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KING TUT

9 Controversies Surrounding King Tut

Thulasi Seshan
King Tut’s modern discovery was not without controversy.
King Tut’s modern discovery was not without controversy. / Hannes Magerstaedt/GettyImages
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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the modern-day discovery of the tomb of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun (more commonly referred to as King Tut). Around 1907, the British Earl of Carnarvon sponsored a British archeologist named Howard Carter to dig around Egypt’s Valley of Kings—and when Carter struck gold in 1922, the rest became history. 

But Tut’s excavation, legacy, and life remain far from settled; in fact, controversy still swirls around Tut and the men who spearheaded his discovery. Below, we’ve listed nine of the most interesting controversies about the boy king of Egypt. 

1. We don’t know for sure how King Tut died.

To become a famous mummy, you do first have to die—but how exactly King Tut left this mortal life is the subject of debate. Was he murdered? Did he die during a chariot race, literally riding off into the sunset? Or did the deadly effects of generational inbreeding simply catch up with him tragically early in life? 

The latter theory seems most likely to today’s historians, given that the boy king was disabled and ill for some portion of his life. He required a cane to walk and likely had a club foot. His parents were related to one another; according to DNA analysis, they were potentially even siblings. He also suffered from several bouts of malaria (his body contained the oldest known genetic evidence of the disease). Given Tut’s health issues, his acute cause of death was probably not something as dramatic as a chariot race or a battle. Some scholars think a femur fracture that became infected is what ultimately did him in.

2. It’s unclear who was meant to be buried in King Tut’s tomb. 

King Tut’s tomb is tiny, by pharaonic standards: It’s the smallest tomb in the Valley of Kings, and speculation abounds as to why the boy king was buried in such a relatively modest manner. Some believe his intended tomb may have been the one that eventually housed the body of his vizier and successor, Ay. According to this theory, Tut died before the larger tomb was finished, leaving the Pharaoh’s caretakers to scramble in preparing his funerary arrangements.

That theory leaves us with more questions than answers, though. If Tut wasn’t buried in the tomb that was meant for him, then whose tomb was he buried in? Was it merely a storage room, or perhaps a small chamber meant for someone else? And if it was meant to hold another corpse, what happened to their body? Perhaps it’s their disturbed, disgruntled spirit that’s causing the legendary Curse of the Pharaohs

3. Howard Carter exploited children while excavating King Tut’s tomb.

We know from photographs that Carter used Egyptian children as workers on the King Tut excavation. This wasn’t terribly controversial at the time, but in retrospect, there’s a lot that was wrong with that situation. Carter’s home country of Britain had long since outlawed child labor, so it’s safe to say the archaeologist himself should have been aware of the dicey ethics of that choice. To add insult to injury, Carter never credited any of these children for their discoveries or their contributions to the excavation. Their names are lost to history.

4. Carter also definitely looted King Tut’s tomb.

Tomb of Tutankhamun, Karnak, Luxor, Egypt.
An archival tomb of King Tut’s tomb. / Print Collector/GettyImages

By law, everything in King Tut’s tomb belonged to the Egyptian government’s Antiquities Service. The Egyptian government passed its first antiquities regulation law in 1835; however, it was often overlooked, and numerous artifacts still wound up in European collections. In early 1922—just months before the discovery of Tut’s tomb—a newly independent Egypt strengthened and began enforcing its previously lax laws. But Carter’s relationship with the nascent Egyptian government was not a happy one, and his respect for their laws and protocol was weak, to say the least. The Egyptians long believed that Carter stole from the tomb, alleging that he staged a break-in before the official opening and blamed ancient grave robbers for his own 20th-century theft. 

These suspicions gained strength after letters written between Carter and his team’s philologist, Sir Alan Gardiner, were published in August 2022. According to a letter penned by Gardiner, Carter gifted an amulet to the philologist that was “undoubtedly stolen from the tomb of Tutankhamun.” Whether Carter stole these treasures during an elaborate early break-in to the tomb, or if he simply pickpocketed them in the ordinary course of the excavation, remains unclear. 

5. British photographers were given exclusive photography rights to the King Tut excavation.

The Earl of Carnarvon was no novice to Egyptology by the time his archaeologist began dusting off the doors of King Tut’s tomb. Knowing that media attention was critical for financing any prolonged archaeological endeavor, Carnarvon made a smart ploy and sold the exclusive right to excavation photography to the Times of London. Harry Burton’s photography drew worldwide fascination, but his non-Egyptian citizenry drew the ire of the Egyptian press. The press corps of a newly independent Egypt were less than pleased at having been denied the right to cover archaeology’s biggest story, right in their own backyard. The issue of the photography rights only served to heighten the existing tensions between Carnarvon, Carter, and the Egyptian government over whose excavation this really was. 

6. Howard Carter’s team desecrated King Tut’s corpse.

The archaeologist’s team placed a high value on the artifacts they found in the boy king’s tomb, particularly the gold and the jewelry. They valued the jewelry so highly, in fact, that they were willing to twist Tut’s mummified arms off of his body to pry jewelry from his wrists. In order to do so, they first had to leave Tut’s corpse in the hot sun until it melted, then soak in wax until the mummy was pliant enough to allow for the desired desecration. After breaking the arms and stripping the jewels from the body, Carter’s team finished the job by hacking Tut’s head off

7. Henry Kissinger bullied the living over a King Tut tour.

No 20th-century leader managed to escape the reach of Henry Kissinger, and apparently neither did the famed 18th Dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh. After Kissinger and his boss, Richard Nixon, negotiated a new bilateral agreement with Egypt in the early 1970s, they searched for a way to rehabilitate the country’s image with the American people. They struck upon the idea of having Tut’s artifacts tour the United States, so that Americans might associate their newfound ally Egypt with grandeur rather than war. Unfortunately, this grand tour needed hosts, and American museum curators were not lining up to present an expensive, fragile, risky exhibition for the purposes of helping the Nixon administration’s public relations. 

Kissinger wasn’t about to take no for an answer though, so he “buttonholed” the president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s board of trustees, twisting his arm until he agreed to host an exhibition. Rumor has it that Kissinger threatened alarming tax audits if the museum didn’t agree to actively participate in the King Tut tour. Whatever Kissinger did, we know it was effective: The Met’s curators ended up hosting a smashingly successful conclusion to King Tut’s tour of the U.S., raking in $110 million in revenue for New York City. 

8. King Tut’s beard was botched.

In 2014, an unlucky museum employee at the Egyptian Museum knocked King Tut’s beard off his face. Well, they knocked his blue and gold braided beard off of his burial mask, but that really wasn’t any better. In a hasty attempt to fix their error, museum employees tried to reattach the mask with epoxy resin. Epoxy resin is not great for ancient Egyptian relics, as it turns out. 

They didn’t just try this once; all in all, museum employees tried to cover up the damage and repair the mask with resin four separate times, and then to tried and scrape the material’s tell-tale signs off three times after that. Unsurprisingly, this did not work. 

Eventually, eight museum employees were referred to the courts for gross negligence, while a German-Egyptian team of conservators went to work scraping the resin off and reuniting Tut with his beard the proper way. Luckily, they were able to reattach the beard using beeswax, a substance more commonly found in ancient Egypt than epoxy resin, and Tut went back on display by the end of 2015. 

9. Legal troubles surrounded the latest King Tut tour.

In 2020, 150 artifacts from Tut’s tomb were scheduled to go on a world tour, beginning in London. It was the largest traveling exhibition of Tut’s collection outside of Egypt, ever.

Unfortunately, there was a reason exhibits like this hadn’t been done in the past: dubious legality. Shortly after the contract for the tour was signed, a BBC investigation uncovered that the tour may have been violating Egypt’s own antiquities laws by sending “unique” items overseas. An Egyptian lawyer filed suit, hoping to cut short the tour. COVID-19, however, did his job for him, ending the tour’s London stop six weeks early. 

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