The tomb of Tutankhamun was the greatest archaeological discovery the world had ever seen, and it changed the face of Egyptology for good. Dripping with gold, it has still to be bettered. “Strange animals, statues and gold -- everywhere the glint of gold,” wrote archaeologist Howard Carter breathlessly of the tomb’s sensational discovery in Egypt’s legendary Valley of the Kings on November 4, 1922. And as the years passed, the treasures continued to flow.
The greatest Tutankhamun piece of all was the gold mask, found still in position on the head of the king’s elaborately wrapped and embellished mummy and first revealed to an awed world toward the end of 1925. Immensely beautiful, crafted with enormous skill, and weighing in at a staggering 22.5 pounds of the purest gold, Tutankhamun’s headpiece is today one of the most famous artworks in the world. As the quintessential image from the burial -- and the best-known object from ancient Egypt as a whole -- over the past 90 years it has been viewed and admired by countless millions.
Yet while many may have looked, it transpires that all have completely failed to see something quite fundamental -- that the mask had never actually been meant for Tutankhamun at all.
This startling fact may be deduced from a remarkable detail: the mask’s earlobes display large, functional piercings which had been concealed with slips of gold foil at the time an earlier portrait face was cut out and substituted with Tutankhamun’s own. These piercings attest to the original presence of separately fashioned ear ornaments -- a form of jewelry not worn by males beyond early childhood, and so quite inappropriate for an adult-sized headpiece intended for male use.
The mask’s original owner had in fact been a well-known female, as may be established from the tomb’s gold canopic coffinettes. Not only do these display a distinctive and very different face, identical pierced earlobes, and in their design a curious mix of kingly and queenly features, but on the coffinettes’ interiors, underneath the incised cartouches (or royal names) of Tutankhamun, are traces of earlier hieroglyphs. The name these spell out is that of Ankhkheprure Nefernefruaten, female co-regent of the heretic king Akhenaten -- none other than Egypt’s most beautiful queen, Nefertiti, in later guise.
Like the canopic coffinettes, the gold mask too had originally been a Nefertiti piece, and it and an entire range of other appropriated items transform our understanding of the Tutankhamun burial. Egyptologists have long suspected that some of Tutankhamun’s tomb equipment had been prepared with Nefertiti in mind; now it turns out most of it had.
The million-dollar question is why Nefertiti never used this treasure for herself. The most likely answer is that as sole ruling pharaoh after Akhenaten’s death, she was entitled to something very much better. Time may tell. That not a scrap from her burial has so far come to light suggests that her tomb is still out there, preserved intact and with a full, pharaonic mortuary equipment likely to put Tutankhamun’s second-rank assemblage to shame. That there are further extraordinary revelations of gold and buried treasure to come no one should doubt.
Nicholas Reeves is the author of The Complete Tutankhamun, as well as Senior Egyptologist for the University of Arizona Egyptian Expedition.