Tutankhamun Facts: 10 things you didn’t know about Tutankhamun
1. What does Tutankhamun mean?
Although the young king, buried in the small tomb discovered in the Valley of the Kings in November 1922 by the Egyptologist Howard Carter and his patron, Lord Carnarvon, is generally known by the name of Tutankhamun, it was not always the case. At birth, he was in fact named Toutankhaton, meaning ‘living image of Aton’, and subsequently some years later he changed his name to Tutankhamun, meaning ‘living image of Amon’, once he ascended the throne. This new first name reflected his desire to distinguish himself from the reign of Akhenaten (and from the worship of Aton, the solar disc) and affirm his allegiance to the Theban god Amon.
2. Who were Tutankhamun’s parents?
Toutankhaton/Tutankhamun is believed to have been born in the city of Tell el-Amarna (formerly Akhetaten) circa 1340 BCE. However, the identity of Tutankhamun’s parents has been the subject of much debate and hypotheses, which were not entirely resolved by the DNA analyses carried out by a German-Egyptian team in 2010 on several royal mummies believed to be connected with Tutankhamun.
A body of corroborating evidence confirms that he was the son of the pharaoh Amenhotep IV/Akhenaton and that, according to the DNA analyses, his father (whose mummy has been identified amongst several royal mummies with indeterminate identities) and his mother (an anonymous mummy known by the name ‘Young Lady’) were related, and that they were brother and sister. In fact, the DNA analysis confirmed that the mummy known as ‘Young Lady’ is one of the daughters of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye, father and mother of Akhenaten.
3. Did Tutankhamun have a queen?
Prince Toutankhaton is believed to have ascended the throne around the age of eight/nine years and at the beginning of his reign he married his sister Princess Ankhesenamon (originally called Ankhesenpaaton), daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamon were the only known surviving children from the royal family of Akhenaton. Although child ‘marriages’ were attested in the royal family, it does not mean that uterine marriages were common in the Eighteenth Dynasty, as is sometimes believed.
Although little is known of the daily life of the young royal couple, they did live mainly in Memphis (south of Cairo), and they had two daughters, who died at birth and were buried with their father in the Valley of the Kings.
Queen Ankhesenamon survived her husband, but her fate thereafter is unknown: hence, the date of her death remains a mystery, as does her burial site. There is currently an excavation underway in the Valley of the Monkeys, near the Valley of the Kings, to try to find her burial site.
4. Apart from his tomb, what do we know of his reign?
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the ‘treasures’ found within shed light on this Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh; however, historians have been unable to fully retrace the history of his reign.
Apart from anecdotal events such as the ostrich hunt he took part in in the region of Heliopolis, and from which he returned with feathers (used to make a fan found in his tomb), his reign was primarily distinguished by the restoration of polytheistic worship, which had been weakened after the reign of his father Akhenaton, and restored the god Amon and his great temple at Karnak to pre-eminence. Hence, the young king’s attention was focused on the Theban region, as attested by restorations and new constructions, as well as the construction of stelae and statues, at Karnak and in the temple of Luxor.
5. How did he die?
Since the discovery of the king’s tomb, theories have abounded about the circumstances of Tutankhamen’s death, after reigning for only about 10 years.
The hypothesis of murder has been eliminated. Recent scans of the king’s mummy have revealed no trace of a fatal blow, as suggested. Given his young age—around eighteen to nineteen years old—, his death may have resulted from an accident and/or an illness. A study of the mummy, carried out in 2010 by a team of researchers, directed by Zahi Hawass, revealed, in particular, an open fracture of the femur, as well as the fact that he undoubtedly had malaria and a mild club foot on the left foot. Although it is difficult to establish the exact causes of Tutankhamen’s death, it must be assumed that there was a combination of factors (a fragile constitution, a serious fracture, and malaria).
6. Was the tomb intact when it was discovered by Howard Carter?
Tutankhamun’s small tomb, KV 62, has certainly provided us with fabulous treasures, which give us an idea of the probable splendour of the burial furniture that has been lost or pillaged from the tombs of the great pharaohs of the New Empire, such as Touthmosis III, Amenhotep III, and Ramses II. But that does not mean that attempts were not made to pillage the tomb.
Some time after Tutankhamun’s funeral and the closing of his tomb, thieves managed to break into the hypogeum and steal fragrant balms and valuable objects. Hence, Howard Carter noticed that there were traces of two distinct reopenings and successive reclosings in the sealed doorway, but the thieves were unable to break into the sarcophagus chamber. They did, however, leave traces of their presence, despite the duties carried out by the ‘sergeants of the necropolis’, who rearranged the scattered objects regardless of their original order.
7. A forgotten pharaoh?
Although the twelfth king of the Eighteenth Dynasty is now one of the most famous pharaohs, he received little posthumous recognition in the New Empire and the memory of his reign was somewhat tarnished by his successors.
During the reign of Horemheb, the last king of the Eighteenth Dynasty, then at the beginning of the Nineteenth Dynasty, inscriptions concerning Tutankhamun and his successor Ay were erased from monuments and their statues were defaced and destroyed; the reason for this obliteration of their memory was that they were still too closely linked to the reign of the ‘rebel’ Akhenaton. And his name was deliberately omitted from the official royal lists of the Nineteenth Dynasty.
8. Is there such a thing as the Tutankhamun ‘curse’?
As famous as Tutankhamun and his burial treasure, deaths that occurred in the years that followed the discovery of the tomb revived the idea of a curse of the mummies, which emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. Lord Carnarvon’s untimely death in 1923 probably sparked off the idea and gave free reign to rumours about the curse of Tutankhamun, attributed to the poisons left by the ancient Egyptians in their tombs, and to mushrooms and toxic microorganisms, which affected all those who dared to enter the royal hypogeum. Yet, the man who discovered his tomb, Howard Carter, only died in 1939, at the age of sixty-four, and was probably spared from the young king’s vengeance.
It is also said that the two trumpets discovered in the tomb had magical properties, and, in particular, the power to summon war. Hence, on the evening they were played for the first time, in 1939, a power cut plunged Cairo’s Egyptian Museum into darkness and the recording was made by candlelight. Several months later, war broke out in Europe. The trumpets appear to have been played again before the Six Day War in 1967, before the 1990 Gulf War, and, more recently, before the Egyptian revolution of 2011. That was all it took to associate a new legend with the name of Tutankhamun.
9. A burial treasure and a highly unusual tomb
Tutankhamun was certainly buried with some extraordinary burial furniture, but it was largely ‘borrowed’. Some of the most famous objects in Tutankhamun’s tomb (such as the second and third gilt-wood chapels, the miniature coffins containing viscera and the canopic stoppers) were originally made for a Queen/Pharaoh, who reigned for a brief period between Amenhotep IV/Akhenaton and Tutankhamun. This Queen/Pharaoh, known as Ankh(et)kheperure Neferneferuaten, was none other than Princess Merytaton, Tutankhamun’s elder sister. It was no doubt deemed, for some unexplained reason, that Merytaton had not been buried with the furniture of a king, but merely as a member of the royal family and these objects were thus reused for Tutankhamun’s burial.
Furthermore, the smallness and unusual shape of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings suggest that it was not his. It may be assumed that a tomb of royal dimensions had been begun, but that it was unfinished when he died. It was therefore necessary to make use of a tomb that could be used and decorated rapidly, once part of the burial furniture was installed—as attested by the drops and splashes of yellow paint accidentally and hurriedly left by the necropolis artists on the gilt-wood external chapel.
10. Tutankhamun as a pop icon
Tutankhamun, who became a veritable popular icon, only became famous 3,200 years after his death—in contrast with other Pharaonic figures such as Ramses II and Cleopatra—, turning him into a veritable cultural phenomenon, which was dubbed ‘Tut-mania’ (‘Tut’ is the Egyptian king’s nickname, an abbreviation of ‘Tutankhamun’). The tomb’s discovery had all the ingredients to set off a wave of fascination in the young Egyptian king: the discovery of a tomb that was almost intact, extraordinary funerary treasures, a hitherto little-known pharaoh who died in the prime of his life, and the rumours about a curse.
Hence, as of 1922, Tutankhamun experienced a second renaissance, going well beyond the usual Egyptomania, and this time his fame was present in every sphere of life — architecture, the decorative and furniture arts, fashion, music, and even advertising (from lemons to nougat bars and Cleopatra soap). This ‘Tutankhamun-mania’ was particularly prevalent in the Roaring Twenties, permeating every sphere of society; an example is the German shepherd of the American president, Herbert Hoover, which was affectionately called King Tut. The 1970s, a period during which the traveling exhibition of some of the king’s tomb furnishings was held, saw a revival of the phenomenon, even in the American TV show Saturday Night Live in which Steve Martin sang his song King Tut (1978) live. Indeed, Tutankhamun and his gold burial mask, a veritable graphic symbol that has been used and adapted on many occasions, have been widely used in music, particularly in clips and during concerts (very recently by the singer Beyoncé). Although these references often have very little to do with the real Tutankhamun and his reign, they do attest to the way in which ancient Egypt in now perceived and, above all, to the impact of the discovery of his tomb in the Valley of the Kings in November 1922, shedding new light on the reign of a pharaoh which until that point had been somewhat overlooked.