The King's Calling Cloth
In 1907, more than a decade before the discovery of King Tutankhamun's treasure-packed tomb, an archaeological team led by Theodore M. Davis discovered an intriguing pit in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. The pit was found to contain jars holding what seemed like an unexciting discovery at the time. Among the remains were linen cloths, which scientists now understand were leftover from the mummification of King Tut. Some of the linens yielded a key clue: The Egyptians used to write the date the linen was woven on the cloth itself so that they knew how old it was. One linen was marked "Year 6" of the reign of Nebkheperure (Tut's throne name). Another two had inscriptions with "Year 8 of the Lord of Two Lands, Nebkheperure." This is the last year Tutankhamun, who reigned for nine years, ruled Egypt.
Valley of the Kings
The pit holding the pottery jars was cut into rock about 11 feet under the surface and measuring approximately six feet by four feet. Davis' team could not imagine that the site of one of the greatest archaeological discoveries could ever lie just some 110 meters (360.9 feet) from the pit he had discovered. This undated photo shows the pit (subsequently called KV 54) in the left foreground, with a man standing alongside. The tomb of Ramesses VI is in the background. The tomb of Tutankhamun (KV 62) had yet to be excavated.
As the archaeologists peered into these large jars, they found the well-preserved leftovers of mummification: scraps of wrappings, linen bags, collars of dried flowers, kerchiefs, natron sacks and other embalming materials. Rather disappointed, Davis did not understand the importance of the finding and later donated the entire lot to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's collection of Egyptian art. The objects entered the museum as a mystery. Only several years later did Herbert E. Winlock, the Metropolitan's curator, identify the items as the remnants of King Tut's funeral. Now on permanent display, the objects are highlighted in the exhibition "Tutankhamun's Funeral."
The Preparation Process
King Tut's mummification may have been carried out more carefully than that of his subjects, and his burial chamber was certainly more lavishly equipped. However, Tut went through essentially the same embalming process as any other ancient Egyptian of reasonable means. First, the corpse was washed and its organs were removed and treated separately. Over several weeks -- sources mention both 70 days and 40 days -- the body was packed in natron, a drying agent made of four sodium compounds that occur naturally in Egypt. Once dehydrated, the body was treated with resins, herbs and ointments, some of which may have had antibacterial properties. Linen pads and bags filled with sawdust were placed inside the body's cavities to maintain its shape. Layer upon layer of linen sheets were then applied, accompanied by hymns and rituals. A number of amulets and jewels were even folded into the bandages. In this photo, a painting on the east wall of Tut's burial chamber depicts dignitaries pulling the sledge with the mummy of the boy pharaoh.
Final Resting Place
As the leftovers from the embalming process were packed in large jars, the pharaoh's mummy was transported for the final rite, the "Opening of the Mouth." With the "opening of the mouth," the deceased was able to receive offerings after death. Finally, King Tut's mummy was deposited into three nested coffins, and then into a stone sarcofagus. The large jars with the scraps of wrapping and other leftover materials were buried in a pit nearby. "According to Egyptian beliefs, the materials were too impure to be buried in the tomb with the dead man," Winlock wrote in a detailed 1941 account of the materials found in the pit. However, since it came in contact with the pharoah, "the material has to be safely put not far away from his body," Winlock concluded.
Seal of a Pharaoh
To attribute the discarded objects to King Tut's funeral, Winlock carefully examined them. He observed that the objects dated toward the end of Tutankhamun's reign. In particular, there were several mud seals, such as the one pictured above, with impressions of the name of Tutankhamun. The seals were used on boxes and sacks containing the amulets and gold to be applied during mummification. Basically, the Egyptians packed their things, tied them up with string, put a piece of clay on the package and impressed their ring on the clay to leave their mark. In order to reach contents of a sack or box, the clay seal had to be broken. This seal has King Tut’s name and the epithet "(beloved of) Ptah." Since Ptah is the god of Memphis, some 500 miles north of Thebes (Luxor), one of the sacks could have come from there.
"One of the most curious things among the bandages are 50 pieces of narrow tape with a selvage on each side. I do not recall ever having seen any ready-made, Eighteenth-Dynasty bandages like them before," Winlock wrote. Indeed, these custom-made bandages, which look like modern gauze, are unique. They were specially made for King Tut, and probably were used to affix the larger sheets around the body. Since so much resin had been poured over Tut's mummy, the wrappings have become one compact, half-disintegrated mass. Howard Carter, who discovered Tut's tomb, damaged the bandages when unwrapping the mummy and could not really analyze what kind of sheets were used on King Tut. According to Dorothea Arnold, curator of Egyptian art at the Metropolitan museum, the bandages on display are actually the best-preserved lot of Tutankhamun wrappings. Even though they are the discarded pieces, they provide further insights on King Tut’s funeral arrangements. "One can see fingerprints where someone had wiped out his hands on them," Winlock observed.
Three kerchiefs -- two white and one blue -- may provide evidence of the workers who prepared Tut's body. "Such kerchiefs must have been worn over wigs as protection from the dust. ... All three had seen a good deal of use and had been washed so often that the edges had become to come unsewed," Winlock wrote. The meaning of these kerchiefs is still debated. Some scholars believe they were worn by the embalmers. Others argue that such head covers were put on the body of the deceased during mummification.
An Essential Ingredient
The cache also contained several linen bags filled with chaff or natron, and cylinders loaded with sawdust. These objects were all typically packed into a body during mummification. Natron was the key ingredient in the mummification process. After the brain and the internal organs were removed, packets of natron were placed in the previously washed body cavity. Then natron was heaped over the corpse. The salt-like substance was also applied to dry out the removed internal organs, which were then placed in jars.
These bottles with long necks were most likely used for hand-washing. The cache also contained papyrus-fiber jar lids, bottles, cups, bowls, dishes and remains of animals -- ducks, geese and the foreleg of a cow or ox -- which most likely were sacrificial offerings.
When Did Tut Die?
As symbols of life, rejuvenation and the divine powers of nature, floral collars were also used to adorn mummies and coffins. The innermost gold coffin of Tutankhamun was covered around the neck and chest with a huge floral collar. It is highly likely that the 3,300-year-old collars on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were also intended to adorn the king's mummy or one of his coffins. Never used, they found their way into the large jars of KV 54 cache. Beautifully made, the collars contain a large variety of plants which have provided important clues about King Tut's death. According to German expert Renate Germer, the boy king's funeral took place sometime between the end of February and March, since this is the blooming time in Egypt for the plants in the collars. Since the mummification process can take up to 70 days, King Tut could have died around late December or early January.