Iconic Artifact: Mask of Tutankhamun – Egyptian Artifact, Ancient Artifact, Egyptian History

Mask of Tutankhamun
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Mask of Tutankhamun. Image by G.C. from Pixabay

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Mask of Tutankhamun

With this article, I am introducing another new series which will be known as the Iconic Artifact series, in which we will be discussing the greatest and most iconic historical artifacts discovered so far. The articles in this series will be short and to the point, and the subject at hand will be discussed with the help of a few questions.

And to inaugurate this new series, I have chosen an artifact that is widely regarded as one of the most famous and celebrated symbols of ancient Egypt and one of the most important discoveries of all time, the Mask of Tutankhamun.

Let us begin with the most obvious question one might have.

What is the Mask of Tutankhamun?

This is a logical question to ask if you are not an Egyptian history buff or a history buff in general. Allow me to address it.

The Mask of Tutankhamun is a gold funerary mask of a certain 18th Dynasty ancient Egyptian pharaoh named Tutankhamun, often referred to as the Boy King.

This death mask, which weighs over 10 kilograms and is 54 centimeters tall, bears a likeness to the Egyptian god of the afterlife, Osiris, and is decorated with semi-precious stones.

Today, the Mask of Tutankhamun is the most famous and significant symbol of ancient Egypt as well as one of the best-known works of art in the world.

But more on the mask later. First, let us address another important question that many of you may have.

Who was Tutankhamun?

There is obviously no point in learning about a death mask without really knowing anything about the person for whom it was made and because of whom it is considered so important and valuable.

The death mask, as mentioned above, was made for Tutankhamun, the 13th pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty of ancient Egypt. Tutankhamun was born sometime around 1341 BC and died only 19 years later, sometime around 1323 BC.

Even though he lived for only 19 years, he ruled over Egypt for almost 10 years, from the age of 9 up until his sudden death at the age of 19. Hence, he is at times referred to as the Boy King.

It is better for us not to go into too much detail as to who was Tutankhamun’s predecessor before he ascended the throne, for that is a subject still debated by scholars. Some say it was Akhenaten, the 10th ruler of the 18th dynasty who ruled during the Amarna Period. Akhenaten is also speculated to be Tutankhamun’s father, but we cannot say that for certain either.

Other scholars speculate that Tutankhamun was most probably preceded by the female pharaoh Neferneferuaten, who briefly ruled over Egypt toward the end of the Amarna period. After she died sometime around 1332 BC, Tutankhamun ascended the throne, they say.

However, one cannot be so certain when it comes to the chronology of his predecessors and his genealogy, for things back then were more complicated than we might think. Many pharaohs ruled with co-regents at the same time, like Akhenaten, whose co-regent was Smenkhkare.

The most common theory is that after Akhenaten’s death, Smenkhkare briefly became the sole ruler of Egypt. Smenkhkare was succeeded by Neferneferuaten after his death. And Neferneferuaten was succeeded by Tutankhamun after her death.

Needless to say, this theory is still up for speculation and debate, so we must take it with a grain of salt.

As I said earlier, let’s not get into Tutankhamun’s predecessors or his genealogy, for I’m afraid if we do, we will never get out of these complex rabbit holes with our wits intact.

Now let’s get back to the basics!

Tutankhamun was way too young to become the pharaoh of Egypt at the mere age of 9, and a lot of the major changes and reversals in Akhenaten’s policies undertaken by him were most probably instigated by his adult advisors.

He undertook several significant societal changes during his almost 10-year reign, such as restoring the traditional polytheistic form of ancient Egyptian religion, thereby undoing the religious shift known as Atenism or Aten religion founded by Akhenaten.

Tutankhamun reversed many other societal changes initiated by Akhenaten and even moved the royal court away from Amarna, which Akhenaten had chosen as his capital.

Over his decade-long reign, Tutankhamun became one of the few pharaohs who was worshipped as a deity during his own lifetime, something which usually happened posthumously for most pharaohs.

He was venerated and honored with temples and mortuary cults while he was still alive, which was a rare occurrence. Temples of his cult were built as far away as Faras in Nubia and Kawa, now in Sudan. A stele discovered at Karnak, near Luxor, which is dedicated to him, indicates that he was probably appealed to for forgiveness and to free the petitioner from an ailment caused by sin.

The pharaohs of Egypt were believed to hold divine office, acting as a link between the Gods and the common man.

Today, Tutankhamun is mainly known for the immense amount of wealth found in his tomb, when the tomb was discovered in a near-intact condition in 1922.

The exact reason for his sudden death at such a young age is not known yet, although it is generally agreed upon that he suffered from poor health and was a weak boy. He is believed to have suffered from several illnesses, including scoliosis, several strains of malaria, and other issues such as a broken leg.

A combination of all his illnesses was probably what led to his sudden death at the young age of 19.

Where and when was the mask discovered?

The tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered at the Theban Necropolis in the Valley of the Kings in 1922, in an expedition led by British archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter.

The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb is considered one of the greatest and most significant archaeological discoveries of all time. The tomb was discovered in a near-intact condition as it was hidden by debris for thousands of years, preventing it from being robbed by graverobbers, a fate the tombs of most other pharaohs have suffered.

Although the tomb was discovered in 1922 and opened in 1923, it took the excavation team another two years to be able to open the heavy sarcophagus which contained Tutankhamun’s mummy.

It was only in October 1925 that the excavation team opened the innermost of three coffins and found the gold death mask, which was seen for the very first time in around 3,250 years.

In December 1925, the mask was removed from the tomb and transported to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo for public display, where it rests to this very day.

What are the characteristics of the mask?

The mask is measured to be 54 centimeters (that is 21 inches) tall, 39.3 centimeters (that is 15.5 inches) wide, and 49 centimeters (that is 19 inches) deep, and is fashioned from two layers of high-karat gold.

It is mainly made of copper-alloyed 23-karat gold, while the surface of the mask is covered with a thin layer (approximately 30 nanometers) of two different alloys of gold, that is, a lighter 18.4 karat shade for the neck and face, and 22.5 karat gold for the rest of the mask.

The mask symbolizes the god of the afterlife, Osiris, and bears a resemblance to Tutankhamun’s features as found on his coffins and statues in the tomb. It includes a nemes headcloth, which is the striped headcloth worn by pharaohs in ancient Egypt, with the royal insignia of a cobra and vulture at the top.

The gold mask is inlaid with gemstones and colored glass, such as obsidian for the pupils, lapis lazuli for the eyebrows and eye surrounds, quartz for the eyes, etc.

Another important feature of the mask is the narrow gold beard inlaid with blue glass to give it a plaited effect. When the mask was discovered in 1925, the beard was found to be separated from the mask. It was reattached only in 1944 using a wooden dowel.

The mask also features a triple-string necklace of gold and blue faience disc beads with uraeus clasps and lotus flower terminals.

Moreover, a protective spell from the Book of the Dead, an ancient Egyptian funerary text, is inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs on the shoulders and back of the mask in 10 vertical and 2 horizontal lines.

What is the legacy of Tutankhamun’s mask today?

As mentioned earlier, today the mask of Tutankhamun is regarded as the most famous and significant object and symbol of ancient Egypt. It is also widely considered one of the most important and popular works of art in the world, one that inspires awe and admiration among people.

The mask not only symbolizes the richness of ancient Egypt but also represents the complex and advanced creativity and craftsmanship of the people of ancient Egypt, which inspires reverence even today. It also helped to stir up interest in the rich and complex history of Egypt, prompting scholars to study its history and culture in even more depth than ever before.

Tutankhamun’s mask is now considered one of the most important and iconic historical artifacts ever discovered, thereby cementing Tutankhamun’s rich legacy for centuries to come.