King Tutankhamun: Sarcophagus, Tomb & Curse

Instructor: Kathleen Halecki

Kathleen Halecki possesses a B.A. and M.A. in history, and a doctoral degree in interdisciplinary studies with a focus on early modern Scotland. She has been teaching for over a decade in subjects such as history, philosophy and anthropology.

In this lesson, we will learn about the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh, Tutankhamun. Discovered in 1922 by British archaeologist, Howard Carter, the tomb is the most famous of all the tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs located in the Valley of the Kings.

In the Valley of the Kings

Imagine digging in the Valley of the Kings for years looking for a tomb. You know it must be there, but you are not sure where it is underneath all the sand. You are running out of time and money, and this will be your last chance to search. Finally, you uncover some steps; they lead you to a fabulous tomb housing the pharaoh, Tutankhamun. Tutankhamun was a New Kingdom pharaoh who ruled very briefly from roughly 1332 to 1323 BCE. The tomb was discovered by British archaeologist, Howard Carter, in November 1922. Since that time, people everywhere have been fascinated with the young king and the contents of his tomb. The facts of the discovery added to its mystique: the pharaoh died young, he was buried with priceless gold objects, and an important figure who helped open his tomb died shortly afterwards.

Howard Carter opens the tomb.
Howard Carter opens the tomb


The sarcophagus was not the first item that Howard Carter found in the tomb, but it became the most famous. Although excavation began on the tomb in late November 1922, they did not reach the Burial Chamber where the sarcophagus was located until February 1923. The first thing they saw was an enormous shrine made of wood covered with gold that encased the sarcophagus. It was nine feet high and so long it only left two feet on either side of the room. A massive stone lid covered the sarcophagus and inside, like nesting dolls, were three more coffins. The innermost coffin held the famous gold funerary mask. It is the mask that we think of when we hear the name King Tut. To create the vibrant colors, the mask was inlaid with semi-precious stones and materials easily found in Egypt: lapis lazuli, quartz, obsidian, and carnelian. On top rests a vulture's head and cobra, which are representative of the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. On the back can be found an inscription calling upon the gods to protect the mask.

Gold funerary mask
Gold funerary mask


The first thing a pharaoh of Egypt did when he gained the throne was to begin building a tomb. This would take years, and many pharaohs believed they would have the time to finish before they died. Tutankhamun was very young when he died, so his tomb had not been completed, and he was buried in a smaller one intended for someone else. Howard Carter had difficulty finding it because it was in close vicinity of three other very large tombs, and debris and sand had covered the doors.

Howard Carter was excited to see the seals still on the doors of the tomb until he noticed holes indicating that it had been broken into at least twice after Tutankhamun died. The thieves took some gold and semi-precious stones, as well as perfumed oil. Luckily, they did not get a chance to take anything else, and the tomb was full of objects that provided archaeologists with information on Egyptian life. The Egyptians buried their dead with many grave goods that they believed would be needed in the afterlife. Included in the tomb were everyday items, such as candles, lamps, lamp stands, stools, linen, and items for writing. There were also games, weaponry, chariots, fans, statues of gods, and all types of gold jewelry. The musical instruments found are thought to be some of the oldest known examples of trumpets.

Bronze trumpet and other instruments of King Tut
Tut trumpet

Other interesting items found in the tomb included a ceremonial chair, which was probably used at Tutankhamun's coronation and the crook and flail, signs of the pharaoh's authority. A recent study done on an iron dagger found wrapped around the pharaoh's right thigh has provided archaeologists with information as to its origin. Iron was very scarce during the period Tutankhamun lived, and testing shows that his dagger was made from a meteorite and would have been considered very valuable, as it was ''iron from the sky.''

King Tut iron dagger and sheath
King Tut dagger

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