Born in c1342 BC, Tutankhamun ruled Ancient Egypt for around ten years until his death at the age of about 19. His short time as pharaoh was not especially memorable, but the 1922 discovery of the Boy King’s intact tomb sealed his place in the history books.
After years of excavations, the English archaeologist Howard Carter stumbled across Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, revealing rooms filled with what he described as “wonderful things” to the world.
In November 2019, some 150 of those precious objects go on display at the Saatchi Gallery in London. Below is a glimpse at a handful of those treasures – many of which are leaving Egypt for the first time.
Scarab beetle jewellery (Image by Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo/Italy)
Tutankhamun’s tomb had been filled with precious objects to aid the Pharaoh on his journey into the afterlife. This piece of jewellery features a scarab beetle made of lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone prized for its intense blue colour, making it a favourite for Ancient Egyptian jewellery. The scarab was regarded as sacred; Khepri was the scarab-faced god of the rising Sun and rebirth.
“After grave goods had been placed inside the tomb, a curse inscription was often carved to protect it,” explains Tarek El Awady, curator of the Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh exhibition. “Such curses might have threatened that the bones of anyone who touches the tomb would be crushed by nails or his blood will be poisoned by snakes, for example.”
Despite the rumours, it’s unknown if any curses were placed on Tutankhamun’s tomb. If there were, they weren’t heeded as the tomb is believed to have been raided more than once.
Walking on gold
Tutankhamun’s funerary sandals (Image by Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo/Italy)
Made from solid gold for funerary use, these sandals would have been placed on the dead Pharaoh’s feet before he was wrapped in strips of linen. They resemble leather and plant sandals Tutankhamun would have worn in life. The role of the sandal-bearer to a pharaoh was one of the most important positions in Ancient Egyptian society. As well as carrying a pharaoh’s footwear, they would also wash the royal feet.
Protective toe caps (Image by Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo/Italy)
Ancient Egyptians believed the body was needed in the afterlife and a great deal of care was taken to preserve it after death. “To prevent damage to the deceased’s body – something particularly important for pharaohs, who, it was thought, became divine after death – ‘stalls’ such as these were placed on fingers and toes so that they would keep their shape,” says El Awady. “Gold was especially valued because, like the Ancient Egyptian gods, it doesn’t rust or change. It goes on forever.”
Symbols of pharaonic power
Gold inlaid hands holding the crook and flail (Image by Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo/Italy)
The crook and flail were the fundamental symbols of royal power in Ancient Egypt – the shepherd’s crook representing kingship and the flail the fertility of the land. This particular example was found within the wrappings of Tutankhamun’s mummy. The crossed hands are made of gold with coloured glass while the crook and flail have silver cores.
Pectoral jewellery in the shape of the falcon (Image by Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo/Italy)
Elaborate pieces of jewellery known as pectorals were similar to large necklaces and would have been worn over the chest. The gold falcon here represents the god Horus, who is holding the sign for eternity (shen) in his claws. Horus was thought to be the creator and protector of the pharaohs.
Fun and games
Ancient Egyptian board game Senet (Image by Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo/Italy)
As well as food, clothes and weapons, several games – including this Senet board –were also found in the Boy King’s tomb, to enjoy in the afterlife. Senet was a popular game in Ancient Egypt across all levels of society. The game was traditionally played by two people, but scenes on the wall of Nefertari’s tomb – wife of Pharaoh Rameses II – show her playing against an invisible adversary in order to move on into the afterlife.
King of the hunt
Ancient Egyptian boomerang (Image by Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo/Italy)
An item that may look out of place in an Ancient Egyptian tomb was the boomerang. “We found many different boomerangs in the tomb, the non-returning and the returning kind,” says El Awady.
“They were used from at least the Old Kingdom, many hundreds of years before Tutankhamun. The most famous depiction of their use was of a boomerang being thrown from a boat in the marshlands in Delta, for catching birds”
‘Meat mummy’ container (Image by Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo/Italy)
This wooden container is believed to have held a mummified duck while others held cuts of meat, such as beef and goat. Some 48 of these ‘meat mummies’ were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. “Cuts of meat were wrapped in linen and placed inside these containers to sustain the Pharaoh during his journey to the afterlife,” says El Awady. “They have even been created in the shape of the cuts of meat contained within.
This sistrum is a hand-held musical instrument (Image by Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo/Italy)
This hand-held musical instrument – about 20 inches high – is known as a sistrum and may have been used during Tutankhamun’s burial rites.
“We’ll be displaying one of two sistrums found in the antechamber, above one of the Pharaoh’s funerary beds,” comments El Awady. “Sistrums were usually played by women; perhaps Ankhesenamun, wife and queen of Tutankhamun, was holding this object during her husband’s funeral.
“The sistrum was not only a musical instrument; it had a greater value, as it was believed to be the most beloved musical instrument of Hathor. Hathor was the pharaohs’ protective goddess with a temple in Dendera where singers played sistrums – the rattling sound they made was believed to bring life to the body.”
A heavy heart
Canopic jar stopper for Tutankhamun’s heart jar (Image by Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo/Italy)
Removing the body’s internal organs was a vital part of the mummification process. These were stored in canopic jars, which often had elaborate stoppers like this one, made of calcite.
The heart was the one organ which was never removed; it was believed to be weighed in the afterlife against the Feather of Ma’at – the symbol of justice and truth. The god Osiris was thought to determine if the deceased had committed good deeds on Earth and therefore deserved to live forever in the afterlife.
Image by Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo/Italy
This wooden shield, one of eight found in the tomb’s annexe, portrays Tutanhamun as a sphinx, trampling on his enemies. A falcon sits atop the sphinx, a depiction of the war god Montu. The openwork of the wood suggests that this shield was created for ceremonial purposes rather than actual combat. Symbolically, the shield depicts the Pharaoh as a strong leader, protecting Egypt from disorder by driving out its enemies.
Tapestry woven linen gloves (Image by Laboratoriorosso, Viterbo/Italy)
These linen gloves are one of the few items in the exhibition that experts believe were actually used by Tutankhamun while he was alive.
“Most of the objects found in the tomb are ceremonial, or designed to be used by the Pharaoh in the afterlife” says El Awady. “These gloves, made out of linen, were probably worn by Tutankhamun during the winter time, when he was living in Memphis [then capital of Ancient Egypt], or when he was riding his royal chariot.”
Tarek El Awady is an international Egyptologist and previously Director of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. He is the curator of the Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh exhibition and was speaking to BBC History Revealed staff writer Emma Slattery Williams
VISIT: Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh is at Saatchi Gallery in London from 2 November 2019 to 3 May 2020
LISTEN: A new BBC Radio 4 documentary, The Cult of King Tut, is available on BBC Sounds
This content first appeared in the December 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed