The late 18th Dynasty king of Egypt, who is now known to us as King Tutankhamun, and who reigned from c. 1347-1337 B.C., was originally named Tutankhaten. The name change was a result of the reversion—made at the beginning of his reign—away from the Aten cult, a monotheistic religion that worshipped the sun and which had been put in place by Akhenaten (originally Amenophis IV), and back to the traditional, polytheistic faith of Egypt. Tutankhamun is one of the few people from the second millennium BC whose name is a household word today. He has that status because of the treasures that were found when his tomb was opened by Howard Carter in 1922. This paper attempts to outline what is currently known about Tutankhamun, his reign, his death, and his tomb. We will also discuss the role that Carter played in the discovery of his tomb.
It is doubtful that Tutankhamun was to any great degree responsible for the affairs of Egypt during his reign. He was less than ten years old when he ascended the throne. Clayton states, “his ‘advisors’ were the ones who held the reins and manipulated the puppet-strings of the boy king.”
We know, despite the wealth of artifacts found in his tomb, very little about Tutankhamun or the events of his reign. Even the details of his parentage have occasioned some dispute. Stearns states that he was the son-in-law of Akhenaten; Mahdy says that Tutankhamun was the brother of Smenkhare who was the son-in-law of Akhenaten. Reeves, however, states that it is “probable” that Akhenaten was Tutankhamun’s father. While Carter’s work in uncovering the tomb, and subsequent archaeological discoveries outside the tomb, and careful scholarship and analysis concerning what was discovered in the tomb, and scientific/technical advances enabling us to better understand the artifacts that we now possess, have given us a much greater knowledge of the “boy king” than was the case before the discovery of the tomb, the fact remains that in the absence of traditional historical sources such as chronicles, annals, biographies, etc. we cannot know much about this human being or his life. Reeves notes that, “Hard facts relating to Tutankhamun’s period of rule are few.” The paucity of our knowledge is illustrated by Reeves’ brief discussion of what we do—or might—know. In the realm of foreign policy, there is evidence of two military campaigns, one Asiatic, the other Nubian. In the domestic sphere the most important fact is that the administrative center of the empire was transferred back from Akhenaten’s city, el-Amarna, to Memphis, and that the center of the reestablished polytheistic religion became, once again, Thebes.