Royal Mail is marking 100 years since the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by British archaeologist Howard Carter with a new set of Special Stamps and a Miniature Sheet.
The remarkable discovery has shaped historians’ understanding of the religion, rituals and culture of ancient Egypt to this day.
In early November 1922, a few months after Egypt became independent, the eyes of the world turned to the Valley of the Kings in Luxor with the announcement of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by a team led by Howard Carter and funded by Lord Carnarvon – the first intact royal burial found in Egypt. On 26 November 1922, Carter made a small hole in the sealed inner doorway of the tomb and peered in. He later recalled: “At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. When Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.’” The tomb contained food and wine, clothing, jewellery and furniture – ritual items to enable the king’s journey into the afterlife. Tutankhamun’s body lay protected within a layered arrangement of four gilded shrines, erected around a sarcophagus containing three nested coffins. On 28 October 1925, Carter lifted the innermost coffin’s lid to reveal the king’s wrapped body; covering the head was what is now the most iconic object from the tomb – a gold mask. As well as a team of experienced Egyptian excavators, Carter and Carnarvon gathered a group ofspecialists to record and conserve the tomb’s objects, including the photographer Harry Burton from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, whose images evocatively recorded the undisturbed tomb and captivated international audiences. It would take the team ten years to clear, document and conserve over 5,000 objects packed into the small tomb. The objects are in the Grand Egyptian Museum, Cairo, and the excavation documentation is in the archive of the Griffith Institute, the centre for Egyptology at the University of Oxford.
2nd Class: Head Of The King
The head of the king emerging from a lotus flower represents part of the ancient Egyptian creation myth when the infant sun-god Re appears from a lotus flower floating on the primordial waters. Tutankhamun, like Re and the sun, would also be born again each day. The head was found in the rubble of the entrance corridor, and its unusual placement may have allowed it to function as a magical portal that enabled the king to leave and return to his tomb each day. Alternatively, it may have been dropped there by robbers, possibly after they had stripped valuable earrings from the pierced ears.
PLEASE NOTE: The single phosphor bar will be justified left (normally it would be centred). This has been done to avoid it printing over the facial image.
2nd Class: Inlaid Fan
Fans provided cool air and shade. Eight were found in the tomb, all beautifully decorated and originally fitted with ostrich feathers (long since perished). Oval namerings, or ‘cartouches’, were used exclusively for kings’ names, and they decorate many of Tutankhamun’s possessions, including this inlaid fan found placed between two of the shrines in the burial chamber. Two vultures, representing the goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt, Nekhbet and Wadjet, protect the king’s cartouches. The left cartouche, assigned to the king on his accession, reads Nebkheperure (‘The lordly manifestation of Re’), while the right cartouche contains his birth name, Tutankhamun (‘Living image of Amun’).
1st Class: Gold Mask
The mask of Tutankhamun is now the most iconic object from the tomb, revealed in October 1925 when the innermost coffin’s lid was opened. Covering the head, neck and upper chest of the king’s wrapped body, the mask’s face is an idealised portrait of the young Tutankhamun. He wears the striped nemes headdress with the royal insignia of the heads of a cobra and a vulture on his brow, a long plaited false beard (not shown in Harry Burton’s photo, above, as it was temporarily removed for conservation and photographed separately), and a broad collar covering his chest and shoulders. The ancient Egyptians believed that gold was the flesh of the gods; accordingly, the mask is made of pure gold inlaid with blue glass and semi-precious stones.
1st Class: Falcon Pendant
This falcon pendant (or pectoral) portrays the sun-god Re-Harakhty, a merged form of the royal god Horus and the sun-god Re. The king was a living god, who embodied Horus and was also the ‘son of Re’. The falcon is associated with these gods and with kingship. The hovering falcon wears the sun disk on its head and grasps the symbols for ‘eternity’ and ‘life’ in its talons. The pendant was found inside a box in the so-called treasury, and is composed of gold inlaid with semi-precious stones and coloured glass.
£1.85: Lion Couch
When Carter peered into the tomb’s antechamber, the first objects he glimpsed were the “gilded couches in strange forms, lion-headed, Hathor-headed, and beast infernal”. The sides of the three couches or beds are modelled in animal form, including the lion couch with its striking inlaid eyes and nose, made from crystal and blue glass. The couches were used during the funerary rites; they represent the three mother-goddesses present at different stages of the king’s passage towards rebirth. The lion-panther goddess, Set-Mehtet, was responsible for his transformation into a divine being.
Lord Carnarvon referred to the so-called ‘gold throne’ as “perhaps the most important item among the entire contents of the tomb”. The throne is made from gilded wood with gold sheets applied to the seat and backrest, and is lavishly carved and decorated. On the backrest is an intricately composed scene created from thousands of inlays made from coloured glass, lapis lazuli and other materials. The young king is seated in a pavilion, attended by his wife, Queen Ankhesenamun, who stands before him. He wears a short curly wig and a diadem, topped by an elaborate, tall, plumed crown with pendant cobras.`
£2.55: Boat Model
Found in the fourth chamber, named the annexe, this unique boat model is made from calcite (Egyptian alabaster) and decorated with gold, ivory, faience (ceramic-like material) and coloured pigments. The boat, with ibex-headed prow and stern, is supported on a box-shaped pedestal. Amidships is a papyrus-columned pavilion, in front of which kneels a girl holding a lotus flower, and at the stern stands a female dwarf holding a pole. Although the object’s purpose is uncertain, its design may be connected to the king’s rebirth, the naked female figures and ibex being symbols of fertility and rejuvenation.
£2.55: Guardian Statue
This imposing life-size statue of Tutankhamun, made of black painted wood with gilded details, shows the king wearing the striped nemes headdress with the uraeus serpent at the front, the symbol of royal authority. The uraeus represents Wadjet, the protector goddess of Lower Egypt, in the form of a cobra. In Egyptian belief, black symbolised regeneration because it was associated with the dark, fertile soil deposited by the Nile during the annual inundation. Often referred to as a ‘guardian statue’, it is one of a pair found in the antechamber, positioned on either side of the burial chamber’s sealed doorway, which Carter described as “facing each other like sentinels”.