The mystery of the ancient Egyptian Boy King Tutankhamun continues to fascinate Egyptologists as a new controversy reveals, writes Nevine El-Aref
This week the ancient Egyptian boy king Tutankhamun is in the limelight once again, with the image of his golden mask decorated with precious stones featuring in many international magazines and newspapers.
However, the current interest in the boy king is not because of his treasured funerary collection, his lineage, or the causes behind his early death, but instead because of the way in which he was mummified.
According to a study carried out by professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo (AUC) Salima Ikram, Tutankhamun was unusually embalmed by priests of the god Amun in an attempt to quash the religious revolution carried out by his father and predecessor the monotheistic king Akhnaten.
The latter had called for the worship of only one deity, the sun god Aten, and the abandonment of the ancient Egyptians’ other gods.
When Akhnaten’s son Tutankhamun came to the throne, he returned Egypt to its traditional religion of worshipping a diverse set of deities at the top of which was the god Amun.
To ensure that this conversion continued after Tutankhamun’s death and to abort any further religious revolution, Ikram suggests in her paper that the priests mummified Tutankhamun’s corpse in an unusual way to make him appear as Osiris, the god of the afterlife and the land of Egypt.
“Tutankhamun’s mummification is unusual in the amount of resin used, the number of times he had resin introduced into his cranium, the absence of a heart scarab, and the upright genitalia,” Ikram told Al-Ahram Weekly.
She says in her paper that Tutankhamun was mummified with an erect penis and his mummy was buried without the heart scarab that usually replaced the real heart, which, according to ancient Egyptian mummification rituals, was removed and put in canopic jars along with the stomach, liver and kidneys.
The study suggests that Tutankhamun’s mummy was covered with a thick layer of black mummification liquid that darkened the colour of the mummy to the same colour of Osiris.
“The erect penis evokes Osiris at his most powerfully regenerative moment and is a feature of ‘corn-mummies,’ the quintessential symbols of rebirth and resurrection,” Ikram told the LiveScience Website, confirming that Tutankhamun’s mummy is the only mummy known to be treated in this way. She told the Weekly that it was unusual that the penis was kept erect in the case of Tutankhamun.
A corn-mummy was an artificial mummy made by the ancient Egyptian priests every year to honour Osiris. The mummy was buried in a temple dedicated to the god inside Karnak Temple on the east bank at Luxor and was made of a mixture of materials including grain.
When it was unearthed by the British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922, Tutankhamun’s mummy was subjected to damage to remove the precious amulets inside it. The penis was broken, but in 2004 when a team of Egyptian and foreign Egyptologists carried out CT scans on Tutankhamun’s mummy it was re-found.
Ikram wrote in her paper that “the mass of oils and resins applied to Tutankhamun’s body might also allude to the black colour associated with Osiris as lord of the land of Egypt, dark with the rich soil of the inundation and the source of fertility and regeneration.”
This explains a reference in Carter’s notes that “the most part of the detail is hidden by a black lustrous coating due to pouring over the coffin a libation of great quantity,” she said.
However, a recent study based on Carter’s notes and conducted by British Egyptologist Chris Naunton, director of the London-based Egypt Exploration Society, found through a virtual autopsy on a sample of the mummy that Tutankhamun’s mummy could have been burned.
Ikram sees the missing heart scarab as confirming her speculations, because it symbolises the well-known legend of Osiris whose brother Seth killed him, cut his body apart, and buried his heart.
Ikram told LiveScience that the cut typically used to remove a mummy’s internal organs was unusually “brutal” in Tutankhamun’s case, a reference, perhaps, to Seth’s butchery of Osiris.
Other pieces of evidence also point to Osiris, she said. For instance, the burial chamber’s north wall shows Tutankhamun as Osiris in its decoration. “Tutankhamun is shown as a fully-fledged Osiris, not simply a wrapped mummy,” Ikram noted.
“This representation of the king as Osiris is unique in the Valley of the Kings, while other tombs show the king being embraced by Osiris or offering to him.”
Ikram said her ideas were speculation, but that if they were correct they would help to solve some of the mystery surrounding Tutankhamun, especially the unusual mummification of his corpse.
However, such speculation has triggered the anger of some Egyptologists, who have described it as “scientifically unfounded and a search for fame.”
A professor of Egyptology at the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University who spoke on condition of anonymity told the Weekly that the mummification rules since the 12th Dynasty king Mantuhotep had been the same and had not changed with Tutankhamun.
“Mummification rituals were in direct relation to the ancient Egyptian religious belief in resurrection after death and immortality and have nothing to do with the return of Amun-style dogma,” the source said, adding that in his view the style of mummification had nothing to do with the beliefs adopted by Akhnaten.
It could not be known that the pharoah’s heart had been destroyed, since the body had been mummified, he said, and the mummy had in any case been damaged by Carter and others who had attempted to solve the enigmas surrounding the boy king.
The thesis of the erect penis was “ridiculous,” he said. This was because this organ could not be mummified erected, if only due to the mummy’s linen wrapping.
“According to ancient Egyptian religious rituals, all the organs of the king’s corpse were mummified in order to be resurrected,” he said, though some of these could have been lost or damaged at a later time.
“We should not respond to these unscientific speculations,” he said.
Egyptologist Mohamed Al-Biyali, the former head of the Ancient Egyptian Section at the ministry of state for antiquities (MSA), told the Weekly that Tutankhamun would remain an enigma unless an ancient Egyptian document could be unearthed that contained more about the king and his life.
In the meantime, he said, he was against speculation as the mummification process was always carried out according to ancient Egyptian religious rituals based on the Osirian beliefs from its beginning to the end of the Pharaonic era.
Al-Biyali said that all ancient Egyptian kings became gods after death and unite with Osiris, so every part of Tutankhamun’s body would have been mummified. If the king’s heart was missing, as Ikram claimed, the boy king would not have become a god in the afterlife, contradicting the ancient Egyptian belief system.
For the ancient Egyptians, the heart also represented the conscience and bore witness to the subject’s acts on judgment day. If the embalmer had not placed a heart scarab in the boy king’s mummy, he would not have been resurrected and lived to eternity as a god.
“The heart scarab could not have been missing,” asserted Al-Biyali, adding that it could have been lost or taken by Carter because the latter had removed all the scarabs and amulets inside Tutankhamun’s mummy, as well as his gold mask.
“The amulets were removed but were all catalogued and taken to the Cairo Museum. There was no traditional form of heart scarab, though,” Ikram added.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the body was the house of the soul. Even after death, they believed that the spirit could only live on if the body was preserved. If the body was lost, so too was the spirit, he said.
According to Al-Biyali, “the use of an excessive amount of embalming material on Tutankhamun’s body could have been for two reasons. It could have been done deliberately to hide the crime if the king was murdered, or it could have been to disguise faults in mummification.”
Tutankhamun came to the throne at a very young age during a critical period when the state was falling apart. Akhnaten had effected a religious revolution, and it was possible that Tutankhamun was killed, the priests then using a large amount of embalming materials to hide the crime, al-Biyali said.
“All studies carried out on Tutankhamun’s mummy are only hypotheses unless Egyptologists succeed in uncovering documents that can solve the mystery,” he added.