In 1922, British archaeologist Howard Cater stumbled upon one of the most pristine tombs of an Egyptian Pharaoh ever found.
The tomb of King Tutankhamen.
That discovery because a pop culture sensation and revolutionized our understanding of Ancient Egypt.
Learn more about King Tutankhamen, aka King Tut, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
King Tutankhamen was born in the year 1341 BC, the son of the Pharoah Akhenaten, and was one of the last pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty.
The 18th Dynasty probably had more notable pharaohs that you might have heard of than any other dynasty. This included the Amenhotep, Thutmose, Akhnaten, and the only female rulers in Egyptian history, Hatshepsut and Nefertiti.
To understand the significance of Tutankhamen, it is necessary to understand the man widely considered to be his father, the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhnaten.
Akhnaten completely upended the entire Egyptian social and religious order by introducing monotheism, or something close to monotheism.
Akhnaten abandoned Egyptian polytheism and its collection of gods and replaced it with the worship of an entity he called the Aten.
The Aten was basically the sun, and it was based on the Egyptian god Ra. That in and of itself wasn’t that big of a deal to the Egyptian elite.
However, Akhnaten basically got rid of all the other gods and put all of the focus on the Aten.
He was really into the Aten.
He changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten, which means “Effective for the Aten.” He moved the capital of Egypt to a new city called Amarna, which was dedicated to the Aten. He also named his son at birth Tutankhaten, which means “the living image of the Aten.”
These changes were a lot for the rest of the Egyptian ruling class to digest. Akhnaten disbanded all of the other priesthoods and temples that worshiped other gods and diverted all of their money to his Aten cult.
Needless to say, the priests wanted things to go back to normal.
When Akhnaten died, two rulers either ruled jointly or in very quick succession: Smenkhkare and Nefertiti, who were the son-in-law and wife of Akhnaten.
It is also possible they might simply have served as regents for the young Pharoah, who wasn’t of age yet.
Either way, the young Tutankhaten ascendant to the throne at the age of nine.
His reign was notable for completely undoing all of the massive religious changes made by his father.
His name was changed to Tutankhamun. He moved the capital from Amarna back to Thebes. He brought back the worship of the pantheon of Egyptian gods, reopened all of the old temples, and legalized the priesthoods.
This had been a massive social and cultural whipsaw for Egypt. The powerful class of priests probably influenced the young and impressionable Pharoah to reverse all of his father’s changes.
While Tutankhamun ushered in many large changes to Egyptian society, his rule wasn’t a long one. He died at the age of 19 and was then buried with the full rites of an Egyptian Pharaoh.
However, Tutankhamun’s reversal of religious policy in the 19th century BC is not the reason why most people know about King Tutankhamun today.
For that, we have to fast forward about 3,200 years where we are introduced to Howard Carter.
Carter was a British archaeologist and Egyptologist who had worked in Egypt for years looking for an intact, undiscovered, unplundered tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
The Valley of the Kings is basically a cemetery located outside of Luxor, Egypt, which held the tombs of many Egyptian pharaohs. For a period of about 500 years, from the 16th to the 11th century BC, almost all of the Egyptian rulers were buried in this location.
It isn’t actually that big, and you can easily walk most of it today, with one tomb only being a few meters away from the next tomb.
The location of the tombs was well known, and they were already being plundered by grave robbers just a few centuries after the tombs were constructed.
Carter was one of several British Egyptologists who were looking for a lost royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings. One of his predecessors, Theodore Davis, searched in the valley for a decade and found nothing. He eventually concluded, “I fear the Valley of the Tombs is exhausted.”
Carter began excavating in 1907, but he had to search in another area until 1915 due to not having the rights from the Egyptian government. He finally got permission to search in the Valley of the Kings in 1915.
He searched for years and found nothing. Eventually, his financial sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, threatened to throw in the towel. They agreed that 1922 would be their last season searching for a lost tomb.
By total chance, on November 4th, one of the local waterboys stumbled on a stone, which turned out not to be a stone at all. It was the top stone of a flight of stairs that went down into a tomb.
They had found the antechamber of Tutankhamen’s tomb.
The reason why Tutankhamen’s tomb was so well hidden really was just a matter of chance.
The entrance had been covered with debris that had been carried from a flood, and then it was further covered with debris with the construction of the tombs of Ramses V and VI almost 200 years later.
No one could find it, so no one ever robbed it.
They cleared out of the antechamber and knew that they had stumbled upon something incredible. Just the antechamber was filled with statues and chests. As they documented everything and cleared out the antechamber, they found a sealed door to the tomb.
Carter contacted Lord Carnarvon to tell them about his discovery and invited him to Egypt to be there when they opened up the sealed door.
Carter drilled a small hole in the door to peer inside, and he was able to tell that there was gold.
On November 29, in the presence of representatives of the Egyptian government, they opened the door to the tomb.
It was incredible and unlike anything which had ever been found before. There was another door inside which led to the burial chamber that had the mummy of Tutankhamen himself.
There were 5,398 artifacts found inside the tomb and the antechamber. This included a solid gold coffin, face mask, statues, as well as samples of food and clothing which hadn’t been touched in over 3,000 years.
Many of the items made of organic materials had rotted significantly due to moisture and water leakage into the tomb over the years. Nonetheless, this was the most incredible find in the history of Egyptology.
Word of this discovery soon spread around the world, and the media soon dubbed Tutankhamen: King Tut.
Not surprisingly, there was a legal tussle regarding the ownership of the contents of the tomb. Lord Carnarvon claimed that he at least owned half, but the Egyptian government claimed everything, and to be honest, the contract that Lord Carnarvon signed acknowledged as much.
Lord Carnarvon died just 5 months after the tomb was opened, spawning the legend of the “curse of the pharaohs.” In reality, he had been in ill health for years, and a subsequent study of everyone who entered the tomb showed that they lived beyond average life expectancies.
The next several years were spent documenting and removing the over 5,000 objects. The coffin and mummy were removed in 1925, and the last objects were removed in 1930. Carter worked on cataloging all of the objects until 1932.
Carter died in 1939 of lymphoma at the age of 64.
Interest in King Tut was far from over, however.
The objects found a home at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which, if you ever had a chance to visit, was one of the greatest museums in the world.
In the early 1960s, the Egyptian government began putting some of the King Tut collection on tour as both a source of revenue and cultural promotion.
The first tour, known as Tutankhamun’s Treasures, was on tour from 1961 to 1967. This tour consisted of 34 smaller pieces found in the tomb.
The tour which really boosted the popularity of King Tutankhamen was The Treasures of Tutankhamun tour, which took place from 1972 to 1981. This tour displayed 50 items, including the gold burial mask, which was the
The US exhibit was on display from November 1976 through September 1979 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Over eight million people attended the exhibit, making it one of the most popular museum exhibits in history.
Other traveling exhibits have been on tour almost every year, with the number of items increasing over time. The most recent tour, titled Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh, had 150 items, and it ended in 2021 due to the pandemic.
The majority of the collection can be found at the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza. This museum is the replacement for the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and it is scheduled to open sometime in late 2022.
What did we learn about Tutankhamen himself from his tomb?
Actually, quite a bit.
For starters, he had a problem with his leg. He had a bone disease that resulted in a clubbed left foot. He probably had difficulty walking, and this is confirmed by the artwork which was discovered that shows him engaging in activities in a sitting position. No other pharaoh is depicted this way.
DNA analysis was done on his mummy, and it was revealed that his mother and father were brother and sister, which might have had something to do with his health condition.
It was also revealed that he had an overbite, a slightly cleft pallet, and mild scoliosis.
The cause of death is unknown, but it appears he had a broken leg that was infected, and that might have been what did him in.
The discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb was arguably the greatest archeological discovery of the 20th century. Next to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, it was probably the greatest advance in our knowledge of Ancient Egypt.
The discovery turned what was a rather minor, unknown Egyptian Pharoah, into the best-known Pharoah in the world.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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