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Inside King Tut’s Tomb

A decade of research offers a new look at the burial of Egypt’s most famous pharaoh


Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Tut Tomb North WallIn ancient Egypt, the passage to the afterlife was an arduous one. Even at the end of the journey, the deceased could be turned away from the paradise of the Field of Reeds if their heart tipped the scales when weighed against a feather. Often elements of the transit were painted on tomb walls, a process that, judging from the accomplished and detailed murals that have survived, would have consumed a great deal of time. Although the walls of the pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb are decorated with familiar scenes of this path to paradise, new research is now telling a fresh story about the real-world turmoil caused by the sudden death of the young king.


Tut MapThe pharaoh, who was first known as Tutankhaten (r. ca. 1336–1327 B.C.), was crowned at the tender age of eight or nine, but his reign was not to last long, and he died before he turned 20. Scholars debate the cause, or causes, of Tut’s death, but all agree that it came suddenly. Tut’s unexpected passing presented a challenge—his planned tomb in the Valley of the Kings hadn’t yet been completed. Work on that tomb (KV23) was abandoned, and one in the eastern section of the valley originally intended for someone else (KV62) was hastily made ready. Egyptologist Kent Weeks, who directs excavations in the valley, says that KV62 was probably originally meant for either Tut’s predecessor, Smenkhkare (r. ca. 1336 B.C.), or his successor, Ay (r. ca. 1327–1323 B.C.).


By the standard of other royal tombs, Tut’s is quite small, composed of four small rooms, only one of which is painted. Despite its size, however, the tomb was filled with everything the pharaoh would need for the afterlife, including furniture, chariots, wine, fresh food, clothing, shaving and writing equipment, musical instruments, games, and weapons. There were four gold shrines, one fitted inside the other, within which were nested quartzite, wooden, and golden sarcophagi. The innermost sarcophagus contained the pharaoh’s mummy wearing a 24-pound solid gold mask. There is evidence that Tut’s tomb was robbed twice in antiquity—once, says Weeks, only a short time after the entrance was sealed.


When British archaeologist Howard Carter excavated the tomb in 1922, however, most of the extraordinary grave goods were in place, and the tomb appeared relatively intact. With the exception of the sarcophagus containing the mummy, all the artifacts have been removed to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. What remains are four painted walls depicting scenes of the pharaoh’s transition to the afterlife, which, for Carter, were of far less importance than the golden artifacts.


In 2009, after nearly 100 years and millions of visitors, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities’ concern for the state of Tut’s tomb was mounting. They called upon the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) to study the tomb, in particular the wall paintings, and to develop plans to safeguard it. “When we got there, we were surprised because the paintings’ condition was actually very good,” says GCI’s Lori Wong. “The fact that the paintings are complete puts everything in perspective. We worked here for 10 years, whereas the lifespan of these paintings is 3,300 years.”


Bringing Back Moche Badminton

How reviving an ancient ritual game gave an archaeologist new insight into the lives of ancient Peruvians

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Moche Badminton Illustration


When Christopher Donnan began studying the art created by Peru’s Moche culture more than 50 years ago, he wasn’t sure how much it reflected ancient reality. From about A.D. 200 to 850, the Moche lived in the arid valleys of Peru’s northern coast, where they practiced intensive irrigation agriculture and built vast ceremonial complexes. Moche artists created murals and decorated pottery with vivid images of fantastic rituals featuring participants who were part animal and part human. They also painted scenes of figures, some wearing elaborate clothing that indicated their elite status, engaged in a mysterious spear-throwing activity scholars dubbed “ceremonial badminton” due to the use of a feathered object that looks somewhat like a shuttlecock.


Moche Badminton VesselEarly in his career, Donnan wondered whether the images might depict mythical figures operating on a supernatural plane rather than real people enacting ceremonies on Earth. The rituals certainly seemed to stretch the limits of reality. Chief among them was the sacrifice ceremony, in which attendants slit prisoners’ throats and collected their blood in goblets, which were then presented to the presiding priest. The beings participating in the sacrifice ceremony took human form, but had body parts such as fangs, jaguar heads, and bird beaks. There were also depictions of ceremonial badminton contests that showed groups of figures armed with a type of spear-thrower called an atlatl, which is essentially a stick with a handle on one end and a hook or socket that attaches to a spear on the other. Participants seemed to use their atlatls to hurl spears with feathered objects attached to them. Like the sacrifice ceremony, ceremonial badminton could have been an actual event or a supernatural contest that occurred largely in the Moche mythological realm. “When I looked at these rituals I often wondered if the activities were real. Did they really do that?” says Donnan.


Now, building on decades of archaeological discoveries and his own extensive experience analyzing depictions of Moche rituals, Donnan, an archaeologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, has re-created ceremonial badminton. In bringing to life a contest that for more than 1,000 years was confined to painted scenes on ancient pottery, he has been able to get a glimpse into the lived experience of the Moche that artifacts rarely afford.


The question of whether or not Moche art depicts real events was settled in 1987, when Peruvian archaeologist Walter Alva excavated the tomb of a Moche nobleman now known as the Lord of Sipan. This nobleman had been buried in northern Peru’s Lambayeque Valley along with the bodies of six attendants. The lord wore an elaborate costume that closely resembled the artistic representations of the sacrifice ceremony’s participants. In a nearby tomb, archaeologists discovered the burial of a man who wore a large owl headdress that mimicked how a figure known as the Bird Priest appears in Moche art. Alva and his team even found goblets that had once held the victims’ blood. “That really changed everything,” recalls Donnan, who analyzed Alva’s discoveries and confirmed their parallels to the art he knew so well. “This made clear that what you see in Moche art is real.”

Playing Moche Toss

Mapping the Past

ARCHAEOLOGY’s editors explore the genius and creativity of mapmakers through time

Thursday, April 11, 2019

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