The year was 1922. The place: Egypt, in the Valley of the Kings. Howard Carter, the archaeologist, and his patron, Lord Carnarvon, assembled with invited dignitaries for the opening of the sealed door to the burial chamber of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
As Howard Carter told it, “One thought and only one was possible. There before us lay the sealed door, and with its opening, we were to blot out the centuries and stand in the presence of a king who had reigned 3,000 years ago. My own feelings as I mounted the platform were a strange mixture, and with trembling hand I struck the first blow.”
An astonishing sight…revealed what to all appearance was a solid wall of gold.
This is a transcript from the video series 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
What they saw was the golden “Great Shrine.” They had not even reached the burial chamber of the dead king. Wondrous riches awaited them, and they could hardly believe their good fortune in discovering what is now known to be the only tomb of a pharaoh that had remained intact and untouched for thousands of years.
Of course, in that new era of the press and radio news, the discovery created a sensation. Egyptomania swept the world and all manner of goods were named for King Tut. The news of the tomb fostered a great new interest in ancient Egypt. The celebrated gold and riches of the tomb, and the excitement of the discovery, amaze us even today. Overcome with astonishment at the sheer quantity of precious material, we may neglect to notice how extraordinary the works from within the tomb are as works of art.
You’ve seen the Mask of Tutankhamun many times, no doubt; you may even have a Halloween mask of it. But do you understand what it represents—why it is so magnificent as art? Its complex back story is fascinating.
This is one of the greatest works of Egyptian art and it lay closest to the mummified remains of the king. It’s iconic and freighted with associations. It was an exalted object with a purpose: To ensure the resurrection of the king.
The funerary art of Egypt had a distinct purpose far beyond remembrance of dead loved ones. The art had a role in their religion, in the ideology that supported kingship, and in reinforcing the hierarchy of society.
The images you see have a lot to tell us, granting us a history—not only of Egyptian political succession but of artistic style and religious belief. It is amazing how much one such object can tell you about a culture. So let’s look closer at the mask, and see how the story begins and ends.
Tutankhamun of the Mask
You are looking at the face of a young man. He was in reality not much more than a boy. Tutankhamun, often called “The Boy King”, was around 19 when he died. His face is smooth and almost heart-shaped. He has a short, tapered, and delicate chin, large almond eyes, and high cheekbones with rounded cheeks. His lips are full and sensuous, but not too wide. They’re almost bow-shaped and full like a baby’s pucker. The points that indent deeply at the end of the lips seem to give him a serene look, one that is almost but not quite a smile.
No worries wrinkle his smooth brow or line his eyes. The distance between his nose and his lips, where the filtrum (the indentation above the upper lip) is carved, is very small, as is the distance between the lower lip and the chin. His nose has a thin bridge and wider end, and it is straighter and smaller than an adult man’s. From the side, it is slightly upturned.
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These proportions are all characteristics of a youth or a child. Yet they are those of a very elegant youth—sophisticated, delicate, and fine-boned. Tutankhamun has the same hazy, far-away gaze seen in Khafre’s statue. He is perfect, and still; no movement mars his expression. In effect, this is as eternal, youthful, and healthy a face as you can create. It is beautiful. It is also deceiving.
Tutankhamun: A Proud Product of Royal Sister–Brother Incest
From an examination of the mummy and its DNA, the former Antiquities Minister of Egypt, Zahi Hawass, and his medical team, have determined that Tutankhamun may have had a cleft lip, a clubfoot, and suffered from malaria. He died at 19, according to them, from a combination of malaria and necrosis of his leg. He was a proud product of the practice of royal sister–brother incest, so his immune system may have been weaker than most, and led him to succumb to an early death. He only had one set of grandparents because his father and his mother were full siblings.
Tutankhamun was buried with many walking staffs, which some scholars believed were a symbol of office, but Hawass and the doctors who examined his mummy believe he needed them to walk. The image of the perfect, ideal, youthful, and muscular king, with faculties far outpacing the common man, had to be conjured by the artist. It had to fit in with 2,000 years of Egyptian tradition concerning the king.
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When you look at this almost heartbreakingly beautiful face, no thought of physical ills can cross your mind: The gold—the flesh of the gods—glows with divine light, and the inlaid blue eyebrows and cosmetic line around the eyes accent sinuous and stunning features.
Tutankhamun: Dressed as a King
This small part of the face, and the golden ears, are all that you see of the king’s actual features, however. The rest of the mask, and the series of coffins in which he was buried, are replete with paraphernalia that emphasized his role as king. Much of that had not changed in the intervening two millennia, since the time of the Old Kingdom.
For instance, Tutankhamun wears the same nemes headcloth that signified kingship for Khafre and others. Tut’s headcloth is merged seamlessly with his face; it consists of gold inlaid with stripes of blue paste, intended to resemble lapis lazuli, and knotted in the back. Tut also wears the false beard customary for kings, which is inlaid in cloisonné, with blue in a herringbone pattern outlined in gold.
On his brow is the kingly uraeus: the cobra Wadjet, representing Lower Egypt, combined with the vulture Nekhbet of Upper Egypt. The combination of the two is symbolic of his domination of both lands. That is strikingly similar to the Narmer Palette’s message of control of both halves of Egypt. The cobra and vulture are colorfully inlaid with semi-precious stones and glass, including turquoise, carnelian, obsidian, and lapis.
Tut also wears an elaborate broad collar that ends at each shoulder with a gold falcon head, the symbol of Horus. The rows of the necklace are composed of lapis, quartz, amazonite, and colored glass. The interplay of curving striped collar and rhythmically striped nemes is pleasing and quite complex. This mask is complete by itself, and the broad collar has the function of ending it gracefully.
The mask lay the closest to the mummy’s shaved and bandaged head. It was filled with unguents and oils used in the mummification process. The mask is inscribed with a magic formula of protection: It’s on the shoulders and the back. Protective inscriptions are carved on the coffins as well.
The Real Story of Tutankhamun
Who was Tutankhamun? How did he fit into the larger Egyptian picture? Tutankhamun was not a king of great importance; he was a boy who ruled only nine or 10 years in the New Kingdom, from the time he was about nine years old. His early and untimely death had practically erased his existence from Egyptian memory, which is probably the reason his tomb had not been looted like every other.
The dazzling contents of the tomb nag at us, and we wonder—what did the truly great kings, like Ramesses the Great, have buried with them? It’s thought that Tut died before his tomb was sufficiently prepared, and his successor had him buried swiftly in a modest tomb meant for someone else.
Tut was born in the New Kingdom (1550–1070 BC), the time of greatest flowering of the Egyptian empire. Under Tut’s grandfather, Amenhotep III, who ascended to the throne in 1390 BC, war and art flourished, and Egypt’s empire extended from the Euphrates in Syria to the Nile’s 4th Cataract in Nubia, where the gold was mined. Some of the most magnificent accomplishments belonged to Amenhotep III’s era, including the largest funerary complex at Thebes, which we know now only from the famed Colossi of Memnon. The son of Amenhotep III, though, was a different sort.
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Akhenaten the Heretic—Tutankhamun’s Father
Tutankhamun’s Father was born Amenhotep IV but changed his name to Akhenaten in the fifth year of his reign. Akhenaten is depicted as the strange and seemingly distorted figure who started a new religious movement, Atenism. He founded a new capital, Akhetaten, and encouraged a new art style that departed from the standards of 2,000 years. This style we call the Amarna style, after the location of the newly founded capital.
Akhenaten replaced the earlier gods, Amun chief amongst them, with the worship of the sun disk, called the Aten. The cults and the priesthood of Amun were attacked and replaced. Tutankhamun’s birth name was actually Tutankhaten, reflecting the solar cult of Aten emphasized by his father.
Akhenaten: A New Artistic Style
Akhenaten began a new art style to express his new beliefs, which embodied the notion that he was the child and the personification of the sun on earth. This new style, which some call naturalistic—but is quite mannered and exaggerated in many ways, although more fluid and personal—was adopted by his artists.
The style made use of an elongated, elegant, and sinuous line. Some of the subject matter of the art was new: It emphasized more intimate, and immediate personal scenes of the family of the pharaoh. Animals, especially beautiful horses, and long-necked women in the royal court appear frequently. Other art historians see the style as “mannered,” in that it has some parallels to the style of the 16th century Italian Mannerists, like that of Parmigianino or Bronzino. They painted highly stylized figures with exaggeratedly long and curving limbs, a contrast to the strict classical proportions that preceded them. The Amarna artists threw off the strict canons of proportions in Egyptian art and created a new and more expressive style!
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Nefertiti, Akhenaten’s wife, seems to have wielded great power. She’s shown with an entirely new crown and is engaged in kingly activities, like smiting an enemy.
Most interestingly, Akhenaten had himself depicted with feminized and strangely distorted features: Narrow shoulders, a long face, a small waist, potbelly, and swelling thighs. Doctors enjoyed speculating on a disease he might have had and making a diagnosis. But after the discovery and examination of his mummy, it turns out that he was perfectly normal. So the style in which he had himself depicted was a religious statement: Akhenaten wanted to have the characteristics of both male and female to express his centrality in the religion. He was the living manifestation of the sun deity, the Aten, on earth.
Akhenaten and Nefertiti were the parents of six daughters. One of them, named Ankhesenpaaten, later changed to Ankhesenamun, was married to Tut. Tut, mysteriously, seems not to have been the son of Akhenaten by Nefertiti or his secondary wife, but according to the DNA is the son of Akhenaten and his so-far nameless full sister. Brother-sister incest was famously the Egyptian means of keeping the royal bloodline intact, but unfortunately, it had serious genetic repercussions for Tut and others.
Tut was married to his half-sister, and he was buried with two fetuses, which DNA tests suggested were his children. They were not brought to term, and perhaps couldn’t be because of genetic defects. Sadly, Tut’s own early demise might have been linked to those weaknesses attributed to incest.
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He ruled only 10 years, and in that time, older officials had to make the real decisions. One of those decisions was to return to the old ways and the religion of Amun, hence the change in the name of the pharaoh. The city of Akhetaten was abandoned and the royals returned to the earlier royal residence in Memphis.
Common Questions About the Mask of Tutankhamun
Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s death mask is worth around 2 million dollars.
King Tutankhamun redesigned Egypt. Tutankhamun is thought to have reversed the unpopular religious changes, reforming god Amun to glory and moving all capital business back to Thebes. Abandoning his original name, Tutankhaten for Tutankhamun (“living image of Amun”), sealed the deal.
Currently the estimated age of King Tutankhamun’s death mask is 3,000 years old until better carbon dating can determine a more accurate date.