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Tutankhamun's World: A Self-Guided Tour

The self-guided tour, Tutankhamun’s World, is currently on view in the Egyptian galleries until November 2023. Click here to view an interactive map of the tour.

The reign of Tutankhamun represents barely ten years (ca. 1336–1327 B.C.) in the three-thousand-year chronicle of ancient Egypt. Yet since his tomb in the Valley of the Kings was uncovered one hundred years ago, Tutankhamun has been one of the most evocative names in history. The figure of Tutankhamun and the events of his reign have been overshadowed by his tomb and the fabulous finds it contained (now in Cairo), as well as the highly publicized excavation led by Howard Carter between 1922 and 1933. 

However, in the past decades much has been learned about the period during which he lived—the late 18th Dynasty—particularly thanks to archaeological research in Egypt (at Saqqara and Luxor) and Nubia (at Faras and Kawa). When we leave the gold behind and look at the monuments and artworks of this era, the reign of Tutankhamun comes into clearer focus. 

The Age of Tutankhamun 
This decade-long reign comes after the tumultuous Amarna Period (1353–1336 B.C.) and falls within the larger Thutmoside era, which is itself at the heart of Dynasty 18 (1550–1295 B.C.). Prior to the time of Tutankhamun, Egypt was an empire that stretched from Nubia in the south to the Euphrates River in Syria to the northeast. The years before his birth had seen the rise of a new solar religion. Tutankhamun’s reign is marked by a return to the traditional religious values that had been upset during the reign of his probable father, King Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten. This was certainly a time of transition, where traditions were overturned as the worship of the light of the sun dominated Egyptian religion; and a new capital named Akhetaten (now Tell el-Amarna) was constructed and abandoned. 

Head of Tutankhamun. Rogers Fund, 1950 (50.6)

The radical solar religion Akhenaten had promoted was reversed shortly after his death. During Tutankhamun’s reign, the cults of the state god Amun-Re and other deities were restored and their temples again received royal attention. As a result, numerous statues of Amun-Re were erected in Thebes. A fragmentary head of the king displayed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art testifies to the restoration policy initiated under Tutankhamun in the Theban area. Recent research shows that it once belonged to a life-sized seated statue of a god, identified as Amun, protecting Tutankhamun (today in the storerooms at Karnak).  

The great Colonnaded Hall built by Tutankhamun and his grandfather Amenhotep III at Luxor Temple. Antonio Beato; Luxor, vue du temple côté ouest. Albumen silver print from glass negative. Gift of Mrs. John L. Swayze, 1981 (1981.1194.2)

People and Their Things 
Beyond the reign of Tutankhamun, numerous objects in the Met’s Egyptian collection reflect the society and the culture of this period and are, as such, representative “time-slices.” The material world of the people who lived during Dynasty 18 is mostly known to us through the personal objects that went into someone’s burial—this is especially true given that less than twenty percent of burial goods were designed for the tomb at that time. Most often, they were items that were well used in life. This was the case for Hatnefer, a well-to-do lady who lived in the early 16th century B.C., in the time of Tutankhamun’s ancestors Hatshepsut and Thutmose III. Her tomb in the Theban necropolis contained a number of objects that came from her household, including a low seat made out of precious woods. 

A scene from the tomb of Rekhmire (TT 100), showing a carpenter drilling holes in the frame of a low chair with feline legs. Facsimile painted in 1929 by Nina de Garis Davies; Rogers Fund, 1931 (31.6.29)

Many fine chairs discovered in private burials like Hatnefer’s and in royal tombs like Tutankhamun’s demonstrate the skill of Dynasty 18 cabinetmakers. Before the age of Ikea and mass-produced objects, pre-modern societies like ancient Egypt placed great value on household furnishings, all the more so as furniture-quality wood was rare in the Nile valley. Moreover, as Peter der Manuelian aptly wrote, ““[i]n a culture where sitting, reclining, or squatting on the ground was commonplace, chairs and stools did not represent the bare necessities they might to modern Western people, but were rather additional items, perhaps even luxuries.”  

Hatnefer's Chair. From Thebes, Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, Tomb of Hatnefer and Ramose (below TT 71), outside entrance; MMA excavations, 1935–36. Rogers Fund, 1936 (36.3.152)

Hatnefer’s chair is a perfect example of this. Typical of the period in both form and construction, it is a luxury item, made out of precious wood. Plus, unlike most everyday furniture that was unadorned, the chair’s back panel shows protective imagery, combining an image of a grotesque-looking figure with alternating djed-pillar and tyet-knot amulets, playing with dark and light woods to show off this design. 

View through a rectangular doorway into a rock-cut chamber, with boxes, baskets, and a coffin visible and one tattered cloth draped over a box.

View into the burial chamber of Hatnefer, before its clearance, in Sheikh Abd el-Qurneh (1935–36). Department of Egyptian Art Archives (M16C 125)

Hatnefer’s treasure of over seventy linen sheets and shirts, all stored in three wooden chests, is another example of the ways of life in the Egypt of Tutankhamun—who was also buried with many boxes of folded clothing and textiles. Linen, a fabric made from the flax plant, was one of the most valuable commodities in ancient Egypt and thus textiles were maintained more carefully than today. Worn garments tended to be mended rather than thrown out. Hatnefer’s sheets would have been used originally as curtains, wall-hangings, bedding or matting for a bed. Everything from her tomb showed extensive wear, but had been laundered, pressed, and folded for their second life cycle. 

Gable-topped Chest and Linens Belonging to Hatnefer. From Thebes, Sheikh Abd el-Qurna, Tomb of Hatnefer and Ramose (below TT 71), outside entrance; MMA excavations, 1935–36. Rogers Fund, 1936 (36.3.56a, b, and related)

The stories told here are just a few examples from the self-guided tour Tutankhamun’s World, currently on view in the Egyptian galleries. Begin in Gallery 115 and follow the dark grey labels labels  to explore the people, places, and lifeways that defined the Egypt of Tutankhamun.  Click here  to view an interactive map of the tour.

[1] Der Manuelian, Peter 1995.  “Furniture in Ancient Egypt.” In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East vol. III, edited by Jack M. Sasson et al. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, pp. 1623–24.