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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

May/June 2019

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.”




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