Symbolism in the Burial Chamber of Tutankhamun
Updated: Jan 10
Object Type: Tomb Painting
Date: c. 1325 BC
Period: Dynasty 18
Findspot: North Wall, Burial Chamber, Tomb of Tutankhamun (KV 62), Valley of the Kings
Print Reference: DP72A
The grandeur and scope of Tutankhamun’s treasures contrast sharply with the simplicity of the small tomb they were found within. The sudden death of the king at a young age meant that the craftsmen only had 70 days to complete his tomb, the typical length of time necessary for embalming the body. Most of the tomb was left unfinished, with bare rock-cut walls and only one of the four chambers hastily painted to provide the king with a suitable resting place. The swiftness of the work meant that technical inconsistencies in the decoration are commonplace and there is a suggestion that the tomb had previously belonged to someone else and was hastily converted into Tutankhamun’s.
This scene on the north wall overlooked the nested golden shrines and sarcophagi containing the king’s body and shows Tutankhamun’s journey into the afterlife in three acts. It should be read from right to left (or east to west, mimicking the belief that the soul journeyed from the land of the living in the east into the afterlife in the west upon burial).
Scene 1: Ay and Tutankhamun
In the first (right) scene, Tutankhamun is shown as a mummy, whilst his successor, King Ay, performs the Opening of the Mouth ceremony in the garb of a priest. In royal funerals, this role was typically performed by the eldest son and heir of the deceased on their mummy when it was placed in the tomb. Dying without an heir, Ay performed this ritual for Tutankhamun, which was believed to enable the dead to be able to speak in the afterlife and give testimony in the hall of judgement before the gods.
Ay is shown with a youthful face and body, despite being a decade older than the king when he died and wears the distinctive leopard skin of a priest. On his head is the blue Khopresh crown with a golden uraeus snake, a royal symbol which confirms the words of the hieroglyphs above Ay, which identify him as:
"The good god, Lord of the Two Lands, Lord of Rituals, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Kheper-Kheperu-Re, the son of Re, the God’s Father Ay, endowed eternally with life and forever like Re".
In the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, special ritual tools such as the adze that Ay holds were used to touch the mouth and eyes of the mummy to enable a spirit to receive food and drink, breathe, and see. Some of the other equipment is shown on a casket between the two figures, including the foreleg of an ox, ostrich feathers, a finger amulet, and five small vases containing wads of incense.
Tutankhamun is shown in the form of Osiris, with an extended beard with a hooked tip and wearing a white shroud and the god’s Atef crown with ostrich plumes that indicate his status as glorified deceased. In his hands, he holds two ceremonial flails known as nekhakha which were a symbol of royal power and could only be used by a pharaoh. Around the king’s neck is a large Wesekh collar with a winged scarab amulet depicting the god Khepri in the act of rolling the solar disk in front of it as a sign of rebirth. A pectoral of a similar design was found amongst the treasures of his tomb.
The hieroglyphs above the mummiform king give his names and titles:
"The good god, Lord of the Two Lands, Lord of the Crowns, the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neb-kheperu-re, the son of Ra, Tutankhamun, Master of the Heliopolis of the South, endowed with life, eternally".
Scene 2: Tutankhamun the Goddess Nut
In the second, central scene, Tutankhamun is greeted by the Goddess Nut, who mourns the king’s passing.
Here, the king is shown in the costume of the living, with a loincloth resting high on his hips and a broad wesekh collar around his neck. On his head, he has a short wig encircled with a gold band with a uraeus snake. In one hand he holds a staff and in the other, a club together with the ankh sign of life.
The hieroglyphs above him once again serve to identify the king:
"Lord of the Two-lands Neb-kheperu-re, endowed with life, eternally and forever."
The goddess Nut is depicted in the traditional style, in a close-fitting gown with a shoulder strap and broad red linen sash, a wasekh collar and bracelets. In her hands, she holds two water hieroglyphs, which can be read as nyny meaning “welcome”. The goddess’s wig is held in place with a white ribbon of mourning and the hieroglyphics above them give the words of the goddess as she greets the king:
“Nut, Mistress of the Sky, Lady of the Gods, she performs a welcome for the one whom she gave birth, she gives health and life to your nostrils, which is life eternally".
Scene 3: Tutankhamun, his Ka and Osiris
In the final (left) scene, Tutankhamun is shown being embraced by the god Osiris and welcomed in the afterlife, whilst the young king is supported by his Ka, or spirit form.
The god of the underworld Osiris is shown in the form of a mummy, wearing a white shroud and an Atef crown with ostrich plumes and an extended beard with a hooked tip. His green skin is a reference to his role as a god of fertility and rebirth, mimicking the greenery of Egypt after the floods have nourished the lands. He can be identified by the hieroglyphs above him, which give his title as:
"Osiris, Master of the West, the great god"
As guardian of the underworld, Osiris welcomes Tutankhamun into his embrace, who is depicted once again in the form of a living man. Here Tutankhamun wears the striped nemes headcloth with a golden uraeus, a broad waskeh collar and a pleated kilt held in place by an elaborate belt and sash. The hieroglyphs above his head state:
"The good god, Lord of the Two Lands, Lord of the Crowns, Neb-kheperu-re, endowed with life, eternally".
Supporting Tutankhamun is the Ka, or soul of Tutankhamun, who takes the form of a god. The Ka was one of several forms the ancient Egyptian soul could take and represented the life force of the spiritual double of the person. The Ka was believed to leave the body upon death and take up residence in the afterlife and was sustained by offerings of food, drink and prayers from the living.
Tutankhamun’s Ka is depicted wearing the traditional kilt of a god, held in place with a golden belt in the shape of a tyet knot and holding the ankh sign for life. Upon his tripartite wig sits a headdress formed from the hieroglyphic sign for Ka, which contains one of the king’s royal epithets “Strong Bull”. The hieroglyphs reemphasise his identity as:
"The royal Ka of the one who is at the head of the changing room [of the royal palace]".
Stylistically, the north wall’s decoration bears the hallmarks of the art of the Amarna period during the reign of the young king’s probable father Akhenaten (c. 1353–1336 BC). Amarna art is highly distinctive if you know what to look for and is most obvious in the way the human form was depicted:
Large, elongated eyes, sometimes described as “naturalistic eyes”
Groove at the corner of the mouth called an “oromental fold”
Sagging bellies with a pronounced belly fold
Heavy buttocks and thighs
Short lower legs
All five toes depicted on the nearest foot from the outside
Wearing loose, pleated garments with floating streamers and sashes
Many of these changes can be explained by the Amarna artists' love of the curved line and the use of a 20-grid square to create depictions of people instead of the 18-square grid used since the Old Kingdom. Rather than the whole body being scaled proportionally, the extra 2 squares of the grid were added to the head area and upper body, distorting these parts of the body.
Studies of the paint used in the burial chamber show that the standard palette of colours was used for the decoration, including red and yellow ochres, Egyptian blue and green, charcoal black, and huntite white. Evidence for an earlier phase of decoration was also uncovered in this study, which showed that a brighter yellow and a paler green were also used on the north wall and that the yellow background which goes underneath the painted decoration on the other walls is instead applied around the figures of the north wall. This evidence, combined with the Amarna art-style influences in the decoration of the north wall, has led to a theory that this tomb was originally decorated for another member of the royal family, Queen Nefertiti.
A high-resolution photo of the wall and surface texture filters by Factum Arte
The Tomb of Tutankhamun by Osiris.net
Examination of the wall paintings in Tutankhamen's Tomb: Inconsistencies in original technology by Lori Wong, Stephen Rickerby, Alan Phenix, Amarilli Rava & Rasha Kamel (2012)
The Decorated North Wall In The Tomb Of Tutankhamun (KV 62) (The Burial Of Nefertiti? II) By Nicholas Reeves (2019)
Proportion and style in ancient Egyptian art by Gay Robins (1993)