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.
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.