It is one of the ironies of Egyptian history that the best known pharaoh, the only pharaoh whose name is known to the man in the street, is Tutankhamun. But in his lifetime Tutankhamun was one of the most insignificant of all pharaohs, and it was only the discovery of his tomb virtually untouched in 1923 that has propelled him to his position as the best known of all pharaohs.
Tutankhamun was the only son of Akhenaten. Akhenaten had six daughters by his main wife Nefertiti, but he needed a son, so he took a second wife who may possibly have been his half-sister. The son was (possibly) a weakling and did not succeed directly. Akhenaten was succeeded by the mysterious Smenkhkare (who some suspect may have been Nefertiti in disguise) but Smenkhkare soon disappeared with very little trace and was soon replaced by Tutankhamen. Tutankhamen is thought to have been between 5 and 10 at the time of his succession, though since his wife produced two still born foetuses he may have been older. However he died in his tenth regnal year, that is at the age of fifteen or twenty.
It is assumed that he was largely under the control of regents, the Grand Vizier Ay and the general Horemheb. But the most important thing about his reign is that in his third regnal year the capital was moved back from Amarna to Thebes and the process of reversing all Akhenaton’s changes began. But then probably somewhat unexpectedly, he died. To mark the change back to the old religion, he had to be buried at Thebes, in the traditional Valley of the Kings but it seems that no grand tomb had been prepared for him, so a tomb was taken over that had been prepared for some private citizen and in it the young pharaoh was given a sumptuous burial; though probably by Egyptian standards it was a very second rate burial for a pharaoh. There were two half-hearted attempts at robbery, but then the entrance was covered up and soon forgotten. Two centuries later it was completely concealed when Rameses VI built a far grander, or at least far larger tomb above it, and the spoil from the tomb completely covered the entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb so it was lost completely.
However in the early 20th century archaeologists began to wonder that surely there must be a tomb of Tutankhamun, and Howard Carter, who might be described as being a ‘jobbing’ excavator, managed to find a rich patron in the form of Lord Carnarvon to finance his search for the lost tomb. He dug for six years without any luck and Carnarvon decided that enough was enough, but Carter persuaded him to fund one further season of excavation.
And then in November 1922 he struck lucky and found a flight of steps leading down to a door with a cartouche of Tutankhamun. Lord Carnarvon was summoned and when he arrived with his daughter, a hole was made in the door and Carter peered in by candle light; and exclaimed that he had found ‘wonderful things’.
Carter then spent the next ten years of his life clearing the tomb in a virtuoso display of archaeological technique: drawing, photographing, cataloguing every object with a precision that still excites admiration today. When he finished, he had catalogued 5,398 objects.
The tomb consisted of four rooms: the first is the so called antechamber where Carter saw ‘wonderful things’. In fact it is a jumble of furniture, roughly tidied up by the officials who sealed the tomb after the robbers had begun to ransack it. There were several disassembled chariots, three large beds, two large animals and various stools and boxes. The most superb object however was the famous golden throne with an inlay scene on the back of a king being anointed by his wife with perfumed oil. This must have been made early in his reign because at the top is the image of the sun with its rays spreading out in the Amarna style. The cartouche labelling the king originally read: ‘Tutankhaten’ but had been over-written with the revised name of Tutankhamun. It is one of the most famous pieces of Egyptian art.
There was another jumble of furniture in the so-called Annex in the left-hand corner: more furniture, but also a lot of food —numerous wine jars and 116 baskets of fruit in case the pharaoh should feel hungry in the afterlife.
Then at the right-hand (northern) end was the burial chamber itself, dominated by the actual burial shrine. This consisted of four boxes, one inside the other with the actual mummy in the innermost box. The outermost box was huge, and occupied virtually the whole room. It was made of wood covered with gold foil, as was the next box, but the two inner ones were of solid gold. The actual mummy in the innermost box was covered by the solid gold mask of the king, which is perhaps the most famous of all the pieces. It took Carter eight months to dismantle the shrine.
To the north of the burial chamber was a further room called the Treasury where the greatest treasure was a gold shrine containing what was to the Egyptians the most important treasure of all: the king’s embalmed viscera (ie: the stomach, intestines, lungs, and liver). In an undecorated box were two mummified foetuses: DNA suggests they were the miscarriages from his wife.
Tutankhamun was buried with everything he would need in life. Clothing included his underwear and 27 pairs of gloves, some fine sandals, and also his shaving equipment. There were musical instruments, a gaming board, and a coffin with a lock of his grandmother’s hair. Food included beef, bread and two jars of honey. Many of the numerous wine jars had labels with details of the vineyards and even the name of the chief vintner. The king was well prepared for the afterlife.
Above: One of the beds from the tomb with the base of the bed of woven string perfectly preserved.
One cannot but be amazed at the immense wealth in the tomb. Yet by Egyptian standards this was a small tomb for a pharaoh: indeed, some of the goods seem to have been second-hand, perhaps intended originally for one of the queens.
Left: iron dagger from the tomb. But what is iron doing in the Bronze Age? The answer is that it is meteoric iron. Meteors are made of iron and this rare meteor had been found and formed into a dagger – very rare and valuable.
Above: one of the chariots reconstructed.
It had been twice robbed, though the robbers seem to have been particularly keen on the oils and perfumes, though it seems some objects of gold were missing from the treasury. Yet clearly this extravagance must have seemed normal to the Egyptians
Today we are obsessed by inequality and the differences of wealth in our own society, but in comparison with previous eras, the differences are not so great. Indeed we must remember that in Egypt, the Pharaoh not only had immense wealth – indeed, in theory he may have been able to claim that the wealth of the whole country belonged to him, but he had the power of a ruler, the power of life and death, though admittedly we don’t hear of the Pharaohs using this power against his own subjects, however much they indulged in smiting the enemy.
Is this something to do with the difference between a palace-based economy and a market economy? In a market economy, the very logic of the economics promotes competition, and competition propels the division of wealth. The market economy has many advantages, not least in producing a society where wealth is not all concentrated at the top.
But to the historian, the story of Tutankhamen is something of a distraction. For the Egyptians, the real story was how they rejected the reforms of Akhenaten and spent the next 50 years recovering from the trauma Akhenaton had caused. Let us now consider this recovery