Reimagining Tutankhamun as a Warrior

Recent research contradicts the image of the Egyptian boy-king as a frail, sickly pharaoh

Illustration of Tut's funeral mask next to a depiction of the boy king as a warrior
Put together, recent research on Tutankhamun—from new interpretations of X-rays and CT scans to studies of his footwear and mortuary temple—presents quite a different portrait from what is frequently seen in popular media. Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Wael Mostafa via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0, public domain

Popular lore suggests that Tutankhamun, the boy-king whose immaculate tomb opened a window into the riches of ancient Egypt, was a frail pharaoh. Much of the evidence for this assertion comes from CT scans of his mummy. As archaeologists Zahi Hawass and Sahar Saleem wrote in 2016, “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.”

Hawass and Saleem’s assessment came as a surprise to some in the field. After all, Douglas Derry, a skilled anatomist, had examined Tutankhamun’s feet in the 1920s and didn’t notice anything unusual. Neither did R.G. Harrison, who X-rayed Tutankhamun’s mummy in the 1960s. In a 2010 letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association, James Gamble, an orthopedic surgeon at Stanford University, stated that he didn’t see a clubfoot in the CT scans.

Tutankhamun and the Tomb that Changed the World

Explores the 100 years of research on Tutankhamun that have taken place since the tomb's discovery

If Tutankhamun’s condition were as severe as the archaeologists argued, he would likely have had asymmetry in the bones of the lower legs and perhaps even the pelvis. But the pharaoh’s legs appear to be symmetrical; no signs of asymmetrical wear appear on the dozens of pairs of shoes and sandals buried alongside him.

Some supporters of the sickly pharaoh theory point to the more than 130 walking sticks found in Tut’s tomb. It’s worth noting, however, that ancient Egyptian officials were often depicted with walking sticks as a sign of their authority. If Tutankhamun was, in fact, relatively healthy, it’s possible he played another role, too: that of a warrior. For evidence of this, look to the boy-king’s lost monuments.

Tutankhamun’s first major building project in Thebes was the completion of a monument begun by his paternal grandfather, Amenhotep III, who built a 150-foot-long colonnaded hall at Luxor Temple but died before it was decorated. When Amenhotep’s son Akhenaten became king, he banished the gods of Egypt and moved to Amarna, leaving the Luxor columns and walls bare for more than a decade. When Tutankhamun succeeded Akhenaten, the boy-king returned to Thebes and was advised to complete the decoration of the hall to show he was like his grandfather, not his father, and would give the people back their religion.

Tutankhamun decorated the Colonnade Hall with scenes of the most glorious of Thebes’ festivals—the Opet Festival. Opet was the ancient name for Karnak, home of the traditional Theban trinity of Amun (the father), Mut (the mother) and Khonsu (their son). At the opening of the festival, statues of the three gods were taken from their shrines in Karnak Temple, placed in divine ships known as barques and sent one and a half miles along the Nile to Luxor Temple, where they remained for a week of celebrations.

The ruins of Luxor Temple, circa 1858
The ruins of Luxor Temple, circa 1858 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The decorations show marvelous details of the joyous procession from Karnak to Luxor and back at the end of the festival. Tutankhamun is prominently featured in the reliefs on the west wall of the colonnade, where he makes offerings to the godly trinity. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get credit for his devotions: Instead, his name has been erased and replaced by that of the later pharaoh Horemheb.

For many years, the Egyptian Antiquities Organization (now the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities) had planned to uncover the ancient pathway of sphinxes that led from Karnak to Luxor. While removing later structures built atop the avenue, experts discovered that the foundations of these medieval-era buildings contained inscribed blocks taken from the ancient temples in the area.

As the blocks accumulated, Egyptologists from the University of Chicago’s Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute (based at Chicago House in Luxor) decided to see if any were from the Tutankhamun colonnade, which was missing the top few feet of its walls. Ultimately, the team found more than 1,500 repurposed blocks.

Egyptologist Ray Johnson was among the researchers who studied the temple stones. He noticed that the collection included some 200 additional blocks, including ones that featured Tutankhamun’s name, but they didn’t belong to the Luxor colonnade. Inscriptions indicated they came from the Mansion of Nebkheperure at Thebes, a previously unknown mortuary temple started by Tutankhamun and finished by his successor, Aye, as a memorial to the young king after his untimely death.

During the New Kingdom, every pharaoh built a mortuary temple where priests made offerings for the soul of their deceased king. Constructed on the west bank of the Nile, not far from the Valley of the Kings—the realm of the dead—these temples are some of Egypt’s most famous monuments. On their walls, the pharaohs carved the deeds of which they were most proud. Hatshepsut’s temple recorded the expedition she sent to the land of Punt, in the south, to bring frankincense and myrrh trees back to Egypt. On the walls of the Ramesseum, we can see and read about Ramses the Great’s heroic efforts at the Battle of Kadesh. And at Medinet Habu, we see Ramses III repelling the attack of the Sea People.

Curved ends of Tut's walking sticks
Curved ends of Tut's walking sticks Leo Wehrli via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

The mortuary temples are important historical documents, providing information about the reigns of the pharaohs who built them. They are primary sources that enable us to reconstruct the lives of the rulers of ancient Egypt. With only a couple hundred blocks from Tutankhamun’s temple, Johnson wondered whether he had enough to reconstruct anything about the boy-king’s shadowy life. The answer was yes—but only because of the unchanging nature of Egyptian art.

Ancient Egyptian artists were often told to copy traditional scenes from previous generations. If you look at the Ramesseum or Medinet Habu, you will see the pharaoh, alone in his chariot, horses’ reins tied around his waist, shooting arrows at the enemy. On one wall, it might be the Nubians, Egypt’s enemies to the south; on another, it’s the Asiatics in basically the same scene. Because the artists used grids to plan these boilerplate wall scenes, even the proportions are the same.

So, if you have only a few blocks but know what the rest of the scene should be, you can pretty much fill in what is missing. If you have a block that shows reins tied to a waist, for instance, you know it is a pharaoh’s waist and that there will be a pharaoh above the waist shooting a bow, a chariot beneath the waist and a pair of horses to the left. And if you have one block with a Nubian with an arrow in him, you know there will be lots more Nubians with arrows in them. The static nature of Egyptian art permits such a reconstruction.

Mapping out the scenes on Tutankhamun’s mortuary temple took Johnson the better part of ten years and became his doctoral dissertation. He realized that the blocks depicted two battle scenes, one in which Tutankhamun and a division of charioteers attack a Syrian fort and one showing the young pharaoh defeating the Nubians.

Aside from emphasizing Tutankhamun’s skill as a warrior, the reconstruction is important for understanding the development of the standard battle scene. Previously, battle scenes were generally believed to be a development of the 19th Dynasty, which followed Tutankhamun’s.

Johnson’s reconstruction shows that Tutankhamun’s reign played a significant part in the development. Coming after the Amarna period, when Akhenaten allowed the flourishing of new artistic expression, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Tutankhamun’s artists retained a bit of this spirit.

At the end of battles, the hands of the vanquished enemy were cut off and placed in a pile for counting.
At the end of battles, the hands of the vanquished enemy were cut off and placed in a pile for counting. Photo by Pat Remler

As Johnson wrote in 2009, “The carving style of Tutankhamun’s reign is easy to recognize, since it combines Amarna-period naturalism with the traditional carving style of his Tutmosid predecessors. As a result, Tutankhamun’s scenes exhibit a liveliness and energy that sets them apart from temple decoration before and after the late 18th Dynasty.”

Tutankhamun’s artists almost certainly contributed to the development of the battle scene genre. But they also introduced some unique details not seen in other works. The traditional battle scenes of later pharaohs include a scene showing the counting of the enemy dead at the end of the battle—an act performed by cutting off the hands of the deceased warriors and piling them up for military accountants to record the number. In Tutankhamun’s Syrian battle scene, soldiers are shown with several skewered hands on their spears.

Another area of difference in Tutankhamun’s war scenes 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. It gives us a new perspective on Tutankhamun, demonstrating that he wanted to be viewed as a warrior.

In Tutankhamun’s battle scene, the hands of the enemy are shown skewered.
In Tutankhamun’s battle scene, the hands of the enemy are shown skewered. Drawing by Ray Johnson

Tutankhamun’s warrior image is reinforced on the famous painted chest found in the antechamber of his tomb. He is shown defeating Nubian and Asiatic foes—events echoed in the mortuary temple’s decorations.

Of course, just because the pharaoh wanted to be shown in battle doesn’t mean he was actually there. But it is a distinct possibility. A leather armor vest was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, but because it had greatly deteriorated, no one wanted to tackle its restoration. Now, it has finally been studied carefully, leading experts to conclude that not only was it functional, but it also showed wear and had probably seen action.

When pharaohs recorded battles on their mortuary temples, they almost always noted the year in which the battle took place, such as “year five of the reign of Ramses.” When we have a year, this is a pretty good indication that a battle really did take place. The king may not have been as heroic as he claims, but something happened. Do Tutankhamun’s battle scenes have dates? We don’t know, for too many blocks remain missing. Still, as future building projects in the city of Luxor progress, more blocks from Tutankhamun’s mortuary temple may be found, perhaps with dates for the Syrian or Nubian campaigns.

Painted wooden chest found in Tut's tomb
Painted wooden chest found in Tut's tomb Prof. Mortel via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

Tutankhamun ascended to the throne when he was about 9 years old and only ruled for ten years. For the first four or five years of his reign, it’s a good bet that he never went into battle. If, however, we discover a battle scene dated to year nine or so of his reign, he probably actually participated. If the two battle scenes are undated, they are generic, and most likely the boy-king stayed home.

Put together, all the recent research on Tutankhamun—from new interpretations of X-rays and CT scans to studies of his footwear and mortuary temple—presents quite a different portrait from what is frequently seen in popular media, and even in scientific publications.

So, was Tutankhamun a warrior? The needle is definitely moving toward yes.

Excerpted from Tutankhamun and the Tomb That Changed the World by Bob Brier. Copyright © 2022 Bob Brier. By permission of Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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