The Search for an Egyptian King


By Joyce Tyldesley

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The discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 was perhaps the world’s most important archaeological find. The only near-intact royal tomb to be preserved in the Valley of the Kings, it has supplied an astonishing wealth of artifacts, spurred a global fascination with ancient Egypt, and inspired folklore that continues to evolve today. Despite the tomb’s prominence, however, precious little has been revealed about Tutankhamen himself. In Tutankhamen, acclaimed Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley unshrouds the enigmatic king. She explores his life and legacy as never before, and offers a compelling new window onto the world in which he lived.

Tutankhamen ascended to the throne at approximately eight years of age and ruled for only ten years. Although his reign was brief and many of his accomplishments are now lost to us, it is clear that he was an important and influential king ruling in challenging times. His greatest achievement was to reverse a slew of radical and unpopular theological reforms instituted by his father and return Egypt to the traditional pantheon of gods. A meticulous examination of the evidence preserved both within his tomb and outside it allows Tyldesley to investigate Tutankhamen’s family history and to explore the origins of the pervasive legends surrounding Tutankhamen’s tomb. These legends include Tutankhamen’s “curse” — enduring myth that reaffirms the appeal of ancient magic in our modern world

A remarkably vivid portrait of this fascinating and often misunderstood ruler, Tutankhamen sheds new light on the young king and the astonishing archeological discovery that earned him an eternal place in popular imagination.


For Adults
Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt
Hatchepsut: the Female Pharaoh
Nefertiti: Egypt's Sun Queen
The Mummy
Ramesses: Egypt's Greatest Pharaoh
Judgement of the Pharaoh: Crime and Punishment in Ancient Egypt
The Private Lives of the Pharaohs
Egypt's Golden Empire
Pyramids: The Real Story Behind Egypt's Most Ancient Monuments
Tales from Ancient Egypt
Egypt: How a Lost Civilization was Rediscovered
Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt
Egyptian Games and Sports
Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt
The Pharaohs
Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt
For Children
Mummy Mysteries: The Secret World of Tutankhamun
and the Pharaohs
Egypt (Insiders)
Stories from Ancient Egypt
The Lost Scroll: a play for children

To the memory of Robert 'Bob' Partridge
(1951 – 2011)
'May your spirit live, may you spend millions of years,
you who love Thebes, sitting with your face to the north wind,
your eyes beholding happiness.'


The Egyptians omitted vowels from their hieroglyphic texts: like modern emailers and texters (txtrs), they saw no need to waste time, energy and space writing sounds – and sometimes even words – that would have been obvious to everyone. Lol.
Unfortunately, ancient Egyptian is now a long-dead language, and the missing sounds are far from obvious to modern readers. Egyptologists therefore have to guess which vowel goes where. Generally, we insert 'e' as the vowel of choice, but this may not be the vowel that the Egyptians used, and we might not insert it in the correct place. As a result, all but the shortest Egyptian words have several variant English spellings, all equally acceptable. Throughout this book I use the spelling Tutankhamen, and I refer to Tutankhamen's god as Amen. In so doing, I follow the precedent set by Howard Carter. I have taken the liberty of extending this preferred spelling to all quotes within the text. Others prefer the spelling Tutankhamun (and Amun) or Tut-ankhamon (Amon); more exotic variants – Touatânkhamanou, Tut.ankh.Amen, Tutenchamun, etc. – will be found in the older literature. All refer to the same man.
The king that we know as Tutankhamen (living image of [the god] Amen) was born Tutankhaten (living image of [the god] Aten) but changed his name during the first few years of his reign. His consort, Ankhesenpaaten, became Ankhesenamen at the same time. Others had already changed their names. The king that we today know as Akhenaten was originally Amenhotep IV; Akhenaten's consort, Nefertiti at the time of her marriage, expanded her name early in her husband's reign to become Neferneferuaten Nefertiti. To avoid unnecessary complications I will refer to these individuals as Tutankhamen, Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Ankhesenamen throughout the text, unless it is inappropriate so do.
At his coronation Tutankhamen assumed a series of five names that served as a formal statement of intent or propaganda for his reign. His last two names, known today as the prenomen and the nomen, are the names that are given in cartouches (distinctive oval loops) on his monuments and inscriptions. His prenomen (Nebkheperure) is the name by which his people knew him:
Horus Name: Image of births
Two Ladies Name: Beautiful of laws who quells the Two Lands/ who makes content all the gods
Golden Horus Name: Elevated of appearances for the god/his father Re
Prenomen: Nebkheperure: Lord of manifestations of [the god] Re
Nomen: Tutankhamen: Living image of [the god] Amen

Egypt's dynastic age started with the unification of the country by the southern warrior Narmer in approximately 3100 BC, and ended just over 3,000 years later with the suicide of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC. Following the scheme devised by the Ptolemaic historian Manetho, Egyptologists divide this dynastic age into 'dynasties': lines of kings who are in some way linked together. They may be, but are not always, blood relations. It is important to remember that these dynasties are artificial, modern divisions; the ancients did not divide up their history in this way.
The dynasties are grouped into times of strong, centralised rule (the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms and the Late Period) separated by periods of decentralised or foreign control (the First, Second and Third Intermediate Periods). Tutankhamen ruled during the late 18th Dynasty, the first dynasty of the New Kingdom (Dynasties 18 – 20, c. 1550 – 1069 BC).
The Egyptians dated events by reference to the current king's reign: Year 1, Year 2, Year 3, etc. When the old king died and a new king took his place, the dating system began again with a new Year 1. Although this is by no means a perfect system, it is the most accurate means that we have of dating Egypt's past, and it is the system that will be used throughout this book.
It is notoriously difficult to tie the Egyptian regnal dates into our modern calendar. As there is no universally accepted chronology the following, based on the dates suggested by Ian Shaw in the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (2000: 481), is used:
Kings of the 18th Dynasty (c. 1550 – 1295 BC)
Ahmose c.1550 – 1525 BC
Amenhotep I c.1525 – 1504 BC
Tuthmosis I c.1504 – 1492 BC
Tuthmosis II c.1492 – 1479 BC
Tuthmosis III c.1479 – 1425 BC
Hatshepsut c.1473 – 1458 BC
Amenhotep II c.1427 – 1400 BC
Tuthmosis IV c.1400 – 1390 BC
Amenhotep III c.1390 – 1352 BC
Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten c.1352 – 1336 BC
Smenkhkare c.1338 – 1336 BC
Tutankhamen c.1336 – 1327 BC
Ay c.1327 – 1323 BC
Horemheb c.1323 – 1295 BC

The Theban west bank is honeycombed with tombs of all ages, some royal and some private. Starting in the 18th Dynasty, the New Kingdom pharaohs chose to be buried alongside some of their more important courtiers in rock-cut tombs cut into the remote Valley of the Kings. During the 19th Dynasty the nearby Valley of the Queens was developed as a cemetery for some of the more important royal wives and their children.
In AD 1827 John Gardner Wilkinson surveyed the twenty-one known tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Each tomb was given a number, allocated as he came to it. Today it is possible, by following his number sequence, to see that he walked first from the Valley entrance southwards, then turned towards the east. His system has continued into modern times, with the tombs now being numbered in the chronological order of their discovery, so that in 1922 Tutankhamen's tomb was designated KV (or King's Valley) 62. When, in 2005/6, the next 'tomb' was discovered by a team led by Dr Otto Schaden, it became KV 63. KV 64 is a suspected tomb, discovered by radar, while KV 65 is a suspected tomb entrance. The next tomb to be discovered will become KV 66, and so on. Just twenty-five of the KV tombs are royal tombs. The others were built for Egypt's non-royal elite; KV 46, for example, is the tomb of Yuya and Thuya, parents of the formidable Queen Tiy and, perhaps, great-grandparents of Tutankhamen. Some are not even tombs; KV 54 is a simple, stone-lined pit, while KV 63 appears to be a storage chamber.
The tombs in the Western Valley, an offshoot of the main or Eastern Valley, are given interchangeable WV or KV numbers, so that the tomb of Amenhotep III can be either KV 22 or WV 22, the tomb of Ay either KV 23 or WV 23. Tombs in the Valley of the Queens are given QV numbers, tombs in the Deir el-Bahri bay are given DB numbers and other Theban tombs have TT numbers.

Tutankhamen's tomb yielded 5,398 separate finds. Howard Carter assigned every object, or group of objects, a number from 1 to 620, with letters used for subdivisions (atypically, Find 620 was given numbered subdivisions). The finds were numbered as they were recorded, as follows:
Find 1 – 3: Outside the tomb and staircase
Find 4: First doorway
Find 5 – 12: Passageway
Find 13: Second doorway
Find 14 – 170: Antechamber (28 being the blocked doorway to the Burial Chamber)
Find 171: Annexe blocking
Find 172 – 260: Burial Chamber (256 being Tutankhamen's mummy)
Find 261 – 336: Treasury
Find 337 – 620: Annexe
Subsequently, as they were received by Cairo Museum, each object was given a 'journal d'entrée' museum number. For example, the first object to be officially removed from the tomb, a beautifully painted chest filled with children's garments, was Carter's number 21, and this became JE61467.
The vast majority of Tutankhamen's grave goods are currently displayed in Cairo Museum. There is a subsidiary exhibition in Luxor Museum, and the botanical material is in the Cairo Agricultural Museum. Some of the larger shrines are in storage in Luxor. Tutankhamen himself still rests in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
Even today, the tomb and its contents remain substantially unpublished, although there are occasional volumes written by experts and dedicated to individual and somewhat diverse components of the grave goods such as footwear, chariots and gaming boxes. The Griffith Institute at Oxford University, repository of Carter's papers, has done a great deal to remedy this deficiency by making Carter's diaries and his meticulous records and drawings, plus the diaries of Arthur Mace, notes taken by Alfred Lucas and the numerous photographs taken by Harry Burton, available online in Tutankhamun: Anatomy of an Excavation: www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/gri/4tut.html. Meanwhile Nicholas Reeves's comprehensive Complete Tutankhamen (1990) provides a scholarly yet accessible introduction to the tomb and a detailed analysis of its contents for non-specialist readers. There are many other Tutankhamen-themed works aimed at different audiences, some good, some less so, others decidedly bad. The difficulty, for the non-expert, is to sort the wheat from the chaff. As a general rule of thumb, any book that refers to the king as 'Tut', and his wife as 'Ankhy'or 'Patty', and any book that includes the word 'truth' on its cover, is best avoided.

It was a thrilling moment for an excavator. Alone, save for my native workmen, I found myself, after years of comparatively unproductive labour, on the threshold of what might prove to be a magnificent discovery. Anything, literally anything, might lie beyond that passage, and it needed all my self-control to keep from breaking down the doorway and investigating then and there.
Howard Carter1
On 4 November 1922 labourers employed by Lord Carnarvon and his archaeological partner Howard Carter discovered a flight of steps leading down to the lost tomb of the 18th Dynasty Egyptian king Tutankhamen. The tomb was virtually intact and Tutankhamen's mummified body still lay within, protected by a nest of golden coffins and surrounded by a vast array of slightly dusty but still glittering grave goods. This discovery – Egypt's first near-complete royal burial – provoked unprecedented media interest. Reporters flocked to Egypt, where they perched on the stone wall surrounding the tomb and irritated the naturally taciturn Carter almost to breaking point. Pushed by their editors to write about the most exciting discovery ever made, yet denied access to the tomb and its contents, the journalists published a highly entertaining mixture of fact and fiction spiced with a dash of vitriol aimed at the archaeologists.
Tutankhamen's was by no means the first mummy to be discovered, nor the most important, yet he quickly became a celebrity and, like all celebrities, was featured relentlessly in newspapers and journals. As 'Tut-mania' gripped the West, Egyptology, no longer the dull refuge of earnest scholars and library-bound academics, acquired a popular appeal that was reflected in fashion, architecture and fiction. Meanwhile in Egypt, an increasingly independent country struggling to enter the modern world, the discovery raised uncomfortable questions about colonialism, the ownership of Egypt's past, and the right of the archaeologist to mine a foreign land for knowledge, profit or personal glory. Things would never be quite the same again.
For me, like many of my generation, Tutankhamen provided an introduction to the hot and glamorous world of the pharaohs. I was born and raised in Bolton, Lancashire, some 2,600 geographical miles from the Valley of the Kings, and far, far away in terms of heat and glamour. Damp, prosaic Bolton – an ex-mill town – is, however, a remarkably good place for an aspiring Egyptologist to live. The nineteenth-century entrepreneurs who made their fortunes from the cotton trade developed a strong interest in ancient Egypt and its possible links to the Bible. Driven by a need to amass not just knowledge but actual artefacts, they sailed along the Nile collecting souvenirs ranging from the smallest of beads to full-sized coffined mummies. Back home they expanded their collections by buying from antiquities dealers, and they financed archaeological digs that entitled them to a share of the excavated finds. Their private acquisitions eventually made their way into local museums, so that Bolton, Burnley, Blackburn, Liverpool, Macclesfield and Manchester (to name just a few) are today blessed with extraordinarily rich Egyptology collections. As a child, of course, all this passed me by. It seemed perfectly natural that Lancashire's museums should be packed with exotic Egyptian treasures. If I thought about it at all, I assumed that all museums were similarly well endowed.
In 1972 the 'Treasures of Tutankhamen' exhibition arrived at the British Museum, bringing with it an assortment of artefacts including the king's iconic funerary mask. Almost overnight, a new wave of Tutmania swept over Britain. Colour television, still something of a novelty, showed the grave goods in all their golden glory and, as Tutankhamen invaded the nation's living rooms, viewers were introduced to a past very different to the classical history learned in school. Well over a million visitors were inspired to make their way to the British Museum to see for themselves. So infectious was the atmosphere that the brave (some might say foolish) decision was made to take my entire school to London. A train was chartered, and by the time it was realised that we could not travel on the day that schools had priority access to the Museum, it hardly seemed to matter. Off we went, hundreds of girls armed with packed lunches and waterproof coats. The day itself could not be counted as an unqualified success: having first visited the Science Museum and the Tower of London we ran out of time and, after queuing for an hour or so in the grounds of the British Museum we left, clutching posters and postcards but without having actually seen the king himself. It would be another ten years before I gazed at Tutankhamen's golden face in an almost empty Cairo Museum. Nevertheless, my latent interest in Egyptology had been kindled, and there was no going back. This Tutankhamen-inspired fixation with ancient Egypt may well be my own, personal version of Tutankhamen's curse.
I am able to make the suggestion that I have been cursed by Tutankhamen quite lightly, because I don't believe that ancient curses – either real or imagined – can have any effect on the modern world unless we allow them to. In fact, I have to come clean and admit that I don't believe in curses at all. However, there are many who do indeed believe, and who see Tutankhamen's curse as a very serious matter: a deadly protection derived from an archaic, esoteric knowledge, used by the necropolis priests to guard the dead king and his tomb. This protection can take many forms, ranging from the magical and unverifiable (deadly spells and elemental spirits) to the more scientific and physical (hidden 'biosecurity' measures, pathogens and poisons). Believers – and a quick trawl of the internet confirms that there are many, each armed with a slightly different version of 'the truth' – accept that this curse somehow killed Lord Carnarvon within five months of the opening of the tomb, simply because he financed the archaeological mission that desecrated the burial. The curse then went on to kill others linked either directly or indirectly with Tutankhamen, using a variety of ingenious and, to the sceptic, needlessly perverse means.
Carnarvon's sudden death thrust his archaeological partner into an unwelcome limelight, so that today we remember Carter as the driving force behind the Tutankhamen mission while Carnarvon is relegated to the role of genial and generous backer with a passing infatuation for ancient Egypt.2 Their contemporaries, however, understood that the tomb belonged fairly and squarely to Carnarvon. The initial report of the discovery, published in The Times on 30 November 1922, makes this very clear. Headlined 'Great find at Thebes. Lord Carnarvon's long quest', it tells how 'for nearly sixteen years Lord Carnarvon, with the assistance of Mr Howard Carter, has been carrying out excavations on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor'. The next day's Times carried a 'tribute to Lord Carnarvon', written by Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities at the British Museum, which started 'The news of the very important Egyptian discovery which has been made by Lord Carnarvon and his trusty helper, Mr Howard Carter, is one which will send a thrill of pleasure throughout the whole of the archaeological world.' This is Tutankhamen's story, and not Carter's. Yet Carter's personality and behaviour so influence our understanding of the discovery and emptying of the tomb that it is impossible to consider one without the other. Anyone interested in reading more about Carter's life should start with James's thought-provoking biography Howard Carter: The Path to Tutankhamen (1992). Unfortunately, there is no equivalent biography of Lord Carnarvon and, as much of the family archive was destroyed during the Second World War, there may never be one.
For Carter, the discovery of a warehouse-like set of chambers crammed with fragile artefacts proved both a blessing and a curse, as it forced him to assume a diplomatic role for which he was supremely ill-suited. Tutankhamen brought Carter a great deal of fame and some fortune, but little of the academic recognition that he might reasonably have expected. Effectively, his great find brought his career as an excavator to an end. He was to devote the rest of his life to Tutankhamen's grave goods, dying before the academic publication of his work was anywhere near complete. This means that much of our information about the excavation of the tomb comes from popular sources: private writings, Carter's own books, and contemporary newspapers, The Times in particular, which carried regular reports of events in the Valley. I have used these writings to convey a flavour of the wonder and excitement with which the excavators, and the general public, welcomed Tutankhamen to the modern world.
Many Egyptologists would argue that the true curse of Tutankhamen is the fixation that the general public, thoroughly egged on by the media, has developed with the king at the expense of the rest of Egypt's long history. Our overwhelming interest in Tutankhamen has effectively distorted our perception of the past so that, almost a century after his rediscovery, and more than 3,000 years after his death, 'Tut' – we are so familiar with him that we even accord him a friendly nickname – remains the ultimate ancient-world celebrity. Only Nefertiti and Cleopatra VII can approach his superstar status. Ramesses II 'The Great' lags some way behind, while Senwosret III and Pseusennes II and many others – magnificent, heroic god-kings once widely celebrated for their mighty deeds – are remembered only by those who have made a special study of Egyptian history. As the newly revealed Tutankhamen surfed the zeitgeist, two spectacular, near-contemporary discoveries, Leonard Woolley's 1920s excavation of the royal death pits in the Mesopotamian city of Ur, and Pierre Montet's 1939 excavation of the near-intact Third Intermediate Period royal tombs at the Egyptian city of Tanis, failed to capture the public imagination.
While it is understandable that in 1939 the eyes of the world were not focused on ancient Egypt, the lack of interest in Woolley's work is at first sight baffling, given its obvious connection to Biblical archaeology. However, three important differences distinguished the two excavations. First, unlike the anonymous servants buried in the grim death pits, Tutankhamen was a named individual: an ancient yet curiously modern young man, revealed to the Western world at a time when the West had lost so many of its own young men. The art and fashions of his age – the Late Amarna Period – fitted neatly with the art and fashions of post-war Europe, allowing him to appear both glamorously remote and reassuringly familiar. Second, while Tutankhamen was by no means the first pharaoh to be discovered – Cairo Museum already had an entire gallery full of kings – he was the first to be discovered with a vast amount of gold. Treasure, and treasure-hunting, has a universal, timeless appeal that cuts across boundaries of age, race and gender, and it seems that it was Tutankhamen's gold death mask, rather than his actual face, which so captured the public imagination. Finally, Carter's excavation was conducted under an intense media scrutiny, which ensured that, even if they wished to, the public could not forget about ongoing events in the Valley of the Kings.
In many ways this fame has been a good thing. Tutankhamen, and the study of his life and times, have brought a great deal of pleasure to many, me included. His instantly recognisable brand has proved particularly valuable to the Egyptian economy. In January 2011 tourism accounted for 11 per cent of the Egyptian national income, with visits to the Cairo Museum (home of Tutankhamen's grave goods) and the Valley of the Kings (modern Luxor: home of Tutankhamen's tomb) an important part of all itineraries.3 It is therefore an unfortunate paradox that Tutankhamen's very popularity threatens to destroy his legacy. The tourists who make their way to the Valley of the Kings disembark from vibrating, polluting coaches to breathe and perspire in his cramped tomb, causing incalculable damage to the fragile decorated walls. The negative effects of tourism – the Valley's own curse of Tutankhamen – are an ongoing and very serious problem for the Egyptian Antiquities Service (EAS), the government agency with responsibility for the care and protection of Egypt's ancient monuments. 4 In response, and as a way of balancing the needs of the visitors with the needs of the conservators, the EAS has recently announced ambitious plans to build a full-sized replica of Tutankhamen's tomb in a nearby valley. This false tomb will allow visitors an 'authentic' experience while preserving the genuine tomb.
It is sad, but perhaps predictable, that his celebrity status has resulted in some Egyptologists drawing away from Tutankhamen lest they be perceived as pandering to, exploiting or even (perish the thought) enjoying popular taste. Confessing an interest in Tutankhamen is, for a few, the equivalent to confessing a preference for television soaps over Shakespeare or musical theatre over opera, while writing about Tutankhamen may be interpreted as a venal attempt to make money, which, in the world of academia, has not always been seen as a good thing. This elitism is, however, rare. Many others have simply dismissed Tutankhamen as insignificant: a short-lived boy, weak, manipulated and unworthy of any detailed study. He is a 'sensitive youth, a Hamlet totally unequal to the crushing responsibilities he was called upon to bear'; a 'youthful nonentity'; a king who simply does not deserve to serve as the representative of the Dynastic Age.5 This criticism is in part true. His was a short reign that started at a young age; much of what he accomplished must have been done under the guidance of others. However, while Tutankhamen's decade is brief when compared with the thirty-eight-year (prosperous but, perhaps, slightly dull) reign of Amenhotep III, it compares favourably with the seventeen-year (far from dull) reign of Akhenaten and the four (presumably dull: we know little about them) years of his successor Ay. Ten years, in a land where elite males had a life expectancy of approximately forty years, was a long time. While it would be going too far to regard the twenty-year-old Tutankhamen as middle-aged, he outlived many of his contemporaries, and he died a man, not a boy.
Tutankhamen's decade was far from dull. It was the turning point between the unique religious certainties of the Amarna Age and the traditional polytheism of later reigns.6


On Sale
Mar 6, 2012
Page Count
336 pages
Basic Books

Joyce Tyldesley

About the Author

Dr. Joyce Tyldesley holds a first class honors degree in archaeology from Liverpool University, and a doctorate from Oxford University. She is currently a lecturer in Egyptology at the KNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology, Fellow of the Manchester Museum and Honorary Research Fellow at Liverpool University. She has acted as consultant on several television projects and has excavated extensively in Egypt and Europe. Her previous books include a sequence of popular biographies of Egyptian pharaohs, with particular emphasis on the lives of prominent Egyptian women. She lives in Bolton, England.

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