King Tut Day: The Boy King Is Still Making Headlines

Today in 1922 archeologist Howard Carter discovered King Tutankhamun's final resting place, introducing the world to history's most famous pharoah.
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King Tut

Golden mask of Tutankhamun in the Egyptian Museum.  (Photo:  Carsten Frenzl) 

On November 4, 1922, archeologist Howard Carter discovered the entrance to an intact tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh. The discovery of King Tut's tomb left the world breathless, and his final resting place and remains would make him the most famous of all the pharaohs.

Now, almost a century after Carter's historic discovery and more than 3,000 years after King Tut's death, the boy king is still making headlines. A “virtual autopsy” of King Tut, the subject of a documentary on the Smithsonian Channel which airs this Friday, depicts Tutankhamun as a rather unattractive young man whose demise in his teens was likely due to being born out of incest. The documentary asserts that Tut's father and mother were brother and sister. Some Egyptologists have criticized this speculation about the boy king, prompting even further debate and fascination about his brief life and death. 

While King Tut continues to be shrouded in mysteries, here are a few verifiable facts  to ponder on this day which is dedicated to him:

1. Tut’s Dad Stirred the Pot

Archeologists believe that around 1344 to 1341 B.C. the pharaoh Akhenaten had a son named Tutankhaten. Akhenaten became one of Egypt’s most controversial pharaohs when he renounced all Egyptian gods except Aten and moved the powerful Egyptian capital from Theses to the dual outpost of Amarna, about 150 miles south.

King Tut

The mask of Tutankhamun. (Photo: Erik Hooymans)

2. The Boy King Inherited a Mess 

When Akhenaten died, 10-year old Tutankhaten became ruler of an Egypt rife with internal conflict and foreign unrest, largely his father’s legacy. The young pharaoh changed his name to Tutankhamun, reinstated the worship of the old gods, and presided over a period of prosperity and military expansion, but none of it would assuage his enemies. Some experts theorize that the pharaoh was murdered by members of his own court.

3. A Final Insult to Tut Turns Ironic

As a final insult to the teenage king, Tutankhamun’s enemies conspired to remove his name from historical record. Seeking to erase all traces of the so-called Amarna period, the two pharaohs who succeeded Tutankhamen even had his name scratched off statues that had been made in his honor. Ironically, their efforts helped make Tutankhamen the best-remembered pharaoh of ancient Egypt.

King Tut

Outer coffin of Tutankhamun in an 2012 exposition in Paris.  (Photo: Traumrune / Wikimedia Commons)

4. An “Insignificant” Reign Begets A Safe Resting Place

Tutankhamun was buried in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings. His body was preserved in the traditional means of mummification. Seventy days after his death, Tutankhamun’s body was laid to rest and the tomb was sealed. There are no known records of Tutankhamun after his death, and, as a result, he remained virtually unknown until the 1920s. Even the location of his tomb was lost, as its entrance had been covered by the debris from a later-built tomb. It may have been Tut’s very insignificance that ensured his place in posterity: His tomb went unnoticed by grave robbers and political enemies who destroyed the resting places of more notable pharaohs.

5. And What About The Mummy’s Curse?

"The most dire punishment follows any rash intruder into a sealed tomb,”warned popular Victorian novelist Marie Corelli. To the superstitious it was inevitable: George Herbert, the Earl of Carnarvon, who helped open King Tut’s tomb with archaeologist Howard Carter was doomed. 


Howard Carter King Tut

Howard Carter opens the innermost shrine of King Tutankhamen's tomb.  (Photo: Exclusive to The Times [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Legend has it that on the day Herbert assisted Carter in opening the tomb, Herbert's pet canary was swallowed by a cobra, the same deadly serpent that decorates the brow of Tutankhamen’s golden death mask. And the deadly coincidences don't stop there:  Carnarvon died from an infected mosquito bite on his cheek on April 5, 1923, and King Tut's death mask has one flaw that corresponds to a similar spot on the pharoah's face. It’s also said that at the precise moment when the Earl met his untimely end, the lights in Cairo suddenly went out and back at his home in England, his three-legged terrier, Susie, let out a mournful howl and dropped dead.


George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, at Howard Carter’s home on the Theban west bank, according to Griffith Institute, Oxford.  (Photo: Harry Burton via WikiCommons)

As the story of Carnarvon’s demise unfolded, headlines across the globe trumpeted “news” of a lethal mummy’s curse. Reporters linked the deaths of everyone ever connected to the excavation, no matter how remotely, to the curse. Few papers bothered to note, however, that the 57-year-old Carnarvon had been in precarious health since 1901, after suffering a serious injury in an automobile accident.

Howard Carter reacted with predictable annoyance to rumors about his partner’s allegedly supernatural demise, declaring that “all sane people should dismiss such inventions with contempt.” American Egyptologist Herbert Winlock went a step further. He compiled the following mortality figures in 1934, almost a dozen years after the tomb had been opened. Of the 26 people present for the momentous event, six had died within a decade. Of the 22 present for the opening of Tut’s sarcophagus, two had died. And of the 10 who had witnessed the mummy’s unwrapping, all were still alive. Those closest to the discovery, Winlock found, would live to old age — with the exception of course, of Carnarvon.