king tut

Tutmania!

Fascination with King Tut swept the nation, from a Batman villain to Steve Martin’s hit Saturday Night Live song.

A pop art take on King' Tut’s legendary funerary mask

A pop art take on King' Tut’s legendary funerary mask

Tutmania, which swept the West upon discovery of the Boy King’s tomb in 1922, experienced a resurgence when King Tut’s riches toured the United States in ’76. Due to fear of hijacking, the precious artifacts traveled in secrecy aboard the U.S.S. Sylvania, where they were stored amidst boxes of refrigerated hamburger patties.

An illustrated French newspaper depicts the discovery of Tutankhamun’s treasure-laden tomb, which sat undisturbed by 3,500 years

An illustrated French newspaper depicts the discovery of Tutankhamun’s treasure-laden tomb, which sat undisturbed by 3,500 years

Even a brand of lemons was named after the Boy King

Even a brand of lemons was named after the Boy King

Candy, Cross Stitch and Kitsch

The commoditization of the U.S.’s fascination with this pharaoh has included everything from Tut-branded California lemons (circa the 1940s) to unlicensed kitsch — including T-shirts with a pair of strategically placed golden burial masks proclaiming, “Keep Your Hands Off My Tuts!” (from the 70s). 

Tutmania invaded many aspects of American life, showing up on kitschy T-shirts like this one

Tutmania invaded many aspects of American life, showing up on kitschy T-shirts like this one

There was even a softbound book of needlepoint patterns, which the creator, Robert Horace Ross, based upon the touring Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition. 

Who wouldn’t want a needlepoint of King Tut’s golden mask?

Who wouldn’t want a needlepoint of King Tut’s golden mask?

Novelty candies for kids included Yummy Mummies — artificially flavored hard candy sticks, similar in size to a tongue depressor and manufactured by the makers of Fun Dip. In the U.K., Terry’s Pyramint, the forgotten ’80s sibling of the Chocolate Orange, was packaged in a pyramid-shaped box. Inside was a dark chocolate pyramid with a hollow center filled with mint fondant similar in consistency to a Cadbury Creme Egg. 

The tubby  Batman  villain King Tut was obviously delusional

The tubby Batman villain King Tut was obviously delusional

Holy Cheesy Appropriation, Batman!

King Tut even made an appearance on the lighthearted 1960s TV series, Batman. Portrayed by the portly actor Victor Buono, the over-the-top villainous character of King Tut was invented for the small screen, making its first appearance in ’66 on a two-episode story arc, “The Curse of Tut/The Pharaoh’s in a Rut.”

A King Tut  Batman  Lego figurine

A King Tut Batman Lego figurine

More high camp than the gritty realism of writer-director Christopher Nolan’s feature film take on the Dark Knight, Tut’s alter ego was a well-mannered professor of Egyptology named William Omaha McElroy. Knocked unconscious during a student riot at Yale, McElroy awakens, believing himself to be a diabolical King Tut. His appearance was announced by a ram-headed statue, mistakenly referred to as a sphinx. The villainous Tut takes up residence in an Egyptian exhibit in the Gotham City Museum, complete with a harem of comely women.

Fisticuffs ensue, various comic book KAPOWs, BOOMs and BOFFs appear on screen, and the episode ends with a literal cliffhanger: a kidnapped Bruce Wayne exiting the rear door of an ambulance (strapped to a gurney no less) before the vehicle drives off a 300-foot cliff. 

The character obviously has some lasting appeal: It made an appearance in The Lego Batman Movie.

Steve Martin performed a silly song about King Tut on  Saturday Night Live  — which went on to become a Top 20 hit!

Steve Martin performed a silly song about King Tut on Saturday Night Live — which went on to become a Top 20 hit!

A Wild and Crazy Songwriter

In 1978, comedian Steve Martin wrote and debuted an elaborate sketch on Saturday Night Live accompanied by his song “King Tut” satirizing the fascination with the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition.

The show’s creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels pulled out all the stops, and it was one of the most expensive sketches performed on SNL. Martin, dressed in psuedo-Egyptian costume, sang and danced, turning his head and arms in opposite directions in imitation of Ancient Egyptian paintings.

Even though I was only 9 years old at the time, I can still remember the verse, “Born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia, King Tut.” A classic moment from the skit featured musician Lou Marini emerging from a sarcophagus in gold face paint to perform a raucous saxophone solo with Martin placing a blender at his feet as an offering. Not long after, the single, cleverly credited to Steve Martin and the Toot Uncommons, reached #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and went on to sell more than a million copies.

The renovated Tut statue at the Oriental Institute in Chicago

The renovated Tut statue at the Oriental Institute in Chicago

King Tut Goes Highbrow

A towering 17-foot-tall statue of King Tutankhamun can be seen in the Egyptian Hall of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute Museum. One of a pair, the likeness was discovered during the institute’s excavation efforts at Medinet Habu from 1926 to 1931. The better-preserved statue remained in Egypt, while the other was gifted to the institute. 

Taking casts from the more complete twin statue, the institute’s talented restorer, Donato Bastiani, made the statue whole again. The inscription carved on the back pillar of the statue shows evidence of having been appropriated by Horemheb, the penultimate ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty. However, the facial features of the figure strongly resemble other representations of Tutankhamun, suggesting that it was originally commissioned for him. Traces of the name of Tut’s successor Ay can be seen under the cartouche of Horemheb, indicating that the statue was usurped not once but twice. –Duke

The Discovery of King Tut’s Tomb

The botched recovery and vandalism of Tutankhamun’s mummy (including its erection!) — and a connection to Downton Abbey.

Everyone ogles over the treasures of King Tut’s tomb — but few know how messy the recovery of the mummy was

Everyone ogles over the treasures of King Tut’s tomb — but few know how messy the recovery of the mummy was

Ancient Egypt’s most famous and recognizable pharaoh in the modern world was still a teenager when he died, and his nickname, King Tut, has become a household name. 

When Howard Carter discovered and unsealed Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 and revealed its extraordinary contents, he sparked a global interest in archaeology and Ancient Egypt the likes of which had never before been seen. 

It took his team eight years to catalog and remove all of the ancient artifacts within the relatively small tomb. One can only begin to imagine the wealth of relics entombed within the larger royal sepulchres surrounding Tutankhamun’s, prior to being plundered over the centuries. 

New technologies and conservation continue to yield information about his treasures almost a century later. 

Carter (right) must have been dying of impatience while he awaited the arrival of Lord Carnarvon to begin excavating the tomb he found!

Carter (right) must have been dying of impatience while he awaited the arrival of Lord Carnarvon to begin excavating the tomb he found!

When Carnarvon Met Carter

George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, was the patron who footed the bill for the search for Tutankhamun’s tomb. He was also the lord of Highclere Castle, the impressive estate where Downton Abbey is filmed. And like the fictional Lord Grantham, Carnarvon married into money. 

Is that Downton Abbey? Sort of — the show is set in the real-life Highclere Castle, once home to Lord Carnarvon, who paid for the search for and excavation of Tut’s tomb

Is that Downton Abbey? Sort of — the show is set in the real-life Highclere Castle, once home to Lord Carnarvon, who paid for the search for and excavation of Tut’s tomb

He liked fast horses and even faster cars. A near-fatal automobile accident in 1903 (he was reportedly going a whopping 30 mph or so) left him in chronic pain, and his physician advised the restoring influence of a warmer climate. So he and Lady Carnarvon often spent their winters in Cairo, buying antiquities for their collection and sparking his passion for Egyptology. 

Carnarvon only lived five months after being a part of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun

Carnarvon only lived five months after being a part of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun

In 1907, Lord Carnavon was introduced to a driven and stubborn young archaeologist named Howard Carter by French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, who was the director general of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. 

From the very beginnings of their association, Carter wanted to excavate the Theban necropolis of the Valley of the Kings (modern-day Luxor) in search of the elusive tomb of a minor 18th Dynasty pharaoh, first known through a small faience cup inscribed with the king’s name that was found by American Egyptologist Theodore Davis in 1905. 

Permission to excavate in the valley was granted to Carnarvon in 1914 but didn’t commence until 1917 due to World War I. After four relatively fruitless seasons, and with the final resting place of Tutankhamun undiscovered, Carnarvon was ready to put an end to Carter’s search. Were it not for Carter’s insistence to continue for one more season, the tomb might never have been found. 


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The Boy King became the most famous pharaoh of Ancient Egypt when Carter discovered his unplundered tomb in the 1920s.

Was the tomb cursed?
What’s it like to visit today?

EXPLORE King Tut’s Tomb


Talk about a 12-step program! These stairs were the first evidence of the wonders that lay within this untouched tomb

Talk about a 12-step program! These stairs were the first evidence of the wonders that lay within this untouched tomb

On the morning of November 1, 1922, the top of a sunken staircase was revealed. By the following afternoon, 12 steps had been cleared. Carter ordered his men to refill the staircase and sent off the now-famous telegram to Carnavon, who was in England at the time: 

At last I have made wonderful discovery in Valley; a magnificent tomb with seals intact; re-covered same for your arrival; congratulations.

The earl’s death, five months after the tomb was opened, purportedly from a mosquito bite, is the stuff of legends and is regarded by some as evidence of the curse of the pharaoh. 

Be careful, Carter and Co.! The poor mummy of King Tut was horribly mangled during its removal process

Be careful, Carter and Co.! The poor mummy of King Tut was horribly mangled during its removal process

Off With His Head!

It wasn’t until 1925 that Tut’s mummy was finally revealed. The bands of linen cloth that covered the king from head to feet had been saturated by copious amounts of unguents and resins, leaving his desiccated skin the color and texture of nori seaweed. Perhaps it was thought that by making the boy king appear as Osiris, the god of the afterlife, the transgressions of his heretic father, Akhenaten, who foisted monotheism upon the unwilling population, would be forgiven. 

Whoops! Carter and his team accidentally decapitated the Boy King when they took off the funerary mask

Whoops! Carter and his team accidentally decapitated the Boy King when they took off the funerary mask

Over time these resins changed into a hardened black substance, acting as a glue and adhering his body to the coffin. Carter and his anatomist, Douglas Derry, had to chisel the king's remains out in pieces. Tut’s mummy was unceremoniously decapitated by Carter and his team when its golden death mask was removed. 

On the wall to the right, Tut is shown with his ka, or embodied soul, worshipping Osiris, the mummified god of the afterlife

On the wall to the right, Tut is shown with his ka, or embodied soul, worshipping Osiris, the mummified god of the afterlife

The Osiris Connection: A Boner of Contention

Beneath their swaddling, Tutankhamun's mortal remains had more than a few unusual features. According to Carter’s notes, a conical form, composed of linen bandages, was found atop the king’s head, its shape resembling the feathered, bowling pin-shaped atef crown of Osiris. 

Also noted by Carter was that Tut’s mummy had a woody. The royal penis was embalmed and preserved in an upright nearly 90-degree angle, perhaps symbolically evoking Osiris’ fertility and regenerative powers. 

Photographed after unwrapping by Harry Burton, Tut’s member was reported missing in 1968, when British scientist Ronald Harrison took a series of X-rays of the mummy. His royal endowment sprung up on a CT scan in 2006, hidden in the sand surrounding the king’s remains.

The consensus among Egyptologists was that additional damage to Tutankhamun’s mummy was done by looters sometime after Carter had finished clearing the tomb of its contents in 1932 — most likely during World War II and again in 1968. Both ears were missing, and the eyes had been pushed in. The standing theory is that the looters had bribed the Valley of the Kings guards to let them in, steal the remaining jewelry left in the tomb, and “blinded” and “deafened” the mummy to keep it from coming after them.  

The famous funerary mask of King Tut seems to help prove that Nefertiti did indeed become pharaoh

The famous funerary mask of King Tut seems to help prove that Nefertiti did indeed become pharaoh

A Recycled Mask From Nefertiti 

Interestingly, the most iconic of Tutankhamun’s treasures, his golden death mask, seems to have originally been intended for his stepmother, Nefertiti. 

The face, ears and beard of the beautifully wrought mask were modeled separately to represent the young king as Osiris. Research has revealed that one of the cartouche inscriptions found inside the mask was reinscribed in antiquity with Tutankhamun’s name imposed over the previous, partially erased cartouche of Ankhkheperure Neferneferuaten, the official name used by Nefertiti after she became co-pharaoh of Egypt. This has led some to believe that, like Hatshepsut, Ancient Egyptians attempted to edit out a woman’s rule as king. 

Can you imagine how freaked out the museum staff must have been when they broke off King Tut’s funerary mask beard?!

Can you imagine how freaked out the museum staff must have been when they broke off King Tut’s funerary mask beard?!

The Broken Beard 

In August 2014, the elongated braided beard attached to that iconic funerary mask accidentally snapped off while staff at the Egyptain Museum in Cairo were replacing a lightbulb in its glass display case. A sloppy attempt to hastily reattach the beard with epoxy followed, further damaging the treasured 3,300-year-old mask. This iconic item was taken off display to be restored by a team of German specialists. The resinous glue was carefully removed and the beard reattached with beeswax, an adhesive used in antiquity. 

This 1925 photo by Harry Burton shows that Tut’s beard had broken off previously

This 1925 photo by Harry Burton shows that Tut’s beard had broken off previously

Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time the beard had been separated from the mask, though. Photographs taken of the artifact in 1925 by Burton are of a beardless Tut, and it apparently wasn’t reattached until the 1940s. 

The scarab on this necklace was created by a meteorite crash!

The scarab on this necklace was created by a meteorite crash!

Jewelry That’s Literally Out of This World 

Among the incredible objects discovered in Tut’s tomb was a protective scarab pendant featuring a rare chartreuse yellow gemstone originally identified as chalcedony by Carter. However, modern researchers determined that it’s not a stone at all but a type of extraterrestrial glass created by a meteorite that crashed into the silica-rich sands of the Grand Sand Sea millions of years ago. Known as Libyan desert glass, this material was valued by the Ancient Egyptians as having celestial origins. –Duke

A Brief History of King Tut

The all-too-short life of the Boy King, Tutankhamun, who gained fame when Howard Carter discovered his tomb — one of the only ones in the Valley of the Kings that wasn’t plundered by grave robbers.

This is what King Tut’s tomb looked like when Howard Carter discovered it in 1922

This is what King Tut’s tomb looked like when Howard Carter discovered it in 1922

Ever since I was a young boy, I’d yearned to visit Egypt. I was fascinated by King Tutankhamun and the discovery of his mostly intact tomb, with its wealth of magnificent, well-preserved artifacts. 

For starters, the Boy King’s legacy is fascinating. Filled with political corruption, incest, religious upheaval and a possible murder, his history is just as epic as the eight seasons of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones — and, much like the addictive HBO adaptation, it all collapsed in the end. 

Born in 1341 BCE, his given name was Tutankhaten, Beloved of the Aten, the solar disc of the sun worshipped at Amarna, the capital city established by his father, Akhenaten, the revolutionary heretic king who embraced Aten as the sole supreme being for Egyptians to worship. 

A sphinx bearing the head of Tutankhamun at the Luxor Museum

A sphinx bearing the head of Tutankhamun at the Luxor Museum

The Boy King

Tut was nicknamed the Boy King because he ascended the throne around the age of 8 or 9. Some historians have suggested his vizier, Ay, was the real power behind the throne, citing that it was Ay’s decision to abandon the new capital city of Amarna and restore the authority of the priests and the polytheistic pantheon of Thebes. Whatever the case, when Tut died without an heir, Ay briefly became king. 

Like other pharaohs, Tutankhamun took five royal names, and most of us know him by his fifth nomen, Tutankhamun, after he dropped the -aten suffix in favor of -amun, chief among the old gods. Ancient Egyptians, though, would have called him by his prenomen or throne name, Nebkheperure, which essentially meant Ra Is the Lord of Manifestations to honor a different sun god. 

A goddess guards Tut’s canopic shrine

A goddess guards Tut’s canopic shrine

Incest Is Best?

Tutankhamun was married to his half-sister, Ankhesenamun. The practice of incest to keep the royal bloodline pure was common among the ruling class of Ancient Egypt. They regarded themselves as representatives of the divine on earth. Atum, the god of creation, produced his children Shu and Tefnut by his own hand (aka jerking off). His daughter Tefnut married her twin brother Shu, and voilà! Nut and Geb were added to the ever-expanding pantheon of incestuous liasons. 

Tut and Ankesenamun had two stillborn daughters, likely casualties of genetic deficiencies from generations of inbreeding. Their tiny mummified fetuses were buried in Tutankhamun’s tomb. A DNA study revealed that one was 5 to 6 months old and the other 9 months old. 

Because of his link to the scandalous Akhenaten, Tut’s reign was eventually struck from the record by his successors. Between the ever-shifting desert sands and the Ancient Egyptians attempt to remove all traces of the “Amarna heresy,” Tutankhamun was literally out of sight and out of mind. This in all likelihood helped to preserve his tomb. 


The Abydos Kings List

The Abydos Kings List

Tutankhamun, Akhenaten (aka Amenhotep IV), Ay, Hatshepsut and Meryneith were some of the rulers stricken from the official record. 

LEARN MORE about the Kings List in the Abydos Temple. 


Lord Carnarvon, his daughter Evelyn and Howard Carter

Lord Carnarvon, his daughter Evelyn and Howard Carter

The Untouched Tomb

Unlike other royal tombs, which were looted in antiquity (often by the very laborers who built them), 5,000-some items were found inside King Tut’s tomb. 

British archaeologist Howard Carter was no stranger to the Valley of the Kings and had been obsessively searching for the elusive burial site of Tutankhamun for years. In 1914, his financier George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, secured a license to excavate a parcel of land close to the tomb of Ramesses VI. Carter hired a crew of workers to help find the tomb, but was halted by World War I.

By 1922, Lord Carnarvon, frustrated with the lack of progress and financially spread thin, informed Carter that he would only extend funding for one more season unless Carter struck pay dirt. Like sand in an hourglass, time was running out, when, on November 4, while excavating the very last plot, the crews’ waterboy discovered a step that appeared to be part of a tomb. Carter immediately wired his employer, and the excited Lord Carnarvon arrived two and a half weeks later, with his daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert. 

Carter made a tiny hole in the plaster-sealed entrance. By the light of a candle, he was stunned by what he saw and wrote in his diary:

Presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold — everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment — an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by — I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, “Can you see anything?” it was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.”

Carter and an assistant unveiled the remains of Tutankhamum

Carter and an assistant unveiled the remains of Tutankhamum

Next came the laborious task of cataloging and removing each artifact from the tomb, beginning with the antechamber. Carter called upon the skilled archaeological photographer Harry Burton, who happened to be among the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian expedition team working at the nearby site of Deir el-Bahari. Burton captured the contents of the tomb as they were found. Then, a sketch and description were made on numbered cards before the object was carried out on wooden stretchers. Carter would eventually catalog thousands of artifacts from the tomb. The final contents were finally removed 11 years later, on November 10, 1933.

Did breaking this seal unleash a curse upon all present?!

Did breaking this seal unleash a curse upon all present?!

The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb

Shortly after the burial chamber was opened, stories of the legendary mummy’s curse began surfacing. Rumors quickly spread that Carter had found a clay tablet over the tomb’s entrance that read, “Death shall come on swift wings to whoever toucheth the tomb of the Pharaoh.” 

Near the end of February 1923, Carnarvon was bitten on the cheek by a mosquito. He reopened the bite while shaving, a seemingly innocuous event that would prove fatal. Carnarvon died in Cairo two weeks later from sepsis-abetted pneumonia. 

Even the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who by this time had stopped writing his popular Sherlock Holmes mysteries in favor of spiritualist leanings, weighed in, declaring to the press that “an evil elemental may have caused Lord Carnavon’s fatal illness. One does not know what elementals existed in those days, nor what their form might be. The Egyptians knew a great deal more about these things than we do.” 

Carter, however, seems to have escaped the mummy’s curse and lived on until 1939, when he died of lymphoma at the age of 64.

You’ll have to pay an extra $15 or so to see King Tut’s mummy and tomb

You’ll have to pay an extra $15 or so to see King Tut’s mummy and tomb

Visiting King Tut’s Tomb

While exploring the Valley of the Kings, Wally and I decided to pay the extra fee of 250 Egyptian pounds (about $15) to see KV62, the tomb of Tutankhamun. The site isn’t included with the three tombs that are part of the 200 L.E. fee to the royal necropolis. I imagine this cost is a measure put in place by the Department of Antiquities to limit the amount of visitors entering the tomb. Moisture from breath and perspiration increase humidity levels in the subterranean rock-cut chambers, which in turn damage the lime plaster wall paintings covering the walls. 

The small tomb is less impressive than the other ones you’ll visit in the Valley of the Kings and lacks the elaborate linear design predominantly used by New Kingdom pharaohs — the sun god Ra would find himself challenged, having to follow some twists and turns as he makes his nightly descent at sunset. 

Unlike other tombs, which are covered with paintings, only Tut’s burial chamber is decorated

Unlike other tombs, which are covered with paintings, only Tut’s burial chamber is decorated

Tut’s mummified remains lie on display in a climate-controlled glass box in the tomb’s antechamber. We were the only ones inside at the time and were followed around by a guard, probably to make sure we didn’t take pictures. I incorrectly assumed that my photography pass would be valid and that I could take non-flash pictures while inside. I learned that was not the case when I tried to take a shot of the Boy King’s remains. –Duke