Your guide to Tutankhamun, plus 8 fascinating facts
Tutankhamun's status as ancient Egypt’s most famous pharaoh was cemented when his intact tomb was discovered by archaeologist Howard Carter in November 1922. But how much do you know about the famous 'boy king'? Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley brings you the facts about King Tut...
When was Tutankhamun born?
We don’t have any record of Tutankhamun’s birth, and we don’t even know who his parents were (a subject that is hotly disputed by Egyptologists). This is therefore an opportunity for some archaeological detective work. His mummy shows us that Tutankhamun died when he was about 18 years old. Wine-jars stored in his tomb are labelled with the years of his reign. As the oldest of these jars is dated to “year 10”, we can deduce that Tutankhamun inherited his throne as an eight-year-old boy in c1336 BC. He was almost certainly born at Amarna, the new royal city built by his predecessor and probable father, the “Heretic Pharaoh” Akhenaten.
Akhenaten had been a highly unusual king. He had turned his back on the traditional gods and goddesses, choosing instead to worship just one god: a sun-disk known as “the Aten”. Following Akhenaten’s death, Tutankhamun (and his advisors) reversed the religious experiment, restored the traditional pantheon, and repaired the state temples which had been allowed to fall into disrepair. Tutankhamun seemed set for a glorious reign: but then he suddenly died.
How did Tutankhamun die?
It is not known exactly how Tutankhamun died. His body suffered damage at various stages – immediately before or immediately after death; during the curiously hasty mummification process; within the tomb (where a chemical reaction caused it to ignite in its coffin); and while being extracted from the coffin.
Obvious damage to Tutankhamun’s chest and legs suggests an accident – perhaps a chariot or hunting accident, or death on the battlefield. Others have suggested that Tutankhamun may have been murdered.
- Read more | How did Tutankhamun die?
Who was Tutankhamun? A brief biography
Titles: Nebkheperure Tutankhamun was Pharaoh, or King, of Egypt.
Born: c1344 BC
Died: c1327 BC
Parents: It seems likely that his father was Pharaoh Akhenaten: his mother is unknown, but could have been Queen Nefertiti
Siblings: At least six full- or half-sisters: Meritaten, Meketaten, Ankhesenpaaten (who was also his wife), Neferneferuaten, Neferneferure, Setepenre: at least one full- or half-brother, Smenkhkare.
Known for: The discovery of his near-intact tomb by Howard Carter, packed with grave goods.
Tomb discovered: In November 1922.
Do we know what Tutankhamun looked like?
We have many images of Tutankhamun, ranging from colossal stone statues to small golden figures. These show him as a fit, handsome and vigorous young man confidently driving a chariot or hunting in the desert. However, these are not portraits: they are royal propaganda which presents all of Egypt’s kings in the same idealised way. We cannot assume that Tutankhamun actually looked like his official images.
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Tutankhamun’s mummy shows that he had a damaged foot. Some experts believe that this is proof the living Tutankhamun had mobility problems: others believe that the damage to his foot was caused by the application of tight bandages during his mummification. Because of this difference of opinion, modern reconstructions of Tutankhamun vary. Some show him leaning on a walking stick, others as an athletic young man.
Why is King Tut so famous?
Tutankhamun’s is the only near-intact royal tomb to be discovered in the Valley of the Kings. The mummified king was found lying in a nest of golden coffins, surrounded by more than 5,000 precious grave goods. Nothing like this had ever been seen before. Instantly, Tutankhamun became an ancient world celebrity.
Where is Tutankhamun now?
Tutankhamun’s mummy still lies in his original tomb in the Valley of the Kings, Egypt.
Read on for eight fascinating facts about the young pharaoh…
His original name was not Tutankhamun
Tutankhamun was originally named Tutankhaten. This name, which literally means “living image of the Aten”, reflected the fact that Tutankhaten’s parents worshipped a sun god known as “the Aten”. After a few years on the throne the young king changed his religion, abandoned the Aten, and started to worship the god Amun [who was revered as king of the gods]. This caused him to change his name to Tutankhamun, or “living image of Amun”.
- In pictures | The glittering treasures of Tutankhamun
Tutankhamun was not, however, the name by which his people knew him. Like all of Egypt’s kings, Tutankhamun actually had five royal names. These took the form of short sentences that outlined the focus of his reign. Officially, he was:
(1) Horus Name: Image of births
(2) Two Ladies Name: Beautiful of laws who quells the Two Lands/who makes content all the gods
(3) Golden Horus Name: Elevated of appearances for the god/his father Re
(4) Prenomen: Nebkheperure
(5) Nomen: Tutankhamun
His last two names, known today as the prenomen and the nomen, are the names that we see written in cartouches (oval loops) on his monuments. We know him by his nomen, Tutankhamun. His people, however, knew him by his prenomen, Nebkheperure, which literally translates as “[the sun god] Re is the lord of manifestations”.
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Tutankhamun has the smallest royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings
The first pharaohs built highly conspicuous pyramids in Egypt’s northern deserts. However, by the time of the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BC), this fashion had ended. Most kings were now buried in relative secrecy in rock-cut tombs tunnelled into the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile at the southern city of Thebes (modern-day Luxor). These tombs had inconspicuous doors, but were both spacious and well decorated inside.
Cemeteries carried their own potent magic, and dead kings were thought to have powerful spirits that might benefit others. Burial amongst his ancestors would have helped Tutankhamun to achieve his own afterlife. It therefore seems likely that Tutankhamun would have wished to be buried in a splendid tomb in either the main valley or in an offshoot, the Western Valley, where his grandfather, Amenhotep III, was buried. But, whatever he may have intended, we know that Tutankhamun was actually buried in a cramped tomb cut into the floor of the main valley.
It may be that Tutankhamun simply died too young to complete his ambitious plans. His own tomb was unfinished, and so he had to be buried in a substitute, non-royal tomb. However, this seems unlikely, as other kings managed to build suitable tombs in just two or three years. It seems far more likely that Tutankhamun’s successor, Ay, a king who inherited the throne as an elderly man, made a strategic swap. Just four years after Tutankhamun’s death, Ay himself was buried in a splendid tomb in the Western Valley, close by the tomb of Amenhotep III.
The unexpectedly small size of Tutankhamun’s tomb has led to recent suggestions that there may be parts as yet undiscovered. Currently Egyptologists are investigating the possibility that there may be secret chambers hidden behind the plastered wall of his burial chamber.
He was buried in a second-hand coffin
Tutankhamun’s mummy lay within a nest of three golden coffins, which fitted snugly one inside another like a set of Russian dolls. During the funeral ritual the combined coffins were placed in a rectangular stone sarcophagus. Unfortunately, the outer coffin proved to be slightly too big, and its toes peeked over the edge of the sarcophagus, preventing the lid from closing. Carpenters were quickly summoned and the coffin’s toes were cut away. More than 3,000 years later Howard Carter would find the fragments lying in the base of the sarcophagus.
All three of Tutankhamun’s coffins were similar in style: they were “anthropoid”, or human-form coffins, shaped to look like the god of the dead, Osiris, lying on his back and holding the crook and flail in his crossed arms. But the middle coffin had a slightly different style and its face did not look like the faces on other two coffins. Nor did it look like the face on Tutankhamun’s death mask. Many Egyptologists now believe that this middle coffin – along with some of Tutankhamun’s other grave goods – was originally made for the mysterious “Neferneferuaten” – an enigmatic individual whose name is recorded in inscriptions and who may have been Tutankhamun’s immediate predecessor. We do not know what happened to Neferneferuaten, nor how Tutankhamun came to be buried in his or her coffin.
Tutankhamun loved to hunt ostriches
Tutankhamun’s ostrich-feather fan was discovered lying in his burial chamber, close by the king’s body. Originally the fan consisted of a long golden handle topped by a semi-circular ‘palm’ that supported 42 alternating brown and white feathers. These feathers crumbled away long ago, but their story is preserved in writing on the fan handle. This tells us that that the feathers were taken from ostriches captured by the king himself while hunting in the desert to the east of Heliopolis (near modern-day Cairo). The embossed scene on the palm shows, on one face, Tutankhamun setting off in his chariot to hunt ostrich, and on the reverse, the king returning in triumph with his prey.
Ostriches were important birds in ancient Egypt, and their feathers and eggs were prized as luxury items. Hunting ostriches was a royal sport that allowed the king to demonstrate his control over nature. It was a substitute for battle and, as such, was a dangerous occupation. We can see that Tutankhamun’s body was badly damaged before he was mummified. Is the placement of his ostrich fan so close to his body significant? Is this, perhaps, someone’s way of telling us that the young king died following a fatal accident on an ostrich hunt?
Tutankhamun's heart is missing
The ancient Egyptians believed that it was possible to live again after death, but thought that this could only be achieved if the body was preserved in a lifelike condition. This led them to develop the science of artificial mummification.
Essentially, mummification involved desiccating the body in natron salt, then wrapping it in many layers of bandages to preserve a lifelike shape. The body’s internal organs were removed at the start of the mummification process and preserved separately. The brain, its function then unknown, was simply thrown away – the heart, rather than the brain, was regarded as the organ of reasoning. As such, the heart would be required in the afterlife. It was therefore left in place and, if accidentally removed, immediately sewn back; though not always in its original location.
Tutankhamun, however, has no heart. Instead he was provided with an amuletic scarab inscribed with a funerary spell. This may have happened simply because the undertakers were careless, but it could also be a sign that Tutankhamun died far from home. By the time his body arrived at the undertakers’ workshop, his heart may have been too decayed to be preserved.
One of Tutankhamun’s favourite possessions was an iron dagger
Howard Carter discovered two daggers carefully wrapped inside Tutankhamun’s mummy bandages. One dagger had a gold blade, while the other had a blade made of iron. Each dagger had a gold sheath. Of the two, the iron dagger was by far the more valuable because, during Tutankhamun’s lifetime (he reigned from c1336–27 BC), iron, or “iron from the sky” as it was known, was a rare and precious metal. As its name suggests, Egypt’s “iron from the sky” was almost entirely obtained from meteorites.
Several other iron objects were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb: 16 miniature blades, a tiny headrest and an amulet. The fact that these pieces are not particularly well made, combined with their small size, suggest that they were made by local craftsmen who struggled to work the rare meteorite iron.
The dagger blade, however, is very different. Beautifully crafted, it is likely to have been imported to Egypt from a region accustomed to working iron. The royal diplomatic archives tell us that, several years before Tutankhamun’s birth, king Tushratta of Mitanni sent a metal dagger to Egypt as a gift to his new son-in-law, Amenhotep III. Given the rarity of good quality iron artefacts at this time, it is possible that Amenhotep’s dagger was inherited by his grandson, Tutankhamun, and eventually buried with him. Given its prominent location within the mummy bandages, it may even be that Tushratta’s dagger was used in Tutankhamun’s mummification ritual.
- On the podcast | Tarek El Awady discusses the remarkable artefacts buried with Egypt’s iconic boy king
His trumpets have entertained an audience of more than 150 million
Tutankhamun’s grave goods included a small collection of musical instruments: one pair of ivory clappers, two sistra (rattles) and two trumpets, one made from silver with a gold mouthpiece and the other made of bronze partially overlaid by gold. This would not have made a very satisfactory orchestra, and it seems that music was not high on Tutankhamun’s list of priorities for his afterlife. In fact, his trumpets should more properly be classified as military equipment, while his clappers and sistra are likely to have had a ritual purpose.
On 16 April 1939, the two trumpets were played in a BBC live radio broadcast from Cairo Museum, which reached an estimated 150 million listeners. Bandsman James Tappern used a modern mouthpiece, which caused damage to the silver trumpet. In 1941 the bronze trumpet was played again, this time without a modern mouthpiece.
Some, influenced by the myth of “Tutankhamun’s curse”, have claimed that the trumpets have the power to summon war. They have suggested that it was the 1939 broadcast which caused Britain to enter the Second World War.
Tutankhamun was buried in the world’s most expensive coffin
Two of Tutankhamun’s three coffins were made of wood, covered with gold sheet. But, to Howard Carter’s great surprise, the innermost coffin was made from thick sheets of beaten gold. This coffin measures 1.88m in length, and weighs 110.4kg. If it were to be scrapped today it would be worth well over £1m. But as Tutankhamun’s final resting place it is, of course, priceless.
Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley teaches a suite of online courses in Egyptology at the University of Manchester. She is the author of Tutankhamun: Pharaoh, Icon, Enigma (Headline, 2022)
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2016 and reviewed and updated by the author in 2022