Howard Carter discovered King Tut’s tomb in 1922. Part of the frenzy that followed was about the fact that he had been a boy king. The fact that he reigned at such a young age sparked much interest, because the widespread belief, particularly in the United States, is that someone must be of mature age and demonstrate political acuity before ascending to a high office. He or she must undergo years of formal training and take solemn oaths and vows. Anything less can lead to corruption and degradation of the entire country. The thought that a child could lead a nation, particularly one as great as ancient Egypt, seemed absurd.
However, he was far from the only child monarch in history. When Egypt was part of the Roman Empire, Ptolemy XIII became pharaoh when he was only 11 or 12 years old. He became jealous of his sister, Cleopatra, and expelled her from Egypt. In Rome, the emperor Elagabalus may have been as young as 15 years old when he ascended to the throne of the largest empire in history. In China in 1643, a 12-year-old prince named Fulin became emperor and promoted religious tolerance throughout his land, particularly for Buddhists and Catholics.
Elite families have long been known to engage in intermarriage among relatives in order to keep the bloodline pure and keep power within the family. As such, the line tends to become increasingly sick and incompetent to rule, as a result of inbreeding. The children often suffer from deformities and intellectual disabilities. Consider the royals of Europe in the centuries before World War I. Many families, particularly the Hapsburgs, were notorious for inbreeding that led to incompetent rulers that had to have regents rule in their place. The phenomenon has occurred in various areas throughout many historical eras.
Such was the case with King Tutankhamun. In the effort to keep the royal bloodline pure (and possibly for other unknown reasons, as well), pharaohs often married family members. Cleopatra probably had parents who were related and, as a result, she was far less beautiful than people might imagine. At Italy’s Institute for Mummies and Icemen, researchers performed tests on King Tut’s mitochondrial DNA to determine if he, too, had been the product of an incestuous relationship. The tests revealed that his mother was his father’s sister, meaning that his aunt was also his mother and his father was also his uncle.
Another practice that has long been common among royals is that of kings having multiple wives. They often keep a harem of women who are available at their beck and call, in addition to concubines and multiple, legitimate wives to whom they are married. King Solomon, one of the most famous rulers of ancient Israel, had as many as 700 wives and concubines. King Rama of Siam, who was featured in the movie Anna and the King, had over 60 children, most of whom had different mothers. Often, trying to decide the exact parentage of historical figures is difficult because their fathers had multiple wives.
Pharaoh Akhenaten was no exception. His primary wife was Nefertiti, but there is no way to know for sure if she was King Tut’s mother. In fact, Nefertiti was Akhenaten’s cousin, not his sister. His anonymous mother is often referred to as “the younger lady.” However, DNA research suggests that Nefertiti may have actually been King Tut’s mother. How do these results reconcile with the fact that she was Akhenaten’s cousin, not a sister? Perhaps the family had been so inbred by that point that she was genetically as similar to him as if they were siblings.
In the religion of ancient Egypt, the people believed that the pharaohs were from the gods and, often, that they were incarnations of the gods themselves. The name that King Tut received at birth was Tutankhaten, “living image of Aten.” He had many other names, which were also associated with his supposed divinity. One was Kanakht Tutmesut, in honor of Horus, which means, “pleasing of birth,” or, “the strong bull.” Another was Neferhepusegerehtawy Werahamun Nebrdjer, in honor of Nebti. This mouthful of a name means that he brings peace and perfect laws, or that the palace of Amun is great.
In particular, the religion of ancient Egypt positioned the pharaohs as either son of the sun god, Ra, or as manifestations of Ra himself. Worship of Ra and beliefs about him were closely related to those of Aten, the sun god that Tut’s father worshiped to the exclusion of all others. Tut’s name Nebkheperure meant that he was the lord of the manifestation of Ra. However, he disposed of his Aten name, Tutankhaten, when he ascended the throne and brought back the polytheistic religion. He may have distinguished between Ra and Aten and favored Ra, in defiance of his father.
Pop cultural depictions of King Tut often portray a healthy, virile teenage boy who loved nothing more than a good chariot race. This oversight can probably be forgiven, given that the ancient Egyptians also depicted him with grandeur on his golden death mask and in art commemorating him. The fact is that because he was a product of an incestuous relationship between his father and sister (or possibly his cousin who was so inbred that she might have also been his sister), he had many deformities. Additionally, he probably had severe malaria, which exacerbated his physical problems.
The fact is that King Tut probably never rode in a chariot; he was perhaps unable to. He had scoliosis and a disfigured foot, which probably kept him from being able to walk on his own and put him in immense pain. He probably also had very slim hips, an overbite, and pretty bad epilepsy. While the ancient Egyptians characterized King Tut as the grandiose son of a god, in real life, he probably wasn’t handsome. He probably spent most of his short life in incredible pain, due to the deformities that he inherited as a result of his family’s inbreeding.
When Howard Carter and his team of investigators discovered King Tut’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, one thing that they found was over 100 canes and walking sticks. They also found stools, which they presumed the king had used to shoot a bow and arrow. These finds were particularly surprising, given the vast amounts of treasure that they also unearthed there. What would a virile boy who reigned as one of Egypt’s greatest pharaohs possibly use these implements, usually reserved for the aged, for? Could they have maybe been placed in the wrong tomb or served as a memento of someone in his family?
It turns out that King Tut probably used the various handicap implements himself. His slender hips would have made his body largely incapable of supporting itself. Coupled with his scoliosis and severely damaged foot, he probably was unable to walk on his own. Only in recent years, when technology advanced to the point where scans performed on his mummy revealed the extent of his deformities, were these problems discovered. Carsten Putsch, a geneticist who helped work on King Tut’s mummy, said, “Picture instead a frail, weak boy who had a bit of a club foot and who needed a cane to walk.”
King Tut ascended to the throne when he was only 9 or 10 years old and died when he was probably about 19. His reign was relatively short, lasting only ten years at the most. He probably was not a great military general, given the deformities he inherited, which probably put him in immense pain and kept him from ever riding in a chariot. There were some small military campaigns fought against the Hittites, the archrival of the ancient Egyptians, but other than that, the reign of King Tut was reasonably uneventful. It was almost entirely unremarkable.
Usually, history remembers kings and pharaohs who fought great battles and made huge conquests. King Tut probably didn’t do any of those things, yet he is one of the most recognizable royals in all of history. What he did that was so remarkable is he restored the polytheistic worship that his father had previously abolished. He had people rebuild temples and priesthoods restored so that the gods would not abandon the people, as they had feared. In doing so, Tut restored the ma’at, or universal harmony, of his kingdom, realigning it with the land of the gods and bringing it back into spiritual balance and harmony.
Ankhesenamun, whose name means “her life is Amun,” was the daughter of Nefertiti and Akhenaten, making her the half-sister, cousin, and possibly blood sister of King Tut. She also became his wife when he ascended to the throne. He was ten years old at the most, and she was probably only 13. By marrying his sister, he was able to keep the pure bloodline of the gods within the royal family. Because of the inbreeding in the family, the child bride Ankhesenamun probably had some pretty severe deformities, just like her husband. Together, they ruled Egypt while dealing with their own health problems.
Ankhesenamun’s life was probably marred by grief and tragedy. Evidence suggests that Akhenaten may have tried to sire children through his daughters, including Ankhesenamun. After her husband died at a very young age, she was left as a bereaved widow with no heir to rule the kingdom. She may have gone on to marry her maternal grandfather, a man named Ay, who ruled Egypt after the death of King Tut. Some researchers had suggested that she may have actually been married to her father before his death, which would have happened when she was about ten. The problems and challenges associated with incest and inbreeding marked her entire life.
12. Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun’s Children Died at Birth
In addition to immense treasure and walking canes, the team that discovered King Tut’s tomb also found tiny coffins that held the mummies of two infant daughters, who may have been twins. They were the children of King Tut and Ankhesenamun, and both probably died at birth. Analyses revealed that one of the girls probably had a deformity called Sprengel’s deformity, which occurs in utero when the shoulder blades fail to align correctly. It is commonly present in children who are also born with spina bifida, scoliosis, fused ribs, and other problems. Had the girl lived, she probably would have been in immense pain.
As frequently happens in royal lines that have undergone severe inbreeding over long periods, the physical challenges that get passed down led to King Tut dying without an heir. Having siblings for parents, who were probably themselves the product of inbreeding, and marrying his own sister most likely led to the girls being stillborn and with severe deformities. When he died, the throne passed to his advisor, who was probably also his grandfather, a man named Ay. He reigned briefly and was followed by Horemheb. After Horemheb, the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt came to an end. It may have lasted longer without the inbreeding.
When King Tut’s father, Akhenaten, died, the boy was only about seven years old, too young to take the throne. Some researchers believe that this interim period, between when he inherited the throne and actually ascended to it, may have been when Queen Nefertiti, the wife of Akhenaten, reigned as one of Egypt’s only female pharaohs. When King Tut ascended to the throne at the age of nine or ten, he was still too young to be able to make important decisions. While Nefertiti probably provided guidance in political affairs, he also had two influential advisors, Horemheb and Ay.
Ay was the grand vizier and had long been in the service of Egypt’s pharaohs. His father may have served in the court of Amenhotep III, and Ay himself probably served as a priest before moving to the royal court. He was perhaps the father of Nefertiti, making him the grandfather of both King Tut and his wife. He succeeded to the throne following the death of his grandson. Horemheb was a commander of the Egyptian army and took the throne after the death of Ay. Some suggest that Horemheb was the person that King Tut had designated to succeed him.
For many years, enthusiasts of the boy king speculated and theorized as to what may have killed him. Some theories were more dramatic, suggesting murder and intrigue within the royal court. Perhaps he was murdered by someone who – perhaps Ay or Horemheb – was jealous of the throne and wanted to seize it for himself (or herself). Maybe someone who did not approve of his religious reforms and wanted a continuance of Tut’s father’s monotheistic worship of Ra rather than a return of polytheism. Perhaps the boy king was poisoned or struck on the head.
New studies show that the truth behind his death is far less dramatic than murder. King Tut’s legs proved to be the bane of his short life. He was unable to walk without assistance due to slender hips, scoliosis, and a deformed foot. To make the story worse, he probably died of a broken leg. His inbred heritage had most likely weakened his immune system so that it was unable to fight off what may have been a basic case of malaria, common to ancient Egypt, which set in after he broke his leg. But how did he break his leg? Perhaps someone pushed him, knowing that the injury would prove to be lethal.
9. But King Tut May Have Died In A Chariot Accident
The story about Egypt’s great boy king, who restored the religion of ancient Egypt and is today one of the most iconic figures of ancient Egyptian history, dying from a broken leg is a bit too anticlimactic. If he did perish from a broken leg, then there has to be some dramatic story behind how it got broken in the first place. Many theorists believe that he died in a chariot accident. The number of broken bones that he sustained at the time of his death suggests that he may have been run over by a chariot after falling out of it.
However, the state of King Tut’s health, a result of his inbreeding, suggests that he may not have even been able to get into a chariot. A “virtual autopsy” that researchers performed on his mummy in 2014, at Italy’s Institute for Mummies and Icemen, showed that the many broken bones probably occurred shortly after his death during the process of mummification. His bones may have been so weak that they broke quite easily after death. The king may have already suffered from malaria before the accident that broke his leg and could not fight off what may have otherwise been a simple infection.
Howard Carter was an Egyptologist when Egypt was a protectorate of the British Empire. He had worked in Egypt for 31 years and, in 1922, was under the sponsorship of Lord Carnarvon. In 1917, when World War I came to an end, he began excavations in the Valley of the Kings. He was looking for a tomb that he wasn’t sure even existed, a boy king who ruled after the death of Akhenaten. On November 4, 1922, Carter and his team found a stone step that had been carved into a rock. They continued digging and discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamun.
The tomb had not been disturbed for 3000 years. When Carter first opened the door, a gust of hot air – 3000-year-old air – rushed out. What he found on the other side was an almost intact burial chamber. There were life-sized statues of the king, parts of dissembled chariots, golden animals, and other treasures from ancient Egypt. Carter, his team, and especially his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, were dumbfounded by the find. Many tombs had been robbed during the millennia since the pharaohs buried inside them had died. However, the tomb of King Tut was almost pristine.
Possibly the primary reason King Tut’s tomb was intact and not subject to pillaging and grave-robbing is that, following his reign, his successors all but completely purged his memory. His grandfather, Ay, succeeded him as pharaoh and continued with the religious reforms that King Tut had initiated. He remained leading the country in polytheistic worship, particularly the praise of Amun, the king of the gods. His reign lasted only four years, as he was already aged. Horemheb, one of King Tut’s advisors and the commander-in-chief of the Egyptian military, succeeded Ay as pharaoh.
Horemheb, whose name means “festival of Horus,” took the reforms of King Tut and King Ay even further by abolishing the worship of Aten. Images of Akhenaten, which showed him in reverence of the sun god, were defaced or destroyed. Monuments to Aten and Akhenaten were demolished. To make his point clear, Horemheb moved his capital to Memphis from Thebes, which was a city built to Aten. After the reign of Horemheb ended, the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt came to an end. History all but completely forgot King Tut and his father, until Carter discovered Tut’s burial chamber in November of 1922.
Stories about murderous mummies coming back to life and going on murderous rampages are as intriguing and popular as stories about mummies’ tombs being cursed. Following the opening of King Tut’s tomb in 1922, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, helped popularize the idea that a curse lay over any who disturbed the tomb of the boy king. A few months after the tomb was opened, the financier of the expedition, Lord Carnarvon, died somewhat suddenly. Other members of the team also died mysterious deaths, thereby lending credence to the idea that the tomb had, indeed, been cursed.
What Sir Arthur Conan Doyle failed to report is that Lord Carnarvon died of a mosquito-borne illness and had suffered from poor health for the past two decades. Other members of the expedition collectively lived an average of one year longer than the average life expectancy for their social class. Doyle was a notorious trickster, having previously written a book explaining why faeries are real. Howard Carter played into the idea of the curse, probably to keep people away from the tomb so that he could continue excavating it without disturbance. The public ate the story up, and the idea that the monument is cursed persists today.
5. King Tut Inspired a Billboard Hot 100 Novelty Song
In 1978, Steve Martin released a song called “King Tut,” which played on the cultural hype and hysteria about King Tutankhamen. The following year, he performed the song on “Saturday Night Live,” dressed in a costume designed to imitate an Egyptian pharaoh. The single sold over a million copies and later became part of the album “Wild and Crazy Guy.” It hit #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, making it one of the most popular songs of the year. Indeed, the legend of King Tut lives on, 3000 years after his death. Some of the words to the song – which have very little to do with his actual life and reign in history – are as follows:
King Tut (King Tut), Now when he was a young man, He never thought he’d see, People stand in line to see the boy king.
(King Tut) How’d you get so funky? (Funky Tut) Did you do the monkey? Born in Arizona, Moved to Babylonia (King Tut).
(King Tut) Now, if I’d known, They’d line up just to see him, I’d taken all my money, And bought me a museum. (King Tut)
Buried with a donkey (funky Tut), He’s my favorite honkey! Born in Arizona, Moved to Babylonia (King Tut)
Steve Martin was far from the only entertainer to capitalize on the popularity of the boy king in American culture. The creators of the 1960s Batman series turned him into a villain in one of the episodes. “King Tut” was the Yale Egyptologist, William Omaha McElroy. While at work one day, a student threw a rock during a protest and hit him in the head. When the professor regained consciousness, he was convinced that he was King Tut and that Gotham City was actually his ancient capital city of Thebes on the Nile River.
Professor McElroy, er, King Tut, had a mission to recapture his capital city. He did so by holding the mayor’s daughter for ransom, forcing people to drink a juice made from scarab beetles, and uncovering Batman’s secret identity as Bruce Wayne. Professor McElroy really got into character by lacing his speeches with lessons about Egyptian history and invoking the gods and goddesses in ways that may have been historically done by the ancient Egyptians. His sidekicks included a dim-witted “Nefertiti” who served as the voice of the Sphinx monument in Central Park, and “Cleo Patrick,” who spied on Commissioner Gordon.
Tourism is one of the most important sectors of Egypt’s economy. Every year, millions of people flock to the desert country in North Africa to see relics of its ancient pharaohs, such as the Great Sphinx, the pyramids at Giza, and, of course, the tomb of King Tut. As with many other locales that have seen a lot of tourism at their historic sites, Egypt has noticed that tourism has taken its toll on places like the tomb of King Tut. Moisture from the breath of visitors has caused the paint on the walls to flake off. Cracks in the walls have grown.
To preserve the tomb of King Tut for future generations, as well as for researchers so they can continue to carry out studies on the priceless artifacts there, a conservation team based in Madrid, Spain, spent nearly $700,000 creating a replica tomb. Many of the objects were formed with resin. The replica was so lifelike that some Egyptologists burst into tears upon seeing it. Visitors are now directed to the replica tomb, and the authentic tomb has been closed to all unofficial visits. Perhaps King Tut will once again be able to rest in peace.
Upon its discovery in 1922, Egyptologist Howard Carter knew that he had made the find of a lifetime. Today, the tomb of King Tut has still not yet revealed all of its secrets. A thermographic study of the burial chamber, done in 2015, showed slight temperature variations on one of the walls. The finding suggests that there may be another room on the other side of the room, an idea that is consistent with a theory posited by Nicholas Reeves in 2015 that suggests that Queen Nefertiti may be buried in the same area as King Tut.
If further studies prove that there is, in fact, a secret chamber which actually holds the remains of Queen Nefertiti, researchers may find that the tomb was built for the queen. Nobody has yet found the tomb of Queen Nefertiti, who was the primary wife of King Tut’s father and may have been the boy king’s father. She was one of only two women who is known to have ruled during the New Kingdom. Finding her tomb has long been the holy grail of Egyptology, and Nicholas Reeves that the monument might be hiding in plain sight. Just on the other side of a wall of one of the most visited rooms in the world.
King Tut is one of the most iconic figures in all of ancient Egypt, and possibly the most recognizable feature attributed to him is the beard on his gold burial mask. In the year 2014, a group of Egyptians who were handling the cover accidentally broke the beard off of his mask. In the attempt to hide their blunder, they used a plain epoxy adhesive to glue the beard back on. To try to remove some of the adhesive residue, they used sharp instruments, including scalpels. The result was that the priceless beard was scratched.
The team of Egyptian researchers claimed that the beard fell off while they were cleaning it. Others said that it just fell off because it was so old and had been handled so much. Still, they were charged with gross negligence of a national treasure. A German-Egyptian team repaired some of the damage and used beeswax – the adhesive that is customarily used on antiquities – to attach the beard to the mask. Other conservation efforts are in place to help make sure that the priceless treasures of King Tut, now viewed as part of our global heritage, are preserved for future generations to enjoy and appreciate.
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