King Tut: The life and death of the boy pharaoh

A close-up view of King Tut's iconic death mask
A close-up view of King Tut's iconic death mask (Image credit: Hannes Magerstaedt / Stringer via Getty Images)

Tutankhamun, or King Tut as he is often called today, was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh who was buried in a lavish tomb filled with gold artifacts in the Valley of the Kings near modern-day Luxor. His tomb was discovered in 1922 by an archaeological team led by British Egyptologist Howard Carter. 

Today he is also sometimes called the "boy-king" because he ascended the throne at age 9 or 10 in the 14th century B.C. He died about a decade later. His treasure-filled tomb was discovered mostly intact, which is extraordinary given that most of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings had been looted in ancient times. 

The discovery of his tomb in 1922 attracted worldwide attention and turned King Tut into a household name. "It's difficult to imagine the past century without Tutankhamun and the discovery of that time-capsule tomb," Christina Riggs, a history professor at Durham University in England, wrote in her book "Treasured: How Tutankhamun Shaped a Century" (Atlantic Books, 2021). 

"There would have been no media frenzy of Tut-mania and mummy curses to kick-start the jazz age, and no surge of corresponding pride in the newly independent nation-state of Egypt [which had declared independence from Britain in 1922]," Riggs wrote. 

But while Tutankhamun's tomb was lavish, historical and archaeological evidence indicates that the young pharaoh was sickly and spent his short rule undoing a religious revolution started by his father, Akhenaten.

Son of a revolutionary

A relief showing King Akhenaten, Queen Nefertiti and their children, along with the sun disk, Aten  (Image credit: UniversalImagesGroup / Contributor via Getty Images)

King Tut, called Tutankhaten at birth, was born in ancient Egypt around 1341 B.C. His father, Akhenaten, was a revolutionary pharaoh who tried to focus Egypt's polytheistic religion around the worship of the sun disk, the Aten. In his fervor, Akhenaten ordered the names and images of other Egyptian deities to be destroyed or defaced. He also built a new capital at what is now Tell el-Amarna. He was able to carry out these acts without a widespread violent rebellion but after his death he was condemned.

Tutankhaten's biological mother is unknown but likely was not Akhenaten's principal wife, Queen Nefertiti — although Egyptologists still debate this. As an infant, Tutankhamun was wet-nursed by his half-sister, Meritaten. A family portrait, painted in a tomb at the ancient city of Amarna, shows Meritaten nursing her infant brother. 

Tutankhamun ascended the throne around 1332 B.C. Given his young age, the boy king would have relied heavily on advisors. At some point, he changed his name from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun, removing the word "aten" — a reminder of his father's attempted religious revolution — from his name and replacing it with “amun,” the name of the principal Egyptian god. This change illustrates King Tut’s move away from his father’s religious changes, returning Egypt to its former polytheistic beliefs. 

Tutankhamun condemned his father's actions in a stela found at Karnak, near modern-day Luxor, which stated that Akhenaten's religious revolution had caused the gods to ignore Egypt. Part of the stela reads: "the temples and the cities of the gods and the goddesses, starting from Elephantine [as far] as the Delta marshes … were fallen into decay and their shrines were fallen into ruin, having become mere mounds overgrown with grass … The gods were ignoring this land." [Excerpt taken from "The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti," (Thames & Hudson, 2014)] This act may have helped him cement his power. Tutankhamun’s young age when he ascended the throne meant that he relied heavily on advisors to make decisions.

Ill health and death

A view of King Tut's mummified head, displayed in a climate-controlled case at his tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 2007. (Image credit: AFP / Pool via Getty Images)

Archaeological evidence indicates that Tutankhamun suffered from ill health. A 2010 study of his remains published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that he had a variety of medical conditions and illnesses, including malaria and Kohler disease, a rare bone disorder of the foot. Archaeologists also found a number of canes in Tutankhamun's tomb, which suggests the pharaoh had difficulty walking at times. 

Despite these maladies, he may have worn armor — although whether he went into battle himself is unclear. A 2018 analysis of leather armor found in Tutankhamun's tomb revealed that the armor had been worn. 

Tutankhamun may have also had Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that can leave someone with unusually long fingers, arms and legs. Members of the royal family were depicted with these features during Akhenaten's reign. However, the 2010 JAMA study found that Tutankhamun probably did not have this condition.

Tutankhamun married his half-sister, Queen Ankhesenamun, and the couple had twin daughters who were stillborn; their fetuses were buried in jars in the pharaoh's tomb. The couple left no heir to the throne. The tomb of Queen Ankhesenamun has not yet been found. 

The boy king died in 1323 B.C. around the age of 18. His death was likely unexpected, and his tomb appears to have been hastily finished. In 2011, Ralph Mitchell, a professor of applied biology at Harvard University, helped analyze 'brown spots' in the tomb. Those spots which turned out to be remains of microbes that had once grown on the walls, possibly as a result of paint that was still wet when the pharaoh was interred in the tomb. "We're guessing that the painted wall was not dry when the tomb was sealed," Mitchell said in a statement

No one knows what killed Tutankhamun. Egyptologists have put forward numerous hypotheses over the years. In the JAMA article, a research team suggested that a combination of malaria and necrosis (tissue death) from a broken bone in his left foot may have caused his death.

Burial and King Tut's mummy

In a paper published in the journal Études et Travaux in 2013, famed archaeologist Salima Ikram suggested that returning Egypt to its traditional polytheistic beliefs was so important to Tutankhamun — and his advisers that he had himself mummified in an unusual way to emphasize his strong association with Osiris, the god of the underworld. 

Ikram, an Egyptology professor at the American University in Cairo, wrote that Tutankhamun's skin was  soaked in oil after his death, which turned his skin black.  His heart was also removed (something which wasn’t usually done). Additionally his penis was mummified at a 90-degree angle, something that was also unusual. In legend, Osiris had black skin, strong regenerative powers and a heart that had been hacked to pieces by his brother Seth. 

However, the large amount of flammable oil caused Tutankhamun's mummy to catch fire shortly after burial.  

King Tut's tomb

Howard Carter's team discovered the tomb's entranceway on Nov. 4, 1922, and entered the tomb on Nov. 26. 

"As one's eyes became accustomed to the glimmer of light the interior of the chamber gradually loomed before one, with its strange and wonderful medley of extraordinary and beautiful objects heaped upon one another," Carter wrote in his diary of the dig. The tomb was later given the designation KV 62.

Carter and his team found that the tomb contained a wealth of untouched treasures. "Our sensations and astonishment are difficult to describe as the better light revealed to us the marvelous collection of treasures: two strange ebony-black effigies of a King, gold sandalled, bearing staff and mace, loomed out from the cloak of darkness; gilded couches in strange forms, lion-headed, Hathor-headed, and beast infernal …" Among the many other treasures was a dagger whose iron came from a meteor. The most iconic treasure was his death mask, made of gold along with inlaid stones and glass, which the king was found wearing.

The discovery of the boy king's tomb caused a media sensation. Newspapers breathlessly reported on the myth that the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb awakened a curse that killed those who helped find it. The mummy's curse was refuted in a 2002 British Medical Journal study that examined the records of 25 people who went into the tomb shortly after its discovery. People who entered the tomb lived on average to the age of 70 and lived about 20 years on average after being inside the tomb. Those numbers were not unusual given the average life span at the time and age of those who went inside the tomb.

While the treasures were incredible, the tomb was unusually small for a pharaoh's burial, with a total volume of 9,782 cubic feet (277 cubic meters) the Theban Mapping Project website notes. In comparison the tomb of Seti I (reign circa 1294 B.C. to 1279 B.C) has a volume of 67,110 cubic feet (1,900 cubic m), according to the mapping project. This space is divided among the passage corridor, burial chamber, antechamber and two rooms now called the "annex" and the "treasury."

The tomb may be small because the pharaoh died young and unexpectedly, leaving no time to carve out a larger tomb. It’s possible that the tomb may not have originally been intended for a pharaoh at all, wrote Richard Wilkinson, an Egyptology professor at the University of Arizona, in a paper published in the book "The Oxford Handbook of the Valley of the Kings" (Oxford University Press, 2014).

"The tomb of Tutankhamun is not of royal design, and it may have been hastily taken over for his burial when the young king died and [the] tomb that was being prepared for him was not yet complete," Wilkinson wrote. Despite the name “Valley of the Kings,” people who were not pharaohs were also buried in it.

View of the antechamber of the tomb looking south, following its discovery in 1922 (Image credit: Heritage Images / Contributor via Getty Images)

In 2015, Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves, an independent scholar, published a paper in the periodical Amarna Royal Tombs Project, suggesting that Nefertiti was also buried in King Tut’s tomb and that her burial remains hidden. However, ground-penetrating radar surveys have failed to find solid evidence of a hidden burial

The discovery of his intact tomb and the media sensation around it have made King Tut more prominent in death than he was in life. This "long-lost king, buried before he was out of his teens, found more fame and influence in the twentieth century than he had ever known in his own life-time," Riggs wrote. 

That worldwide fame continues today, and KV 62 is now a major tourist attraction. But tourist entry is strictly managed, as changes in humidity (brought about by people passing through the tomb) can damage the tomb and its wall paintings. To help mitigate the risks, the Getty Conservation Institute conducted conservation work on the tomb between 2009 and 2019, during which the conservation team installed a new ventilation system in the tomb and conducted a detailed check of the wall paintings. 

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Western powers shipped Egyptian archaeological treasures home to their own museums and private collections. As a result, Egyptian authorities enacted laws to ensure that Tutankhamun and his treasures would remain in the country, wrote Richard Parkinson, an Egyptology professor at the University of Oxford, in a chapter published in the book "Tutankhamun: Excavating the Archive." (Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2022).

Additional resources

The Griffith Institute maintains a detailed archive of material from the excavation of Tutankhamun's tomb, much of which can be accessed on its website. Egypt's Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has online galleries showing images from the tomb and information on how to visit it on its website. The ministry also has a virtual tour of the Tutankhamun artifacts on display in the Egyptian Museum. 

This article was originally published on April 01, 2016, and was updated on Oct. 20, 2022.

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.