Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 13: treasure chest bearing the name of Tutankhamun

When we looked at the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, we noted the moment at which Howard Carter began to get excited. It was the moment he spotted a seal low down on the tomb door, bearing the name Neb-Kheperu-Re (Lord of Manifestations of Re). This was the throne name of Tutankhamun.

Ancient Egyptian pharaohs had four or five names, but the most-used were the throne name (prenomen) and the personal name (nomen). The personal name Tutankhamun (inscribed on the treasure chest above) means Living Image of Amun. You often see it with the phrase ‘Ruler of southern Heliopolis’ after it.

In hieroglyphs, royal names were usually enclosed within special oval shapes called (in French) ‘cartouches’. Jean-Francois Champollion (who we met on Day 4 of this series) was the first person to realize this fact, and it was an important key to the decryption of the Rosetta Stone.

Here is a breakdown of the names Tutankhamun Heka-ainu and Neb Kheperure.

It is important that you can recognize these two royal names, because we will see them both tomorrow when we examine the ‘wishing cup’, Howard Carter’s favourite item among all of Tutankhamun’s treasures.

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 12: Hussein Abdel-Rassoul and the tomb of Tutankhamun

What follows is the full story of Hussein Abdel-Rassoul, the boy who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. Most people have never heard of him, but he was the unlikely star of the recent Saatchi exhibition of Tutankhamun’s tomb treasure.

The story most of us have heard does not mention Hussein at all.

The story most of us have heard focusses on Howard Carter, who spent five years digging in the Valley of the Kings, convinced that something important was there for the finding. The story has the happiest of endings: Howard Carter peering into the tomb through a small opening, holding a flickering candle. ‘Can you see anything?’ asks his friend Lord Carnarvon. ‘Yes,’ replies Carter. ‘Wonderful things!’

Wonderful was no exaggeration. Everywhere Carter looked, he saw gold, rubies, lapis lazuli, carnelian and yet more gold. No wonder that wherever Tutankhamun’s treasure is exhibited around the world, excited throngs queue to get a glimpse.

Who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb? Most quiz contestants would reply without hesitation: Howard Carter. After all, we have his own diary as evidence. The entry for 4 November 1922 states:

‘At about 10am I discovered beneath almost the first hut attacked the first traces of the entrance of the tomb.’

“I discovered” seems crystal clear, but in 1923 Carter published a fuller account:


‘Hardly had I arrived at work next morning (November 4th) than the unusual silence, due to the stoppage of work, made me realize that something out of the ordinary had happened, and I was greeted by the announcement that a step cut in the rock had been discovered underneath the very first hut to be attacked.’

“I discovered” is now “had been discovered”. Howard Carter, it turns out, was absent from the excavation site at the crucial moment. He was either asleep, eating his breakfast, or on his way to work.

In one sense, the tomb was still Carter’s discovery. It was he who pioneered the expedition to find the tomb and persuaded Lord Carnarvon to fund him. It was he who hired a hundred Egyptian workers, equipped them with spades and pick-axes, and told them where to dig. If it were not for Carter, the final resting place of King Tut might still be hidden today. Nevertheless, we can’t help asking ourselves which workman wielded the pickaxe which struck the uppermost step of the tomb.

The probable answer is, it was not a pickaxe nor even a spade that struck the step, and the workman was actually a twelve-year-old boy. Read on to meet Hussein Abdel-Rassoul and to unearth a fascinating Egyptian side to the story we all thought we knew.

Nag al-Rasayla

Hussein Abdel-Rassoul was born in 1910, when Egypt was under British rule. His parents lived in Nag al-Rasayla, one of several hamlets in the Theban foothills that made up the village of Qurna. Wood was scarce in that region, so houses and furniture were all made of mud. Hussein and his parents lived in a mud-brick house with pastel-painted exterior walls and fine, arched doorways. The family kept cows, pigeons and a donkey.

During the rainy season, the people of Qurna (known as Qurnawi) farmed wheat and sugar-cane on the west bank of the Nile. During the dry season, they worked for foreign archaeologists like Howard Carter. The lucky ones got jobs as guards, guides or cooks, while the rest did backbreaking excavation work. Between 1917 and 1922, Qurnawi labourers shifted thousands of tons of earth in the search for Tutankhamun’s tomb. Many of Hussein’s friends worked as ‘basket boys’, ferrying earth away from the excavation site to a convenient dumping ground. Some of these lads were as young as five years old.

basket boys, photo taken in 1923 by Harry Burton

Hussein himself was a water boy. Several times a day he brought earthenware jars of water to the excavation site and set them up near the workers. Digging was thirsty work and the men relied on Hussein to keep them going.

According to the Islamic calendar, Hussein’s amazing discovery happened on the fourteenth day of Rabi’ al-awwal, 1341. The twelve-year-old boy arrived at the site with his donkey, lugged his water jar to the row of Ramessean huts and kicked the heel of his right foot into the ground, creating a shallow dip in which to stand the jar.

At that moment, Hussein’s heel struck something unexpected. Just beneath the shallow layer of sand and limestone chippings was a block of smooth stone. A step!

Hussein had lived in those hills all his life, surrounded by ancient tombs with steps like these. He must have realized that he had found something important.

This is a royal seal but with no name

That day and the next, Hussein watched agog as the workers excavated step after step, down into the ground. By sunset the following day, they had uncovered twelve steps and revealed the top of a sealed doorway. When Howard Carter examined the doorway, he noticed a stamp depicting the god Anubis and nine bound captives. This seal was only used by Royal Necropolis guards. It indicated that the tomb belonged to someone of high standing.

The Egyptian workers covered up the doorway to protect the tomb until Lord Carnarvon arrived from England. For the following two and a half weeks, they continued to demolish the ancient stone huts and Hussein continued to supply them with water.

Look at the oval at the top of this seal!

 When Lord Carnarvon finally arrived, the workers dug up the staircase again. This time they excavated all the way down to the sixteenth and final step, revealing more seals on the doorway in front of them. Howard Carter hurried to examine them. How his heart must have leapt as he recognized the hieroglyphs in the oval at the top: a basket (NEB), a beetle (KHEPER), three lines (U) and a sun (RE).

NEB-KHEPERU-RE (Lord of Manifestations Re) was the throne name of Tutankhamun himself, and this must be his tomb.

The humble water boy had struck gold!

Thirsty Work

If you spend time exploring the Valley of the Kings, you will soon drain the last drops of your water bottle and find yourself gasping for a cool drink. Thankfully, the Abdel-Rassouls are still in the business of watering thirsty people. Hussein’s grandchildren own Hotel Marsam, a historic rest house on the west bank of the Nile River.

Step inside the rest house and you come face to face with a whole wall of photos and newspaper articles celebrating Hussein Abdel-Rassoul. The most striking photograph on the wall is the one made famous by the ‘Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh’ exhibition. It shows Hussein wearing a clean white robe, a turban and one of the most extraordinary pieces of jewellery in the world: the ‘necklace of the sun on the eastern horizon’.

Official tomb photographer Harry Burton took the photo in 1926 to demonstrate how the neckpiece would have sat on the boy-king’s shoulders. It is made of gold, lapis lazuli, carnelian, feldspar and turquoise, and depicts the sun-god Re in the form of a scarab beetle, pushing the sun across the sky. One prominent archaeologist called it the third finest treasure from Tutankhamun’s tomb, after the beaten-gold burial mask and the golden coffin.

The necklace of the sun on the eastern horizon

Hundreds of travellers have left Hotel Marsam refreshed by cold drinks and stirred by astonishing yarns they have heard there. We should weigh these stories carefully to sift the possible from the preposterous. One piece of fake news from Hotel Marsam is that Howard Carter was so grateful to Hussein for finding the tomb, he gifted him the necklace of the sun on the eastern horizon as a souvenir.

Some people question whether the boy in the photo is Hussein. Zahi Hawass, organizer of the ‘Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh’ exhibition, is convinced that it is, but others say that his skin tone looks wrong and that it could be one of the basket boys instead. Hussein himself, who lived to a ripe old age, always insisted that he was indeed the boy in the picture.

Photo 509 in Harry Burton’s archive,
digitally colourised by Dynamichrome

Hussein’s grandson Taya Abdel-Rassoul claims there is a second photo of Hussein in Harry Burton’s archive. Taken on 2nd December 1923, it shows Howard Carter and three Egyptian workers demolishing the wall between the first room of the tomb (the ‘antechamber’) and the burial chamber itself, where Tutankhamun’s golden coffin lay. A wiry boy has squeezed into a small gap near the ceiling and is helping to dislodge chunks of plaster and masonry. It certainly looks like Hussein, but even if Taya is mistaken, it is fascinating to see a young Egyptian boy so involved in this crucial moment of archaeological history.

Gangster Grandad

An earlier generation of Abdel-Rassouls were famous not as water carriers or hoteliers but as tomb robbers. Set your time machine for 1871, forty years before Hussein was born. Ahmed Abdel-Rassoul and his brother Muhammed Abdel-Rassoul are out exploring with a family friend, when they find a shaft descending deep into the ground. Muhammed and the friend tie a rope around Ahmed’s waist and lower him into the darkness…

Minutes later, a bloodcurdling scream rises from the shaft and Ahmed begs to be pulled out. He claims to have found a secret passage guarded by an afrit, a malevolent genie. The next day, villagers gather at the shaft, where a ghastly stench provides proof that a powerful demon has indeed been disturbed. They flee for home, not daring to explore further.

In fact, Ahmed himself concocted the afrit story because he had made a wonderful discovery and he did not trust the friend to keep the secret. As for the smell, there was a simple explanation. Ahmed had returned to the shaft at night, before news of the tunnel genie spread, and had thrown in a rotting donkey carcass.

What had Ahmed found at the end of the secret passage? A large burial chamber full of treasure and mummies! He was astonished to see that many of the mummy cases had a uraeus (cobra) on their foreheads – the unmistakeable sign of a pharaoh.

Over the following ten years, Ahmed and Muhammed sold hundreds of royal artefacts on the black market and ended up attracting the attention of local police. In 1881 Muhammed confessed to his part in the robbery and led German archaeologist Emile Brugsch to the tomb.

Muhammed was rewarded with 500 pounds and was put in charge of excavations in the Valley of the Kings. But he and Ahmed did not stop tomb robbing. In November 1901 they entered the tomb of Amenhotep II and rifled his mummy, looking for precious amulets and jewels. By coincidence, a young Howard Carter was working for the Egyptian Antiquities Service at that time and was responsible for the investigation. He hired a tracker to follow the trail, and was not at all surprised when it led straight to Ahmed Abdel-Rassoul’s house in Nag al-Rasayla.

People love stories with obvious goodies and baddies. If we relied on the writings of twentieth century Egyptologists, we would conclude that Howard Carter was a gentleman and a scholar, and the Abdel-Rassoul brothers absolute scoundrels.

Of course, the truth is much more complicated. In 1871 Egypt was terribly poor, with many Egyptians on the brink of starvation. The wheelings and dealings of the Abdel-Rassoul brothers ensured that their whole clan survived that desperate period. Besides, the reason Qurna sprung up in the first place was not because its inhabitants were born and bred to the habit of tomb robbery but because foreigners wanted artefacts.

And what of Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon? They were digging in a country that was not their own, a country not yet independent. Their excavation license entitled them to remove half of the treasure from any tomb they found and to ship it back to England, thousands of miles away. In these respects, their activities were as questionable as the nocturnal filchings of the Abdel-Rassouls all those years before.

Whose Treasure?

layout of Tutankhamun’s tomb: antechamber on left, treasury on right, burial chamber in the middle

These moral questions became even more urgent after the discovery of Tutankamun’s tomb. Did the priceless treasures belong to the Carter? To Egypt? To science? To the world?

Treasure does strange things to people. Howard Carter described in almost comical terms the first party of visitors to enter the burial chamber: ‘Each had a dazed, bewildered look in his eyes, and each in turn, as he came out, threw up his hands before him, an unconscious gesture of impotence to describe in words the wonders he had seen.’

A ceaseless parade of donkey carts trudged between Luxor and the newly-discovered tomb. Excited tourists peered down at those sixteen stone steps, holding their breath as they waited for yet another priceless treasure to emerge. Young Hussein sometimes joined them there, feeling a mixture of pride and disbelief.

Journalist Arthur Merton described the fervour: ‘Tutankhamun, though dead, still lives and reigns in Thebes and Luxor today. All the district is his court. He is paid tribute from everywhere. His name is all over the town. It is shouted in the streets, whispered in the hotels. While in the local shops, Tutankhamun advertises everything: art, hats, curios, photographs, and tomorrow probably ‘genuine’ antiques. Every hotel in Luxor has something on the menu à la Tut.’

Egyptian poets waxed lyrical about the discovery. ‘O my companions, go down to the valley,’ wrote Ahmad Shawqi. ‘Salute the remains of our Tutankhamun’s glory, a tomb that by its beauty and goodness made the stones seem to shine and the clay smell sweet.’

Confronted by the glory and riches of the young Pharaoh, most Egyptians felt sad at what Egypt had become: a poor country ruled by foreigners. Several of Shawqi’s poems about Tutankhamun had an angry edge to them. ‘Pharaoh, the time for self-rule is upon us, and the dynasty of arrogant lords has passed. Now foreign tyrants in every land must relinquish dominion over their subjects!’

Egyptians longed for independence, and in January 1924 they got it. Elections were held and political hero Saad Zaghloul became Prime Minister. Zaghloul had strong opinions on Tutankhamun’s treasure. It should stay in Egypt, he argued. After all, modern Egyptians were the direct descendants of the civilisation that produced it.

Howard Carter disagreed. He thought that European and American museums could look after the contents of the tomb much better than any Egyptian one.

Of course, the newly elected Prime Minister of Egypt got his way. The magnificent treasures of that famous Egyptian boy, discovered centuries later by a less famous Egyptian boy, remain in Egypt to this day.

In 2019 and 2020, the centenary exhibition ‘Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh’ wowed crowds in Los Angeles, Paris and London. It was the biggest and most beautiful collection of tomb objects ever to travel outside of Egypt. Millions of people marvelled at the exhibits and read the accompanying information panels. Hussein Abdel-Rassoul had a panel all to himself, giving him the credit for finding the entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Fame at last for Hussein Abdel-Rassoul, the water boy who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb.

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 11: the Coffin of Naktankh

The coffins we have been looking at until now have been ‘anthropoid’ which means human-shaped. Today’s wooden coffin is older, simpler and boxier. It has none of the colourful artwork we saw on Tamut’s or Padiamenet’s coffins. Instead, it has a simple hieroglyphic inscription and a pair of painted eyes.

Eyes were painted on the eastern-facing side of a coffin to allow the dead person’s spirit to see out. Think of the eyes as a sort of portal between the world of the dead and the world of the living.

As for the hieroglyphic inscription, it’s a great example of the so-called offering formula found on many Ancient Egyptian coffins. It reads:

An offering given by the king to Osiris, the lord of Djedu, Khentyimentu, the great god, the lord of Abydos, that he may give everything good and pure: a thousand of bread and beer, oxen, birds, alabaster, clothing, upon which a god lives, for the ka (spirit) of the revered one, Naktankh, True of Voice.

‘Given by the king’ actually means ‘Given in the name of the king’. The items listed are the things Naktankh’s family would like to give to Osiris and the other gods in the afterlife, hoping that Naktankh will also get some of it.

The vertical columns name other Egyptian gods, including Geb, who we already mentioned on Day 5. You may remember that Geb in hieroglyphs is a duck and a foot. Can you spot Geb’s name on the coffin of Naktankh?

This is how to write Naktankh in hieroglyphs

If you’re very eagle-eyed, you may even be able to spot the name of Naktankh himself. Below is a mirror-image of the eastern side of the coffin, which should make Naktankh’s name a little easier to spot.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 10 – Padiamenet

The hieroglyphic writing on Padiamenet’s beautiful mummy case tell us that he was ‘Chief Doorkeeper of the Domain of Ra’ and also ‘Chief Barber of the Domain of Ra’.

Most Egyptian temples had doorkeepers, to let people in and out of the temple, and to keep the doorway clear of sand. Doorkeepers had a reputation for sloth. We know this from various Ancient Egyptian pictures showing doorkeepers lolling against doors and walls, half asleep!

It may at first seem strange that Padiamenet was both a doorkeeper and a barber at the temple of the sun god. Remember, however, that Egyptian priests had to have completely shaven heads before they could work in the temple. It must have been convenient if the doorkeeper could give them a quick shave before they started work.

Barbering in Ancient Egypt, from the tomb of Userhat
© Met Museum, New York, public domain image

This largest scene on the coffin case shows Padiamenet praising the god Osiris and his sister Isis.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Like many Ancient Egyptians, Padiamenet had very bad teeth. They must have caused him a lot of pain. The scans of his mummy remind us of the importance of looking after our own teeth.

see inside coffin

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 9: Tamut

This mummy is a woman aged 25-40. We know from the case that her name was Tjentmutengebtiu, otherwise known as Tamutin or Tamut, and that she was a priestess in the great temple at Karnak.

click to enlarge © The Trustees of the British Museum

Paintings on coffins are not exact portraits so we don’t know exactly what Tamut looked like. However, the shape of Tamut’s skull suggests she might have looked something like this:

© Queensland University of Technology (Brisbane)

The British Museum scan of Tamut’s body shows that some of her blood vessels were lined with fat. This was the result of an unhealthy diet (Ancient Egyptians loved their goose and beer) and leads us to believe that she might have died of a heart attack or a stroke.

See pictures inside coffin

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 8 – Tjayasetimu’s mummy

Mummies were real people with real lives. They are not monsters. They are not ghosts. They are the preserved bodies of Egyptian people who lived thousands of years ago. People who laughed, sang, hung out with their families and looked after their pet cats. People like us, in many ways.

Here is one of the mummies currently in the British Museum. The varnish on the case turned black over time, but the museum has cleaned the black coating off the case’s face and hands, and also cleaned a strip down the front to reveal the mummy’s name: Tjayasetimu.

Although the case is adult-sized, the occupant is a little girl no more than eight or nine years old.  She lived more than three thousand years ago and she was a singer in the royal choir.

Tjayasetimu used to sing in a beautiful temple beside the river Nile. When she died, her parents paid for her body to be mummified. They thought that if they preserved her body carefully, she would be able to use it in the afterlife. The embalming priests removed her organs and packed her body with a special kind of salt to dry it out. Then they filled the body with sand and sawdust and wrapped it in painted bandages.

In Victorian times, people opened mummy cases and unwrapped the mummies inside, often as an act of public theatre. These pre-YouTube unboxing extravaganzas may have been exciting, but they were also ghoulish and tasteless, as well as completely destroying the mummy.

The curators at the British Museum have never opened Tjayasetimu’s mummy case. Instead they took the case to a hospital and put it in a powerful scanning machine. This way, they could see Tjayasetimu without disturbing her.

Her face has delicate lips, a pointy chin and shoulder-length hair. Some of her adult teeth were coming through, but not many. To see some pictures of her, click the link at the bottom of this page.

Children hardly ever got into the royal choir, which means that Tjayasetimu must have had a truly angelic voice. She was a genuine child star.

In case you were wondering, this is how you write ‘Mummies’ in hieroglyphs. The three vertical lines show that the word is plural – like putting an ‘s’ on the end of a word in English.

See photos inside the mummy case

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 7 – hunting in the marshes

This is the most famous of the Nebamun murals. It shows Nebamun hunting in the marshes. He is standing up in a papyrus boat, spearing fish and throwing sticks at birds. Again, Nebamun’s life is shown to be utterly perfect. The weather is glorious. His wife and daughter are with him. He is catching fish and fowl left right and centre.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Look how skilful and detailed the artwork is. I love the expression on the face of this fish.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

The eye of Nebamun’s ginger cat was decorated with a splodge of real gold. Most of it is gone, but there remains a tiny bit in the top left corner. Visit the British Museum to see the painting, and you’ll see the gold still glinting under the spotlights.

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 6 – Counting the cows

All of Nebamun’s tomb paintings show the great man living his best life and trying to keep track of his enormous wealth. This painting shows local herders bringing their cows to him for counting, and presumably taxing. Needless to say, there are a lot of them.

click to enlarge © The Trustees of the British Museum

The cows jostle forward into the columns of light blue hieroglyphs. They crowd in on each other, each one unique in colour, pattern, horns and hairdo. The words above Nebamun praise his greatness. The words above the herders are like captions, recording the daft things they are saying. They are mostly telling each other to get a move on and not to talk to Nebamun!

Below you can get an idea of how the whole painting would have looked, before Belzoni got to it.

click to enlarge © The Trustees of the British Museum

Although we may question the process that led to these paintings being in the British Museum in the first place, we can not fault the way the museum have looked after them. They have recently undergone a painstaking five-year-long restoration process, to make them look as good as possible.

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 5 – Nebuman’s banquet

Remember ‘Belzoni the Great’, the circus strongman who brought the head of Ramesses II back to England? He brought back hundreds of other artefacts, too, including these paintings from the tomb of Nebamun.

Ancient Egyptian craftspeople painted beautiful scenes all over the walls and ceilings of their most important tombs, then sealed them shut. The paintings were intended not for human eyes but for the Egyptian gods and for the spirit of the dead person. Belzoni did not care too much about that. He and his men used saws and chisels to rip whole paintings out of the walls of Nebamun’s tomb chapel.

click to enlarge © The Trustees of the British Museum

These colourful pictures of Nebamun’s life show him living a happy life, healthy, wealthy and wise. Today’s scene depicts a fabulous banquet with well-dressed guests, piles of food, skilful musicians and saucy dancers. The hieroglyphs show the lyrics of the song being sung by the musicians:

Geb (the earth god) has caused his beauty to grow in everybody, Ptah has done these things with his hands in order to create peace, The channels are flooded with his water anew and the land is flooded with his love!

click to enlarge © The Trustees of the British Museum

Nebamun and his wife were on the far left of this scene, but that part of the painting is now lost. That’s what happens when you tear chunks out of a three-thousand-year-old plaster wall.

Treasures of Ancient Egypt Day 4 – The Rosetta Stone

Two hundred years ago, nobody knew how to read hieroglyphs. Even Egyptians had forgotten the meaning of those strange symbols written and chiselled by their ancestors.

A French man called Jean-Francois Champollion was the first to crack the code of hieroglyphs. The key was the Rosetta Stone, which contained the same message written in three different languages, including hieroglyphs. Jean-Francois used a language he did know (Greek) to decipher the one he didn’t (hieroglyphs).

In September 1822 he made his breakthrough. He was so excited, he ran through the streets of Paris to his brother-in-law’s workplace to tell him the news. “I’ve done it!” he shrieked, then collapsed in a faint right there on the carpet!

Here are some pictures of the famous Rosetta Stone. You can see the original in Room 4 of the British Museum (in a glass case, always surrounded by crowds) or a perfect replica in Room 1 (which you can put your nose to and examine in peace!).