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Tutankhamun: behind the mask

We know much of the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb, but what do we know of the daily life of this boy king? Charlotte Booth investigates...
This article first appeared in the December 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine

Published: December 2, 2007 at 3:22 pm
Many people have gazed in awe at the golden mask of Tutankhamun, wondering at the workmanship, the material or the beauty of it. However, few think of the person who wore it for thousands of years, and even fewer know or care that he was decapitated by archaeologists so they could remove the mask and present it to the world.
Perhaps if a name is added it becomes more real. “Tutankhamun was decapitated”. No, that’s not real enough because although the name is familiar it is still from another time and world. Replace his name with one more familiar – “John was decapitated” – and suddenly it all seems more real, a name we associate with friends or family. This familiarity associated with the name John was felt in 1325 BC towards the young boy Tutankhamun, as he, like John, was someone’s brother, son, husband or friend. In short, a real person with the same drives and motivations as John has today.
Tutankhamun was born c1334 BC possibly at Amarna, the city of his father Akhenaten (though Tutankhamun’s parentage is hotly disputed). A religious revolutionary, Akhenaten closed all the temples in Egypt, diverting their revenue to the cult of the Aten (the solar disc) worshipped at Amarna. Many incorrectly assume that Akhenaten was a monotheist due to this religious change. Although he banned the worship of all other gods except the Aten, only himself and the royal family could worship the Aten directly. Everyone else only had access to the god through him, almost as though he were equal to the god. Therefore there were two gods; the Aten and Akhenaten.
Head of a King, Tutankhamen, Egyptian.
Head of a King, Tutankhamen, Egyptian. Located in the collection, Egyptian Museum, Berlin. (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Akhenaten focused all his energies into his new city, and his religion, rarely leaving the boundaries of Amarna. For a priest this would have been appropriate but for a king this was not, and the power Egypt held in the Near East slowly diminished as he neglected his vassal rulers there, enabling the growing Hittite army to gain control of the region.
It was into this time of political instability and religious zealousness that Tutankhamun was born, raised at Amarna, and sheltered from the political unease sweeping the country. It was only after a plague at Amarna wiped out many members of his family that the young boy, only eight years old, was thrust into the adult political world as its king.
Tutankhamun ruled Egypt for approximately 10 years, dying at about 18 years old. Some believe it was foul play, just as he reached an age where he was becoming difficult to control. Very few studies have covered the 18 years of Tutankhamun’s life, even though from his tomb there are a number of personal belongings that give an indication of who this boy may have been.
As a youngster Tutankhamun was an outdoors type of boy – all scraped knees and mud-covered shoes. It was clear that the young Tutankhamun learnt survival skills and among his collection of walking sticks was a reed example set in gold, inscribed with “a reed which his majesty cut with his own hand” indicating that in his youth he had sat down and carved this stick using a sharp tool. He was obviously very proud of this achievement and someone had set it into a handle, either as a sign of indulgence or genuine admiration at the young boy’s talents.
Further evidence of such outdoor pursuits can be seen in the fire-drill also found within his tomb. This consisted of two parts, a base with little holes carved into it and a stick for placing within the holes and rubbing until a spark started a fire.
These survival skills were very useful for the young prince and later king as he was very fond of hunting, and chariot racing. Although there are numerous images of the king participating in these pursuits on more traditional royal objects in his tomb, there is enough evidence to suggest this was a real hobby rather than just a propagandistic tool.
The art of warfare and charioteering was part of the traditional royal education and was taught to Tutankhamun from as young as five years old. This is supported by small-scale weapons, including throwsticks, slingshots, scimitar swords and bows and arrows which were in his tomb. There were also small-sized gloves buried with him used for charioteering and horse-riding. It is quite probable that Tutankhamun participated in the daily chariot parades in Amarna which gave the people of the city opportunity to see the king Akhenaten and the royal family.
Tutankhamun’s tomb also boasts four well-used hunting chariots, which he may have ridden out into the desert hunting lion, gazelle and wild bull – the prey getting bigger and wilder as he became stronger and older. Although not from his tomb an image from a reused talatat block from the ninth pylon at Karnak shows Tutankhamun participating in a lion and bull hunt, showing his skill and prowess in the field. Perhaps the ostrich feathers adorning his famous golden fan were taken from an ostrich felled by the king, and perhaps there were many feasts in the palace boosted by wild hare, gazelle and bull hunted by the young Tutankhamun. Or perhaps he was not talented at hunting and charioteering at all, but just loved the thrill of the chase.
We will never fully understand the life of this enigmatic boy-king but we can at least relate to the excitement and anticipation he felt when he was climbing into his chariot staring at the flat desert ahead of him, knowing in the next few hours of his life he could forget about palace intrigue, political instability and religious revolutions. It was just him, his horses and the desert.
Charlotte Booth teaches Egyptology. Her books include People of Ancient Egypt (Tempus, 2006), and The Boy Behind the Mask: Meeting the Real Tutankhamun (Oneworld Publications, 2007) upon which this article is based.

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