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Warrior Tutankhamun: fragile pharaoh no more

In this special anniversary issue celebrating a hundred years since the discovery of KV62, we begin with new evidence that Bob Brier believes will change how we view Egypt’s most famous pharaoh.

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The Tutankhamun centenary is upon us, bringing a flurry of TV documentaries, exhibitions and books. There has also been a considerable amount of new research – but not triggered by the centenary; it has been building for the last few years and comes from the long-awaited Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM). Since the museum’s conception, the plan has been to bring all the Tutankhamun artefacts to the GEM. As conservators prepared objects for the move, they were able to carefully inspect a large number of artefacts that hadn’t been seen in years. Many had been ignored previously because of their poor condition – no one wanted to tackle conserving them. This is all changing now, and new perspectives on Tutankhamun have been emerging. For me, one of the headlines of all the new research is that it no longer looks as if Tutankhamun was the fragile pharaoh who could barely walk.

Tutankhamun charges into battle in his chariot in a scene from a chest discovered in his tomb. Photo: Alamy

Tutankhamun’s Club Foot: One of the pillars of the ‘fragile pharaoh theory’ rests on the CT scans of Tutankhamun carried out on January 5, 2005. At that time, nothing was said about Tutankhamun being infirm, but when an Egyptian team re-evaluated the scans in 2009, they concluded: “The CT image also revealed a left club foot deformity 
 With such a deformity in his left foot, the king would have walked on his ankle or on the side of his foot.” This finding was then combined with the fact that dozens of walking sticks and canes were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, bolstering the idea that Tutankhamun was frail.

below Tutankhamun was buried with many ‘walking sticks’ or staves some of which are shown in this image taken by Harry Burton. However, such items were symbols of authority not evidence for a severe disability. bottom A pair of Tutankhamun’s sandals with images of defeated enemies who would be crushed underfoot as the king walked. Recent examination has not revealed any signs of adverse wear that would indicate the king suffered from a foot deformity.
Tutankhamun was buried with many ‘walking sticks’ or staves some of which are shown in this image taken by Harry Burton. However, such items were symbols of authority not evidence for a severe disability. Photo: Burton photograph P0327B, © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford.

When I first heard this theory, I had my doubts – even before I saw the CT scan. Yes, this was the first time that Tutankhamun had been CT scanned, but several highly competent anatomists had examined Tutankhamun before and had not seen any evidence of a clubbed foot. When Dr Douglas Derry unwrapped Tutankhamun in 1924, he made no mention of a severely deformed left foot. He had removed the gold sandals from the boy-king’s feet and did not notice anything unusual. Further, when Dr RG Harrison X-rayed Tutankhamun in 1968, he saw nothing unusual on the films. Not a word about a clubbed foot. How had Derry and Harrison both missed such a severe disability? I do not think they did. 

A pair of Tutankhamun’s sandals with images of defeated enemies who would be crushed underfoot as the king walked. Recent examination has not revealed any signs of adverse wear that would indicate the king suffered from a foot deformity. Photo: Robert B Partridge (RBP)

When I saw the CT scan of the ankle when it was first published, I could not see the deformity either, and I was not alone. Others had doubts. In a letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr James Gamble, an orthopaedic surgeon at Stanford, commented that he did not see a club foot, and others agreed. So, we cannot just accept the idea that Tutankhamun walked on the side of his foot. And there is evidence against the idea. If Tutankhamun had walked on this ankle, then we might expect an asymmetry in the bones in the lower legs, and even the pelvis, but it is not there. Further, Carter found dozens of pairs of Tutankhamun’s shoes and sandals in the tomb. Recent examination has shown no signs of added wear to the left shoes and sandals. What about all those walking sticks that have been presented as a sign of the king’s infirmity? ‘No’ again! Walking sticks were signs of authority in ancient Egypt, and we have hundreds of tomb reliefs showing officials holding staves of authority. They cannot be taken as a sign of an infirmity. 

Similar false reasoning has been used to decode the famous scene of Tutankhamun hunting ducks while seated. Some have argued that this was necessary because he was frail. ‘No’ again! As Marianne Eaton-Krauss has shown, hunting while sitting is a common motif in ancient Egyptian art and, like the staves, does not indicate that he was disabled. With evidence for Tutankhamun as a weakling fading quickly, the possibility that he was a warrior becomes stronger. But that is just a possibility. Is there any evidence that he actually went into battle? The answer is ‘Yes’ and it comes from several directions.

above A scene from the small golden shrine found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, showing the king sitting down to use his bow and arrow, while his sister-wife Ankhesenamun sits at his feet.
A scene from the small golden shrine found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, showing the king sitting down to use his bow and arrow, while his sister-wife Ankhesenamun sits at his feet. Photo: RBP

Tutankhamun’s Armour: More support for Tutankhamun as a warrior arises from the move to the GEM. One of the long-overlooked items was a leather suit of armour called a cuirass.  Because it had deteriorated terribly, no one had wanted to touch it, but now that it had to be moved to the GEM, it could no longer be ignored. Dr AndrĂ© Veldmeijer examined it carefully, made some replica scales, and concluded not only would it have been functional, but it actually showed signs of having been worn.

TOP A suit of leather armour possibly worn by Tutankhamun. Recent examination revealed signs of wear. above A decorated bow case and composite bow from the tomb of Tutankhamun.
A suit of leather armour possibly worn by Tutankhamun. Recent examination revealed signs of wear. Photo: Burton photograph P1304 © Griffith Institute, University of Oxford.

Tutankhamun’s Bows: There were other items in the tomb that indicated that Tutankhamun could have been a warrior. He was buried with more than three dozen bows. Egyptian archers used two kinds of bows: simple and composite. The composite was the bow to own and was introduced into Egypt from Asia during the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1782-1570 BC), the era when the Hyksos invaded Egypt. By glueing together three different materials in layers, the strength and durability of the bow was increased considerably. An ancient Egyptian composite bow could shoot an arrow more than 200 metres, and pharaohs often depicted themselves shooting arrows that pierced copper ingots. This was a luxury item, owned only by royalty and the nobility. Before the discovery of 32 of these bows in Tutankhamun’s tomb, fewer than a dozen composite bows had been discovered in Egypt and these were mostly fragmentary. Carter’s first encounter with Tutankhamun’s bows was his discovery of 13 in the Antechamber. Years later he would remove another 16 from the Annex, making a total of 29, and he then found three more in a box in the Treasury, more than tripling the number of composite bows found in Egypt.

A decorated bow case and composite bow from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Photo: Sarah Griffiths (SG)

The compound bows were the ‘Lamborghinis of archery’, but Tutankhamun also has a supply of self-bows – the kind we all think of when we think ‘bow and arrow’. The self-bow was a single staff of wood, notched at both ends to hold the string.  Tutankhamun was buried with 14 of these, most of them in an unexpected place: in the Burial Chamber, between the shrines, some standing upright in a corner, most lying flat on the floor. Why were they placed there? Did they have special significance to the boy-king? Had a loyal servant placed them near his master? It seems they must have been the pharaoh’s prized possessions. There are plenty of scenes of Tutankhamun hunting ducks with his bows and arrows. My bet is he actually used some of those bows, perhaps even in battle. 

The Battle Chest: In addition to objects that could have actually been used in war – chariots, bows, arrows, armour — there is a wonderful painted wooden chest that shows Tutankhamun in battle, defeating both Asiatics and Nubians. Is this symbolic imagery – or do these scenes reflect actual events?

Left The painted wooden chest with scenes of Tutankhamun charging into battle. A detail from one of these scenes is shown on page 14. Below A gold fan or sunshade from the tomb of Tutankhamun, which would have been fitted with ostrich feathers. The scene on the handle shows a triumphant king in his chariot returning from the hunt, preceded by bearers carrying the ostriches he has killed.
The painted wooden chest with scenes of Tutankhamun charging into battle. A detail from one of these scenes is shown on page 14. Image: RBP

The Hunting Fan: There is another object from the tomb that suggests Tutankhamun may have been a warrior: a fan. In a warm country with relentless sunshine, fans are important. Some fans, called ‘sunshades’, were the prerogative of royalty. They were made of wood, often gilded, and consisted of a long pole with a round-topped board at the top. Ostrich feathers were frequently inserted into small holes drilled into the round top. Such a fan would have been carried by a servant and positioned appropriately as the sun moved. One of these fans is shown in the famous scene in Akhenaten’s tomb at Amarna, where we see the birth of Tutankhaten. He is shown as a baby in a nurse’s arms. Behind them is a servant with the sunshade – so we can be sure we are looking at a royal baby.

A gold fan or sunshade from the tomb of Tutankhamun, which would have been fitted with ostrich feathers. The scene on the handle shows a triumphant king in his chariot returning from the hunt, preceded by bearers carrying the ostriches he has killed. Image: Sarah Griffiths

One of the fans found in Tutankhamun’s tomb commemorates a specific event in the boy-king’s life. The round-topped shield is covered with a thick gold foil that on one side is embossed with scenes of Tutankhamun hunting ostriches. The other side shows the triumphant return home, with Tutankhamun bringing the ostrich feathers he obtained “
 while out hunting in the desert east of Heliopolis.” It is clear that the fan commemorates an actual hunting party in which the young king participated. We know he enjoyed hunting, which makes it all the more possible that he actually stepped onto a battlefield. 

Other Tomb Contents: There are several other items found buried with Tutankhamun that also hint at his hunting and military activities, including chariots, shields and other weapons such as knives and throw-sticks. So, when we pull everything together it seems more plausible to view the young pharaoh was as healthy as other young men in ancient Egypt, enjoying hunting in the desert, and perhaps even leading Egypt’s army into battle. All this suggests that Tutankhamun could have been a warrior, but the strongest and most interesting evidence that he actually was in battle comes from a totally unexpected source.

above One of Tutankhamun’s shields depicting him as a sphinx, crushing his enemies beneath his feet.
One of Tutankhamun’s shields depicting him as a sphinx, crushing his enemies beneath his feet. Photo: SG

Tutankhamun’s Missing Mortuary Temple: For many years, the Supreme Council of Antiquities had planned to uncover an ancient pathway of sphinxes that led from Karnak Temple to Luxor Temple, but the avenue was covered by later buildings that would have to be removed. Over the years, buildings were taken down, some dating from as long ago as Luxor’s Medieval Period. During the removal, it was discovered that the foundations of these medieval structures often contained inscribed blocks from the ancient temples in the area. These reused blocks were collected and stored for future study. 

As the blocks accumulated, Chicago House Egyptologists decided to examine them to see if any were from the Tutankhamun colonnade at Luxor Temple, which they had been recording. We know that Tutankhamun’s first major building project in Thebes was to complete a monument begun by his grandfather, Amenhotep III. His grandfather had built a 45m-long colonnade. When Akhenaten became king, he banished the gods of Egypt, and moved to Amarna, so the Luxor columns and walls stood bare for more than a decade. When he succeeded his father, Tutankhamun returned to Thebes and was advised to complete the decoration of the hall — to show that he was like his grandfather, not his father, and would return to Egypt’s traditional religion.

above A Sety I battle scene at Karnak Temple. Blocks discovered near Luxor Temple show that Tutankhamun’s reign played a significant part in the development of such scenes. left A scene from Ramesses III’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu showing the counting of enemy hands after a battle.
A Sety I battle scene at Karnak Temple. Blocks discovered near Luxor Temple show that Tutankhamun’s reign played a significant part in the development of such scenes. Photo: RBP

The top few feet of this restored colonnade are now missing, so it is reasonable to think some of the blocks might have been taken in the Middle Ages. In fact, more than 1,500 missing blocks were found and later included in the Oriental Institute’s publications on the colonnade. But these are not the blocks that support the view of Tutankhamun as a warrior.

One of the people examining the blocks was Ray Johnson, who would later become Director of the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute. He noticed that there were an additional 200 reused blocks that did not belong to the Luxor colonnade. They bore Tutankhamun’s cartouches, but the scale and style of carving was different and came from a monument called ‘The Mansion of Nebkheperura at Thebes’: Tutankhamun’s long-lost mortuary temple. 

A scene from Ramesses III’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu showing the counting of enemy hands after a battle. Photo: Pat Remler

Reconstructing Tutankhamun’s mortuary temple on paper took Johnson the better part of ten years. It is a brilliant piece of work requiring numerous skills. Almost all the members of the Oriental Institute’s team at Luxor possess these skills. Many have doctorates in Egyptology; they can translate the hieroglyphs on the blocks. They are also artists, able to make very accurate copies of what survives of the wall decoration, and also capable of filling in what is missing. These are the skills Johnson brought to reconstructing Tutankhamun’s mortuary temple on paper.

From the newly discovered blocks, it became clear to him that there were two battle scenes: one in which Tutankhamun and a division of charioteers were attacking a Syrian fort; and one showing the young pharaoh defeating the Nubians, Egypt’s enemies to the south. Aside from supporting the idea of Tutankhamun as a warrior, the reconstruction is important for understanding the development of the standard battle scene. Prior to Johnson’s reconstruction, battle scenes were generally believed to be a development of the Nineteenth Dynasty. Johnson’s reconstruction shows that Tutankhamun’s reign played a significant part in that development. Coming after the Amarna period, when there was a new freedom of artistic expression, it should not be surprising that Tutankhamun’s artists retained some of this spirit. Ray Johnson says: 

“The carving style of Tutankhamun’s reign is easy to recognize, since it combines Amarna-period naturalism with the traditional carving style of his Tuthmosid predecessors. As a result, Tutankhamun’s scenes exhibit a liveliness and energy that sets them apart from temple decoration before and after the late Eighteenth Dynasty.”

An unusual scene from one of the blocks from the lost mortuary temple of Tutankhamun depicting soldiers with enemy hands skewered on the ends of their spears. Image: Raymond Johnson

Tutankhamun’s artists were almost certainly pioneering the development of the battle scene genre, and there were also some unique details that had never been seen before. In the traditional battle reliefs of later pharaohs, there is usually a scene showing the counting of the enemy dead at the end of the battle. This gruesome task was done by cutting off the hands of the dead and piling them up in one place where military accountants recorded the number. In Tutankhamun’s Syrian battle scene we have something unusual. The soldiers are shown with several skewered hands on their spears. Another unique detail in Tutankhamun’s war scene involves the voyage home after the victory. On one block we can see a bound Syrian prisoner suspended in a cage as a trophy of war. 

This reconstruction is important because it gives us a new perspective on Tutankhamun. He wanted to be viewed as a warrior. Tutankhamun ascended to the throne when he was about nine years old and ruled for only ten years. So, for the first five or six years of his reign, it is fairly certain that he never went into battle. However, he certainly could have gone into battle in his late teens.

In another scene from the Tutankhamun blocks, a Syrian prisoner is shown suspended from a cage. Image: Raymond Johnson

Fragile No More

If we put all the recent research together, we gain a portrait of Tutankhamun quite different from the one frequently presented in popular media, and even in scientific publications. Our survey of the X-ray and CT scan research has shown that we should not be so quick to envisage Tutankhamun as a frail monarch who walked on his ankle and suffered from a variety of disorders. Even the study of his footwear moves the discussion away from Tutankhamun as a disabled boy. The staffs in his tomb were signs of authority, not infirmity. So, was Tutankhamun a warrior? The needle is moving steadily towards ‘Yes’.

Bob Brier is Senior Research Fellow at Long Island University and is a specialist in mummies. He is the author of more than a dozen books including Ancient Egyptian Magic, Egyptian Mummies, Secret of the Great Pyramid, and Cleopatra’s Needles. His most recent book is Tutankhamun and the Tomb that Changed the World, which is reviewed on page 56.

Further reading
Brier, B. (2022) Tutankhamun and the Tomb that Changed the World. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
Hawass, Z. and Saleem, S. (2016) Scanning the Pharaohs. Cairo: AUC Press.
Johnson, R. (1992) An Asiatic Scene of Tutankhamun. Chicago: University of Chicago.
Veldmeijer, A. (2021) “Tutankhamun’s Cuirass Reconsidered.” In Ex Oriente Lux No. 48.