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Tutankhamun's Borrowed Tomb and Recycled Treasure

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A canopic miniature coffin in the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum in 1972.

Undoubtedly the most famous archaeological find in history was the intact tomb of the Egyptian 'Boy King' Pharaoh Tutankhamun, including the priceless death mask that has come to represent the ancient Egyptian culture in our society today.

This Entry is about the political intrigue and social change during Tutankhamun's life and the resulting power struggle to gain control of Egypt's mighty empire after his death. Experts now know that approximately 80% of the contents of the borrowed tomb in which Tutankhamun was buried did not belong to him in life.

God Worship and Protection

In ancient Egyptian society all daily routine revolved around the worship of the gods and keeping them happy, in order to maintain the daily lives of the people. For each aspect of life, they had a god: childbirth, the flooding of the Nile and finally, death. The ancient Egyptians revered their dead and looked upon the act of death as the next stage of their journey to immortality.

It was the duty of the next pharaoh to supervise the funeral of the previous one. Mummification, the ancient Egyptian preferred method of dealing with mortal remains, was an important part of the ritual. This took 70 days, so it was a long, slow process. The viscera of the deceased were placed in four Canopic jars, each topped by a stopper with a god image charged with the duty of looking after those particular organs. These sacred jars were then buried with the body.

Pharaoh Tutankhamun's lungs were placed in a Canopic jar which had a hieroglyphic inscription inside declaring that the remains belonged to Pharaoh Smenkhkare (who was possibly Nefertiti). Such a mistake would never have been made by the craftsman, so this smacks of desecration of the highest degree. Not only were the golden treasures of the Amarna period plundered, but the bodily remains of its queen were discarded, and Tutankhamun's vital organs were stored in second-hand jars.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti

When Tutankhamun was born, his father, Pharaoh Akhenaten, was ruler of all Egypt. In ancient Egyptian society it wasn't unusual for a complete name-change when circumstances altered; Akhenaten had been born Amenhotep (and crowned Amenhotep IV) but he adopted the name 'aten' to reflect his religious views after he became pharaoh.

Akhenaten wasn't that popular; he wrought too much change in his time of power. Up to his ascension, Egyptians had worshipped a pantheon of gods and each had their own purpose. Akhenaten changed all that by establishing monotheism, declaring the Aten (the sun disc) the only god to be worshipped. Not only that, but he decreed that all worship of the god Aten should take place through the king, which put most of the priests out of a job. The priests didn't like this, and in the social pecking order of the time, priests had a lot of power.

When Akhenaten commanded that a new city should be built upon virgin land in honour of this new, all-powerful god, this made him even more unpopular. Imagine the next Mayor of London deciding that the Government had to be relocated somewhere up north because he wanted to start a new religion, and you're getting the gist. But the people worshipped their pharaoh as a living representation of a god, and did as they were commanded. The new city, Akhetaten, (now called 'Amarna'), was built to Akhenaten's specifications within three years, and the royal court moved there.

Sharing Akhenaten's throne was his beloved wife Nefertiti, whose name translates to 'a beautiful woman has arrived'. During her marriage, the queen changed her name to Neferneferuaten-Nefertiti, co-ruling with Akhenaten and attaining the power and status of a pharaoh herself. She changed her name again to Ankhkheperure Neferneferuaten, and many historians believe she then ruled solely as Pharaoh Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare after her husband's death.


The throne of Egypt passed on through the female line, so for the sake of keeping it in the family, inter-marrying was positively encouraged. Incestuous relationships introduced their own tragedies as we shall see. Because Nefertiti as chief royal wife had produced six daughters but no male child, a related male had to be found to arrange a marriage to one of the daughters to ensure the royal bloodline remained pure. Akhenaten had fathered a son, Tutankhaten1, with Kiya, a lesser wife, who some Egyptologists believe was Queen Tiy2, which would make her Tutankhamun's mother and grandmother. Another belief was that Tutankhamun's mother was one of Akhenaten's sisters.

From depictions on the walls of the royal tomb at Akhetaten, Kiya died during his birth, or just after. There is an image of Nefertiti grieving which gives us a clue that Kiya was a relative of hers. A woman named Miya is shown on the walls of the young prince's bedroom bestowing love upon him; she was possibly his 'wet nurse' or nanny. Tutankhaten was married to his half-sister, Nefertiti's daughter Ankhesenpa'aten3 and later on, she became his queen.

Pharaoh Smenkhkare

Akhenaten ruled for 12 years; when he died Pharaoh Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare tried to continue the new order but within a couple of years she too was dead.

Pharaoh Tutankhaten

At the age of nine Tutankhaten was pronounced pharaoh of Upper and Lower Egypt with his not-much-older bride as his sister-queen. The power behind the throne was in the hands of the prime minister, Akhenaten's vizier, Ay, who some historians think was Nefertiti's father.

Vizier Ay - Royal Regent

Akhenaten was denounced as a heretic - his new order crumbled and his dream city Akhetaten was abandoned. When Ay organised the royal family's move back to Waset4, the bodies of Akhenaten and Nefertiti would have been disinterred to be reburied in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes. The Akhetaten treasures which were buried along with Akhenaten and Nefertiti would also have to be moved. Akhenaten's horribly disfigured (his face had been smashed in) mummified remains were discovered in cave KV55 (in the Valley of the Kings) along with the mummy of his mother Queen Tiy, but there was no sign of the Akhetaten treasure.

With Akhenaten and Nefertiti out of the way and children sitting on the throne, regent Ay was a very powerful figure indeed. During his ten-year 'reign' as regent, Ay no doubt made himself an even more popular figure by restoring the worship of the old gods.

Queen Ankhesenamun

All her life, Tutankhamun's queen Ankhesenamun would have regarded her grandfather, Ay, as a servant, rather than a member of the family. Although the rank of vizier was a high one, to the royal family his job was to do their bidding. The young age of the rulers reversed that situation; relieved of the burden of decision-making they no doubt led privileged, cosseted lives.

While Tutankhaten was young enough for a regent (Ay) to control the power, the royal family were easily manipulable and therefore safe. Tutankhaten changed his name to Tutankhamun5 Nebkheperure and his wife's name to Ankhesenamun. The 'amun' in their names was in honour of the chief god of the old pantheon, Amun. The priests were happy because they got their old power back and no doubt the people were happy just to have order restored. Queen Ankhesenamun gave birth to two stillborn babies; we know this because their mummified remains were found in tiny coffins in Tutankhamun's tomb.

With no heirs, but the pharaoh not yet old enough for tomb-building to begin, there was nothing to panic about yet. It's possible other wives were being lined up for Tutankhamun to perpetuate the royal bloodline, but none reached fruition that we know of. When Tutankhamun reached the age of 18 and started making his own decisions, the balance of power started to swing away from the vizier-regent Ay. Having practically ruled Egypt for ten years, this must have gone down like a lead balloon.


Within a year of Tutankhamun assuming control, he was dead. We don't know for sure whether he died after a hunting accident, or if he was assassinated. Some claim he died from an infection following breaking a leg during chariot racing, others say there was a hole in his skull indicating that he was struck from behind. If he was murdered, the prime suspect has got to be Ay - he had the most to gain from such a sacrilegious act, and he also had unrivalled access to the royal sanctuary and the person of the Pharaoh (who would have a hefty quota of personal bodyguards).

It was possibly Ankhesenamun who wrote to the King of the Hittites (Egypt's enemies) asking him to send one of his sons for her to marry - a sort of mail order male bride - and co-rule Egypt with. As a consort, she was not allowed to rule alone and her only living male relative was Ay, her maternal grandfather. The Hittite letter mentioned marriage to a prince to save her from the indignity of having to marry a servant. Although the offer was accepted, the unfortunate groom, Prince Zananza, was ambushed on the journey and murdered. The time was now right for Ay to seize control and claim what he no doubt thought was rightfully his. After a decade of regency there was none to defy him or even stand against him. He set about organising Tutankhamun's funeral and arranging his own marriage to the widowed Queen Ankhesenamun.

Ay's Tomb

Because Tutankhamun was so young, his tomb-building had not commenced. Protocol decreed that the pharaoh had to be buried in a royal tomb, but none was available. Ay's age isn't known, but he would have been making plans for his own journey into the afterlife for a good few decades. With his high-profile job, he no doubt could afford to have his own tomb, something beyond the means of ordinary Egyptians. In fact only the royal family and upper classes were mummified, it was such an expensive process that not-so-well-off relatives of the deceased usually opted for something cheaper, like a nicely decorated coffin.

Ay most likely volunteered his own intended tomb for the pharaoh's final resting place; there certainly wasn't time to build a royal tomb worthy of a king in the allotted 70-day time span. Tutankhamun's tomb is very small compared to other royal tombs; with only four rooms there was hardly space to contain all the things they packed into it. A representation of Ay performing the 'opening of the mouth ceremony' is shown on the north wall in Tutankhamun's tomb.

We know Ankhesenamun attended Tutankhamun's funeral as his widow because flowers from her were placed between the strips of linen wrapping his body. Their stillborn children's sarcophagi were placed in the inner sanctuary with his body, and this room was filled with his personal belongings. That is probably where Ankhesenamun's participation ended, from then on her fate was sealed.

The Contents of the Tomb

When Tutankhamun died, he had not amassed enough wealth to support a royal funeral, but protocol decreed that he should have one. Ay, with an eye on becoming pharaoh himself, presided over the king's burial and filled the donated tomb with treasure 'borrowed' from the reburied makeshift graves of two previous pharaohs, Tutankhamun's father Akhenaten and step-mother (and also mother-in-law) Nefertiti.

Tutankhamun's mummy was enclosed within four coffins; one of these was solid gold and the 'face' was not that of the boy king, but closely resembles that of his father Akhenaten. The third outer coffin had been crafted for a female pharaoh (undoubtedly Nefertiti). The magnificent gold death mask, which did reflect Tutankhamun's image, had been reworked, so it obviously belonged to a previous ruler. The original face had been sheared off and a new face-plate bolted in place. This blatant recycling was unheard of, and sacrilegious in the extreme.

Pharaoh Ay

For all the plotting, planning and scheming, Ay was crowned pharaoh upon his marriage to Tutankhamun's widow Ankhesenamun. Her fate after this is unknown, but they had no children and within a few years Pharaoh Ay had lost his throne to Horemheb, an army officer whose reign ended the 18th Dynasty.

Howard Carter's Discovery

In 1922 when Tutankhamun's sealed tomb was entered for the first time in 33 centuries, the boy king's last resting place was excavated. His intact mummified body was defiled after archaeologist Howard Carter's team lifted the last coffin lid; Carter took hold of the death mask and attempted to remove it. Because it had been stuck onto the mummy's head with resin, the pressure snapped the king's neck and decapitated him. After an autopsy some three years later, the linen wrappings were replaced and the body returned to the tomb where it still lies.

It took Howard Carter a decade to catalogue all the fabulous treasures removed from the tomb, numbering 5,398 items in total. Thanks to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, scholars like Jean-Fran├žois Champollion were able to eventually decipher hieroglyphs, and Egyptologists have been able to translate the dedications and commemorations on the items crammed into Tutankhamun's tomb. Some referred to other pharaohs, others were meant for a female ruler. The most personal items were in the inner sanctuary with his body. Belongings known to be his depicted daily life in the royal court, like Ankhesenamun anointing her husband's skin with aromatic oils, the royal couple playing Senet, and the king hunting. In total, just one in five of the treasures of Tutankhamun's tomb related to him.

Grave Robbing and Immortality

In ancient Egypt grave robbers were brave souls indeed: if caught the punishment was torture until death. Ay was the ultimate politician; he had the brains to manipulate the situation to his advantage while making sure he took none of the blame. Carter did his tomb raiding in the name of archaeology, but thanks to the reused treasure, the immortality of the insignificant boy king Tutankhamun is assured - his name will live forever.

1Meaning: 'Living image of Aten'.2Queen Tiy was the wife of Amenhotep III and the mother of Akhenaten. Some speculate that she married Akhenaten (she is described as 'Great Wife and Mother of the King') and the result of the union was Smenkhkare or Tutankhamun.3Meaning: 'Living through the god Aten'.4We know Waset by the Greek name Thebes which was on the east bank of the Nile, 500 km south of modern Cairo, the capital of Egypt. Luxor now stands where Thebes once was.5Meaning: 'The living image of the god Amun'.

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