Egypt: The Burial Chamber and its Objects

The Burial Chamber and its Objects

The Sarcophagus and Coffins

In February 1924, after dismantling the shrines, Carter's team lifted the lid from the quartzite sarcophagus. This was a precarious operation because the lid, weighing a ton and a quarter, had cracked in two and was mended at the time of the burial. Before beginning to open the coffins, however, Carter had to devote a year and a half to finishing work on objects already stored in the field laboratory.

Seven feet, four inches long, the outer coffin had two smaller coffins nestled tightly inside it. All three coffins were mummiform and covered with a feather pattern. Their striped headdresses bore the vulture and cobra goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt. The plaited, false beard of divinity adorned their chins, and each coffin held, in crossed arms, the crook and flail scepters.

Although the symbolism was similar in each case, the workmanship differed. The surface of the outer coffin was modeled in low relief on gilded plaster over wood, whereas the middle coffin, also wooden, was encrusted with semi-precious gems and colored glass inlay. On the third, or inner coffin, the patterns were engraved as fine lines on the golden surface.

Opening the coffins was dangerous in the confined space of the burial chamber. An elaborate, counterbalanced pulley system was devised to steady the cumbersome coffins. As the tops and bottoms of each were separated, the two parts had to be removed entirely to the laboratory, or the bottom had to be lowered back into the sarcophagus. An unexpected difficulty was the heaviness of the three coffins and mummy; combined, they weight more than a ton and a half.

The floral wreaths and funerary garlands decorating the coffins included olive, willow, mandrake, cornflowers and blue water lily. Analysis of the growing seasons of these plants proved that Tutankhamun was interred sometime between the middle of March and the end of April.

When the coffins were removed, Carter reported that the double case was found lying in the bottom of the sarcophagus. This container still held remnants of the embalming unguents. These perfumed oils, poured over the body during the burial, had hardened with age and now glued the two inner coffins and the mummy together. A cautious and lengthy application of heat and chemicals eventually softened this mass enough for the parts to be separated.

Cleaning the blackened unguents from the third coffin solved the mystery of the ponderous weight. With inlays of semiprecious stones, this inner coffin was formed of solid gold one-tenth to one-eight of an inch thick.

Shrines and Objects

Most of the objects removed from the burial chamber had been made specifically for the last rites and afterlife. Murals on the walls of the room - the only one in the tomb to be decorated - depicted the funeral ceremony. These paintings, however, could not be seen clearly until the burial chamber was emptied. When found, the room was filled almost to its ceiling by an enormous gilt-wood shrine inlaid with blue faience tiles.

Immediately upon entering the burial chamber on February 17, 1923, Carter opened the unsealed doors of this shrine. He saw another shrine; it's doors were bolted and sealed, proving that robbers had not reached the mummy within. In all, four gilded shrines and a pall-draped canopy nested inside one another, protecting the sarcophagus. Each shrine took the form of a traditional Egyptian sanctuary, covered with reliefs and inscriptions from sacred texts.

A modern scaffolding aided in dismantling the fragile shrines. The work began in November 1923 and continued for four months. The wall and roof sections, some weighing as much as three-quarters of a ton, were exceedingly brittle. Their 2 1/4 inch thick wooden planks had shrunk, and their beautiful gilt reliefs were crumbling.

After removing the shrines from around the sarcophagus, Carter deferred work on them for four years. In 1928, when the rest of the tomb had been cleared, he again turned his attention to the shrines. They required two full seasons of treatment to become strong enough to bear transport to the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

The Gold Mask and Jewelry

The design of Tutankhamun's mummy was similar to that of his coffins. Over his head and shoulders was a burial mask with the same motifs used on the three coffins: false beard, striped headdress, and cobra and vulture goddesses. Like the inner coffin, this gold mask was inlaid with gems and glass on precious metal. Hands of gold, attached to the wrappings, held the royal crook and flail, while jeweled bands inscribed with prayers secured the upper layer of bandages.

Exquisite collars, scarabs, necklaces and bracelets had been carefully placed among the intricately plaited linen bandages. In all, 143 jewels and amulets were found on the body or in it's wrappings.

On the morning of November 11, 1925, an international team of anatomists and archaeologists began an examination of the mummy; the operation took 8 months. Medical inspection established that Tutankhamun was five feet, six inches tall and that he died at the age of eighteen or nineteen. No clue was found to explain his early death, but several of his close relatives are known to have died while relatively young also.

The oils and perfumes poured over the mummy contained caustic elements. These very unguents, meant to honor Tutankhamun, had burned away his remains.

After examination, the mummy was re-interred in the outer coffin, and this, in turn, was replaced in the stone sarcophagus. Now, as for the last 3,300 years, Tutankhamun continues to rest within the encompassing wings of the goddesses carved on his sarcophagus.