Early in the morning of 4 November 1922, in the Valley of the Kings, Egyptian workers uncovered a step cut into the valley floor. Two days later, clearance revealed a descending staircase, terminating at a rubble wall that blocked further access. This was the moment for which the British archaeologist Howard Carter, director of the expedition, and his patron Lord Carnarvon – or, more accurately, their hundreds of Egyptian workers – had been toiling for 15 long years in the heat and dust of Egypt. Carter immediately sent a telegram to Carnarvon, who was some 2,500 miles away at his stately home in southern England: ‘At last have made wonderful discovery in Valley. A magnificent tomb with seals intact. Re-covered same for your arrival. Congratulations.’ When Carnarvon arrived in Luxor 17 days later, he and Carter proceeded to clear the blocking wall and the corridor beyond. Eventually, just after 4 o’clock in the afternoon of 26 November, the archaeologist and the aristocrat gained access to the royal tomb itself. Peering into the darkness with a lighted candle, Carter could not believe his eyes. When Carnarvon, unable to bear the suspense any longer, asked: ‘Can you see anything?’ Carter’s now-famous reply came back: ‘Yes, yes, wonderful things.’
What Carter and Carnarvon had discovered was, in every sense, a treasure trove, a hoard of precious objects fit for a king. In total, the grave goods interred with Tutankhamun numbered more than 5,000 separate objects. They range from the mundane (the boy-king’s loincloth, shaving equipment, and first-aid kit) to the highly symbolic (his leopard-skin cloak, wooden paddles to row him to the afterlife, and a ritual torch shaped like the hieroglyph for ‘life’). There are poignant objects with personal, family resonance (the king’s mummified, stillborn children, and a lock of his grandmother’s hair); food and drink for the next world (chickpeas and lentils, joints of meat, a basket of dates, vintage wine from the royal vineyards). Practical tools (a scribal palette, cubit rod, and chisels) were buried side by side with weapons (bows and arrows, fighting sticks, scimitars, leather scale armour, and the king’s prized chariots). Precious objects (a linen glove, a blue-glass headrest, gold and silver staffs) demonstrate the sophistication of ancient Egyptian taste and craftsmanship, while exotic imports from distant lands (ebony and ivory from Nubia, and a jewel of Libyan Desert glass – formed by an ancient meteorite strike) show the range of Egypt’s trading and diplomatic networks. Objects of daily use (board games and lamps, make-up and furniture, baskets and sandals) provide a vivid picture of life in the Nile Valley more than 3,000 years ago.
In the century since the most famous archaeological discovery of all time, Tutankhamun himself has become the most famous ruler of ancient Egypt. A few objects from his tomb have likewise achieved worldwide renown: his spectacular funerary mask, fashioned from beaten gold, is recognised as an icon of pharaonic civilisation. The king’s gold coffins and his royal throne are frequently illustrated in books on archaeology and ancient Egypt. But there the familiarity ends. Most of the other, myriad objects interred with Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings remain largely unknown, except to Egyptologists, their stories untold. To mark the centenary of Carter and Carnarvon’s great discovery, I have taken a new approach, focusing on the objects buried with the boy-pharaoh as the source material for a wide-ranging portrait of ancient Egypt – its geography, history, culture and legacy. The artefacts from the king’s tomb are allowed to speak again – not only for themselves, but as witnesses of the civilisation that created them. For the treasures of Tutankhamun bring us face to face with the culture of the pharaohs, its extraordinary development, its remarkable flourishing, and its lasting impact.
Every human culture is the product of its environment. Ancient Egyptian civilisation, from its earliest beginnings, was shaped by the distinctive geography of the Nile Valley and the surrounding deserts. An appreciation of the physical environment and the features that made it unique – notably, the Nile and its annual flood – is a necessary starting point for understanding the richness and complexity of pharaonic culture. The deserts that bordered the Nile Valley to the west and east afforded a sense of protection, and made the fertility of the river’s floodplain seem even more remarkable. Inhospitable the deserts might have been, but they were not impenetrable: evidence shows that they were widely explored, and exploited, in ancient times, and they provided the Egyptians with a wide range of materials, from metal ores to building stone.
Yet it was the river that made life in Egypt possible at all, and the ancient Egyptians never ceased to consider themselves blessed by the narrow strip of fertile alluvium that threaded its way through the surrounding expanses of desolate sand and rock. The banks of the Nile were bountiful sources of food and materials, while the river’s remarkable regime brought fertility to the surrounding fields and underpinned Egypt’s agricultural economy. Objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun – including mineral pigments and semi-precious stones from the desert, rush and papyrus from the riverbank, and agricultural implements to bring in the harvest – reflect and illustrate the varied geography of ancient Egypt. In doing so, they bring us closer to the everyday experience of the ancient Egyptians – not just Tutankhamun, but his subjects as well.
The knives buried with him are barely distinguishable from those made by Egypt’s prehistoric inhabitants
The objects from the boy-king’s tomb are representative in another sense, too: while they were gathered together at a particular moment in time (the late 18th dynasty, c1322 BCE), they carry echoes of Egypt’s earlier history, all the way back to its prehistoric origins, and glimpses of its future. Ancient Egypt was one of the longest-lived civilisations the world has ever seen. From the unification of the Nile Valley as a nation-state (the first in history) to its conquest by the Romans, a period of some 3,000 years (or 100 generations) elapsed. The antiquity and sheer durability of pharaonic civilisation gave the ancient Egyptians a profound sense of their own superiority. They exuded the confidence that they – and they alone – were the inheritors of a universe brought into being at the time of creation, a world unchanged and unchanging.
The flint knives buried with Tutankhamun are barely distinguishable from those made by Egypt’s prehistoric inhabitants, 3,000 years earlier; his royal regalia of crook and flail echo the agricultural origins of ancient Egyptian civilisation. Other grave goods, like a scribal palette and cubit measuring rod, epitomise the bureaucratic mindset that underpinned the great monuments of the Pyramid Age. An ivory bracelet decorated with a running horse, on the other hand, belongs squarely to Tutankhamun’s own time, when the tentacles of pharaonic power reached as far as Nubia (source of ivory) and the Near East (whence horses had been introduced to the Nile Valley). Tutankhamun’s treasures thus reveal the individual threads of Egyptian history as much as the fully woven tapestry of his own golden age.
Eighteenth-dynasty Egypt was a civilisation at the apogee of its power and influence, when the pharaoh controlled an empire extending from the banks of the Euphrates in Mesopotamia to the rapids of the Fourth Nile Cataract in Upper Nubia, some 1,200 miles away. From far-off lands, new ideas, materials, technologies and fashions found their way back to Egypt, making Tutankhamun’s age uniquely cosmopolitan. Yet, while Egyptian taste was shaped by foreign fashions, the pharaoh was portrayed, in text and image, as the unassailable conqueror of foreign lands. Receptiveness to exotic ideas went hand in hand with official xenophobia. This paradox at the heart of Egyptian culture is strikingly attested in the objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Among his most treasured possessions were the weapons of war that underpinned Egypt’s imperial supremacy: chariots (themselves introduced from the Near East at the beginning of the 18th dynasty), bows and arrows, scimitars, and daggers. But other objects reflected a more fruitful cultural exchange with the lands of the Near East: a silver vase shaped like a pomegranate – a plant first encountered by the Egyptians during campaigns of conquest in Palestine and Lebanon – and cups made from blue glass, a raw material manufactured in the workshops of Syria.
Tutankhamun’s was indeed a golden age and, as pharaoh, he stood at the apex of society, interlocutor between the people and the gods. As befitted his exalted and rarefied position, his tomb was filled with objects that illustrate the many different facets of monarchy in ancient Egypt. His leopard-skin cloak and offering vases signalled his sacerdotal role, as high priest of every cult; his spectacular throne and coronation staffs of gold and silver embodied the ceremonial aspects of kingship, still features of monarchy today. Tutankhamun’s bow-fronted travelling box reminds us that ancient Egyptian rulers lived a peripatetic life, travelling from residence to residence, dispensing justice and overseeing the affairs of their extensive kingdom.
These different royal personae found expression in Egyptian ideology, in which the king’s own divinity was deliberately ambiguous. Sometimes he was worshipped as god incarnate, at other times as the gods’ representative on Earth. For his courtiers he was, first and foremost, head of state and government, controlling a vast bureaucracy, or commander-in-chief of the army, directing Egypt’s military forces. Merging and blending these different roles, sacred and secular, was the particular genius of Egyptian civilisation. The institution of kingship, of which Tutankhamun remains perhaps the ultimate exemplar, lasted as a form of government, unchanged and unchallenged, for 3,000 years. An ideology that was established some 2,000 years before Tutankhamun’s birth was still alive and well 1,000 years after his death.
For all that the boy-king’s grave goods reflect his royal status, the distinction between the ruling class and the peasantry in ancient Egypt was fundamentally one of degree, not of substance. Ancient Egypt was a pre-industrial society in which cities were no more than agglomerations of villages. Palaces and hovels alike were made from the same materials – sun-dried mud bricks – and kings and commoners ate largely the same foods, albeit in different quantities. Tutankhamun, despite his great wealth, shared with his lowliest subjects a dependence on the bounty of the Nile, in this life and the next. His tomb yielded a veritable larder of foodstuffs, from everyday garlic and lentils to special-occasion jars of wine and joints of meat. It also included everyday objects that illustrate the common features of domestic life in the ancient Nile Valley. The king’s folding stool, portable chest, and camp bed reflect a lifestyle in which people trod lightly on the land. His loincloths would have featured in any Egyptian household. His shaving kit, mirrors and cosmetic equipment reflect a society in which everyone took pride in their appearance. And a collection of board games shows that life was not all hard work. It is in the material remains of domesticity, ironically preserved in a king’s tomb, that we come closest to understanding life as the ancient Egyptians experienced it, to putting ourselves in their sandals.
A fleet of model boats aimed to ensure that he could participate in festivals, with his subjects, for all eternity
Just as the domestic surroundings of all ancient Egyptians had much in common, so everyone shared a common human frailty. Life in the ancient Nile Valley was a constant struggle, full of dangers and challenges. Despite its cultural sophistication, its great works of art, architecture and literature, pharaonic civilisation was a premodern society with all the poverty, hunger and disease that entailed. Tutankhamun himself was beset with poor health. CT scans and DNA analysis of his mummified body have revealed that he suffered from a cleft palate, withered leg (he walked with the aid of a stick, several examples of which were buried with him), and multiple bouts of malaria. His death, before he reached his 20s, was not unusual for the time. In ancient Egypt, the average life expectancy was around 35, and infant mortality was high. Despite the best efforts of family and friends, illness, deformity and death were constant companions, and few ancient Egyptians survived into old age. The objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun, though amassed for a young man in his teens, reflect every stage of life from infancy to maturity. Ivory clappers, used by his female relatives during childbirth to ward off evil spirits, were believed to be equally effective during rebirth in the afterlife, hence their inclusion among Tutankhamun’s grave goods; yet the mummified fetuses of Tutankhamun’s stillborn daughters, lovingly wrapped and placed in their own miniature coffins, show that such precautions were not always effective. The king’s first-aid kit – a motley collection of bandages, thimble and magic bracelet – evidently saw frequent use, but it could not save its owner from a premature death.
In an attempt to ward off harm and generally make sense of the world around them, the ancient Egyptians had recourse to a wide variety of beliefs and rituals. Magic and religion were not seen as separate, but as complementary and overlapping spheres of custom and practice. Wearing an amulet, casting a spell, saying a prayer, dedicating a votive offering or consulting an oracle: all were believed to conjure supernatural assistance; each could be effective, alone or in combination. Cultic and magical objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun draw on this wide range of beliefs. At one end of the spectrum were the sophisticated theologies dreamed up by professional priesthoods. The gilded figures of deities buried with Tutankhamun include representatives of the two main creation stories, the earth-god Geb and the craftsman-god Ptah. A model of the sun-god’s barque reflects the pre-eminence of solar theology in state religion.
At the other extreme, bracelets decorated with the magic eye channelled a more popular strand of belief. Indeed, protective charms and simple prayers, household deities and ancestor worship were believed to be as effective for kings as for commoners. Somewhere between these two poles lay the daily observance of temple cults, performed by priests (both professional and lay), ostensibly on behalf of the king, but in reality rooted in their local communities. Festivals and pilgrimages brought state religion within reach of the masses, helping to knit the whole tapestry together. A fleet of model boats interred with Tutankhamun aimed to ensure that he could participate in such pilgrimages and festivals, alongside his subjects, for all eternity. The picture of religion that emerges from the king’s treasures is of a civilisation steeped in piety: not for its own sake, but as a practical means of navigating life and preparing for death.
Yet all the prayers in the world could only hope to postpone, not avert, the inevitability of death. When the end came, it often did so swiftly and unexpectedly. The death of a pharaoh was a particularly dangerous moment, both politically and ideologically. The stability of the state was threatened, as well as the continuation of the cosmos. As a result, the preparations made for the proper burial and successful resurrection of the monarch were especially careful and calculated. Nowhere is this better attested than in the elaborate tombs prepared for the pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings. Tutankhamun’s final resting place was being prepared in the cliffs of a western branch of the valley, next to the tomb of his grandfather Amenhotep III, but it was far from finished at his death. Hence a small, private tomb in the floor of the main valley was hurriedly pressed into service, its four small chambers crammed with objects quickly gathered from palace storerooms (and quite a few ‘borrowed’ from earlier royal burials). Within a few generations, it was covered by tons of chippings excavated from later royal tombs higher up in the cliffs. Ironically, the very simplicity and obscurity of Tutankhamun’s tomb ensured its survival.
Everyone in ancient Egypt, whatever their status or means, aspired to be ready for the hereafter. A simple burial could be just as effective as a royal tomb, if suitably built and provisioned. Indeed, the grave goods were more important than the structure that contained them. Only by equipping the dead with all the necessities of life could their afterlife be assured. As a result, pharaonic civilisation can appear to us today as a society obsessed with death. Mummies and tomb models, sarcophagi and funerary papyri: all the most distinctive elements of ancient Egyptian culture belong to the mortuary sphere. However, in making elaborate preparations for burial, the inhabitants of the ancient Nile Valley were focusing, not on leaving this world, but on entering the next. Their motivation was a love of life, not a death wish. The objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun comprise the most extensive and complete funerary assemblage ever discovered in Egypt. From the simple floral garlands laid on his coffin by the mourners to the elaborate shrines and sarcophagus that protected his body within, the material remains of one young man’s untimely demise reveal a wealth of information about the hopes and fears of an entire civilisation.
Tutankhamun died and was buried. He wished (but perhaps did not expect) his body to rest for eternity in the Valley of the Kings, while his eternal soul would be reborn into the afterlife, to join with the sun-god Ra on his cosmic journey and unite with Osiris, lord of the underworld. Against all the odds (but in accordance with the prayer inscribed on his ‘wishing cup’), the boy-king’s tomb remained largely undisturbed, while those of greater pharaohs, before and after, were robbed and desecrated. As Tutankhamun lay in his great stone sarcophagus, aeons passed. Ancient Egyptian civilisation was extinguished after 3,000 years; ancient Greece and Rome came and went; the inhabitants of the Nile Valley saw their old religion replaced by new ones (Christianity, then Islam). Pharaonic Egypt passed from history into myth.
Tutankhamun’s trumpet conjures up a lost world of sound
And then, with the advent of antiquarianism and archaeology, the secrets of the pharaohs began to be recovered from the sands of time. The golden age of Egyptology, which began with the decipherment of hieroglyphics in 1822, culminated in the rediscovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb a century later. Overnight, thanks to Carter and Carnarvon, a minor, ephemeral ruler became the most famous pharaoh of them all. The West’s long fascination with ancient Egypt turned into something of an obsession. Tutankhamun’s name and image have become global brands. Exhibitions of his treasures have attracted millions of visitors – vastly more than the entire population of pharaonic Egypt. But the rediscovery of his tomb and its treasures has also prompted complex questions: about modern Egypt’s relationship with its ancient past, and with the West; about the ownership and custodianship of antiquities; about the tensions between scientific enquiry and the popular imagination. Tutankhamun’s legacy is as contested as it is enduring.
What we know, and what we still don’t know, about ancient Egypt is summed up by one last object from the tomb: Tutankhamun’s trumpet. In fact, the king was buried with two such instruments: one of gilded bronze, the other of sheet silver. The latter is a masterpiece of ancient metalworking. The bell, shaped like an open waterlily flower, is delicately chased with decoration resembling sepals, each containing the royal name. A larger, rectangular panel, superimposed on this background decoration, shows the three principal deities of the Egyptian pantheon (Amun-Ra, king of the gods; Ra; and Ptah). Around the rim of the bell is a band of gold, chased to resemble the petals of the waterlily. A corresponding band of gold at the other end of the instrument forms the mouthpiece. In 1939, the year of Carter’s death, it was suggested that Tutankhamun’s trumpet might be played again. After nearly 3,500 years, the world could not resist hearing such a blast from the past. So, in a live BBC broadcast, the instrument was handed to a British army trumpeter, standing in front of a microphone. The bandsman James Tappern inserted a modern mouthpiece, brought the trumpet to his lips, and began to play. He managed to produce just three notes – shrill, rasping, but haunting.
Tutankhamun’s trumpet conjures up a lost world of sound. Music was clearly important in the lives of the ancient Egyptians, at all levels of society, as evidenced by numerous tomb scenes. Yet, in the absence of any musical notation, the nature of pharaonic music remains unknown and unknowable. The tunes the ancient Egyptians played, and the tonalities of their music, remain elusive. It is a salutary reminder that, even after more than two centuries of excavation in the Nile Valley, yielding countless finds, many details of pharaonic civilisation escape us. Study of the material remains left by the ancient Egyptians – epitomised most spectacularly and abundantly by the objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun – reveals much about their daily lives, their geography and history, government and religion; but the human experience of actually living in the pharaonic Nile Valley can never be recovered. Like Tutankhamun himself, the music that surrounded him has vanished. All that remains are echoes of the past. The objects buried with him provide glimpses into his world, and into the civilisation of ancient Egypt of which he remains the ultimate symbol. It is left to our imagination to fill in the gaps.