In life, Tutankhamun was one of the lesser known pharaohs. In death, his tomb was far more consequential.
Mark White

19 Oct 2016 - 11:13 AM  UPDATED 4 Nov 2016 - 11:33 AM

The upcoming SBS series Tutankhamun tells the story of the 1922 discovery of the burial chambers of the teenage pharaoh –  the most important find ever made in the Valley of the Kings. Apart from a couple of minor thefts in the months after the body was sealed up, the contents were intact – which had never happened before. A hint of what was to come happened when the expedition's financier, Lord Carnarvon, asked dig leader Howard Carter what he could see after he breached the seal on the tomb. “Wonderful things,” the stunned Carter replied.

Tut was the first royal mummy ever found untouched

The manner of the burial showed how seriously the ancient Egyptians took death: he was placed in a sarcophagus, in the inner of four shrines, itself inside a vast gilded wooden coffin. Like Russian dolls that contained a second coffin, inside which was the final, golden coffin held fast by a thick band of resin.

The embalming process was laid bare like never before

Despite damage to the 3300-year-old swaddled body – the resin was stuck fast – new clues emerged as to how mummies were preserved, including drying out the corpse to prevent rot and removing the brain and digestive tract.

There was enough gold to sink a battleship

“Strange animals, statues and gold, everywhere the glint of gold,” commented Carter. He wasn't wrong. There were 5398 items inside, including a gold throne, gold coffin and the famous gold death mask – which may have just popped into your mind's eye as you read these words. There were 143 pieces of gold jewelry with precious stones buried under the mummy wrappings, proving that you can, in fact, take it with you.

A jarring sensation

Some of the canopic jars – like giant vases that flare out at the top – were filled with ancient perfumes, others with the essential body parts that Tut would need for the afterlife. The heart was left inside the body, as it was considered to be the seat of the soul.

It helped found the Art Deco movement

The world went mummy crazy when Tut's tomb was uncovered – think of him like a 1920s Princess Diana. But the iconography – scarabs, pylons, cornices – transferred to the budding Art Deco architecture movement, and can still be seen today in structures such as New York's Chrysler Building.

He may have died young, but he left an impression

Tut's predecessor, Akhkenaton, tried to institute the worship of a single god, which didn't go down too well in a land of many, many gods. The tomb showed Tut reversed this, possibly with an eye to what would happen after he died, which happened at just 18 or 19. Scholars still argue over the cause, whether disease, injury or murder.

Not all the secrets have been uncovered

A funerary text with the enigmatic title The Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld was found in the second shrine – but scholars have been unable to decipher some of the text, which is in code, and the illustrations. Some think it refers to the sun being refilled with fire during the night.

There may be more

It seems likely that another two chambers have yet to be breached. Given the unfinished appearance of the tomb – and it's unusually small size - there is strong support for the theory that Tut's final resting place was the front of the tomb of Queen Nefertiti. Her famous painted sandstone bust was found in 1913, and any treasures buried with her could make those of Tut's look like loose change.

Tutankhamun airs Wednesdays at 8:30pm on SBS. Catch up with the show on SBS On Demand:

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