Tutankhamun was born in c1334 BC, possibly at Amarna, the city of his father, Akhenaten (though Tutankhamun’s parentage is hotly disputed). Tutankhamun’s mummy shows that he died when he was approximately 18 years old, but it is not known exactly how he died. Tutankhamun’s 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 suggest an accident – perhaps a chariot or hunting accident, or death on the battlefield. Others have suggested that Tutankhamun may have been murdered.
Today, Tutankhamun is ancient Egypt’s most famous pharaoh. But how much do you really know about the boy king? Here, historian Joyce Tyldesley brings you eight lesser-known facts about Tutankhamun…
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”.
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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”.
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.
Listen to Tarek El Awady discuss 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 Tutankhamen’s Curse: the Developing History of an Egyptian King (Profile 2012).
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2016