In the ancient world, we see our origins, and monumental discoveries often send cultural reverberations throughout modern times. The discovery of the tomb of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun was one of such discoveries. King Tut became an object of profound fascination at the center of the American cultural zeitgeist at the time of his discovery.
Uncovering the past
In 1922, a team led by Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tut, almost completely intact. It was the preservation of the tomb that made Tut such an important cultural symbol. Relics, iconography, and architecture were abundant for study. Because of this, scientists and archeologists had ample resources to investigate the life of an Egyptian pharaoh, far surpassing what was available for any other ancient Egyptian historical figure.
The pharaoh’s curse
Carter’s excavation was funded by his patron Lord Carnarvon, a man who became far more central to the legacy of the tomb than he might have hoped for. Four months after entering the tomb of Tutankhamun, Carnarvon died of blood poisoning. Some speculated that myotoxins from fungal molds in the tomb could have compromised Carnarvon’s documented lung complications. While,the consensus is that his death was unrelated to the tomb, Carnarvorn’s death and tabloid journalism of the time sparked tales of the Pharaoh’s curse hunting down those who desecrated the tomb. Thus, the revenge of the mummy became a cultural trope.
The frail lord
Contrary to the monument of his legacy, King Tut was an ailing and frail king. Studies of his remains, including DNA samples from his mummy, indicate a number of congenital diseases arising from consanguinity within the ancient Egyptian royal line. Tut had an overbite, slight cleft palate, and mild scoliosis. He was also found to have Klippel-Feil syndrome, in which the vertebrae of the neck are fused. Tut’s remains indicate that all seven neck vertebrae were fused, meaning that he could not move his head. He is frequently depicted seated while engaging in archery and other activities, substantiating these discoveries, and the remains of one of his stillborn daughters is consistent with significant spinal deformities. There is debate surrounding whether or not the Pharaoh had a clubbed foot, but it’s clear that he walked with a cane.
Reign of the sun
Born Tutankhaten (“Living image of Aten”), the king changed his name to Tutankhamun (“Living image of Amun”) during his reign. One of the more notable traits of King Tut was his restoration of religious practices surrounding the god of his newfound namesake, previously banned by his father and predecessor. Throughout his time in power, Tuankhamun erected countless monuments to the god Amun.
His reign was early and lasted just shy of a decade, coming into power at age 9 and passing at around 18 years of age. Due to his youth and frailty, it is believed that his vizier (high official) and successor, Ay, was the chief decision-maker of the empire at this point in Egypt’s history. Much work was done to reunite the empire and restore its economic stature. The circumstances surrounding Tut’s death have been a continued subject of debate and investigation as there are no known records of his final days. Some theorize that he was assassinated, but it is believed that the marks on his remains indicating such were a result of mummification. However, a leg fracture and multiple discovered strains of malaria in his mummy indicate that he quite likely died from complications following an injury while in a compromised state of health.
Face of the gods
One of the most iconic discoveries from the expedition that uncovered the tomb of King Tut was a mask found two years earlier at the Theban necropolis in the Valley of the Kings. It was here that Tut’s mummy was found. In his journal, Carter writes:
“The pins removed, the lid was raised. The [magnificent] scene was disclosed – a very neatly wrapped mummy of the young king, with golden mask of sad but tranquil expression, symbolizing Osiris … the mask bears that god's attributes, but the likeness is that of Tut.Ankh.Amen – placid and beautiful, with the same features as we find upon his statues and coffins. The mask has fallen slightly back, thus its gaze is straight up to the heavens.”