Here’s Why King Tut, Ancient Egypt’s Most Famous Pharaoh, Was Actually One of its Least Significant Rulers

By Khalid Elhassan

Tutankhamen (reigned circa 1333 – 1323 BC), is Ancient Egypt’s best known pharaoh, and the discovery of his tomb in 1922 was one of archaeology’s most significant events. Relics from Tutankhamen’s tomb are among the most travelled artifacts in the world, and a 1970s exhibition tour, known as the Treasures of Tutankhamen tour, was viewed by millions around the world, many of them having waited in line for hours. That Tutankhamen became so famous thousands of years after his death is ironic: Ancient Egyptians viewed him as one of their least significant or memorable rulers.

The Discovery of King Tut’s Tomb

In November of 1922, after a search that had lasted for over a decade, Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamen, in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. He sent a telegram to the chief financier of his archaeological expeditions, George Herbert, 5th Lord of Carnarvon, urging him to hurry to Egypt to witness the opening of the tomb in person. After his patron arrived later that month, Howard Carter proceeded to carefully excavate the site, and on November 29th, 1922, the tomb was opened.

Howard Carter examining Tutankhamen’s coffin. Odd Salon

After making his way through a tunnel, Carter reached the main burial chamber. There, he made a hole in a sealed door, then thrust a candle inside. After a pause, an eager Lord Carnarvon asked him “can you see anything?” He received the reply “Yes, wonderful things!” As Carter described it later: “as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold”. The following day, the dramatic discovery was announced to the press, catapulting Carter and Tutankhamen to global fame.

The burial chamber was dominated by four shrines, surrounding the pharaoh’s granite sarcophagus. Within were three coffins, nestled inside one another, with the outer two being made of gilded wood, while the innermost one was composed of about 250 pounds of solid gold. It contained the mummified body of Tutankhamen, adorned with a funerary gold mask that weighed about 25 pounds. That death mask, with features simultaneously so familiar and yet so exotic, became the best known symbol of Ancient Egypt.

Wooden bust recovered from Tutankhamen’s tomb. Wikimedia

In addition, there were about 5400 other items in the tomb. They ran the gamut, and included a throne, wine jars, statues of various gods and of the king, and even two fetuses that subsequent DNA examination revealed to have been the stillborn offspring of Tutankhamen. It would take Carter nearly a decade before he could finish cataloguing them them all. Amazingly, the rich haul was what was left over after ancient robbers had twice tunnelled their way into the tomb. Both times, the robbery was discovered, and the tunnels filled in.

The find triggered a wave of Egyptomania. Tutankhamen came to be known as “King Tut” – a name that was soon appropriated by businesses to brand various products. Ancient Egyptian references made their way into popular culture, and musical hits such as “Old King Tut” became all the rage. Even US president Herbert Hoover caught the Tutankhamen bug, and named his pet dog King Tut. Subsequent research has revealed, however, that while Tutankhamen is undoubtedly the most famous Egyptian pharaoh today, he was one of the least significant pharaohs back in Ancient Egypt.