The sad life of a golden boy who became a world celebrity three thousand years after he died

Under a marvelous gold mask lies a corpse of an ailing cripple. His short, nineteen-year life must have been one of constant pain. Tutankhamun suffered from epilepsy, scoliosis, clubfoot, cleft palate, bone necrosis, and malaria. He was probably the result of inbreeding -- the incestuous relationship of the heretical pharaoh Akhenaten with his own sister.

The treasure-filled tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun was discovered in the Valley of the Kings one hundred years ago. The gold posthumous mask of the ruler has since become the undisputed, most recognizable symbol of antiquity in the world. Some even claim it to be the most recognizable symbol of the entire artistic heritage of humankind. But behind the splendor emanating from it and five thousand other items of Tutankhamun’s treasure, lies the sad story of the pharaoh himself, his tomb and the modern peripeteia of its contents.

Tomb next to tomb

On November 4, 1922, after six years of fruitless searching in the Valley of the Kings, right next to the tomb of Pharaoh Ramesses VI, the British archaeologist Howard Carter came across the first step of a stone staircase that seemed to lead to some other, unknown tomb. The next day, having removed the stoney rubble, it turned out that twelve steps descended to a walled-up entrance that had been sealed off with the seals of the Royal Necropolis, the effigy of Anubis, the god of the afterlife.

"I discovered a tomb next to that of Ramesses VI. I examined the entrance and found the seals intact," Carter wrote in his notebook that day. But contrary to popular belief, Carter had no idea at the time that this would prove to be Tutankhamun's tomb. In fact, he had serious reservations as to the royal status of the person buried there. "The seals suggest it belonged to someone of high status, but I have not been able to determine to whom. I was surprised by the small size of the entrance compared to other royal tombs in the Valley. Could this be the tomb of someone high up, buried here with the pharaoh's permission? Or perhaps a royal tomb?" he wrote.

Nonetheless, that very day the excited archaeologist dispatched a telegram to Lord Carnarvon, his sponsor, in England: "At last I have made a miraculous discovery of a splendid grave with its seals intact in the Valley. I'm waiting for your arrival. Congratulations."

During the next two weeks, as the entrance was being cleared of rubble, Carter was becoming increasingly doubtful. He was almost certain that it was the tomb of some relative of one of the rulers of the eighteenth dynasty, but not someone related to a pharaoh. His expectations sank further after a hole was made in the first entrance. Behind it, in a small corridor leading to the second walled-up entrance, lay the shards of numerous objects made of alabaster, pottery, etc. Their appearance indicated the eighteenth dynasty, but the fact that they were there suggested that the tomb had been robbed just like all others in the Valley of the Kings.

Instead, on November 26, in the presence of Lord Carnarvon, all doubts were dispelled, and Carter became the main protagonist of the greatest archaeological discovery in the history of mankind. There, on the second walled-up entrance, was an intact seal complete with Tutankhamun’s cartouche, proof that this was in fact the tomb of the pharaoh and that, most likely, the robbers had been unable to completely plunder it. A small hole was subsequently cut in the entrance, and then the memorable words were spoken. "Can you see anything there?" Carnarvon inquired. Using a flashlight and a candle, Carter peered through the hole and replied, "Yes, it is wonderful."
Thanks to these two gentlemen, the world went crazy about Tutankhamun 100 years ago. Howard Carter (right) discovered the tomb and Lord Carnarvon sponsored the archaeological research. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The opening was then enlarged so that both could see inside. "It was a sight incomparable to anything else. We could never dream of anything like this. The beauty and sophistication of these objects exceeded all our imaginations, the impression was electrifying," noted Carter.

After three days, in the presence of local notables, the "official opening" of the tomb took place, and a messenger hurried to Luxor with the text of a telegram to the London "Times" so that the whole world could learn about Tutankhamun, his tomb and its treasures.

Three coffins in the third chamber

In truth, the contents of the tomb surpassed all expectations. Unusual statuettes, thrones, beds, carriages, dishes, ornaments -- all of the highest craftsmanship and glistening with gilding.

  Fortunately, Carter was an extremely systematic, methodical archaeologist. Immediately, despite the media’s euphoria and tourist pilgrimages to the tomb, he made sure each object was meticulously documented before it was removed from the tomb and sent to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The key role here was played by the English Egyptologist and photographer Harry Burton, who in thousands of photographs captured not only the exploration of Tutankhamun’s tomb, but notably the complete inventory of all five thousand items that had been found therein. In all, the task took him a total of eight years to complete.

Today, it seems difficult to believe that long after discovering the tomb Carter had yet to realize that some of the most astonishing treasures lay hidden in the third, proper burial chamber: three coffins, including one made of pure gold weighing 110 kg, stunning jewelry (necklaces, amulets), and of course the iconic golden mask.

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Lord Carnarvon, the sponsor who funded the discovery in the first place, was never to see these treasures. He died on April 5, 1923, in Cairo, the result of an infection caused by a razor cut while shaving.

Carter, meanwhile, had a lot of work ahead of him. In order to reach the pharaoh's mummy and the mask protecting his head, four burial chests made of gold sheet had to be dismantled in the narrow burial chamber (starting with the largest measuring 5×3.3×2.73m). Then came the quartzite-made sarcophagus and three coffins, including two covered with gold sheet and the last made of pure gold. All were opened painstakenly, one at a time.

Thus, it was not until October 29, 1925, almost three years after the discovery of the tomb, that Carter saw the pharaoh's mask and mummy for the first time. It was not a pleasant sight. Tutankhamun's hastily embalmed corpse had been almost charred by the spontaneous combustion of the castor oil used on the mummification bandages. The golden coffin was filled with almost two buckets of dirty, hard goo stuck to the mummy. The golden mask, covered with a shroud, was not seriously damaged, but in attempting to remove it from the coffin, Carter was ultimately forced to tear off the pharaoh's head, which was almost embedded in it.

Nineteen years of suffering

The discovery of the tomb made Tutankhamun the most famous, "golden" pharaoh of ancient Egypt, an icon of pop culture, even. Yet, compared to most other pharaohs, he was an insignificant ruler, practically marginal. It is possible that he was largely unknown to most in Egypt during his lifetime.

Recent research on his mummy has revealed that the wonderful golden mask covered an ugly, deformed and sickly cripple. His short-lived nineteen existence (born around 1342-1339 BCE, died 1323 BCE), must have been a life of constant pain and suffering. Tutankhamun had epilepsy, scoliosis, clubfoot, cleft palate, bone necrosis and malaria. Not long before his death, he had a fall (perhaps because of an epileptic or malaria attack), breaking his leg at the knee. Over a hundred and thirty walking sticks and heaps of herbal medicines were placed in his grave, it being assumed that even in the afterlife he would continue to be an intensive care patient more so than a powerful deity.

Most likely, Tutankhamun was the offspring of inbreeding, resulting from the incestuous relationship of the androgenic, heretical pharaoh Akhenaten with his own sister, whose mummy was called the "Younger Lady." Tutankhamun was also married to his own half-sister, the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. His two daughters, conceived in this union, were stillborn.
In 2010, three mummies were exhibited at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Thanks to DNA tests, they were identified as Tutankhamun's mother, his grandmother and his father Akhenaten's father. Photo: Shawn Baldwin/Discovery Channel via Getty Images
Hailed by the media as the "golden boy", Tutankhamun certainly did not have a golden life. Even worse, his father Akhenaten brought Egypt to the brink of collapse by unleashing a religious revolution aimed at introducing a monotheistic religion based on the worship of the god Aton (symbolized by the solar disk of the sun). Akhenaten (seen by some as the prototype of Moses) ordered the temples of other gods to be closed, declaring open war on their priests. Along with a group of followers, he moved from the capital, Thebes, to the wilderness bent on building a new capital city of Akhetaton (now Samarna). Most of its builders were to die there of starvation.

Shortly after the death of the 30-year-old Akhenaten, the priests reinstated the old religion, Akhenaten's name was erased from all inscriptions, the images were destroyed, and the new capital was turned into ruins. The heretic was supposed to cease to exist. His son Tutankhaten was renamed the orthodox Tutankhamun. Everything indicates that the crippled boy had only titular power, and that in fact he was probably a passive hostage in the hands of the powerful, revengeful priests of the old faith and their supporters, the viziers.

Small wonder that even after his death, Tutankhamun was treated so inelegantly. His corpse was embalmed hastily and messily. His mummy, perhaps deliberately, didn’t include his heart, even though, according to the beliefs of the time, this was essential to achieve immortality. An ill-chosen excess of resins and the oils, customarily supposed to ensure long-lasting preservation of the mummy, caused a thermal reaction within the bandages, which almost charred and melted the corpse.

The mummy was placed in a cramped, unfinished tomb, one that may have been intended originally for some royal relative or possibly for Akhenaten's chief wife, Nefertiti, who, after her husband's death, had briefly attempted to rule Egypt under the guise of a man.

The hastily-made simple frescoes that featured in only one of the tomb's four chambers were immediately covered with mold. An examination of the objects in the tomb suggests that most were intended for the burial of Nefertiti, whose cartouches and images were rather messily reforged or repainted into cartouches and images of her stepson Tutankhamun. Traces of such modifications can be seen even on the quartzite sarcophagus, the coffins and the golden mask.

It is believed that just after the funeral an attempt was made to rob the tomb and that somehow the employees of the necropolis noticed it and bricked up the entrance again. And then another miracle happened. Typical for the Valley of the Kings, autumn downpours, which often flooded the necropolis, caused heaps of rock rubble to slide exactly into place at the entrance to the tomb. Thanks to this, the tomb became the only one not to be looted and so still contained the pharaoh's mummy that had been originally buried there.

Infinite treasures

What was supposed to discredit Tutankhamun immediately after his death and prevent him from achieving immortality, paradoxically turned out to be a blessing both for him and for us. For the next three thousand years, who would think to look for a tiny tomb of an insignificant pharaoh when there were the ten-times-larger tombs of eminent rulers, including Ramesses II called the Great, or the tomb of his sons with as many as one hundred and thirty chambers, all buried in the Valley and available to be looted.
Thanks to the contents of Tutankhamun's tomb, "recycled" though they may be, we can at least imagine the inexhaustible scale of treasures, the literally tons of gold and valuables, and the masterpieces of art and craftsmanship there must have been in the tombs of the much more powerful and wealthier pharaohs.

Indeed, nothing may yet be lost. The freak of nature that serendipitously secured the entrance to his tomb from looters, plus the persistence of Howard Carter, who was on the verge of abandoning his excavations in the Valley of the Kings due to lack of funds, suggest beyond any doubt that further digging could be worthwhile! After all, based on careful examination of what has come to light so far, indications are that this amounts to only about ten percent of what is still hidden in the sands of the Egyptian deserts, amidst the rocky wilderness and among the underground chambers.

Besides, it's not just about Egypt. Consider, we still do not know the location of the tomb of Alexander the Great who died in Babylon or whether the huge burial mound of the first emperor of China Qin Shi Huang in the suburbs of Xi'an really contains treasures that the human eye has not yet seen. Then there are the treasures of the Incas, Templars and Caribbean pirates.

Colonial looting

Why are the pyramids in Egypt? Because they were too heavy to be transported to the British Museum in London. This clichéd joke takes us straight into the world of colonial politics at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is worthwhile looking at the fate of the treasures from Tutankhamun's tomb in this context.

The colonial powers, with Great Britain and France at the forefront, were not much different from the ancient robbers of the pharaohs' tombs. Their archaeologists, travelers, collectors and generals were plundering and looting anything they could get their hands on. The museums of London, Paris, Berlin and Rome are stuffed to the brim not only with statues, mosaics, frescoes, jewelry and ceramics, but also complete altars, temples, gates and walls from ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Anatolia, China, Central Asia, Latin America and Egypt.

The squares of the capitals of these former colonial powers are decorated with Egyptian obelisks. Indeed, had it been possible, the pyramids and the Sphinx might well have ended up either in London or Paris as well. The priceless Rosetta Stone (found in a port near Alexandria), the discovery of which was groundbreaking in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, sits in the British Museum. The Louvre alone contains more than 55,000 objects, brought there from Egypt. The bust of Tutankhamun's stepmother Nefertiti, as iconic as his mask, was appropriated by the Egyptian Museum in Berlin.

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The English, French and Germans unceremoniously plundered antiquities in Egypt, which, although formally becoming an independent kingdom in 1922, remained a British protectorate up until 1951. Absurdly, ancient mummies, transported to England en masse, were either ground into fertilizer for use in agriculture, or into tablets to be sold as medicine.

In Howard Carter’s time, when the British influence in Egypt started weakening, archaeologists bought concessions for excavations and were commonly allowed to hold onto some of the finds. Fortunately, the Egyptian authorities, who tended to sympathize more with the French (on the principle of the enemy of my enemy being my friend), maintained the tradition, initiated in the mid-nineteenth century, of entrusting the position of director to the so-called Egyptian Antiquities Service to one of the eminent French Egyptologists. Following the creation of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, these directors tried to insist that both British as well as French archaeologists should donate at least part of their valuable finds to the museum. They were also buying antiquities from robbers in the bazaars of Cairo.

Despite these efforts, even the Egyptian Museum regularly organized auctions for the sale of less valuable objects to foreign collectors.

French Director's veto

At the time of Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, the director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service was the Frenchman, Pierre Lacau. Both gentlemen disliked one another intensely. So much so that when Lacau forbade the wives of members of Carter's team to enter the tomb in 1924, Carter locked the tomb, refusing to hand over the keys and remained mortally offended for several months.

It was Lacau who, by dint of negotiations and arguments that lasted until 1929, forced Carter to accept that none of the objects from Tutankhamun's tomb would leave Egypt and end up in any British, French or American museums or private collections. And this did happen. Tutankhamun's treasures were transported to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Carter and Lord Carnarvon's heirs had to satisfy themselves with an extremely lucrative contract for the exclusive publication of Harry Burton's photographs and Carter's reports for The Times of London, even though these were the subject of constant rows with Lacau.
Photos from the fake opening of the tomb taken in January 1924. Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
It is of note that the first photos from the tomb did not appear in The Times until January 30, 1923, given that Burton did not reach the Valley of the Kings until Christmas Day 1922. Of course, the photos caused an immediate worldwide sensation. Few people were aware that the famous photos of Carter and the "opening of the tomb" had not been taken in November 1922, since Burton had yet to arrive. The fact is that they were taken only in January 1924, by which time sufficiently powerful electric floodlights had been brought to Egypt. In these photos, Carter, ostensibly looking at something priceless, golden and glittering, was actually staring at the specially lit wall of the burial chest.

Today, these unique photos and Carter's notes are the property of the University of Oxford, since it had never occurred to him to donate them to Egypt. Moreover, during the time the inventory of the tomb was being compiled, which lasted until 1933, Carter never allowed any Egyptian journalist to be present on the site.

Severed beard, missing penis

Until recently, a visit to Cairo's Egyptian Museum could give admirers of the treasures from Tutankhamun's tomb palpitations. Firstly, only one-fifth of the objects found in the tomb were exhibited there. Secondly, the display itself was inadequate: poorly lit in old glass cases, the panes of which bore traces of tourists’ fingerprints and the viewers’ noses that had been pressed up against them. Some bore laconic descriptions, some handwritten a hundred years ago; others had none. At the same time, virtually none of the objects on display had ever been subject to professional conservation, apart, that is, from the rather amateurish efforts of what amounted to a hasty cleaning by Carter's team.

Hard to believe but even the iconic mask of Tutankhamun, displayed in a cramped glass case that renders good photo-taking virtually impossible, has also fallen victim to the sloppiness of the museum staff. In August 2014, while replacing the lighting in the display case and allegedly attempting to "dust" the mask, a museum staff member accidentally tore off its ceremonial beard. Then, in a bid to hide the damage, the beard was haphazardly glued to the mask using a common epoxy resin that left visible traces of excess glue on the mask. This is what actually happened to one of the world’s most famous works of art, one that is nominally insured for six billion dollars.

The matter came to light only after a long time. Eight museum employees were disciplined. For two months, the outstanding German restorer Christian Eckman struggled to undo the damage, eventually ungluing the beard to remove the resin and then managing to re-glue it using a special wax prepared in accordance with ancient recipes.

In the meantime, the tiny mummies of Tutankhamun's stillborn daughters were found in a pile of boxes that had been left in a Cairo hospital some decades earlier. Supposed to have tested them, the hospital "forgot" to return them to the museum. Still missing is the pharaoh's penis, somehow lost but most likely ripped from the mummy as a souvenir by an unknown. And so on.

The building of the Egyptian Museum, which dates from 1902, has long failed to meet the basic requirements to receive the millions of tourists who visit it annually. It lacks air-conditioning, doesn’t have enough toilets and hasn’t even a place for a visitor to buy a bottle of water in its constantly sweltering atmosphere. Two or three hours of wandering around this sadly neglected museum, which houses more than 160,000 priceless ancient exhibits, can become a form of torture.

This begs the question: where is the money? After all, Tutankhamun's treasures, the Valley of the Kings with his tomb and the pyramids have attracted, are attracting and will attract tens of millions of tourists to Egypt annually. They spend an average of US$20 billion. That is more than 10 percent of the country’s annual GDP. At the same time, Egypt, by no means an extremely poor country, is currently building a new administrative capital at a cost of US$60 billion. Yet there is still not enough money for monuments, the paint is peeling off the walls in the Cairo Museum, and a comfortable new highway that is supposed to lead to the pyramids though dug up for years remains incomplete.

Unfortunately, the reason for this sorry state of affairs can be attributed to corruption and the systemic theft so typical of autocratic "developing" countries, among which Egypt ranks only slightly better than Pakistan or Uzbekistan. The largest museum in the world

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True, aware of the appeal of Tutankhamun's treasures, the Egyptian authorities are building a new Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) near the Giza pyramids. Its construction began in 2002, i.e. twenty years ago, but the end is not yet in sight. The Egyptian equivalent of the Polish Central Anti-Corruption Bureau would certainly have its hands full there, only somehow it is not there. The museum was supposed to be ready in 2013, then in 2018, then in 2020, and now it will be wonderful if it opens in 2023. So far, its construction has consumed over half a billion dollars, and ultimately the total is expected to be one billion.

The GEM will be the largest archaeological museum in the world. About 20,000 exhibits are to be displayed in its exhibition area covering over 80,000 sq.m. All five thousand objects found in Tutankhamun's tomb will be shown there for the first time since their discovery. They are currently being transferred gradually to the GEM from the cramped quarters of the Cairo Museum. An additional advantage the project offers is that each object will finally benefit from a thorough renovation and conservation at the highest world level before being put on display in the new premises.

The planned exhibition of Tutankhamun's treasures at the GEM is intended to end once and for all the litany of disastrous comments coming from tourists visiting the old museum, along with the complaints by scientists who have been long denied access to the full collection. It should also help redress Egypt's increasingly bad reputation as a tourist destination.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Egyptian authorities did carry out a successful campaign to revive interest in Tutankhamun's mask and other objects from his tomb, after the initial euphoria arising from their discovery was replaced with indifference after the death of Howard Carter in 1939.

The underrated Silver Pharaoh

The outbreak of World War II was to completely overshadow another epochal discovery – the February 1940 finding of the intact tomb of pharaoh Psusennes in Tanis by the French Egyptologist Pierre Montet.

Psusennes I was a pharaoh of the XXI dynasty (probably reign 1039-991 BCE). He was buried in a pink granite coffin placed in a granite sarcophagus. In it, in turn, there was enclosed an exceptionally elaborate anthropoid coffin made of pure silver weighing 90 kg, the only such coffin found in Egypt.
The "Silver Pharaoh" Psusennes I does not arouse even half the interest that Tutankhamun enjoys. Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images
In ancient times, silver (imported from afar) was much more valuable in Egypt than locally sourced gold. While gold was considered the "flesh", silver was identified as the "bones" of the gods. This explains why the nominal value of the silver coffin of Psusennes I, now called the "Silver Pharaoh", was many times higher than the value ascribed to Tutankhamun's "mere" gold coffin.

The mummy of Psusennes I completely disintegrated in his silver coffin, but Montet, just as Carter once had, could look at the pharaoh's face, thanks to the fact that his splendid golden death mask survived. Many Egyptologists considered this mask to be much more beautiful and valuable than that of Tutankhamun's. Certainly, it is more refined, harmonious and expressive artistically.

A lot of priceless jewelry, ornaments and objects were also found in the tomb, yet today the tourists rushing through the Cairo Museum to the cabinet displaying Tutankhamun's mask, often fail to as much as look into the nearby room where the treasures from the tomb of the "Silver Pharaoh" are shown.

Grand tour of the mask

For long after World War II, no one paid any attention to Egyptian antiquities. It was only in 1960, when the construction of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile began, that Egyptian authorities decided to resort to cultural diplomacy and remind the world of Tutankhamun's treasures.

This stemmed from the fact that the plan to create the Lake Nasser reservoir threatened to flood many monuments dating from ancient Egypt. Under pressure from archaeologists from around the world, Egypt managed to convince UNESCO to carry out an unprecedented and very expensive operation to save these monuments. As a result, the 24 largest were moved to higher places (the most famous being the Abu Simbel temple complex), or given to countries that participated in this operation.

Key to mobilizing UNESCO to action was the support of the United States, France, Japan, Great Britain, the Soviet Union and West Germany.

Treasures of Tutankhamun set off on a world trip. Initially, in 1961, 34 small objects from the tomb were shown in Washington, with Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of the president, opening the exhibition.

The first major success did not take place until 1967, when the golden mask of Tutankhamun arrived in Paris, triggering a huge sensation. Then it went on display alongside many other treasures from the tomb in Tokyo and London. From November 1976 to April 1979, the exhibit toured six different US cities, starting with the National Gallery in Washington. The mask, along with other treasures, was transported from Egypt to the US aboard the US warships USS Milwaukee and USS Sylvania.

The first US exhibition in 1976 was opened by President Jimmy Carter and attended by Elizabeth Taylor who had played Cleopatra in the unforgettable film of the same title. Also present were other Hollywood stars including Robert Redford and Rex Harrison. Pop art king Andy Warhol also dropped in. People queued for tickets for hours. In Washington alone, the mask was seen by almost a million people, a number that was exceeded by the 1.2 million who viewed it in New York.

Such was the sensation established by the "Treasures of Tutankhamun" exhibition in the USA that it is considered to be the first "blockbuster" of its kind in the country, i.e. a cultural event with a spectacular box office success (the latter a term usually reserved for hit movies). Thereafter the mask travelled to Canada, the Soviet Union and West Germany, helping further the renewed global fascination with the treasures from Tutankhamun's tomb that has lasted to this day. The opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza is expected to fuel it even more.

– By Krzysztof Darewicz

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: Tutankhamun's posthumous gold mask. Photo: DeAgostini/Getty Images
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