Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Tutankhamun’s Funeral

A Puzzling Discovery
In the winter of 1907–8, the young British archaeologist Edward R. Ayrton, working for the retired New York lawyer and amateur archaeologist Theodore M. Davis, discovered a pit in the Valley of the Kings about 360 feet (110 m) across from the mouth of the (then still undiscovered) tomb of Tutankhamun (KV 62). The Davis-Ayrton pit is today identified as KV 54. It had been cut in antiquity through the surface gravel covering the hillside and into the bedrock on the eastern slope bordering the Valley of the Kings. Measuring approximately 6 x 4 feet (1.90 x 1.25 m), the pit was in the 1920s still about 4 feet 6 inches (1.4 m) deep at the uphill south end and 3 feet 4 inches (1 m) at the downhill north end. Crowded into this fairly small space, Ayrton found more than a dozen gigantic pottery jars, 28 inches (71 cm) high with bulging bodies and necks. When removed from the pit, they turned out to be filled with a multitude of at first sight unintelligible objects, such as bundled-up linen sheets (09.184.220; 09.184.693), bandages (09.184.797), and headscarves (09.184.217; 09.184.218; 09.184.219); broken mud seals (09.184.260; 09.184.261; 09.184.262) that had once been attached to strings closing boxes and bundles; sacks of various shapes containing powdery white natron (1988.437.2) and brownish sawdust (1988.437.1); faded floral collars (09.184.214–.216); and a great amount of mostly broken pots that were later joined by Metropolitan Museum conservators into whole vessels. There were also considerable amounts of animal bones and other bits and pieces such as vessel covers of reed material, sticks, and little basins of unfired clay. Rather disappointed with this discovery of what looked like scrap, Theodore Davis donated the whole lot to the fledgling Metropolitan Museum collection of Egyptian art in 1909.

However, the name of King Tutankhamun on some of the mud seals (09.184.260; 09.184.261; 09.184.262) and torn linens (09.184.220; 09.184.693) in the Davis-Ayrton pots caused knowledgeable archaeologists to take notice. Indeed, Howard Carter and Arthur Mace stated in The Tomb of TutankhAmen: Discovered by the Late Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter (London, 1923) that the Davis discovery had served as one of the leads by which the intact tomb of the king was finally located in 1922.

In the meantime, Herbert E. Winlock, the Metropolitan Museum’s curator and long-time excavator, had discovered assemblages of rather similar objects and materials in the neighborhood of several nonroyal tombs in western Thebes. He was thus able to identify the linen sheets and bandages and sacks of chaff and natron from the large jars as leftovers from the embalming of King Tutankhamun’s body. It appears that the ancient Egyptians did not simply discard the remains from the mummification process, but collected them in pottery containers or coffins and buried them in the neighborhood of a deceased’s tomb. This was not a simple matter of trash disposal, but reflected the belief that even traces of a person’s physical remains contain something of his or her identity. The objects from the Davis pit became thus a means to reconstruct some real activities that took place at a royal funeral more than 3,000 years ago.

The Mummification Process
The mummification of King Tutankhamun’s body may have been more careful than that of his higher status subjects—and his burial was certainly immeasurably more lavishly equipped—but in essence it was not different from the embalmment of any person of reasonable means during his time. Indeed, although people of lesser means and status had to be content with only parts (sometimes very rudimentary parts) of the treatment repertoire available for kings, the difference was for the most part in the amount of time, material, and expertise expended. In principle, the mummification of a king concerned his human body, a part of his identity that he shared with all other human beings.

After a deceased’s body was washed and its organs were removed through an abdominal incision to be treated separately, the body was packed during several weeks (seventy and forty days are mentioned in the sources) in natron, a compound of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium sulfate, and sodium chlorite (most recently described as sodium sesquicarbonate Na2CO3.NaHCO3.2H2O), which occurs naturally in Egypt, especially in the Wadi el-Natrun, west of the Nile Delta. Natron is a desiccating agent. Dozens of small sacks containing natron were found in the pottery containers from KV 54 (1988.437.2). The small amount of powder contained in these bags indicates that this was most probably not the way in which the major supply of natron was delivered to the embalmers. More likely, these were bags used to stuff the body cavities during and after the dehydration process.

After the tissues were dehydrated and the body had been treated with resins, herbs, and ointments, some of which may have had antibacterial properties, linen pads, sawdust-filled linen bags (1988.437.1), and possibly small bags with natron were placed inside the body cavities to maintain its shape. Then the long process of wrapping started. Layers upon layers of linen sheets (09.184.220; 09.184.693) and bandages (09.184.797) were used to produce the characteristic figure of a mummy.

About twenty sticks, mostly reeds between 2 inches (5 cm) and 13 3/4 inches (35 cm) long, may have been used for certain probing jobs during the mummification process. Some of them have sharpened and burnt ends, raising the question whether Egyptians had a vague idea about the sterilizing effect of heat.

Since ancient times, people have wondered about the Egyptian custom of mummification. The Greek historian Herodotus, for instance, has written at length about it. According to the understanding of the ancient Egyptians themselves, the preservation of the human body was necessary so that the soul had a place on earth to which it could return in order to receive offerings and thus survive eternally. It is important to understand, however, that it was not just the preservation of the human bones and tissues that was intended. The wrapping with linen changed forever the shape of the human body and created a new being of divine character that was believed to be able to live forever.

Three especially interesting pieces found in KV 54 were most probably headscarves worn by the embalmers (09.184.217; 09.184.218; 09.184.219). They were made of very fine linen, folded double and cut to a roughly semicircular shape. Linen tapes were sewn into the straight upper edge that served as the front of the kerchief. “When being put on,” Winlock wrote, “the front of these kerchiefs was probably held between the forefinger and thumb of each hand while the back was thrown up over the head, and the tapes were then carried back under the kerchief and tied.” Creases along the corners show that these corners were tucked under the fastened edges above or behind the ears. Repeated laundering, wear on the fronts, and clear signs of darning indicate that these were cherished pieces of clothing that had been used repeatedly before they were buried with Tutankhamun’s mummification material. The kerchief was died blue with indigo.

Vessels and Other Equipment for Ritual Use during the Funeral
The process of mummification and the deposition of a mummy into the tomb were accompanied by elaborate rituals. Some objects from KV 54 were presumably used during these rites.

Purification and Libation
Flasks with ovoid bodies and tall narrow necks were part of a hand-washing set during the Middle and New Kingdom: a person stretched his/her hands over a basin while a servant poured water over them from a flask. This mundane activity became a ritual when connected to an offering ceremony.

Beakers and jars with wide necks were commonly used as containers of liquids and people also drank from them. Representations of purification rituals, however, also show them in use for pouring water over the heads of persons and mummies during purification rites.

Between forty and fifty miniature basins were found in KV 54. They are shaped like the tubs in which priests washed before entering a temple or tomb for service. Their small size (around 5 1/2 to 6 inches [14–15.2 cm]) and friable material (unfired clay) made them purely symbolical objects.

Since the dead were believed to need food and drink in the afterlife, offerings of liquids such as water, beer, or wine, and food such as bread, meat, fruits, and vegetables were an important part of all funeral rites in ancient Egypt. Among the objects from KV 54 were remains of meat offerings, plates, and dishes as well as a beautifully painted bowl that might well have served to present food, and some of the jars—if not used for purification—might have also contained liquid offerings or fragrant oils and ointments.

Floral Adornment
Among the most remarkable objects found in KV 54 are three astonishingly well preserved collars of plant leaves, berries, and flowers (09.184.214–.216). The color scheme was derived from alternating rows of olive leaves with the silvery undersides showing and olive leaves with the dark green upper sides showing, orange-red berries of Withania somnifera, blue cornflowers, and tiny blue faience beads, as well as yellow flowers of oxtongue (Picris asplenoides). The papyrus background was white, and on two of the collars the edges along the neck was lined with red linen.

Winlock assumed that the floral collars were worn by the participants of a funeral meal. It is more likely, however, that a number of floral collars were created to adorn the various coffins—and maybe images—of the king. One large example made of a very similar choice of plants as the one found on the three Museum collars was eventually placed on Tutankhamun’s innermost coffin and found there by Howard Carter; the others would then have been stored away among the leftovers of the embalming process.

The German Egyptologist cum botanist Renate Germer determined from the seasonal selection of the flowers in the Museum collars and their counterpart on the king‘s innermost coffin that Tutankhamun’s funeral took place between the end of February and mid-March. A slightly later date of March to April was advocated by Rolf Krauss.

A Funeral Meal?
In 1941, Herbert Winlock proposed that the floral collars and most of the above-described pottery vessels were used at a meal. In reconstructing this event, Winlock was much influenced by the ubiquitous depictions of banquets in Dynasty 18 Theban tombs. But the German Egyptologist Siegfried Schott demonstrated that these images in fact illustrate not a funeral feast but a festival that was celebrated annually in ancient Thebes (present-day Luxor). During this feast—called “The Beautiful Feast of the Valley”—an image of the god Amun was conveyed from his temple at Karnak on the east bank of the Nile to the cemeteries and temple area on the west bank. While the image rested overnight in the sanctuary, people feasted in and in front of the tombs of their ancestors. This “Feast of Drunkenness” was not a celebration at a funeral, but a religious festival that included the dead of the community. The objects and vessels in KV 54 cannot have had anything to do with this occasion, since they were buried together with mummification leftovers.

New Kingdom Theban reliefs and paintings reveal, however, that another meal, this one of a more sedate character, took place at a funeral in connection with rites performed for the deceased’s statue, another important item in Egyptian funerals that provided a place of materialization for a dead person’s soul. These statue rites are repeatedly depicted to have been enacted in a garden setting, with food offerings set out on tables and drinks in large jars like some found in KV 54 resting under canopies.

Interestingly—and importantly for an interpretation of the objects from KV 54—some representations of statue rites also show that after the conclusion of these rites, all vessels used for offerings were smashed. Almost all pots in the KV 54 find were found broken into pieces. It can, therefore, be suggested that the above-described vessels and other remains of food (such as animal bones) from KV 54 were part of a display of food offerings set out at the consecration of a statue of King Tutankhamun. As was customary in antiquity, the participants in the offering ritual would have consumed the food after the ceremonies were concluded. Communal meals in the presence of a deceased’s effigy are, moreover, known to have taken place in many cultures and are certainly attested to have taken place in Roman Egypt.

Tutankhamun’s Mortuary Temple as the Site of His Mummification and Statue Rites
The mummification and statue rites for a king were held, not in front of the king’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, but more likely at the site of the king’s mortuary temple. Mortuary temples were built by the pharaohs of the New Kingdom for the daily celebration of their cult after death as well as the worship of Amun, the supreme god of Thebes, and other deities; and all of these temples were situated close to the agricultural land east of the Valley of the Kings. We do not know where Tutankhamun’s mortuary temple stood or whether it was ever completed. A relief in the Museum (05.4.2) depicting a man called Userhat, who is said to have served at Tutankhamun’s mortuary temple, is the only evidence extant that a cult ever took place there. A site for the temple, however, must certainly have been chosen and prepared by the time of the king’s funeral, and it is there that both his mummification and statue rites most probably took place.

This explains not only why the leftovers of the king’s mummification were packed up together with the remains of offerings dedicated to his statue, but is also congruent with the garden settings in which the statue rites are depicted. In the end, the whole lot (mummification leftovers and food offering remains) were then conveyed in their large containers from the mortuary temple site to the Valley of the Kings together with all the other articles that would fill the king’s tomb.