King Tutankhamun (Tutankhamen or simply King Tut) ruled Egypt as pharaoh for 10 years until his death at age 19, around 1324 B.C. Though his rule was notable for reversing the religious reforms of his father Akhenaten, Tutankhamun’s legacy was largely negated by his successors. He was barely known to the modern world until 1922, when British archaeologist Howard Carter chiseled into the intact tomb of King Tut. The tomb’s hoard of treasure, intended to accompany the king into the afterlife, revealed an incredible amount about life in ancient Egypt, and made Tutankhamun the world’s most famous pharaoh.
Who Was King Tut?
Genetic testing has verified that King Tut was the grandson of the great pharaoh Amenhotep III, and almost certainly the son of Akhenaten, a controversial figure in the history of the 18th dynasty of Egypt’s New Kingdom (c.1550-1295 B.C.). Akhenaten upended a centuries-old religious system to favor worship of a single deity, the sun god Aten, and moved Egypt’s religious capital from Thebes to Amarna.
After Akhenaten’s death, two intervening pharaohs briefly reigned before the nine-year-old prince, then called Tutankhaten, took the throne.
Tutankhamun reversed Akhenaten’s reforms early in his reign, reviving worship of the god Amun, restoring Thebes as a religious center and changing the end of his name to reflect royal allegiance to the creator god Amun. He also worked in concert with his powerful advisers Horemheb and Ay—both future pharaohs—to restore Egypt’s stature in the region.
How Did King Tut Die?
There are many theories as to what killed King Tut at the age of 19. He was tall but physically frail, with a crippling bone disease in his clubbed left foot. He is the only pharaoh known to have been depicted seated while engaged in physical activities like archery. Traditional inbreeding in the Egyptian royal family also likely contributed to the boy king’s poor health and early death. DNA tests published in 2010 revealed that Tutankhamun’s parents were brother and sister, and that King Tut’s wife Ankhesenamun was also his half-sister. Their only two daughters were stillborn.
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Because Tutankhamun’s remains revealed a hole in the back of the skull, some historians had concluded that the young king was assassinated, but recent tests suggest that the hole was made during mummification. CT scans in 1995 showed that the king had an infected broken left leg, while DNA from his mummy revealed evidence of multiple malaria infections, all of which may have contributed to his early death.
King Tut: Mummy and Tomb
After he died, Tutankhamun was mummified according to Egyptian religious tradition, which held that royal bodies should be preserved and provisioned for the afterlife. Embalmers removed his organs and wrapped him in resin-soaked bandages, a 24-pound solid gold portrait mask was placed over his head and shoulders and he was laid in a series of nested containers—three golden coffins, a granite sarcophagus and four gilded wooden shrines, the largest of which barely fit into the tomb’s burial chamber.
Because of his tomb’s small size, historians suggest King Tut’s death must have been unexpected and his burial rushed by Ay, who succeeded him as pharaoh. The tomb’s antechambers were packed to the ceiling with more than 5,000 artifacts, including furniture, chariots, clothes, weapons and 130 of the lame king’s walking sticks.
The entrance corridor was apparently looted soon after the burial, but the inner rooms remained sealed. The pharaohs who followed King Tut chose to ignore his reign, as despite his work restoring Amun, Tutankhamun was tainted by the connection to his father’s religious upheavals. Within a few generations, the tomb’s entrance had been clogged with stone debris, built over by workmen’s huts and forgotten.
By the time he discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter had been excavating Egyptian antiquities for three decades. At the time of the discovery, archaeologists believed that all the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings, across the river from ancient Thebes, had already been cleared.
Excitement about the new tomb—the most intact ever found—quickly spread worldwide, igniting a global fascination with the boy pharaoh and the powerful civilization of ancient Egypt. It took Carter and his team a decade to catalogue and empty the tomb.
Grand Egyptian Museum
Artifacts from King Tut’s tomb have toured the world in several blockbuster museum shows, including the worldwide 1972-79 “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibitions. Eight million visitors in seven U.S. cities viewed the exhibition of the golden burial mask and 50 other precious items from the tomb.
Today the most fragile artifacts, including the burial mask, no longer leave Egypt. Tutankhamun’s mummy remains on display within the tomb in the Valley of the Kings in the KV62 chamber, his layered coffins replaced with a climate-controlled glass box. His golden mask is on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but the Tutankhamun collection will eventually move to the Grand Egyptian Museum, or GEM, located near the Pyramids of Giza.