Mask of Tutankhamun

The gold funerary mask of Tutankhamun is an example of the highest artistic and technical achievements of the ancient Egyptians in the New Kingdom.

Covering the head of the wrapped mummy in its coffin and activated by a magical spell, no.151b from the Book of the Dead, the mask ensured more protection for the king’s body.

Gold Mummy Mask of King Tutankhamun
Gold Mummy Mask of King Tutankhamun

The exact portrayal of the king’s facial features achieved here made it possible for his soul to recognize him and return to his mummified body. Thus ensuring his resurrection. It was discovered by the British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1925.

The death mask is considered one of the masterpieces of Egyptian art. The head is covered by the royal headdress and the forehead bears the emblems of kingship and protection: the vulture and uraeus, or rearing cobra.

It is constructed of two sheets of gold that were hammered together and weighs 22.5 pounds (10.23 kg). The gold sheets used in this wonderful mask are joined together by heating and hammering. The eyes are of obsidian and quartz and the eyebrows and eyelids are inlaid with lapis lazuli. The broad inlaid collar of semi precious stones and colored glass ends in falcon heads.

Tutankhamun's mask was displayed without its beard in the Cairo Museum for over a decade.
Tutankhamun’s mask was displayed without its beard in the Cairo Museum for over a decade.

It is one of those strange quirks of history that Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb exactly 100 years after Jean-François Champollion cracked ancient Egypt’s hieroglyphs. Champollion’s breakthrough in 1822 unlocked the civilization’s rich written archive, while Carter’s discovery offered an unadulterated view of pharaonic opulence.

When archaeologist Howard Carter held up a candle to peer inside on November 26, 1922, the light glinted on golden objects. This tomb, belonging to king Tutankhamun, would soon become the most famous ancient Egyptian discovery of all time.

A photograph taken in 1937 shows the mask at top with the beard lying below. The lump on the bottom left is part of a collar of gold and faience beads that had been attached around the neck of the mask.

What did Howard Carter say about Tutankhamun?

“We were astonished,” said Howard Carter, “by the productivity of the art which the tomb contained. Tutankhamun’s tastes might have been those of an average young Egyptian nobleman rather than of a royal prince. Domestic affection was suggested, rather than the religious austerity that characterized other tombs.

We know very little of this shadowy king, who has been so much discussed. We do not know whether he was even of royal blood or where he came from, or why the heretic king chose him as a husband for his daughter.

Perhaps he lived at Thebes so that the king should have a strong supporter there, and he was afterwards compelled to acknowledge the supremacy of Amun-Re. It was by virtue of that acknowledgment that he was buried at Thebes.

Was it made for somebody else?

“A recent analysis of the mask’s construction by the Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves suggests that its face section, representing an idealised portrait of the young Tutankhamun, replaced an earlier one. If this was the case, the mask originally belonged to someone else. The most likely candidate is King Neferneferuaten, who appears to have been Tutankhamun’s predecessor and may even have been the famous Queen Nefertiti ruling as king. A number of Neferneferuaten’s funerary goods were adapted for Tutankhamun’s use, suggesting that she was never buried with them. Intriguingly, one of the mask’s cartouches—the long ovals that contain two of a king’s five names—was changed to Tutankhamun from Neferneferuaten.”

The Story of Tutankhamun: An Intimate Life of the Boy Who Became King, Garry J. Shaw, Yale University Press

Queen Elizabeth II looks at the mask of King Tutankhamun
Queen Elizabeth II looks at the mask of King Tutankhamun

Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the exhibition at the British Museum in London on March 29, 1972. The Queen was among the staggering 1.6 million visitors to the Museum’s exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of Tutankhamun’s tomb being discovered by the Earl of Carnavon and Howard Carter.

Fifty objects found in the tomb were displayed including the gold portrait mask from this great king’s mummy, gold jewelry and gold figures of the king. Here the Queen is pictured in front of the incredible gold death mask. The objects were on loan from the Department of Antiquities of the Arab Republic of Egypt and this was the first time many of the objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb had traveled outside of Egypt.

detail of the beard of king Tutankhamun’s gold mummy mask
Detail of the beard of king Tutankhamun’s gold mummy mask. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. AFP/Photo Mohamed El-Shahed

“Tutankhamun’s gold mask ranks today as one of the most famous artworks in the world. For more than [ninety]-five years it has been subjected to the unremitting gaze of countless millions–viewed at first hand on exhibition in the [Museum of Egyptian Antiquities], Cairo and elsewhere, and featured in endless books, magazines, and television documentaries.

It is not only the quintessential image from Tutankhamun’s tomb, it is perhaps the best-known object from ancient Egypt itself.”

Tutankhamun’s Mask Reconsidered, by Nicholas Reeves

The mask of Tutankhamun is currently displayed in the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in Cairo, and is scheduled to be transferred with the rest of the boy king’s treasures to the new Grand Egyptian Museum. JE 60672