How Did Tutankhamun’s Mummy Remain Intact Inside the Tomb?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt

By: Professor Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

In ancient times, the Egyptians built tombs made of dried bricks that were used to bury their dead. Finding an intact tomb, a royal tomb nonetheless, was not an easy task in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a matter of hard work, knowledge, and perseverance. One of the most famous tombs belongs to Egypt’s boy-king, Tutankhamun. Tutankhamun’s tomb contained fabulous treasures that piqued the interests of many archaeologists and historians. One of the theories regarding his death is that Tutankhamun did not die a natural death but he was murdered.

Mummification process in ancient Egypt
The mummification of the dead was a common practice in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians believed that mummification of a dead person would help one’s soul to reach the afterlife. One of the most famous mummies discovered in 1922 belonged to the pharaoh Tutankhamun. (Image: matrioshka/Shutterstock)

Learn more about prehistoric Egypt.

Akhenaten’s Royal Children

The ancient Egyptian pharaoh, Akhenaten, reigned over the city of Akhetaten for 17 years before he died. After his death, there were only two royal family members alive–his daughter Ankhesenpaaten and his son Tutankhaten. His wife, Nefertiti, died before him. He had six daughters and five of them were already dead. According to most Egyptologists, Tutankhaten was Akhenaten’s son from his second wife Kiya. Tutankhaten was the stepbrother of Ankhesenpaaten.

The Boy-King of Egypt

Statue of Pharaoh Akhenaten
Akhenaten was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh and the father of Tutankhamun. This is an image of a stone statue of the pharaoh. (Image: Maciek67/Shutterstock)

When Akhenaten died, his son Tutankhaten, who was half-royal, was just eight years old and the only male heir and candidate to be the next king. He married his stepsister, who was nine years old, in order to become the next king of Egypt. The death of his father and the religious leader of Egypt left Tutankhaten with a difficult decision of whether he should worshipping the Aten when the king was dead, or go back to the old religion? Finally, he made the decision to move back to the capital city of Thebes. Tutankhaten also changed his name to Tutankhamun. By changing his name, the new king declared the restoration of the old religion. His wife too changed her name to Ankhesenamen. The royal couple moved the religion back to Thebes, but they were not the ones making the decisions. Egyptologists believe that it was the vizier, an older man called Aye (pronounced as A-Y-E).

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Tutankhamun’s Mummy

Tutankhamun’s mummy was discovered in his intact tomb by the English archaeologist Howard Carter, on November 4 1922. The mummy was in a bad state and was very poorly preserved. The main reason behind the poor state of the mummy was a ritual that took place at the time of Tutankhamun’s burial, where magic oil was poured over his body. Those oils had worked over thousands of years to destroy the body. When archaeologists finally discovered the body, it was stuck to the bottom of the gold coffin by the oils. They brought the coffin into the sunlight and hoped that maybe it would soften up the oil. However, it did not work. Eventually, the mummy was sawed in half and chiseled out. This information was never published in the official report. In the 1920s, no one thought of a mummy as a treasure. Nobody realized that it contained information and the concept of DNA had not been thought of. Therefore, archaeologists were not careful with the mummy, causing a lot of damage to it.

Learn more about the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb.

Things Learned from Tutankhamun’s Mummy

The tomb of King Tutankhamen that contained artworks and other ritual objects
In ancient Egypt, tombs were filled with valuable objects such as artwork, jewelry, and other valuables. This is an image of Tutankhamun’s tomb that contained artworks and other ritual objects. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The discovery of Tutankhamun’s mummy enabled archaeologists to know the age of the boy-king. They were sure that Tutankhamun died at the age of 18 years or so. There were several ways through which archaeologists could reach this conclusion. One of the ways was to check when the molars erupted. The other way was to learn by the ends of the bones called the epiphyses. As one gets older, the epiphyses, the ends of one’s long bones, one’s thighs, and one’s arms harden. They cease to be cartilage and become real bones. Archaeologists were, therefore, able to tell that Tutankhamun was about 18 years old when he died.

The objects in the tomb, of course, give an idea of his life. Archaeologists found a chest that contained beautiful jars with the lids of Tutankhamun that contained his internal organs from mummification. When his mummy was preserved, his internal organs were taken out and put them in smaller coffins, thereby preserving them. However, when archaeologists started going into other rooms in the tomb, they found two little coffins–miniature coffins about two feet high or less. When one of the coffins was opened, there was another little coffin inside, beautifully preserved. Inside that was what looked like a little bundle, a little mummy inside each one of the two. These were human fetuses, two little girls, one probably about eight months old, the other about five months old. They were probably miscarriages of Tutankhamun’s young wife, Ankhesenamen. This was proof that the royal couple tried to have children, who unfortunately did not live. These little fetuses were lost for many years and were found at Kasr el Einy Hospital in Cairo.

Valley of the Kings - where the tombs of the pharaohs rest
The Valley of the Kings that stands on the west bank of the Nile, opposite Thebes, houses the tombs of the pharaohs and powerful nobles of ancient Egypt. The tomb of Tutankhamun can also be found in this valley. (Image: Anton Belo/Shutterstock)

Tutankhamun’s mummy is still inside his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Because his mummy was the only one ever found intact in a tomb, archaeologists decided that it ought to be left there. So Tutankhamun still rests in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

Commonly Asked Questions About Tutankhamun

Q: What is theory put forward by Egyptologists about Tutankhamun’s death?

Archaeologists, especially Egyptologists, put together a theory that Tutankhamun’s death was not natural or accidental; he was murdered.

Q: After Akhenaten’s death, who was the male heir to the throne of Egypt?

When Akhenaten died, his son Tutankhaten, who was half-royal, was the only male heir and candidate to be the next king. He was only eight years old at that time.

Q: Who discovered Tutankhamun’s mummy?

Tutankhamun’s mummy was discovered in his intact tomb by the English archaeologist Howard Carter, on November 4 1922.

Q: Why was Tutankhamun’s mummy in a bad state?

Tutankhamun’s mummy was discovered in a bad state because of a ritual that took place at the time of his burial, where magic oil was poured over his body.

Q: Where is Tutankhamun’s mummy currently resting?

Tutankhamun’s mummy is still inside his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Because his mummy was the only one ever found intact in a tomb, archaeologists decided that it ought to be left there.

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