This week’s entry: Tutankhamun
What it’s about: While he wasn’t born in Arizona, nor did he move to Babylon’a, Tutankhamun (known to the public as King Tut) created a worldwide sensation when the tomb of the late Egyptian pharaoh was discovered in 1922, some 32 centuries after the boy king was laid to rest. Because the tomb was remarkably intact, it was a bonanza for archaeologists, and led to a flurry of interest in Egyptian history for years afterwards.
Strangest fact: Tut was a minor pharaoh in life, but a major one in death. While he reigned at the peak of Egypt’s power and influence, Tut took the throne at age 9, and reigned for less than 10 years, with Ay, his great-uncle, chief advisor and eventual successor, probably making the big decisions. His tomb is small for a pharoah’s, possibly because he died suddenly and there wasn’t time to prepare a kingly burial. But because it was easily overlooked, it survived intact through the millennia. Within a few years after Tut was laid to rest, the entrance to his tomb was covered with construction debris from other tombs, and eventually housing for construction workers was built over the entrance, so Tut was forgotten, even by later pharaohs who systematically robbed their predecessors’ tombs. As a result, the tomb was almost completely intact when Howard Carter and George Herbert discovered it in 1922, making it one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of all time.
Biggest controversy: We know Tut died young (around age 19), but no one can agree on how. In 2005, a CT scan on his mummy showed a broken leg, which had become infected, possibly fatally. One doctor believes Tut had epilepsy, which caused him to fall and break his leg. DNA analysis in 2010 showed a severe strain of malaria, which may have killed him. Other theories on afflictions Tut may have had and/or died from include androgen insensitivity syndrome, Antley-Bixler, aromatase excess syndrome, a fatal chariot accident, club foot, cranoisynostosis, flat feet, Frölich syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome, kyphoscoliosis, Marfan syndrome, post-mummification spontaneous combustion, sickle cell disease, X-linked intellectual disability, pediatric restless leg syndrome, and lupus. (It’s never lupus.) So either he died of a combination of several dozen diseases, injuries, and genetic defects, or we have no idea what killed him.
Thing we were happiest to learn: The relics preserved in Tut’s tomb are among the most viewed archaeological treasures in the world. There have been four major traveling exhibits—in the 1960s, the ’70s, and two separate exhibits in the ’00s with different sets of artifacts. The 1970s Treasures Of Tutankhamun tour alone ran for seven years, stopping in the U.K. (where people lined up for as long as eight hours), the U.S.S.R., Canada, and West Germany. Six U.S. museums were added only after President Nixon personally appealed to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and a seventh was added after a widespread public outcry in San Francisco that the city was being left off the tour.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Incest among royals isn’t limited to Game Of Thrones. While Akhenaten was known to have several wives, DNA samples establish Tut’s mother was one of Akhenaten’s sisters (which one is probably impossible to tell). Tut himself carried on the family tradition, marrying his half-sister, Ankhesenamun, who was believed to be Akhenaten’s child by his wife Nefertiti. All of this inbreeding had consequences, as Tut had numerous health problems (see above), and two mummified fetuses found in the tomb are assumed to be his stillborn children. Tut produced no living heirs, which is why he was succeeded by his great-uncle.
Also noteworthy: Tut’s impact on pop culture was nearly as big as his impact on archaeology. Seventeen years after the tomb’s discovery, The Three Stooges would explore the tomb of King Rutentuten and Queen Hotsy Totsy in We Want Our Mummy, and then visit ancient Egypt itself as used chariot salesmen in Mummy’s Dummies. King Tut was also a recurring villain on the 1960s Batman TV series, although in this case he was an Egyptologist suffering delusions that he was the pharaoh reincarnated. The immense popularity of the 1970s Treasures exhibit prompted Steve Martin to write “King Tut,” a song that cemented his popularity at the peak of his stand-up career. And in general, our popular conception of ancient Egypt and its kings is viewed through the prism of what we know of Tutankhamun.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Martin wasn’t the only one to commemorate Tutankhamun in song. Numerous Tut-themed ditties came out of Tin Pan Alley, New York’s legendary songwriting and sheet music-publishing district that thrived a century ago in the days before the phonograph and radio defined popular music. The Alley produced some of the most prolific and talented songwriters of the era, including Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, George M. Cohan, George and Ira Gershwin, Scott Joplin, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, and Fats Waller.
Further down the wormhole: The discovery of Tut’s tomb gave us tremendous insight into Egypt’s history. Besides Tutankhamun, the figure that dominates our view of ancient Egypt is Cleopatra, who ruled the same kingdom more than 1,300 years after Tut’s death. While Cleopatra is envisioned as a powerful ruler, she in fact presided over Egypt’s decline. She was the second-to-last pharaoh, whose romantic and political alliances with first Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony solidified her hold on power, but also ushered in Egypt’s absorption into the Roman Empire. When Antony was defeated by Caesar’s heir, Octavian, he committed suicide, and Cleopatra followed suit. Her son by Caesar, Caesarion, succeeded her as pharaoh, but was quickly killed by Octavian. Cleopatra also had three children by Antony, including a set of twins. To help The A.V. Club observe Siblings Week next week, we’ll look at twins and their secret methods of telepathic communication.