of Suppiluliumas. At this time Harimhab was the supreme commander of Egypt’s armies. He probably concentrated his attention on West Asia, given his personal base in Memphis and the high political stakes involved in any Asian conflict. During Year 8 (probably) and Year 9 (certainly), troops under his leadership were active in Syria, in the neighboring regions of Kadesh and Amqa.

Egyptian forces were deployed there in a conflict with the Hittites when Tutankhamun abruptly died. He was about 19, having spent nine full years as king. His whereabouts at the time of his death are unknown, but we can assume that his wife immediately took control of the situation. She began negotiations with the Hittites, partly to consolidate her own position in Egypt and partly to defuse the conflict in Syria.

The cause and circumstances of Tutankhamun’s death have stimulated speculation since the discovery of his tomb. Either illness, accident, or foul play must have killed him, but no surviving evidence points to any particular scenario. Until the 1960s, most writers simply assumed that Tut was “sickly,” that he had inherited a frail constitution like that attributed to Akhenaten, causing him to fall into a decline and die. The French Egyptologist Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt provides a typical expression of this idea in 1963, in her much-reprinted Tutankhamen: Life and Death of a Pharaoh: “It seems probable that Tuthmosis IV’s last heirs were physically frail and hence short-lived” (Desroches-Noblecourt 215). More sophisticated versions of this hypothesis reach for a specific clinical condition, such as congenital hydrocephalus, to explain his death (on the basis of early, incorrect assumptions that Tut’s skull showed signs of that ailment).

Perceptions changed sharply in 1968, when a team from the University of Liverpool conducted an X-ray examination of Tutankhamun’s mummy. The identification of bone fragments inside the skull soon prompted violent explanations for his death. By the end of the twentieth century, the notion that Tut was murdered by a blow to the head had become almost an article of faith for many investigators, as witnessed by such books as The Murder of Tutankhamen: A True Story, by Bob Brier (1998); Tutankhamen: The Life and Death of a Boy-King, by Christine El Mahdy (1999); and Who Killed King Tut?, by Michael King and Gregory Cooper (2004).

The favored scenario of the “murder camp” was definitively refuted in 2005 by the CT-scan of Tutankhamun’s mummy, which established that the king did not suffer any cranial injuries before his death; the skull fracture plainly occurred during embalming. Nor did his remains exhibit any other unambiguous signs of ante mortem trauma, such as flesh wounds or internal injury. Although many of the mummy’s bones were broken, some of the fractures were probably caused by the embalmers, and most or all of the rest were inflicted by Howard Carter’s team in the 1920s, when they systematically dismembered the mummy to remove it from its solid gold coffin.

The 2005 research group was divided over the interpretation of only one fracture: a break in the left femur. Some were convinced that it occurred post mortem, probably during embalming, while others believed that it occurred a few days before Tutankhamun’s death, and was in fact its cause – because such a serious fracture would give rise to an infection that the king’s physicians could not treat. However, Robert Connolly of the University of Liverpool has recently examined both the 2005 scans and the 1968 X-rays, without identifying any indications that this break might have been fatal. He reportedly “found no evidence, such as the involvement of soft tissue, to suggest that the fracture in the femur bone became infected” (see press release). This finding further decreases the likelihood that bodily injury played any role in the king’s death.

Figure O-6. A group of dignitaries pulls a catafalque bearing the mummy of Tutankhamun to his tomb. Wall painting from the burial chamber.

With physical assault no longer a viable option, writers intent on finding a dramatic explanation must resort to poison. Although no evidence whatsoever implicates poisoning in Tutankhamun’s death, this alternative has been routinely advanced by sympathizers with the “murder camp” ever since the results of the CT-scan were announced.

Melodrama aside, illness remains the likeliest explanation for the king’s premature death. Future forensic techniques may eventually enable us to say for sure.

The immediate aftermath of Tutankhamun’s death is discussed in the section on his wife, Ankhesenamun. Hittite documents suggest a brief interregnum, during which she controlled the government. But by the time of the king’s funeral, which occurred during the first half of March in the Season of Drought (as evidenced by the garlands of flowers left in his burial chamber), Divine Father Aya had established himself as the next Pharaoh of Egypt.

the golden house of nebkheprura

Although his tomb is our main source of information about Tutankhamun, it has also given rise to several mysteries. First, this modest four-chambered structure was clearly not originally intended to be his burial place. That honor was evidently planned for a much larger tomb (WV 23), whose layout closely resembles Akhenaten’s tomb in Amarna. WV 23 was usurped by Tutanhkamun’s successor, Aya, an act that typically strikes modern observers as disloyal and sacrilegious. Aya’s appropriation, in fact, is an important reason why so many writers have thought that Tutankhamun was murdered, probably by Aya himself. Now that the murder scenario has been eliminated from consideration, we must find a more balanced explanation for Aya’s actions.

A second source of mystery is the jumbled, unceremonious arrangement of the tomb’s offerings. Carter was able to determine that thieves had broken in not long after the king’s burial, but they managed to steal very little, and the tomb was immediately re-sealed by officials of the Theban necropolis. Some of the disarray can therefore be attributed to the tomb robbers’ vandalism. But the necropolis officials apparently did little to tidy up the tomb, which was probably rather disordered to begin with (e.g., the mummified remains of Tut’s stillborn daughters had been stacked against a wall alongside storage chests and model boats). Were the Egyptians actually less observant of ritual and decorum than their inscriptions claim? So far, it seems, the answer is “very possibly so.”

Figure O-7. The first view of the contents of the tomb of Tutankhamun, as photographed by Howard Carter’s excavation team in 1922. Visible among the offerings is a couch decorated with the head of the cow-goddess, Hutharu. Such couches were used to support the corpse during embalming. King Tut’s tomb was so packed with precious artifacts that Carter had to spend years removing and cataloging them. Although some writers assume that these treasures must have been paltry in comparison with the riches interred with more accomplished and longer-lived kings, we have no evidence one way or the other. Despite the size of his tomb, Tutankhamun may have been buried with as much extravagance as most other rulers of his dynasty.

A third mystery is the poor state of preservation of the king’s mummy. Alone among the mummies of the New Kingdom pharaohs, that of Tutankhamun remained undisturbed from the time of his funeral until the opening of his inner coffin by Howard Carter. Other royal mummies suffered rough handling by tomb robbers, and so have come down to us in bits and pieces, some of them missing a foot, a leg, an arm, or various digits. While Tutankhamun’s remains were certainly damaged by Carter’s attempts to extract them from his coffin, it was noted even before removal that his body was in poor condition. The cause of its deterioration was evidently the abundance of scented resins and oils that were poured on the mummy during the mortuary rituals. Over the millennia the oils damaged Tutankhamun’s dehydrated skin and effectively glued his linen-wrapped limbs to his innermost coffin.

Formerly, many investigators concluded that the mummification of Tut’s body was a hurried and slipshod affair, on par with the selection of KV 62 as his tomb and the disordered nature of its contents. Again, the CT-scan of 2005 revealed otherwise. As National Geographic reported, “All researchers agreed that the mummy was carefully and extensively embalmed” (Handwerk). Thus the embalmers are not to blame for the extremely fragile state of Tut’s remains. Moreover, their deliberate care in preparing him for the afterlife further undermines the argument that Tutankhamun was betrayed and dishonored by his inner circle.

One final mystery is the richness of Tutankhamun’s funerary offerings. His mummy was covered with jewelry and encased in a solid gold mask and a solid gold coffin, which in turn was nested inside two coffins of gilded wood. The coffins were placed in a quartzite sarcophagus, which was enclosed in another suite of four gilded shrines. Such splendor seems perfectly in keeping with Egyptian notions of propriety. As a text from the Nineteenth Dynasty indicates, the royal burial chamber was known as the paru-nub or House of Gold. Nor was gold absent from the rest of the tomb. Carter’s team found such gilded objects as chariots, thrones, statues, ornaments, couches, and chests.

Many writers have surmised that, for all their opulence, the contents of the tomb — sealed at a time of national crisis and royal retrenchment — would seem poor and shabby if we could compare them with the treasures that accompanied Amenhotep III or Thutmose III. But such comparisons are beyond us. Perhaps King Tut’s gold was just as abundant as that of any of his ancestors, despite being crammed into four smallish rooms.

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All text is copyright Raymond Harris, 2004-2005, and may be linked or quoted with credit to the author. Image rights are held by individual or institutional owners, as described in the List of Images. Images are displayed on these pages for purely educational purposes.