The Boy King Behind the Mask: Tutankhamun’s Life and Legacy
The incredible golden mask with its dark blue stripes of lapis lazuli and serious young face is probably the most famous ancient artifact in the world. It is instantly recognizable, and the iconic death mask has ensured millions of people remember the name of the man whose mummy it adorned – Tutankhamun.
He was a pharaoh of Egypt who ruled between approximately 1332 BC and 1323 BC ascending the throne at only nine years of age. But his youth and relatively short time as pharaoh belie the significance of his reign.
The 18th Dynasty and the New Kingdom
The era known to many simply as “Ancient Egypt” spanned more than 5000 years, beginning in around 5500 BC and ending as part of the Roman Empire around 641 AD. The extraordinary length of time the ancient Egyptian civilization thrived means that despite becoming pharaoh in 1332 BC, Tutankhamun was almost as close to us as he was to the start of the ancient Egyptian civilization.
As it covered so many thousands of years, the culture of ancient Egypt evolved over time. The great pyramids began as mastaba tombs, and mummies were originally a natural result of the climate.
Tutankhamun was a part of the 18th Dynasty, who ruled during the Egyptian New Kingdom, which is also known as the Egyptian Empire. The New Kingdom spanned the 16th-11th centuries BC, and covered the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties. The period is described as the most prosperous time in ancient Egyptian history, and it marked the zenith of the civilizations power.
The 18th dynasty is particularly interesting to many people as some of the pharaohs who are best known today were a part of it. Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh was a member of the 18th dynasty, along with Tutankhamun’s father Akhenaten and his infamous wife Nefertiti.
Akhenaten and Tutankhaten
Tutankhamun was originally named Tutankhaten which meant “living image of the god Aten”. The name was chosen by his father Akhenaten, who had originally reigned as Amenhotep IV.
Akhenaten abandoned the traditional Egyptian deities and adopted a monotheistic religion, worshipping the solar deity Aten. He attempted to change the culture of Egypt and his methods and beliefs were widely unpopular. He removed references to the old gods, and in particular the god Amun. Monuments were altered and many members of the Egyptian nobility changed their names to remove any references to Amun.
Pharaoh Akhenaten (center) and his family worshiping the god Aten. ( BrightRaven / Public Domain )
After his death , people returned to the old polytheistic practices. His name was stricken from the record of pharaohs and his monuments and statues were destroyed.
It is for this reason that Tutankhamun changed his name from “living image of the god Aten” to “living image of the god Amun”. It was important that people did not associate him with the wildly unpopular changes made by his father, and that they saw him as different to the pharaoh they had largely resented.
Tutankhamun - The Boy King
Tutankhamun was only nine years old when he became pharaoh. His young age and death at only 19 has led to him being known as “The Boy King”.
His mother and father were either siblings or cousins, but to consolidate power and ensure the dynasty remained pure, Tutankhamun was married to one of his own siblings when he became pharaoh. His wife, Ankhesenamun, had originally been married to their father.
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Tutankhamun and his wife Ankhesenamun hunting in the swamps and taking a walk. (Ali Eminov / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Even though their marriage was arranged, evidence points to a happy marriage with depictions of the king receiving gifts from his wife. They had no living heirs at the time of Tutankhamun’s death, but they had two stillborn daughters. Generations of inbreeding had finally resulted in the inability to produce viable children.
As a ruler, Tutankhamun was well liked. This may have stemmed from the intense dislike people had of his father, but the young king would probably have been popular regardless. Although many pharaohs were worshipped as gods after their death, Tutankhamun was venerated in this way while he was still alive.
Many of the decisions made under Tutankhamun were made by his overseer (and eventual successor) Ay. The country was weak politically and economically after 12 years under Akhenaten and Tutankhamun was able to restore Egypt to its former glory.
Ay performing the opening of the mouth ceremony for Tutankhamun, scene from Tutankhamun's tomb. (Nikola Smolenski / Public Domain )
He commissioned a number of grand building projects, including the shrewd choice of a large temple to the god Amun – a large public display that he was abandoning the beliefs his father had forced on the Egyptian people.
Tutankhamun’s Poor Health
It wasn’t just his children who were suffering from the effects of inbreeding – Tutankhamun himself was also plagued with a number of health problems. Despite his youth, he was forced to walk with a cane due to a necrosis in the bones of his left foot.
He had a rare genetic disorder called Klippel-Feil Syndrome which meant that several bones in his neck were fused and he had limited movement of the head and neck. He had the large overbite characteristic of his family and a twisted spine caused by scoliosis. He had a cleft palate and genetic testing has revealed he must have been afflicted by malaria at some point.
The boy king should have been a symbol of the strength of Egypt and the New Kingdom. Instead, he was weak and unable to produce an heir. But in the end, it was not one of the many health problems which ended his life – it was a tragic accident.
For many years the cause of Tutankhamun’s death remained a mystery. Unlike many pharaohs and ancient Egyptian nobility, there are no surviving records of what killed of the young pharaoh. Archaeologists traditionally ascribed his death to a blow to the head and many believed he was murdered. This theory stemmed from X-rays showing fragments of bone in his skull, but these were actually caused by damage done when his gold mask was pried unceremoniously from his mummy in the 1920s.
This theory changed in 2005 when a team of scientists conducted CT scans which revealed he had suffered a massive fracture to his leg shortly before his death. The fracture had become infected, and thousands of years before the discovery of antibiotics, an infection such as this was a death sentence. Even if he did not succumb to the infection itself, his weakened immune system would not have been able to fight off an illness such as pneumonia or the malaria which he is now known to have had.
His genetic problems probably made him more prone to injuries such as broken bones and it meant he was unable to fight in any of the many wars which took place during his reign. But as a young man, of age 19, he was keen to take part in the activities popular among men of his age at the time.
It is believed by many archaeologists today that the fracture which likely killed him was a result of an accident during a chariot race . They argue the injuries are consistent with a crash which resulted in him being crushed on one side.
Experts believe that King Tutankhamun died as the result of a chariot accident. ( Max Ferrero / Adobe Stock)
For such an extraordinary man with an assortment of health problems, it was a rather unremarkable way to go. Perhaps this is the reason conspiracies about murder and curses have remained even when evidence now points elsewhere.
Tutankhamun’s Burial and Re-Discovery
Of course, the most famous thing about Tutankhamun is his extremely well preserved tomb. Saved from tomb raiders for thousands of years, it was a literal treasure trove when it was discovered by the British archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter in 1922.
His tomb was atypically small for a pharaoh , which has been attributed to the sudden and unexpected nature of his death at such a young age. It was probably a tomb which had been built for one of his female relatives or an Egyptian noble. Custom dictated a period of 70 days between death and burial, and with such little time to finish and prepare a grander tomb, it would have been necessary to appropriate a tomb intended for someone else to fulfill the tradition.
King Tutankhamun in his stone sarcophagus in his underground tomb in the famed Valley of the Kings in Luxor. (Nasser Nouri / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
In the months after his burial, the tomb was broken into at least twice and a number of perishable items were taken at this time. But the tomb and its treasures were saved from later pillaging as it was eventually buried by the rubble of other tombs and its location was lost over time.
The people who broke into his tomb in the months after his death may have taken perishables, but they left 5398 items intact. Ancient Egyptians believed that the dead needed to be buried with the items they would need in the afterlife. This meant that royalty was buried with incredible displays of their wealth.
Among the items in Tutankhamun’s tomb was the infamous golden face mask and gold coffin, but also more practical items such as bows for archery, thrones, an alabaster chalice known as the Wishing Cup , food, wine, and even fresh linen underwear.
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Among Tutankhamun's grave goods was an alabaster chalice known as the Wishing Cup. (Ann Wuyts / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
There were so many items that it took a decade to catalog them all, and as modern analytical techniques have improved, some of the items have proven even more special than once thought. An iron dagger with an elaborately decorated gold sheath is now known to have been constructed of meteorite.
Many of the items in the tomb were foreign in origin – the meteorite dagger included – which is an indication of how relations with other countries improved a great deal during Tutankhamun’s reign. Modern scholars believe that as much as 80% of the goods in Tutankhamun’s tomb were originally intended for someone else and many of them believe they were originally intended for his stepmother Nefertiti.
Astonishingly, this includes the golden mask which has become such an iconic symbol of Tutankhamun. A cartouche originally on the mask read Ankhkheperure mery-Neferkheperure (Ankhkheperure beloved of Akhenaten), a title used by Nefertiti who became known as Ankhkheperure after her husband’s death.
The Boy King - Tutankhamun’s Legacy
Tutankhamun is the name nearly everyone would give first if asked to name an ancient Egyptian, but this is down to the fact his tomb was so well preserved. Many other tombs would have had as many grand artifacts originally, but they were stolen over the years and the tomb of Tutankhamun became the epitome of lavish ancient Egyptian burial practices.
His short reign and young age meant that for ancient Egyptians he was rather insignificant – in particular in the shadow of his despotic father and the radical change he sought to bring to Egypt. But the discovery of his tomb came at the height of Egyptomania and people were hungry for the fantastic artifacts that the tomb delivered. The discovery made headlines and was immortalized in popular culture of the time in both songs and works of fiction.
But the incredible number and quality of the grave goods was not the only thing which captured the public’s imagination as the press reported on a so called “ Curse of the Pharaohs ” which was fueled by the death of Lord Canarvon (the exceptionally wealthy British Earl who funded Carter’s expedition) five months after the tomb was discovered.
On Left – Howard Carter and associates opening the shrine doors of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber. On Right – The death of Lord Carnarvon after the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb resulted in many curse stories in the press. (Left, Public Domain ; Right, Public Domain )
The legend of the curse, which was supposed to affect all those who were involved in the discovery and excavation of the tomb, is still believed by some people today, although only 8 of the 58 people involved in the expedition died within the following decade. The last survivor was Lord Canarvon’s daughter, who lived until 1980.
Perhaps the most significant lasting legacy of Tutankhamun’s time as pharaoh is the passion it has sparked in generations of visitors to see the artifacts from his tomb in the decades since their discovery. The artifacts are some of the most traveled in the world, and the Treasures of Tutankhamun’s Tomb exhibition which was at the British Museum between 1972 and 1979 had more than 1.6 million visitors with queues of up to 8 hours to see the exhibition.
Since then, the treasures have toured the globe and millions more people have traveled to see them in person. Of all the Egyptian pharaohs, Tutankhamun achieved something that most of those considered more successful at the time did not – his name is known by millions of people thousands of years after his death.
Top image: Mask of pharaoh Tutankhamun. Source: Dieter Hawlan / Adobe Stock.
Booth, C. 2007. The Boy Behind the Mask: Meeting the Real Tutankhamun . Oneworld.
Clayton, P. 2006. Chronicle of the Pharaohs . Thames and Hudson.
Griggs, M-B. 2013. New Theory: King Tut Died in a Chariot Crash . [Online] Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/new-theory-king-tut-died-in-a-chariot-crash-180947562/
Historyextra. Date Unknown. What killed Tutankhamun. [Online] Available at: https://www.historyextra.com/period/ancient-egypt/what-killed-tutankhamun-tutankhamen-death-died-murdered-inbred-pharoah-egyptian-howard-carter/
Lovgren, S. Date unknown. King Tut Died From Broken Leg, Not Murder, Scientists Conclude . [Online] Available at: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/12/king-tut-died-from-broken-leg--not-murder--scientists-conclude/
Morkot, R. 2015. A Short History of New Kingdom Egypt . Tauris.
Walsh, D. 2012. King Tut’s Dagger Made from ‘Iron From Sky’, Researchers Say . [Online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/03/world/middleeast/king-tuts-dagger-made-of-iron-from-the-sky-researchers-say.html
Excellent article, thanks.
One disturbing development over the last few years is the effort to make Tutankhamun’s hypothetical appearance as unsightly as possible, for whatever purpose this may serve. People have been entranced by the beauty of his mask and his image for generations, and objectively considered, there are portraits of him progressing from childhood to adulthood, all easily identified as the same person but just at different ages. The tradition of Egyptian art was to portray the individual’s countenance realistically, even if they were not what we would consider ‘handsome’ or ‘beautiful’ and there are many examples which testify to this.
This portrait of Tut as a child was created during the reign of Akhnaten:
One may suggest that the severe and exaggerated portraits of Akhnaten argue against this, but the balance of his reign of only about 12 years after moving to Akhetaten was a brief unique artistic period in Egyptian history, and this dramatic artistic style was seemingly limited to him and his daughters in certain representations.
There was also a recent documentary which suggested that Tuthankhamun was more active than is generally thought and that he may have actually been injured, and died, while on a campaign outside the borders of Egypt. The sheer number of weapons in his tomb, artistic representation of him in military activities, and the evidence that he was temporarily and inexpertly embalmed led the researchers to conclude he died while away.
But of course, sadly, we’ll never know for certain ...