King Tut: The Pharaoh Returns!

An exhibition featuring the first CT scans of the boy king's mummy tells us more about Tutankhamun than ever before

Tut's head, scanned in .62-millimeter slices to register its intricate structures, takes on eerie detail in the resulting image. With Tut's entire body similarly recorded, a team of specialists in radiology, forensics, and anatomy began to probe the secrets that the winged goddess of a gilded burial shrine protected for so long. (CT Scanning equipment by Siemens AG; Data courtesy, the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Arab Republic of Egypt; National Geographic magazine, June 2005)
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How did Tutankhamun escape the fate of so many pharaohs, whose graves were ransacked within a few generations of their death? For one thing, he was buried in a relatively small tomb. During his lifetime, work was under way on a grand royal tomb with long corridors and several rooms leading to a burial chamber. Perhaps because it was still unfinished at the time of his early death, the young king was buried in a much smaller crypt, possibly one meant for Ay.

After Tut’s funeral, the elderly vizier married Ankhsenamun and became pharaoh. Dying three or four years later, some suggest at Horemheb’s hand, Ay was buried in the large tomb that may have been meant for Tut. In 1319 B.C. the ambitious Horemheb seized power and immediately set about wiping Tutankhamun’s name from the official records, in all likelihood, Cooney speculates, so that Horemheb himself “could take credit for restoring stability.” Then, nearly 200 years after Tut’s death, his tomb was covered over by huts of laborers digging a crypt for Ramses VI. As a consequence, the pharaoh lay buried and forgotten in an unmarked grave, largely safe from potential plunderers.

The boy-king’s obscurity, however, came to an end on the morning of November 4, 1922, when a water boy with Carter’s archaeological team dug a hole for his water jar and exposed what turned out to be the first step of Tut’s long-lost grave. Despite Horemheb’s efforts to erase Tut from history, excavations in the early 20th century had uncovered seal impressions inscribed with his name. Carter had spent five years futilely searching for Tut’s tomb, and his English patron, Lord Carnarvon, was ready to withdraw financing.

Soon after the water boy’s discovery, the 48-year-old Carter arrived at the site to find the men working feverishly. By dusk the next day, they had hollowed out a passage 10 feet high by 6 feet wide, descending 12 steps to a doorway, which was closed off with plastered stone blocks. “With excitement growing to fever heat,” Carter recalled in his diary, “I searched the seal impressions on the door for evidence of the identity of the owner, but could find no name. . . . It needed all my self-control to keep from breaking down the doorway and investigating then and there.”

Carter loosely repacked the rubble, then sent a telegram to Carnarvon at his Hampshire castle: “At last have made wonderful discovery in the Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; re-covered same for your arrival; congratulations.” Three weeks later, the 57-year-old Carnarvon arrived with his daughter, Evelyn Herbert. Carter and his team then dug away four more steps, excitedly uncovering seals that bore the name Tutankhamun. Removing a door, they encountered a passageway packed with rubble. Sifting through flint and limestone chips, they discovered broken jars, vases and pots—“clear evidence of plundering,” wrote Carter—and their hearts sank. But at the end of the 30-foot-long passage, they found a second blocked door also bearing Tut’s seals. Boring a hole in the upper left corner, Carter poked a candle into the opening as Carnarvon, his daughter and Arthur Callender, an architect and engineer who assisted in the excavations, looked on impatiently. Can you see anything? Asked Carnarvon. Momentarily struck dumb with amazement, the archaeologist replied at last. “Wonderful things,” he said.

Widening the opening and shining a flashlight into the room, Carter and Carnarvon saw effigies of a king, falconheaded figures, a golden throne, overturned chariots, a gilded snake, and “gold—everywhere the glint of gold.” Carter later recalled that his first impression was of uncovering “the property room of an opera of a vanished civilization.”

Carter spent nearly three months photographing and clearing out the antechamber’s objects alone. Then in mid-February 1923, after digging out the blocked doorway to the burial chamber, he encountered what appeared to be a solid wall of gold. This proved to be the outermost of four nested gilded wood shrines, an imposing construction—17 feet long, 11 feet wide and 9 feet high, embellished inside with scenes of winged goddesses, pharaohs and written spells—that enclosed Tutankhamun’s yellow quartzite sarcophagus.

Slipping through the narrow space between the nested shrines and a wall painted with murals welcoming the king into the afterlife, Carter shined his flashlight through an open doorway to the treasury room beyond, guarded by the statue of a recumbent jackal representing Anubis, the god of embalming. Beyond it gleamed a massive gilt shrine, later found to house a calcite chest containing the desiccated remains of Tut’s liver, stomach, intestines and lungs. Surrounded by a quartet of goddesses, each three feet tall, the shrine, Carter wrote, was “the most beautiful monument that I have ever seen. . . . so lovely it made one gasp with wonder and admiration.”

Grave robbers had in fact broken into the tomb at least twice in ancient times, and made off with jewelry and other small objects from the antechamber, the first room Carter discovered, and a smaller, adjoining annex. They had also penetrated the burial chamber and treasury, but, apparently unable to access the inner shrines protecting Tut’s sarcophagus, had taken very little of value. After each occasion, necropolis guards had resealed the tomb. According to calculations based on packing inventories found in the tomb, the thieves made off with about 60 percent of the original jewelry. But more than 200 pieces of jewelry remained, many inside Tut’s sarcophagus, inserted into his mummy’s wrappings. In addition, hundreds of artifacts—furniture, weapons, clothing, games, food and jars of wine (all for the pharaoh’s use in the afterlife)—were left untouched.

Seven weeks after the opening of the burial chamber, Carnarvon died from a mosquito bite that he had infected while shaving. Immediately, sensation-seeking journalists blamed his death on the pharaoh’s “curse”—the superstition, spread after Carter’s discovery by Marie Corelli, a popular Scottish author, that anyone who disturbed Tut’s tombwould suffer an untimely end.

About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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