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. 

110 Comments on “What’s In a Name? Ask King Tut.

    • So glad you enjoyed it! It was such a fantastic exhibit! I learned more than I ever have about King Tut

    • I was completely swept into it 🙂 So glad I got to see it and glad you did as well!

    • I have to give most of the credit for that to the exhibit, which provided all the information I could ever need and then some! I truly hope you get a chance to see it sometime. So glad you enjoyed the piece!

  1. Interesting read thanks to your excellent telling M.B. I think it was Carter that started the curse rumor to keep people away from the tomb.

  2. Wonderful. I experienced the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit years ago and was was stricken with Egyptomania. You saw about three times the number of artifacts in the 2018 tour than the one I attended. Just amazing….

    • So glad you got to see it even if it wasn’t as big! Such a wonderful exhibit, I hope it comes back to LA someday so I can go again 🙂

  3. I love egypty things, King Tut had some great trinkets., would love to see the exhibition. I think I was more fascinated with Hapshepsut, she had an amazing 20 + year reign as Pharoah and had a fascinating life, but was also erased from history. Well worth reading up on.

  4. Thanks for sharing this great story. My wife and I saw the exhibit at the National Geographic Museum in DC years ago. It was as fascinating as you describe.

    • Ooooh so glad you got to see it! Gosh it’s so amazing to stand among all that stuff and know how old it is. I wish I could go again but they’ve packed up and moved on now.

  5. You are such a wonderful writer — this has to be the most interesting and vivid retelling of Tutankhamun’s story I’ve read, M.B. And that’s not just idle praise! Loved your quip at the end too about saving a life. 🙂 If the Egyptians were right about that, you’ve saved dozens of lives already just through this blog! Thank you for always doing such a beautiful job of making history come alive, no matter the topic.

    • Awwww 🙂 Such nice things to say! Thank you very much, it’s very flattering 🙂 Glad you came along for King Tut’s journey – you would LOVE the exhibit. I know that because I loved it and it’s obvious how much alike we are haha.

      • I actually DO have a thing for Egypt … though I suspect I would become interested in pretty much anything you posted because of the aforementioned mad writing skillz. 😉

  6. Very well written post! Erasing names is still practiced these days. When North Viet Nam conquered South Viet Nam, they ordered a historical cemetery in Sai Gon to be razed and transformed into a park. Tombs of historical heroes had to be moved by any surviving family, or just bulldozed over. That also took place in many other Southern cities.

    • That is very true (and sad) that it still happens. What a horrible story about the graveyard – so much history lost! 🙁

  7. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? If this is the exhibition I think it is, I saw it too when it was in Europe. Beautiful, intriguing! If it’s not the same one, it’s hard not to learn or know about King Tut. Especially during my uni years studying archaeology, where ancient Egypt/Near East was one of the specialisations, we learnt heaps. Back in the day of Carter, excavations were basically nothing more than treasure hunting and grave robbing. The way Carter et al conducted their digs, wouldn’t fly anymore these days. Still, it’s a fascinating climpse into the past that is perhaps difficult to fathom for us. Same awe-y feeling I get when learning about the Terracotta Army. Place it in the time of origin and the accomplishments seem even greater compared to this day and age with all our tools, machines etc.
    If you’re ever in Europe, I recommend visiting the Egyptian museum in Berlin, Germany. It’s pretty awesome! 🙂

    • That’s so cool you studied archaeology! There was a time I wanted to get into that too but writing pushed its way to the forefront 🙂 Sadly, it’s quite true what you say about the methods of Carter’s day. I was reading in one of the books from the exhibit that they so badly damaged Tut’s mummy that it was very hard for scientists to get accurate data off of it at first. It’s too bad I didn’t know about that museum sooner, I was just in Berlin this past summer! Next time!

      • It was awesome and archaeology is so fascinating! Oh, I can tell you’re a writer! When the passion and inspiration hits, better follow it, eh? And it’s tough finding a job in archaeology (I didn’t and now don’t regret it). Wow, that is indeed sad to hear about Tut’s mummy…Same kind of thing with the Elgin marbles that are in the British museum: they were scrubbed down to make them look clean and white. In the process the pieces were damaged pretty badly. Originally the pieces were probably not even supposed to be ‘marbly white’. Just like Roman statues were originally multicoloured unlike what you often see in musea. Ah, that’s tough luck about Berlin/museum. I’m sure there were heaps of things to see anyways though so it’s all good 😉

      • Ah yes we did enjoy it – didn’t get as much time in Berlin as we did some other cities but we still got to see a lot. I’m glad they treat such historical pieces with more respect now (in most cases at least), so they can be treasured for so much longer!

  8. King Tut and I met in Chicago years ago; great guy (but a little too much bling for my taste).

    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. They were chiseled out of statues, they were hacked out of buildings, and very slowly, the boy-king Tutankhamun was erased from history.

    Your mention of this reminded me of Milan Kundera’s novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

    The Book of Laughter and Forgetting opens with an important anecdote about Communist leader Klement Gottwald. The leader is standing on a balcony in Prague with his comrade Vladimir Clementis at an important public gathering. Because it is cold and windy, and because Gottwald has no hat, Clementis puts his own fur hat on Gottwald’s head. The moment is captured in photographs displayed throughout the country. However, four years later, Clementis is hanged for treason, and carefully airbrushed out of the picture. All that remains of him in Czech memory is his hat.

    The novel tells us that the victory of freedom over oppression is remembering what oppressors try to make us forget.

    • Wow that sounds like a very good book! And a very strong lesson to be drawn from it. We should always remember history – the good, the bad, and the ugly. It’s VERY important!

  9. I learned more about King Tut and Egypt history than ever before. We never studied anything about Egypt in school. This was truly fascinating! You would be a great history teacher!

  10. Beautifully done, MB. As a youth I was also fascinated with the early civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Crete, and Greece. Interesting about the effort to obliterate King Tut’s name, and how it impacted his afterlife. I am once again reminded that history books are always written by the winners. It’s much harder to get away with in this age of the Internet. At least so far. Anyway, King Tut lives on! 🙂 –Curt

    • Yes he does! Glad to hear I wasn’t the only one drawn to Ancient Egypt 🙂 And yes, that is very true about history.

  11. Wow. You did it again. I only knew he was a young king, and did not realize he died at 19. Honestly, I only think of Steve Martin and the song and the gold image of Tut. How interesting to know that his name was nearly erased for the rest of history. It’s nice when the truth comes to light.

    • I didn’t know about the attempted erasing until I visited the exhibit. So that was news to me too! Glad you enjoyed it – and Steve Martin lol. Well done.

  12. I have always loved learning about Egypt, so this was especially a treat to read. And I did not know that about the importance of names! I can see you as a young girl, pouring over Egyptian lore and facts.

    • 🙂 I think I have a picture somewhere of me dressed as an Egyptian queen for Halloween. I will have to try and dig it up somehow. Glad you liked it!

  13. It is such a wonderful story – and you have told it so well. I remember reading about it when I was a kid and, later, being taken by my parents to see the visiting exhibition at the British Museum. I still have the souvenir guide. I love what you have said about names. I had never heard of (or can’t remember) Hussein Abdel-Rassoul and can’t help wondering what happened to him. I hope, but doubt, that he was well-rewarded.

    • I’m not sure about financial rewards for Hussein, but he did get credit for his role in the discovery. Carter put one of the big necklaces from the tomb around Hussein’s neck and took a picture of him at the scene. The picture is now famous. In later years, Hussein often sat with the picture and told his story to tourists. There was an entire part of the exhibit dedicated to him, and I was very pleased to see that at the very least, his role in the story lives on! 🙂

  14. Nice you got to see all those treasures, Egypt is a magical place with all the history of the past and the mysteries that until today are immersed in the all the sand.

    • I did enjoy the treasures, and I would still love to visit Egypt someday! Thanks for giving this a read, glad you enjoyed it.

    • Thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed it and it brought back memories. 🙂 I wish I could see it all again but it’s long gone from LA now! (Also – this comment went into my spam folder for some reason – sorry I missed it before!)

  15. The artifacts are gorgeous! I can’t believe how well preserved they are. As you mentioned, they look like they were just made.

    Amazing story. It’s always interesting to see how people throughout time have tried to change history and/or expunge certain people from the historical record.

    Also, this story of finding this tomb is intriguing and would make for a good movie. It’s too bad movies about Egyptian mummies are usually filled with curses and revenge, etc. Not that those aren’t fun to watch, but the real story is worth telling, too.

    • We must have very similar minds, because I was walking through that exhibit and learning about the story of the tomb’s discovery, I kept thinking – “wow, this would be a really good movie.” Guess I can’t always help it living in Hollywood haha! 🙂 So glad you enjoyed it! (Forgive my delayed response, a bunch of these comments went into my spam folder for some silly reason!)

  16. Fascinating! I love the personal aspirations here. I too ventured upon King Tuts’ artifacts at the same museum during the 1980s. It is amazing how these traces of human lifestyle and interactions thru anthropology gives us so much info. Great post MB!👍👍

    • It is indeed a sad truth 🙁 I wish all humans could treat each other better.

  17. I loved this, M.B. I imagine this story would make a fantastic book… that said, I’m wondering why all that Egyptian artifact isn’t in Egypt. I mean, i understand finders keeper, but that’s a nation’s history and very valuable, not only in material worth, but as background for the people.

    • You are right – it is a big and important part of a nation’s grand history. A lot of it is in fact in Egypt, and the complete collection will soon be displayed there in a brand new King Tut museum (GEM) that is under construction near the pyramids. This exhibit that I saw is only a small portion of the objects – a traveling exhibit so that the history can be shared with people who might not be able to see it otherwise. It has already left Los Angeles, I’m not sure where it is next on the schedule. Someday, I would LOVE to see the rest of it at the Grand Egyptian Museum when it is completed, right at home next to those pyramids! Here is more information on it – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Egyptian_Museum

      • I’ve never been to an exhibit of something so old. And i wasn’t critiquing, i was just wondering, i thought ii kind of sounded rude, and if i did, i apologize.

      • No I didn’t think you sounded rude at all! I think you were asking a very important and legitimate question, and I wanted to answer it to the best of my ability to hopefully make you feel better 🙂

      • It sounds like an incredible museum!! I think you will enjoy reading about it

      • I think they’ve actually upped it to almost 1 bil. I know right??? Crazy!

  18. Thank you for this fascinating review. You must be extra glad you got to go, as this was the last-ever exhibit of King Tut memorabilia outside of Egypt. CBS Sunday Morning did a segment about this, and interviewed Egypt’s chief archaeologist (I believe). A museum is being built in Egypt to house all the artifacts, and once it opens, they will never leave the country again. Sorry if this was brought up before, I did not read through all previous comments.

    • Wow…. I knew they were moving it all to the GEM when it is complete, but I had no idea this was the last exhibit and they would never do the traveling exhibit again. I feel even more fortunate now that I got a chance to see it! Although I do hope to go to Egypt one day and see it again plus so much more. Thanks for stopping by and sharing that information!

    • Glad you enjoyed it! 🙂 And can you imagine being that water boy? “Um…. guys?!”

  19. Very well done story …. I think King Tut wins!!! If someone ask me to name an old king, King Tut would be the one 🙂

    • I agree! He’s the clear winner 🙂 So glad you came by and enjoyed it!

    • So glad you stopped by and enjoyed it! It was truly an amazing exhibit, would love to see it all at the GEM someday!

  20. The idea of a second death, whether spiritual or just historical, is so interesting to me. Thinking about the time when a person is fully forgotten, when no one remember them, their name, or who they were. Its a crazy thing to think about, how many people are just completely forgotten by time. And how some people’s memory manages to survive for so long. I sometimes wonder how long after my death my memory will live on.

    It also makes the idea of trying to erase someone from history or memory so crazy and awful to me. It feels like a such a truly cruel thing to do to someone, even though they may never know about it. Like how much must you hate or feel angry at someone to not even want them remembered. To try and make it as though they never existed.

    Also makes me remember the Victoria & Abdul movie and how the British tried to erase him from their history. That was such a fascinating story and had my wife and I looking up more information after watching it.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this piece of history, I actually had not heard of Horemheb before.

    • I’m so glad you liked it and it got your wheels turning! I got the impression that historians were stumped as to why Horemheb did that. Especially with things that happened so long ago, there’s a lot under the surface of the little information that we do have. It makes me want to tell ALL OF THE STORIES I can for what little time I do have on this little planet.

      • Yeah, its one of those times where you just wish you could go back in time and find out more info on what happened and why.

  21. I have always been fascinated with Egypt’s Kings and Queens. I truly enjoyed reading your wonderful storytelling.

    • Thank you so much! I am so grateful that we got to see the exhibit before they packed it up. I think once that big museum in Egypt is finished, all of it will be placed there together, so I don’t know that I will have another opportunity to see it. Unless I go to Egypt, which I would LOVE to do someday 🙂

      • You’re welcome! You’re lucky to have witnessed the artifacts. That will be quite an adventure in Egypt.

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  23. I read this article as a result of looking up Hussein Abdel-Rasoul, the actual discoverer of Tutankhamen’s tomb. I was fortunate to visit Egypt last year and saw Tutankhamen’s exhibit at the Egyptian Museum (went there three times actually) and also Tutankhamen’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. They were wonderful and we hope to return next year. Thank you for your very interesting article.

    • I must say I’m very jealous. I would LOVE to visit Egypt someday! 🙂 So is the Egyptian museum all complete then? How wonderful that must have been to see 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and shared your Egyptian travel story.

  24. The new Grand Egyptian Museum was scheduled to be opened later this year, but the pandemic pushed it back until next year. We are still planning to go but, of course, it all depends on the situation at the time. We spent more than three weeks in Egypt and saw so much. I have a very strong interest in ancient civilizations and have journeyed to visit many of their sites e.g. Angkor Wat, Petra, Greece, Turkey, etc. Hopefully we will get a chance top visit more of them in the future.

    • Wow – what an interesting collection of travels you have! I’d love to go see some of those places. As a pretty big globe trotter myself, it’s been very hard not to travel but fingers crossed we’ll be back at it next year!

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