What’s In a Name? Ask King Tut.

Once upon a time there was a young girl who was obsessed with Ancient Egypt.  She read any book she could get her hands on.  She dressed as an Egyptian Queen for Halloween.  She was mesmerized by hieroglyphics and even learned how to write her name in them.  She was absorbed by the lives of pharaohs and especially their mummy tombs that were filled with treasures.  She especially marveled at pictures of the many treasures of King Tut.  While flipping through these photos, she dreamed of seeing them with her own eyes someday. 

Twenty years later (or so…), this young girl was a fully-grown woman with a deep passion for history.  Egypt wasn’t as big of an obsession 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.  The exhibit was there for a few months in 2018, and let me tell you, it didn’t disappoint.  There were three or four rooms packed with treasures that were found in the boy-king’s tomb.  Although these items were thousands of years old, they looked brand new.  The gold still sparkled on the many statues and figurines.  Scarabs had paints of red and deep blue that looked like they were just applied yesterday.  There were golden chests, hand-carved chairs, and stunning pieces of jewelry.  Seeing it all with my own eyes was way more powerful than I ever dreamed it would be.  And as it turns out, it was a part of something way bigger as well.  In reading those books as a little girl, and in seeing that exhibit as an adult, I was actually part of saving an almost-forgotten pharaoh’s life.  Because in Ancient Egyptian culture, there is an awful lot to something as simple as saying a name. 

First, there is the human behind that name, and in this case, it is Tutankhamen.  One of the biggest treasures pulled out of 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 was 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 was in disarray.  His 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 but whose father was Akhenaten, came to the throne at the tender age of eight or nine.  His name was Tutankhaten.  The name was soon changed to the very familiar “Tutankhamun,” or as we know him – “King Tut.”

 Unfortunately, King Tut was too young at the start of his reign to make any major decisions.  Most ruling 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 that wasn’t far outside 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 did not stop him from living a very active life.  In fact, he was such an avid chariot hunter that it most likely caused his untimely death at age nineteen when he fell off his chariot.  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 went to Horemheb – a courtier and army general who was promoted to crown prince in the absence of a King Tut heir.  Although records show that Horemheb served Tutankhamun faithfully, 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. 

This is significant to anyone, but it was especially so in Ancient Egyptian culture.  Because back then, they believed there were actually two deaths.  The first was of the physical body, the second (and permanent) was of the spirit.  Therefore, when Kings were buried, they were given a myriad of treasures and tools to help them survive the trials of the afterlife and live for eternity.  Special rites and rituals, along with mummification, were performed on their bodies to ensure they could both see, hear, and talk in their new worlds.  They were given jars of supplies and hoards of helpers (small statues that represented workers and servants).  They were armed with bows, arrows, spears, and chariots.  However, there was one obstacle to eternity that no amount of treasure could help them with.  If a person’s name was no longer known or spoken in the mortal world, then their spirit would die.  In striking Tutankhamun’s name from Egypt, Horemheb was ensuring 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.  Having started 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 he was introduced to Lord Carnarvon, a restless member of the British elite that was in Egypt recovering from a car accident.  The wealthy lord had filled his downtime by 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 were intriguing, it was the Valley of the Kings that both Carter and Carnarvon had begun to salivate over.  The stories emanating from the area, and from Theodore Davis, the sole permit-holder there, were inspiring.  Well over a dozen tombs had been unearthed, and although antiquity had seen most of them robbed blind, there were still many ornate items recovered, including actual mummies.

Another Davis find came in 1909, and it was 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, and it showed him standing in a chariot.  Tutankhamun was known at the time, but he was very obscure in comparison with other kings.  After all, Horemheb was thorough in his destruction of the boy’s record.  It was believed that this little tomb and its gold flecks were all that remained of Tutankhamun, and if that was true, his ailing spirit was no doubt on the brink of death in the after world.  However, Carter had his doubts.  His own research suggested that Tutankhamun’s final resting place was much bigger.  He also believed it was in the Valley of the Kings, and since he was a very obscure king, it was probably unspoiled by robbers.  In 1917, Howard Carter finally obtained a permit to begin digging in the Valley of the Kings.  He had vowed to find the lost King Tutankhamun and his wondrous tomb, and with the backing of Lord Carnarvon, his moment had arrived.

Five years and a world war passed, but still no signs had emerged of King Tutankhamun’s elusive resting place.  It had tested the patience of Lord Carnarvon, and he was ready to pull the plug on funding.  Carter insisted that he was on the brink of a major discovery, and he convinced Carnarvon to stick it out for one last dig.  It was 1922, and 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 – it was hot, dusty, and there was no water on site.  It had to be brought into the camps by a hired “water boy.”  In this case, it was a little boy named Hussein Abdel-Rassoul.  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 that was clearly the first step in a staircase, and in the Valley of the Kings, that meant there was probably a tomb 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 an undiscovered tomb.  Lord Carnarvon and his crew were called 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, he was asked what he saw and he gasped – “Wonderful things.”   

Indeed.  The discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb is often deemed the biggest archaeological find of all time.  5,398 treasures and objects were taken out of the tomb, as was the boy-king’s very-well preserved and intact mummy.  The treasures were showcased to the world and Egypt Mania took hold like a fever.  King Tut’s name was suddenly 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 that came out of that tomb.  And it was all given to us by 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.  After all, his name is said often enough, but it’s mostly as a footnote that he came after Tutankhamun and tried to erase his existence.

It was a marvelous concept that left a mark on me, in all honesty.  In the few hours that 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.  It was scrawled all over the walls.  His image was emblazoned all over the room on 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 was 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. 

SOURCES

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. 

96 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.

  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.

  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.

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