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Tutankhamun - the 'Boy King'

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Death mask of Tutankhamun

Tutankhamun, the 'Boy King', was born around 1342 BC. His birth name was Tutankhaten which means 'Living image of Aton'. At the age of nine, in 1333 BC, he acceded to the Egyptian throne, the youngest pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. He was the son of Kiya, a lesser wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten 'the Heretic'. The marriage between Tutankhaten and his half-sister Ankhesenpa'aten had already taken place. They shared the same father, Akhenaten, but Ankhesenpa'aten had a different mother.

Tutankhamun's Reign

After Tutankhamun became Pharaoh, he set about restoring the old deities, reverting to the old religions and thus giving the power back to the priests of Amun. This is when he changed his name to Tutankhamun. Exact pronunciation of Egyptian names is not known because vowels were not written down. His name has a variety of spellings including: Tutankhamen, Tutankhamon and Tutankhamun. Another name he was known by was Nebkheperure, as Egyptian Pharaohs had two names. Tutankhamun also reinstated Thebes (Luxor) as capital of Egypt. Thebes had been relegated in favour of a new city built especially for Akhenaten's beloved wife, Nefertiti. The new city, Akhetaten (Amarna), was never accepted as capital of Egypt by the Egyptian people.

Tutankhamun's Queen

Ankhesenpa'aten was the daughter of Nefertiti, Queen of Egypt and the beloved wife of Akhenaten. Princess Ankhesenpa'aten changed her name to Ankhesenamun upon the restoration of the old religions. It is known that the young couple had at least two offspring, but unfortunately they were stillborn1. During a battle in 1324 BC, Tutankhamun was killed or murdered.

Once widowed, the young Queen was forced to marry Ay, her maternal grandfather, to assure his accession to the Egyptian throne. Her fate after this is unknown. Ay claimed Queen Ankhesenamun as his wife but he ruled for only four years. The fact that she produced no living heirs effectively sealed the end of the 18th Dynasty. Upon Ay's death, an army officer named Horemheb seized the throne and founded the 19th Dynasty.

The Burial

After the Pharaoh's fluids and vital organs were removed, the mummification process could begin. The body was treated with preservative chemicals and then wrapped in cloth (usually linen) which had been seeped in oils. Personal jewellery was placed upon the mummy, and, touchingly, the remains of flowers were found in close proximity to the body. A total of 13 layers of linen were used altogether. Enclosed within the wrappings were 143 amulets and charms to ward off evil spirits. The solid gold death mask, which was said to resemble Tutankhamun, was placed upon the finished mummy. The body with the mask was placed inside the solid gold coffin which was shaped like a Pharaoh, but this does not resemble Tutankhamun. This coffin was then placed inside a wooden coffin covered in gold, also pharaoh-shaped. Interestingly, the coffin was originally made for a female Pharaoh. Four more coffins were utilized, until the largest almost filled the entire burial chamber. The vital organs were placed in Canopic jars which were also placed in the burial chamber. As was the custom, the burial took 70 days in all. It was Ay's duty as next Pharaoh to give Tutankhamun a worthy burial. As he had been so young at the time of his death, he had not started building his own tomb. Ay most probably plundered other tombs to furnish his own tomb for Tutankhamun. Some of the treasures depict a female Pharaoh, and it is estimated that 80% of the 5,000 items did not belong to the Boy King.

The Tomb

Tutankhamun was buried at Thebes in the Valley of the Kings in 1323 BC with a vast treasure which lay undiscovered until 1922. The discovery, by Howard Carter, created a worldwide sensation. This was the first time a Pharaoh's tomb had been discovered intact. The reason why this tomb was missed by grave-robbers is because its location was never recorded, and later, a much larger tomb was built almost on top of it. Carter, excavating in the Valley of the Kings, found steps buried under a layer of stone chips.

By the solemn silence all around caused by the stoppage of work, I guessed that something out of the ordinary had occurred... My reis (foreman) told me that the beginnings of a staircase had been discovered.
- Howard Carter

Further clearing of the steps revealed the top of a doorway. On 26 November, the tomb was finally opened. The burial chamber lay exactly as it was on the day the priests had tied the knots on the shrine enclosing the sarcophagus. Carter, accompanied by Lady Evelyn and Lord Carnarvon, were the first people to see the interior of Tutankhamun's tomb since it had been sealed. Carter cleared a small hole:

I inserted the candle and peered in. At first I could see nothing, but as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details began to emerge. Strange animals, statues, and gold, everywhere the glint of gold. For a moment (an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by), I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon enquired anxiously if I could see anything, it was all I could do to utter the words, 'Yes, wonderful things'.

In the following years Howard Carter excavated the contents of the tomb. It was a phenomenal task. Carter wrote:

This was no ordinary find, to be disposed of in a normal season's work; nor was there any precedent to show us how to handle it. The thing was bewildering, and for the moment it seemed as though there were more to be done than any human could accomplish.

Alongside the Pharaoh's burial chamber was another room containing all he would need for the afterlife. What must have been an incomparable wealth of gold and other treasures were sealed up with their ruler. Tutankhamun's body was removed for study then replaced in the tomb. The tomb is open to the public, but there is not much left to see. The treasure is housed in the museum at Cairo, Egypt, along with the death mask. Tutankhamun's death mask is incomparable and priceless. It was crafted in gold, lapis lazuli, obsidian, quartz, amazonite and polychrome glass.

The Afterlife

In accordance with his people's beliefs, the young Pharaoh was buried with everything he would need in the afterlife. Found in the tomb were imitation servants and food which the ancient Egyptians believed would become real in the afterlife. The Pharaoh's chariot and all his personal belongings were entombed with him. Tutankhamun, though an insignificant ruler, has become immortalised thanks to the discovery of his intact tomb.

Tutankhamun's Mummy

On 5 January, 2005, the mummy of Tutankhamun was removed from its tomb in the Valley of the Kings for the first time in almost 80 years and examined in a state-of-the art CT scanner. The results showed that King Tutankhamun was well-fed and healthy and suffered no major childhood malnutrition or infectious diseases. The team found no evidence of a blow to the back of the head, and no other indication of foul play. They did, however, note a fracture of the left lower femur (thighbone) which had occurred during his life. There was evidence of inflammation suggesting that the wound had started to heal and therefore Tutankhamun lived for some days after this accident. Based on this evidence, the team now believe the king may have suffered an accident in which he broke his leg badly, leaving an open wound. Although the break itself would not have been life-threatening, infection (gangrene) might well have set in and without antibiotics would have been untreatable.

The Curse

An ancient curse was rumoured to smite those who disturbed the mortal remains of the dead King. When Lord Carnarvon died on 5 April, 1923, seven weeks after the official opening of Tutankhamun's burial chamber, rumours were rife about a curse. News of Tutankhamun's tomb and its discoverers had sent the world's media into a frenzy, and the death of Lord Carnarvon added another twist for eager journalists. All sorts of links were found. For example, back at Carnarvon's English estate, his dog Susie was supposed to have howled and died at the exact moment the master drew his last breath. And so too the lights of Cairo were said to have gone out at that very moment (although blackouts were really quite a common occurrence at that time). Also, Carnarvon's death came just a couple of weeks after a public warning by novelist Mari Corelli that there would be dire consequences for anyone who entered the sealed tomb. The media and public lapped it up. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes and a believer in the occult, announced that Carnarvon's death could have been the result of a Pharaoh's curse. One newspaper even printed a curse supposed to have been written in hieroglyphs at the entrance of the tomb, the translation being:

They who enter this sacred tomb shall swift be visited by wings of death.

However, no inscribed curse was found.

One inscription, found on the shrine to Anubis, the god with the head of a Jackal, in the tomb's treasury, did state:

It is I who hinder the sand from choking the secret chamber. I am for the protection of the deceased.

However, a reporter went on to add his own words to the reported inscription:

... and I will kill all those who cross this threshold into the sacred precincts of the Royal King who lives forever..

Reporting of the curse was further fuelled by more deaths, many with very stretched associations to Tutankhamun. Five months after Carnarvon died, his younger brother died suddenly. Closer to the tomb, another casualty was the pet canary of the tomb's discoverer, Howard Carter. The bird was swallowed by a cobra on the day the tomb was opened. This was interpreted as retribution for violation of the tomb, particularly as a cobra was depicted on the brow of the Pharaoh where it would spit fire at the king's enemies. According to one list, of the 26 individuals present at the official opening of the tomb, six had died within a decade. In reality, many of the key individuals associated with the discovery and work on the tomb lived to a ripe old age. When some of the treasures of Tutankhamun went on tour overseas in the 1970s, some people were still of the belief that a curse might be at work. One example was from San Francisco where a policeman guarding Tutankhamun's gold funerary mask tried to claim compensation for a mild stroke based on the effect of the curse. The judge dismissed the claim.

Did the Curse Strike?

Lord Carnarvon

Carnarvon had been in poor health for over 20 years following a motoring accident in Germany. Less than two weeks after the official opening of the burial chamber, Carnarvon was bitten by a mosquito. The bite became infected after he cut it while shaving. Carnarvon fell ill and, with his resistance lowered, developed pneumonia and eventually died at the age of 57.

Howard Carter

As discoverer of the tomb, Carter should have been number one on the curse's hit-list, but he survived until March 1939, just short of his 65th birthday and nearly 17 years after entering the tomb. He had spent about ten years working within the tomb itself.

Lady Evelyn Herbert

Lady Evelyn, Lord Carnarvon's daughter, was one of the first to enter the tomb and died in 1980, around the age of 79.

Harry Burton

Burton was the photographer loaned to Carter by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to record the work done in Tutankhamun's tomb. Many of the magnificent black and white photographs of the time were taken by Burton, who died in 1940.

Alan Gardiner

Gardiner studied the tomb's inscriptions and was still very active, working on Egyptian grammar for many decades until his death in 1963.

Dr DE Derry

Derry carried out the original autopsy on Tutankhamun's remains. If anyone would have been cursed along with Carter, it should have been Derry. However, he lived until 1969.

Two Unknown Workers

When Carter was trying to remove the 143 amulets and charms from the mummy, no protective masks or coverings were worn by the team. Two men helping Carter died soon after from 'fever'. This was attributed to the curse but was probably the result of inhalation of the mould Aspergilis niger and the inevitable lung damage it causes.

1The mummified foetuses were found in Tutankhamun's tomb.

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