It is one of the most iconic discoveries in all of archaeology—the treasure-filled tomb of the young Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, better known as King Tut. One hundred years ago today British archaeologist Howard Carter and an Egyptian excavation team found the boy king’s final resting place. Scholars have been studying the royal tomb and its owner ever since. From this work the broad outlines of the life and times of Tut have emerged. Many mysteries remain, however, including how the young pharaoh was related to Queen Nefertiti (herself a subject of debate), how influential he was as a ruler and how he died. Now new findings are emerging that could fill in some of the missing details. But as ever, debates rage over how to interpret them.
The key to Tut’s discovery was dogged perseverance. By November 4, 1922, Carter and his team had spent five futile years searching for an undiscovered royal tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. The prevailing wisdom said that everything the valley had to offer had already been found. Carter decided to spend what was to be his final field season digging beneath a group of huts that housed the ancient tomb builders. “We had almost made up our minds that we were beaten...,” he and archaeologist Arthur Cruttenden Mace wrote in The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen, their account of the expedition. “Hardly had we set hoe to ground in our last despairing effort than we made a discovery beyond our wildest dreams.”
Beneath those huts, the excavation team uncovered a step cut into the rock. The next day the team dug out a steep staircase and a door sealed with plaster and stamped with the royal necropolis seal. Carter waited to open the door until his benefactor George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, fifth earl of Carnarvon, who had funded his work in the valley for all those years, could travel to the site. On November 24, 1922, it was cleared to reveal a corridor, followed by a 30-foot-long passageway that ended in another door. On November 26, 1922, Carter broke open a small hole in the door and stuck a candle through, casting the first light into the chamber in nearly 3,300 years. The sight held him speechless as his eyes adjusted. “Details of the room emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold,” Carter wrote in The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen. He was looking into the antechamber of the tomb of Tutankhamun, a ruler who sat his throne for only around 10 years but did so at a pivotal time in Egyptian history.
Carter went on to carry out a meticulous, decade-long study of the four chambers that make up the tomb and more than 5,000 artifacts within them. “I'm grateful that it was he who found that tomb,” says Egyptologist Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo. “Had it been any number of other individuals, we would have had much less left to us.” Although Carter complicated his legacy by taking artifacts from the tomb for his personal collection, he was considerably more careful in his documentation of the tomb than a number of other excavators working in Egypt at the time. Carter enlisted archaeological photographer Harry Burton, who was working with an expedition sponsored by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, to photograph the excavation of the tomb, documenting each chamber in detail before any objects were moved. Each artifact was given a number and drawn on a map. Carter “was trained under the most important archaeologist of that time, Sir Flinders Petrie,” says Zahi Hawass, former head of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities. “Petrie changes this man from a draftsman, whose drafts were not great, to one of the most important excavators at that time.” Carter’s methods are still used by modern Egyptologists to document tombs or other rooms full of artifacts, albeit with updated technology.
Through the work of Carter and his successors, a picture of Tut and his family began to coalesce. Tutankhamun was the son of Pharaoh Akhenaten, who renounced the sun god Amun, the deity with the most economically and politically powerful religious cult. Egyptians had worshipped Amun as their chief god for hundreds of years. Akhenaten replaced him by elevating a sun god called Aten, who was previously only a minor religious figure. Before his father’s death in 1336 B.C.E., Tutankhamun was named “Tutankhaten,” which means “the living image of Aten.” Akhenaten showed his devotion to Aten by moving Egypt’s capital from Thebes to a new city he had built on an uninhabited piece of land near the Nile. The city had a massive temple dedicated to his new god, and he called it Akhetaten (today it is known as Amarna).
The temples of Egyptian gods served as centers of trade and places where food and wealth could be distributed to local populations. Without the powerful cult of Amun carrying out this business, Akhenaten’s kingdom was thrown into turmoil. The cult of Aten did not seem to serve the public very well. Remains of the people who lived at Akhetaten show that much of the population was malnourished and endured lives of heavy manual labor, probably building Akhenaten’s city.
Tutankhamun’s story is intertwined with that of Akhenaten’s principal wife Nefertiti, who was often depicted as equal in power to her husband. Her role as co-ruler of Egypt has made her a subject of fascination for scholars. How her time as a ruler ended and the transition to Tutankhamun’s reign occurred are both part of the story of how Egypt was changing as the cult of Aten ended. She was probably not Tutankhamun’s mother—one of Akhenaten’s secondary wives, Kiya, is thought to have given birth to him. Artwork from Amarna that depicts the royal family often shows Nefertiti with her daughters but not a son.
After Akhenaten’s death, an enigmatic pharaoh named Smenkhkara took the throne. This ruler’s identity is a matter of intense debate. Some Egyptologists speculate that Smenkhkara may have been Nefertiti using a different name, which would make her one of the very few women to rule Egypt alone. “I think that it's possible that Nefertiti was ruling as a king,” Ikram says. “Even in Akhenaten’s time, so much of her iconography was that of a male king, smiting enemies and doing things like that.”
A pottery shard bearing Smenkhkara’s name, found by Hawass’s team at a city called the “Dazzling Aten” near the Valley of the Kings, supports this view. “This is a really big discovery because we don’t know who Smenkhkara is,” Hawass says. “I believe now Smenkhkara could be Nefertiti.” A figurine showing a female ruler that was found in Tut’s tomb bolsters Hawass’s belief. It was not unusual for a ruler to change their name following a big political change during their reign, he says. Another female ruler, Hatshepsut, also changed her name to take on a male persona as pharaoh more than 100 years before Nefertiti, Hawass says.
The idea that Smenkhkara was Nefertiti using a different name has its skeptics, however. Joyce Tyldesley, a professor of Egyptology at the University of Manchester in England believes that Smenkhkara was a brother or half-brother of Tutankhamun. Barry Kemp, a professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Cambridge and director of excavations at Amarna, notes that a drawing in the tomb of Meryra II, a senior scribe and administrator, depicts the royal line of succession. “The king is labeled Ankh-kheperura Smenkhkara and the queen as Meretaten, Akhenaten’s eldest daughter [by Nefertiti],” Kemp explains, “I find it perverse to argue that the former is Nefertiti.”
Smenkhkara only ruled for about four years. Then, in 1332 B.C.E., Tutankhamun ascended the throne at the age of eight or nine to preside over a nation in upheaval. Egyptologists have speculated that he was a puppet king whose strings were being pulled by older men who had served as his father’s advisers: Ay, who would become Tutankhamun’s successor as pharaoh, and Horemheb, general of Egypt’s army and the man who would succeed Ay a few years later. Early in his reign Tut renounced the worship of Aten and reinstated the worship of Amun. He also moved the capital from Amarna back to the city of Thebes. Tyldesley observes that Tut was very young when these events transpired, making it unlikely that the changes were his idea.
New evidence about Akhenaten’s religious revolution and Tutankhamun’s counterrevolution is also emerging from Hawass’s excavations at the Dazzling Aten. After less than two years of work at the site, Hawass’s team has uncovered much of the main street that divided the city into eastern and western parts. The street is bordered by curved mud-brick walls that were parts of buildings that housed workshops that were used during Tutankhamun’s reign for making jewelry, leather sandals, clothing, amulets, statues and mud bricks. The team has also found an artificial lake that served as the city’s water source. Intriguingly, drawings on the walls dating to the time of Akhenaten’s father, Pharaoh Amenhotep III, depict the Aten exactly as he was shown at Amarna. Amenhotep III also refers to himself and his palace at Malqata as “Dazzling Aten.” Hawass believes that the worship of Aten was fully formed even before the reign of Akhenaten. “For the first time, we can confirm that the idea of Aten was not from Akhenaten as everyone believes,” he says. “Aten was created by Amenhotep III.”
Fresh insights into the life of Tutankhamun may come from DNA analyses. Previous studies of ancient DNA obtained from Tut and several other members of the royal family revealed clues to his incestuous lineage. Now Hawass is involved with a DNA study of two unidentified mummies found in the Valley of the Kings. He believes they may be Nefertiti and Queen Ankhesenamun, the wife of Tutankhamun. Hawass expects the results of the DNA analysis in December. If the mummies do belong to members of Tutankhamun’s family, the work could resolve some questions about how he was related to Nefertiti and other members of his dynasty.
The DNA evidence may not settle the matter, though. The generations of inbreeding that occurred among Egyptian royalty limit the conclusions that can be drawn from genetic studies, Ikram says. It may be hard to discern a sister from a close cousin when a family shares so much DNA in common.
Despite 100 years of study and technological progress, many questions about Tutankhamun remain—including the cause of his early death between the ages of 17 and 20. Researchers have proposed all manner of imaginative hypotheses for his demise, ranging from murder to a chariot accident to a hippopotamus attack. According to Ikram, CT scans of Tut’s mummy have failed to provide a definitive answer. However he died, the most important legacy of Tutankhamun’s brief reign may not have anything to do with restoring the cults of the old gods to Egypt. He is also great at drawing tourists to the nation. “Tutankhamun, I swear to God, is the best Egyptian pharaoh because he's the one who has been making Egypt’s economy boom, or at least break even, ever since 1922,” Ikram says. “Show me another king who’s done that!”