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When archaeologist Howard Carter entered the great King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, where the king was put to rest for his eternal slumber three millennia before, he was also met by Tut's many earthly belongings. Carter and his team found a plethora of treasures, including an ornate and beautifully detailed plastered and painted wooden chest. Ancient Egyptian furniture did not include wardrobe type cabinets, but instead, clothes were stored in chests and boxes. This artifact belonged to Tut, who reigned circa 1336-1327 BCE during the 18th dynasty, classified as the first dynasty of the New Kingdom of Egypt, the era in which ancient Egypt achieved the peak of its power. Through the imagery and paintings, this receptacle gives us a historical account and timeline into events from the boy king's life, along with some
fascinating cultural history and art trends associated with the period of his reign. Temporarily housed in the Wood Laboratory at the Conservation Center of the under-construction Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) located in Giza, Egypt, this item was displayed with the rest of Tutankhamun's treasures, together in entirety, for the first time, inside the GEM when it opened its doors fully to visitors in 2021.
This intricately decorated box features exquisite scenes that are painted on all 4 sides as well as the top lid. Although it is large chest, and has much complexity and detail in its scenes, the images may have seemed like miniature depictions to archaeologists, especially when compared to the massive towering tomb wall paintings they found in Tut's burial chamber. However, whether in the context of that space during discovery, or examined on its own in a museum, the impressive narratives seen in both the chamber walls and painted chest are quite similar. They convey a sense of power and successfulness that the young king was able to achieve during his brief time among the living.
On the long side of the boxed chest, the king is shown upon his chariot, charging Syrians and Nubians, who were his kingdom's enemies and rivals from the North and the South. We can also note the confused mêlée of fallen enemies closely parallels the depictions of battle scenes on his temple walls. On the box's lid, he is again seen in his chariot, but this time we find him hunting wild animals. On the two shorter sides of the chest, he is, in the guise of a sphinx, trampling over fallen enemies. These are all traditional themes that were meant to reaffirm a pharaoh's domination over external enemies and the forces of nature. They are presented in a way that became standard in the New Kingdom. It is interesting to note that the chariot was only introduced to Egypt in the period preceding the rise of the New Kingdom, so they began to be featured prominently in art around this era and beyond. What this artifact is showing us, in particular, is the formability of Tut as a warrior and is in correspondence with many of his tomb's other paintings, carvings, and items which were discovered a century ago. But whether or not he was a true warrior conqueror has been hotly debated for decades.
Egyptologists have often described Tutankhamun as a weak and sickly boy-king, and most doubt that he was personally involved in wars against the Syrians or Nubians. However, in 2018, researchers from the University of Northampton in the UK revealed that Egypt's most famous pharaoh was potentially an experienced warrior. They examined the battle armor found in his tomb using a technique known as Reflectance Transformation Imaging. They found signs of abrasion along the edges of the leather scales that made up the armor's exterior, suggesting that Tut was a battle-hardened soldier. Regardless of the validity of King Tut's military exploits, his wooden box is an iconographical masterpiece, a work of art, and a treasure chest for our knowledge concerning ancient Egyptian history.
King Tut's Painted Wooden Chest
King Tut's Wooden Chest
A painted wood box from Tut's tomb shows him vanquishing Nubians and Syrians. Photo: Araldo De Luca
Carved sandstone blocks--apparently from Tut's funerary temple--suggesting more battle scenes record
Tutankhamun, shown as a sphinx, tramples Egypt's traditional foes, a Syrian or Asiatic and a Nubian.
Tut's chest box
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