Excitement still fizzes from the pages of Howard Carter’s account of the discovery. Almost 100 years since a rock-cut step was exposed in an ancient workman’s hut in the Valley of the Kings, we can share Carter’s hopes and doubts as digging progressed. He confides nagging fears that his sixth and final season in the Valley would be in vain, that any tomb would be unfinished, or at best a cache of royal mummies long since stripped of their finery. We experience the emotional rollercoaster as his team locates a seemingly sealed doorway, only to find it was breached by looters. And, ultimately, we reach the most-celebrated moment in the annals of archaeological discovery. On 26 November 1922, Carter opened an aperture in a second doorway, and illuminated the void beyond with a flickering candle. ‘Can you see anything?’, asked his sponsor Lord Carnarvon. ‘Yes,’ Carter replied, ‘wonderful things.’
The spell cast by those wonderful things has never been broken. In the 1920s, they ignited ‘Tut-mania’: a passion for ancient Egypt that coursed through the architecture and accessories of the age. Today, the golden images of the king are unsurpassed as symbols of the romance of archaeological exploration. Amid all the gold and glory, though, it can be easy to forget that the story is not just about fabulous riches laid down by an ancient civilisation. At its heart is a fragile boy who ruled in turbulent times, and a life cut short.
That shadowy monarch
The pharaoh we know as Tutankhamun was born around 1340 BC, and named Tutankhaten. DNA evidence reveals that his father and mother were also brother and sister, a union that may explain abnormalities in their son’s feet: Tutankhamun was born with one flatfoot and one clubfoot, perhaps meaning he needed a walking stick for support. He also had a mild cleft palate, and later in life an impacted wisdom tooth probably brought pain. Tutankhamun’s father was most likely Akhenaten, a radical heretic who upended worship of Egypt’s broad pantheon in favour of the sun (Aten). It was this schism that led to Tutankhamun’s change of name. Judging by a small golden throne found in his tomb, the boy was still known as Tutankhaten when he became pharaoh, aged nine or ten. Amending this name, which means ‘the living image of Aten’, to reference Amun, the principal deity worshipped at Karnak, symbolised the victory of the old gods over the new one. The consequences were huge, as Tutankhamun’s embrace of the traditional deities ensured the Aten obsession was just a blip, rather than Egypt’s new normal.
Death was no stranger to this living image of the god. DNA has revealed that Tutankhamun was almost certainly the father of one stillborn foetus buried in his tomb, making it likely he sired a second that was also present. We do not know what brought about these tragedies, but genetic variety would not have been aided by Tutankhamun marrying his half-sister, Ankhesenamun (originally Ankhesenpaaten, once again in honour of Aten). Tutankhamun’s own journey to the afterlife began when he was about 19. It was once believed that foul play had a hand in his demise, but more recent scientific analyses suggest that simple bad luck claimed the teenager. As well as contracting malaria, the king may have suffered a serious injury. Tutankhamun’s body has an unhealed fractured femur, which either occurred just before death or while the embalmers went about their grisly business.
‘It is not easy to say that he died because of this, or because of that’, says Tarek El Awady, exhibition curator. ‘All the tests, research, study of the mummy, CT scans, and X-rays have not been able to tell us whether he died because of a disease or because of an accident. But thanks to this work we can be sure that he was not in good health from the very beginning.’ Although official preparations for Tutankhamun’s passing were still in their infancy when he died, his former subjects took pains to ensure he was well provided for in the next world. ‘That is the scenario for our exhibition’, Tarek explains. ‘We are bringing 149 objects from the tomb, and the aim is to have visitors experience the sacred journey to the afterlife. We want to express their function, and how they helped the king on his magic journey.’
Anything might lie beyond
‘In the exhibition, we have one of two life-size wooden sculptures found in the tomb. These are known as the guardian statues. For me, this is the masterpiece among masterpieces. When Howard Carter first entered the tomb antechamber, he found the statues facing each other to either side of the sealed doorway leading to the burial chamber. That is why they are called the guardians: it looks as if they were protecting the entrance. Their real function is a mystery, but one popular interpretation is that they are Ka statues. The Ka is the soul of the deceased, and as the statues have faces depicting the real features of Tutankhamun, their role would be to represent him and guide his soul on its journey.’
‘The statues have been carved so that they have what you could think of as magic faces. You can look at them from any angle, but the eyes never look at you. Even if you stand directly in front of them, the eyes are looking far beyond you. It is as if they are gazing into another world.’ Although fragments of such guardians have been found in other tombs, the quality of Tutankhamun’s are exceptional. Flourishes include obsidian discs for their eyes, and bitumen skin, perhaps evoking the fertile soils left in the wake of the flooding Nile. Most apparent, though, is the gilding, which appears absent from what is left of guardians elsewhere in the Valley. The lack of any other intact royal tombs means we have no true basis for comparison, but it has been proposed that the lavish gilding of Tutankhamun’s grave goods might reflect his popularity, perhaps because he restored the beloved old gods to his people.
A generous application of gold was certainly one of the first things to catch Carter’s eye, as he peered into the tomb antechamber: ‘details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues [which must have been the guardians], and gold – everywhere the glint of gold’. To us, gold symbolises wealth and power, but the ancient Egyptians divined a deeper significance within its properties. ‘Why was gold everywhere?’, asks Tarek. ‘It was important not just because it is a precious material, but because it is a material connected with eternity. As it doesn’t perish, tarnish, or rust, ancient Egyptians believed that gold was the flesh of the gods. They never got old or changed, and neither did gold.’
‘Egypt has many gold deposits. The ancient Egyptians were accomplished at mining it in Nubia and the eastern desert. There are surviving maps showing the way to the eastern desert mines. We even have a letter that a Lebanese prince sent to pharaoh Akhenaten, beseeching him to send gold “for I know that gold in the land of my majesty is like dust in my land”. So yes, gold was certainly available!’ Perhaps the most touching scenes gracing this eternally gleaming canvas are those on a shrine showing Tutankhamun and his wife Ankhesenamun. Judging by the artwork, their status as half-siblings did nothing to dampen their affection for each other. ‘The examples in the tomb are unique,’ says Tarek. ‘It is not normal to show scenes of love and affection between a king and queen. Most pharaohs are depicted in a very formal way. Middle-class Egyptians sometimes have what we call “couple statues”, which show the husband sitting with the wife, or the wife next to the husband. These would be placed in the tomb, to ensure the couple enjoy a reunion in the afterlife. Even these are more formal than the scenes of Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun, though.’
‘The reason once again goes back to the changes introduced by Akhenaten. It is an example of the realism characteristic of what is called Amarna-style art. Akhenaten was the first king to show an informal family relationship with his queen, the famous Nefertiti, and children.’ The vignettes featuring Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun depict the royal couple sharing a range of pursuits, including hunting and fishing, while in other scenes Ankhesenamun presents Tutankhamun with lotus flowers and the pharaoh pours oil into his queen’s hands. It has been observed that such domestic bliss need not be literal scenes from the lovers’ lives, as a number of the activities have sexual undertones. This may reference no more than the general theme of regeneration common to many grave goods, but it could also relate to the couple’s duty to produce an heir. It is hard to see the happy couple frolicking, without considering the stillborn foetuses entombed with Tutankhamun and the loss they represented. Careful mummification of these tiny bodies in preparation for the afterlife suggests a desire to share their company that was denied in life.
In terrible confusion
Shields within the tomb display less tranquil imagery. On one, Tutankhamun grabs a pair of lions by the tail, yanking their hind legs from the ground, and prepares to administer the coup de grâce with his scimitar. It might be wondered what the pharaoh, with his own impaired mobility, made of this message that hindering the lions’ movement rendered them helpless. Once again there is a symbolic dimension to the scene, which goes beyond the king protecting his people from dangerous beasts: the wild animals symbolise chaos, with the pharaoh slaying them in order to maintain cosmic balance. That righteous violence could also be meted out to mortal foes is emphasised by a second shield, which shows Tutankhamun as a sphinx, trampling Nubian enemies into the ground.
A pair of linen gloves that once carried vivid red and blue dyed bands may bridge the gap between leisure and war. ‘These were made to protect the king’s hand while riding his chariot and holding the reins of the horses’, Tarek explains. ‘Although chariots could be used on the battlefield or for hunting and during ceremonies, we believe that these gloves were made specifically for the tomb and meant for use in the afterlife.’ Scenes of Tutankhamun handling these vehicles, as well as the inclusion of six full-size chariots in the tomb antechamber, have encouraged the suspicion that Tutankhamun was something of an aficionado. It has even been speculated that it was a tumble from his chariot that fractured his femur, sending him to an early grave.
Tutankhamun’s abrupt end left his beloved Ankhesenamun in a perilous position. ‘We don’t know what happened to the queen after his death,’ says Tarek. ‘The most famous story is that Ankhesenamun wrote to the Hittite king Suppiluliuma I, saying “My husband has died and I have no sons. They say you have many sons. You might give me one of your sons and he might become my husband. I would not want to take one of my servants… I am afraid.” The Hittite king didn’t believe this message – the idea of a foreign prince ruling Egypt seemed incredible – but he sent a son escorted by a guard. The prince, though, was assassinated before reaching the country. But we don’t know if this tale is true. What we do know is that Ankhesenamun was ultimately married to Tutankhamun’s much older successor Ay, who may also have been her grandfather. He ruled for a couple of years before being replaced by Horemheb – the commander of the Egyptian army. And Ankhesenamun just disappears from history. We do not know when she died, or where her tomb is. But there is a promising project called the Egyptian Mummy Project, which is using DNA to establish family connections. Because we have the two little mummies in Tutankhamun’s tomb, and because he is believed to be the father and she is believed to be the mother, we might be able to identify her among the nameless mummies. If she still exists.’
Ay also claimed Tutankhamun’s unfinished mortuary temple on the west bank of the Nile at Medinet Habu. This act is represented in the exhibition by a chunk of a colossal statue from the site, which is inscribed with Horemheb’s name, but bears Tutankhamun’s youthful visage and seems to have been appropriated by Ay in the interim. ‘This is normal in cases of an incomplete project,’ explains Tarek. ‘If a king started a project and died, the king who completed it put his name on it. In the case of the funeral temple, Tutankhamun died unexpectedly young, so Ay took it for himself, believing that he would finish the monument. Then exactly the same thing happened when Ay died in turn, leaving Horemheb to complete the mortuary temple, and put his name on the statue.’
‘But what if Tutankhamun had completed the statue, and put it in place with his name on it, would Ay and Horemheb have appropriated it then? I doubt it. Why? Because we do have other statues bearing Tutankhamun’s name in Karnak temple, and there his name had not been tampered with. Deleting the old name and replacing it with a new one was not the normal thing.’ But it was not just in the Medinet Habu mortuary temple that Tutankhamun’s legacy was obscured. Even though he rehabilitated the old gods, his relationship with Akhenaten ultimately seems to have been judged too close. Tutankhamun’s line ended with the tiny mummies in his tomb, and when the next dynasty commenced, his name was not included on the list of former kings. Thereafter he remained something of a will-o’-the-wisp, until Carter’s stubborn persistence placed Tutankhamun firmly in the limelight. As the past century has demonstrated, even in death, the teenager proved capable of changing the world once more.
Tutankhamun: treasures of the golden pharaoh runs until 3 May 2020 at the Saatchi Gallery in London. For tickets, visit the website https://tutankhamun-london.com or telephone 0800 988 4440.
A catalogue, Tutankhamun: treasures of the golden pharaoh – the centennial celebration has been produced to accompany the exhibition. Howard Carter’s original three-volume account of the excavations has been reprinted as The Tomb of Tutankhamun by Bloomsbury Academic.
CWA is grateful to Jenny Carroll.