What’s In a Name? Ask King Tut.
Once upon a time there lived a young girl who was obsessed with Ancient Egypt. She read any book about it she could get her hands on. She dressed as an Egyptian Queen for Halloween. Hieroglyphics mesmerized her, and she even learned how to write her name in them. The lives of pharaohs, and especially their mummy tombs filled with treasures, captured her imagination. She especially marveled at pictures of King Tut and his many treasures. While flipping through these photos, she dreamed of seeing them with her own eyes someday.
Twenty years later (or so…), this young girl had developed a deep passion for history. Egypt didn’t hold center stage anymore, but the enchantment of this ancient culture never left her. And, she has now seen with her own eyes some of the magnificent treasures from those books. She didn’t have to go far either, thanks to the King Tut exhibit at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.
Curators displayed the exhibit there for a few months in 2018, and it didn’t disappoint. Three or four rooms were packed with treasures found in the boy-king’s tomb. Items that looked brand new, despite being thousands of years old. The gold still sparkled on the many statues and figurines. Clay scarabs had red and blue colors that looked like they were just applied yesterday. We saw golden chests, hand-carved chairs, and stunning pieces of jewelry.
Beholding all that in person was a dream come true. And as it turns out, I played a part in something way bigger than that. In reading those books as a little girl, and seeing that exhibit as an adult, I helped saved an almost-forgotten pharaoh’s life. Because in Ancient Egyptian culture, something as simple as saying a name holds a lot of power.
First, it recalls the human behind that name. In this case Tutankhamen. One of the biggest treasures pulled from his tomb was the incredible insight into his life and brief reign. King Tutankhamen came to the throne during a time of political turmoil in Egypt. While his grandfather Amenhotep III became one of the strongest pharaohs Egypt ever saw, Amenhotep IV (later changed to Akhenaten) created religious upheaval throughout the Two Lands. By the time he died in the seventh year of his reign, Egypt lay in disarray.
Akhenaten’s Coregent, Ankhkheperure (who many historians believe was his wife Nefertiti) ruled Egypt for a short time until her death. The next heir, whose mother remains a mystery, came to the throne at the tender age of eight or nine. His name was Tutankhaten, although he soon changed it to the very familiar “Tutankhamun,” or as we know him – “King Tut.”
At the start of his reign, King Tut was too young to make any major decisions. Most of the laws came from his court and the adult officials therein. They issued royal decrees to restore Egypt’s old religious ways and return attention to abandoned cities like Thebes and Memphis. The many artworks and carvings from his tomb show that while not engaged with his courtiers, King Tut had a very human life not unlike the ones we enjoy today. He and his queen, Ankhesenamun, liked board games and boating in the marshes of the Nile. His favorite sports were chariot driving and hunting. He had deformities including bad feet and possibly scoliosis. Frailties just like us, but it didn’t stop him from living a very active life. Tut was such an avid chariot hunter that it most likely caused his untimely death, at age nineteen, when he fell off his chariot at high speed.
An already tragic situation devolved into confusion since King Tut and his queen had produced no heirs. Rule of Egypt fell to his vizier Ay, and after Ay’s death, it passed to Horemheb – a courtier and army general promoted to crown prince in the absence of a King Tut heir. Although records show that Horemheb served Tutankhamun faithfully while he lived, Horemheb made a curious decision when he took the throne. He ordered the names of Tutankhamun, his queen, and his vizier (and immediate successor) to be stripped from the record. Royal officials chiseled them out of statues and hacked them off buildings. Very slowly, the boy-king Tutankhamun got erased from history.
This would probably hurt anyone, but it was a particularly cruel jab in Ancient Egyptian culture. Because they believed in two different deaths. The dying of the physical body, and the much more permanent death of the spirit. When kings were buried, officials gave them a myriad of treasures and tools to help them survive the trials of the afterlife. Priests performed special rites and rituals, along with mummification, to ensure kings could see, hear, and talk in their new worlds. They also had jars of supplies and hoards of helpers (small statues representing workers and servants). Warriors armed them with bows, arrows, spears, and chariots.
Kings certainly didn’t enter the eternal realm empty-handed, but there remained one obstacle that no amount of treasure could help them with. If no one knew or spoke the person’s name in the mortal world, their spirit would die. In striking Tutankhamun’s name from Egypt, Horemheb ensured that his predecessor would not survive in the after world. His legacy would die, his history would fade, and the name Tutankhamun would forever vanish.
A dark fate indeed… until a few thousand years later, when a determined Englishman named Howard Carter entered the story. Diving into archaeology in 1891, with just a few months of training under his belt, Carter had long-since felt the pull of Ancient Egypt. By the early 1900s, he was a well-known Egyptologist and someone introduced him to Lord Carnarvon, a restless member of the British elite in Egypt recovering from a car accident. The wealthy Lord had filled his downtime funding digs for Ancient Egyptian tombs and artifacts, but so far, he hadn’t found anything of interest.
In 1904, he brought Howard Carter onto his team, and very slowly, his luck began to change. Over the next few years, they worked sites all over Egypt and unearthed jewelry pieces and inscribed statues. They also worked together in the purchase of antiquities (totally legal back then!) While the finds intrigued them, the two had really begun to salivate over the Valley of the Kings. The stories emanating from the area, and from Theodore Davis, the sole permit-holder there, inspired the world at large. Well over a dozen tombs had been unearthed. Although Antiquity had seen most of them robbed blind, specialists still recovered plenty of dazzling and ornate items, including actual mummies. Another Davis find came in 1909, when his team unearthed a tiny little tomb dubbed KV58. Found on the heels of King Horemheb’s tomb (remember him?), it contained several small pieces of gold foil that likely came from a chariot. One of them featured the image of a boy-king named Tutankhamun standing in a chariot.
Tutankhamun had remained obscure in comparison with other kings. Thanks to Horemheb, only dyed-in-the-Egyptian-wool experts even knew of him. Davis and his team believed this little tomb and its gold flecks were all that remained of Tutankhamun. If that was true, his ailing spirit no doubt teetered on the brink of death in the after world.
However, Carter had his doubts. His own research suggested Tutankhamun’s final resting place had been a lot bigger. He also believed it resided somewhere in the Valley of the Kings. Since Tut floated elusive on the outer pages of history, robbers wouldn’t have known enough about him to rob his tomb. Howard Carter vowed to find the lost King Tutankhamun and his wondrous tomb. With the backing of Lord Carnavon, he obtained a permit to begin digging in the Valley of the Kings in 1917.
Five years and a world war passed, but still no signs emerged of King Tutankhamun’s mysterious resting place. The fruitless expedition had tested the patience and bank account of Lord Carnarvon, and he was ready to pull the plug on funding. But Carter insisted they stood on the brink of a major discovery, and he convinced Carnarvon to stick it out for one last dig.
In 1922, Carter took his team to the grounds below the tomb of Ramesses VI, the only untouched place left in the valley. It was hard work – hot, dusty, and no water on site. Water boys lugged it into the camps in the hot sun. Carter and his team had hired a little boy named Hussein Abdel-Rassoul to fill this role. He brought big water jars into camp on his donkey’s back, and he dug holes in the ground to secure them when he put them out.
On November 4, 1922, while digging a hole to secure a water jug, Hussein got more than he bargained for. He unwittingly exposed a flat panel, the first step in a staircase. In the Valley of the Kings, that could only mean a tomb sat right under his feet. He ran to tell Carter, who brought his team over and promptly uncovered a staircase of 15 stairs. By sunset, they had discovered the sealed entrance to a pure and unmolested tomb. Carter called Lord Carnarvon to the scene, and on November 24, Howard Carter poked a hole in the final blocking to the tomb. When he peered inside with a small candle, someone asked him what he saw. He could only gasp the immortal words – “Wonderful things.”
Indeed. King Tutankhamun’s tomb is often deemed the biggest archaeological find of all time. 5,398 treasures and objects got pulled from it, along with the boy-king’s very-well preserved and intact mummy. Carter showcased the treasures to the world, and Egypt Mania took hold like a fever. King Tut’s name suddenly appeared on everyone’s lips. And historians and scientists got the deepest look ever into the Ancient Egyptian world and the daily life therein. “Treasure trove” doesn’t even fully describe the wealth of treasure and knowledge to come out of that tomb.
And all from a nearly-forgotten boy-king, whom a successor had tried to erase from existence. Because of Howard Carter and his team’s perseverance (and let’s not forget a very lucky water boy!), King Tut certainly got the last laugh in the after world. Instead of being an obscure king mentioned only in passing, King Tut is the most famous name from the Ancient Egyptian world. As for Horemheb… well, I’m sure his spirit is still limping around out there somewhere. After all, people mention him often enough, even if it’s mostly a footnote that he came after Tutankhamun and tried to after-world kill him.
The concept left a mark on me, in all honesty. In the few hours I roamed that exhibit, I must have heard the name King Tut about two hundred times. People whispered it to each other as they marveled over the treasures. Artists had scrawled it across the exhibit walls. His image blazed out from shields, statuettes, masks, and golden chests. That says nothing of the mountains of books written on the boy-king, his life, and his legacy. I felt proud to play my part in saving his name from destruction, and it reminded me how important it is to pass down stories. Because you never know – you could be saving a life.
The King Tut Exhibit – California Science Center
Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Lost Pharaoh – Z. Hawass
Tutankhamun: The Centennial Celebration – Z. Hawass
All photos by M.B. Henry – For more from this exhibit, click here.