By Anand Balaji

Though some of the inlays in Tutankhamun’s superb golden mask – especially at the back – were lost during Howard Carter’s attempts to extricate it from the resin-soaked mummy after it came to light on 29 October, 1925, other changes on the surface proved to be alterations made in antiquity—such as piercings in the right lappet of the nemes headdress, in between the glass inlays. “But what are these punch-holes?” asks Dr Nicholas Reeves, and proceeds to offer an interpretation.


The iconic gold mask in situ, and a part of the external trappings of the mummy of Tutankhamun show the hands of burnished gold adorned with wristlets of colored glass and carnelian sewn on to the bandages; between them is the black resin scarab. The crook and flail, fundamental emblems of royal power, are made from silver cores covered with alternating bands of glass and gold. (Harry Burton © The Griffith Institute – University of Oxford)

When the excavation team first encountered these holes they held a wire; one that had “served a particular function to hold firmly in place, one of the royal insignia, the flail,” explains Reeves. But, what was the reason or necessity to introduce such a feature in the mask, he wonders, “Quite why this fixing had been required, and why it had been realized in this crude manner, are questions that obviously warrant consideration.”


Close-up of one of the holes punched in the right lappet of the nemes headdress. (Public Domain)

During the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, the mummy of the deceased had to be raised from a horizontal to a vertical position. Therefore, unlike the mummies of commoners that could be moved about easily; in order to ensure that the ritually bejeweled royal mummy – such as Tutankhamun’s – would remain in the erect position for as long as the funerary rites were conducted, a wooden frame was employed for the purpose. “Since it is difficult to imagine the day of burial having been disrupted by the hammering required, we might speculate that the modification had been carried out during or following a practice run-through of the funeral ceremony.


The wooden frame used to position a mummy vertically. (Public Domain)

This rare object comes from the Amarna Period KV63 store chamber,” informs Reeves, and says that when Tutankhamun’s mummy was raised to a vertical position, the undertakers discovered that the flail persistently fell either forwards or sideways. “With time running out, this issue needed to be resolved quickly; which was done by making two crude holes in the appropriate position in the lappet of the gold mask – dislodging in the process the two now-missing glass inlays – and by wiring the wobbly flail firmly in place,” the Amarna expert explains.

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This vignette from the Book of the Dead of Hunefer, a scribe during the Nineteenth Dynasty (reign of Seti I), shows his mummy positioned vertically during the Opening of the Mouth ritual. (British Museum. Public Domain) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Opening_of_the_mouth_ceremony.jpg

However, it could also be that in their rush to get the funeral over and done with, the nervous handlers dropped Tutankhamun. A possibility that isn’t far-fetched. “Another area of damage is visible behind and on the protruding right-hand corner of the nemes headdress. This gives every appearance of being the consequence of a violent concussion, and from its position suggests an intriguing possibility: that the masked (and therefore the fully embellished) mummy may have suffered a fall from the vertical within the tomb. Possible supporting evidence for a catastrophic event of this sort may be found in Carter’s notes, which mention a number of loose gold elements recovered from the floor of the entrance passageway and antechamber,” Reeves posits.

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Independent Researcher.

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