Wondrous things!’ was Howard Carter’s answer to Lord Carnarvon when asked what he could see through the small hole of a newly discovered tomb. The body they found inside would go through the least wondrous of treatments.
His name is one you have probably heard before. I knew him as Toutankhamon for most of my life, but you probably know him as Tutankhamun. He’s arguably the most famous pharaoh in the world, and yet, do you really know anything about his life? Tutankhamun is a pharaoh I have long avoided talking about, because it always confuses me that while everyone seems to know him, what everyone thinks about is his coffin, his gold, the chariot, the jewellery, the other coffin… But something is always missing.
Close your eyes and think about it for a moment. When you think about Tutankhamun, do you picture him in your mind? Or do you see his gilded treasure, displayed so often in the media, sometimes to illustrate a discussion of the pharaoh himself, but most of the time as an easy symbol for anything related to ancient Egypt, and even sometimes modern Egypt? Or perhaps you see Howard Carter, a man who has usurped the physical person of Tutankhamun – and all the many local workers – in the press since the day of the tomb’s opening. Tutankhamun has been made into an icon, and yet his person, his physical body and even his personality have all been erased. Perhaps you have heard about his body in the context of speculations around his death, or in more recent years around his disability, for instance in National Geographic:
King Tut may be seen as the golden boy of ancient Egypt today, but during his reign, Tutankhamun wasn't exactly a strapping sun god. (…) He was not a very strong pharaoh. He was not riding the chariots. (…) Picture instead a frail, weak boy who had a bit of a club foot and who needed a cane to walk.[i]
This frankly discriminatory reporting of Tutankhamun’s disability – linking his use of mobility aids to frailness and weakness and an inability to rule properly – centres the conversation back onto Tutankhamun’s body, but unfortunately from the point of view of the lack of. He could not walk without a stick. He could probably not ride a chariot. There is something that’s still missing in this conversation, in spite of the reappearance of his body as a topic, and that is the actual damage done to his remains in his afterlife.
The history of the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun is one that is well known, and yet a lot of it is seen through the lens of Carter’s own narratives.[ii] In reality, it is a complex story. After the initial opening, officially recorded in November 1922, the tomb was sealed, and on 10 October 1925 it was reopened. This time efforts focused on the mummy of Tutankhamun and the task of separating the three coffins protecting the body.[iii] The removal of the last coffin revealed what has now become a symbol of ancient Egypt around the world: the golden mask of Tutankhamun, which was later displayed both in Paris and in London.
The body itself had stuck to the bottom of its coffin, the resins used in the embalming having possibly melted. Leaving the body inside its coffin was never an option, and so there began a series of attempts to unstick his remains and remove them. Among the approaches tried was the exposure of the body to the sun, which wasn’t good for the body and did nothing to help release it - it may even have caused more resins to melt and stick. The body then went through something you might be familiar with: an unwrapping, presided over by Carter and Dr Douglas Derry. All the wrappings were removed so that they could extract the jewellery. The more wrappings that were removed, the more obvious it was that the resins had stuck to the inside of the body too and dissolved the flesh. This was not considered reason enough to stop the unrolling, and they continued with heated knives, removing the remains bit by bit. On 31 October 1926, the body was put back in the wooden coffin, which was then placed inside the sarcophagus. The body was looking as damaged and fractured as you might imagine. When R. G. Harrison studied the mummy, a mere forty-two years later, he was surprised to discover that the body had never been rewrapped, or even partially covered. This is how it looked when it was famously photographed by Burton.[iv] In addition, parts of Tutankhamun’s body were missing.
Tutankhamun, who was one of the rare pharaohs to have been discovered untouched, is also the one to have suffered the most violence to his body in modern times. And yet this sordid episode has been completely erased from collective memory. Many of us know of his treasure; but few will know about the desecration of his body at the hands of the British, just a hundred years ago.
I chose this story because this month marks the centenary of the opening of the tomb of Tutankhamun, and you will hear about him a lot – or perhaps you will hear about Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon more. But it is likely that you will not hear as much about his mummy. For the longest time, I did not know about the desecration of his body at all. I did not know any of those stories I wrote about until I researched them – and when I did it felt as if I had been engaging with an incomplete picture of what Egyptian mummies are, how they got here and the narratives attached to them, especially those stories of so-called discovery.
[i] Ker Than, ‘King Tut mysteries solved: was disabled, malarial, and inbred’ in National Geographic, 17 January 2010 (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/100216-king-tut-malaria-bones-inbred-tutankhamun) (accessed July 2021). [ii] Howard Carter, The Tomb of Tutankhamun (London : E. P Dutton, 1972). For recent publications that revise the ‘discovery’ of Tutankhamun’s tomb in its Egyptological context, see: Donald Malcom Reid, Contesting Antiquity in Egypt (Cairo: AUC Press, 2015); Elliott Colla, Conflicted antiquities, Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007). [iii] On 5 November 1922, the tomb of Tutankhamun is discovered –the process of rediscovery was much longer and involved many more people than Howard Carter, but this is the date that has entered public consciousness. In reality, the opening would take a very long time, and the recording and photography process, as well as the removal took place over the years, in various steps. The removal of objects started in December of that year, but as far as the body is concerned, nothing much happened until much later. [iv] On the staging of these pictures and the wider implications of photography and archaeology, see Christina Riggs, Photographing Tutankhamun, Archaeology, ancient Egypt, and the archive (London: Bloomsbury, 2019).