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. 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.

After being buried for over 3,000 years, it was excavated by Howard Carter in 1925 from tomb KV62 in the Valley of the Kings. 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. On his brow is the kingly uraeus: the Wadjet or rearing cobra, representing Lower Egypt, combined with the vulture Nekhbet of Upper Egypt.

The gold mask of Tutankhamun on display in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 60672, upper floor
The gold mask of Tutankhamun on display in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 60672, upper floor

The combination of the two is symbolic of his domination of both lands. That is strikingly similar to the Narmer Palette‘s message of control of both halves of Egypt.

Death Masks in Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians had an elaborate set of funerary practices that they believed were necessary to ensure their immortality after death.

Death masks were used to cover the face of mummies and ensure that the spirit of the dead person was able to recognize the body.

Royal death or funerary masks, such as the fabulous gold death mask of Tutankhamun, King Tut, were made of gold in the image of the deceased.

From the Middle Kingdom (1938-1630 BC) to the 1st century CE, the ancient Egyptians placed stylized masks with generalized features on the faces of their dead.

The funerary mask served to guide the spirit of the deceased back to its final resting place in the body.

Related: Golden Throne of Tutankhamun

“Thy right eye is the night barque (of the sun-god), thy left eye is the day-barque, thy eyebrows are (those of) the Ennead of the Gods, thy forehead is (that of) Anubis, the nape of thy neck is (that of) Horus, thy locks of hair are (those of) Ptah-Sokar.

(Thou art) in front of the Osiris (Tutankhamun). He sees thanks to thee, thou guidest him to the goodly ways, thou smitest for him the confederates of Seth so that he may overthrow thine enemies before the Ennead of the Gods in the great Castle of the Prince, which is in Heliopolis … the Osiris, the King of Upper Egypt Nebkheperure [Tutankhamun’s throne-name], deceased, given life by Re.”

The back of the Gold Mask of Tutankhamun is decorated with extracts from chapter 151B of the Book of the Dead.

This chapter describes how each member of the face of the dead is identified with a god in order to assure a whole divine protection to the deceased.

back of the Gold Mask of Tutankhamun
back of the Gold Mask of Tutankhamun

The Discovery of the Mask

It is one of those strange quirks of history that Howard Carter discovered tomb of Tutankhamun 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.
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.

Was mask of Tutankhamun 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, by Garry J. Shaw (#aff)

What Did Howard Carter Say about the Mask?

“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.

Queen Elizabeth II looks during Tutankhamun's exhibition at the British Museum in London, 1972
Queen Elizabeth II looks during Tutankhamun’s exhibition at the British Museum in London, 1972

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.

Related: Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, 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.

“Superbly modelled, the king’s portrait mask… stands without parallel as a masterpiece of the Egyptian metalworker’s craft.

Beaten from two separate sheets of gold, remarkably consistent in thickness and joined by hammering, the mask was subsequently embellished by chasing, burnishing, and by the addition of inlay work.”

The Complete Tutankhamun, by Nicholas Reeves (#aff)

Where is the Mask of Tutankhamun Now?

The mask of Tutankhamun is currently displayed on the upper floor 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 (GEM). JE 60672

Detail of the beard. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. AFP/Photo Mohamed El-Shahed
Detail of the beard. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. AFP/Photo Mohamed El-Shahed

The Worth of the Mask of Tutankhamun

The death mask of Tutankhamun 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. 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 called ‘usekh’, is of semi precious stones and colored glass ends in falcon heads.

Artistic and Technical Mastery

The mask is a masterpiece of ancient Egyptian craftsmanship. It showcases the exceptional skill and artistry of the artisans of that time.

The intricate details, the use of precious materials, and the lifelike representation of Tutankhamun’s features make it a remarkable example of ancient Egyptian art.

Historical Significance

The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the subsequent unveiling of the mask by Howard Carter in 1922 captured the world’s attention. It provided valuable insights into the burial practices, religious beliefs, and artistic achievements of ancient Egypt.

The mask, along with other treasures from the tomb, shed light on a previously little-known king and offered a glimpse into the opulence of the New Kingdom period.

The mask of Tutankhamun is important due to its symbolic, funerary, artistic, and historical significance. It represents the power and divinity of the king, showcases the mastery of ancient Egyptian craftsmanship, and provides valuable insights into the culture and history of ancient Egypt.