One hundred years since the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, archaeologists are still puzzling over the mysteries of his mummy. Why was he covered in “black goo” and buried without a heart? And how did his tomb remain hidden for so long? To answer these questions, we head to the National Geographic Museum’s King Tut exhibit with Archaeologist in Residence Fred Hiebert to hear his take on what happened to Egypt’s boy king and hear from mummy expert Salima Ikram about how recent excavations of the tomb are helping scientists get closer to the answers.
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AMY BRIGGS, HOST: When I heard the news of this year’s big show at the National Geographic Museum, which is on the first floor of headquarters, I couldn’t wait to see it.
It was going to focus on the world’s most famous pharaoh, King Tut, in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the discovery of his tomb.
And I was going to get a guided tour with National Geographic Archaeologist in Residence Fred Hiebert.
(Door slides and slams shut)
BRIGGS: (Gasp) Oh, my God. It’s like a secret tomb door.
The exhibit is dark and mysterious, kind of like a maze, with walls of hieroglyphics all around. As we moved through, there are glimpses of some of the tomb’s treasures and photographs of its discovery.
We can hear voices whispering the spells the Egyptian priests used to protect the king’s journey to the afterlife.
FRED HIEBERT, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ARCHAEOLOGIST IN RESIDENCE: Spell 151 B from the Book of the Dead. When Egyptologists see this inscription, they know that they’re dealing with a mortal who’s going to become immortal. It gives me goose bumps just looking at that.
BRIGGS: I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine, and you’re listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.
This week: It’s been one hundred years since Howard Carter first peered into Tutankhamun’s tomb, so we’re doing a deep dive into the life, death, and afterlife of the boy king.
All that’s coming up after the break.
But first, adventure is never far away with a free one-month trial to Nat Geo Digital.
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To get to know Tut a little better, I sat down with Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist, to ask her a few questions about Tut’s mummification and the ancient Egyptian afterlife.
BRIGGS: Could you please, for the audience, say your name and what you do?
SALIMA IKRAM, EGYPTOLOGIST: My name is Salima Ikram, and I am a distinguished university professor at the American University in Cairo. And so basically I teach, but I also excavate and I also work in museums.
BRIGGS: So I want to talk a little bit now about probably the most famous pharaoh in the world, King Tut. Let’s start with some basics. Who was he?
IKRAM: Well, Tutankhamun was until 1922, almost an unknown king. But in ancient Egypt, he was a very important ruler because he was a transition king. Basically, his father, Akhenaten, had changed the religion of Egypt, changed the capital, and changed the power and political structure so that he had much more power, he was even more divine on Earth than his predecessors, and he’d closed down several temples. This did not go down well with the general populace or the priests of the chief god, Amun-Re. So when Tutankhamun came to the throne, he actually restored the order. The, you know, what was regarded as the proper order that had been going on for almost 2,000 years. So he was really a significant pharaoh, because he restored Egypt. He gave the gods back everything. And so for the ancient Egyptians, he must have had—during his reign, at least—quite a great prominence.
BRIGGS: So he’s a transitional pharaoh. He dies. How does his tomb go undiscovered for so long?
IKRAM: Well, sadly, his—he was succeeded by Ay very briefly and then his military commander, Horemheb. Now, Horemheb did not have any blood relationship to any royalty, and so he was probably quite insecure about his position. So he set about getting rid of any interim people. So Horemheb just crossed out Tutankhamun’s name. And so Tutankhamun, by being erased, sort of passed into obscurity very quickly. Plus, he had a tiny tomb. Then subsequently, other tombs were cut nearby, and their debris just completely covered this tomb and buried it. So Tutankhamun just sort of vanished from the annals of history. This is why, of course, it’s the only virtually intact royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings that we have. So, of course it’s going to be the most famous pharaoh right then and there. Especially when you look at what was inside that tomb.
BRIGGS: So why were Egyptians mummified in the first place?
IKRAM: Well, the Egyptians believed that when you died, you could be resurrected and that your soul needed a vessel and that would be your body, ideally. And so they preserved the body so that your soul could animate it, and you could enjoy the afterlife just as you enjoyed this one.
BRIGGS: Was the purpose different for, say, the pharaohs or the queens or same thing? Resurrection?
IKRAM: Basically resurrection. I mean, the pharaohs had a dual afterlife, poor things, because on one level, the pharaoh was a human being. So they had a human happy pharaoh afterlife. But on another level, the pharaoh was also a god. So that aspect of the pharaoh, poor thing, didn’t get much rest because they fused with the sun god and helped him fight forces of darkness, chaos, and evil every night in order so the sun would be reborn the next day.
BRIGGS: So I want to talk a little bit about mummification in general.
IKRAM: The thing is that mummification evolved over 3,000 years. So let me give you this high-end, fantastic, fabulous kind of New Kingdom mummification. First thing you do is you remove the brain. You stick a pointy—sharp, pointy stick through the left nostril and break through the ethmoid and prod about so your brain gets a bit mushy. And then you can use something with a little hook on it. And then using the hook, get rid of the brain. Always made me worried about sneezing.
BRIGGS: Your brain [might] come out your nose.
IKRAM: Uh-huh. After that, you pour in a bunch of resin that’s melted, and sometimes the resin can be mixed with beeswax, oils, or other things. And then the next thing that you do is you go down to the left side of the body and you make a cut, and you stick your—hopefully small—hand in and start removing the internal organs. So the intestines, the liver, the stomach, and you break through the diaphragm and you pull out the lungs as well. And then you really desiccate it properly using natron. And natron is a naturally occurring substance. It’s basically a combination of salt and baking soda. That’s supposed to go on for about 40 days. And then after that, what happens is they have to slightly make you a bit more flexible to position you and wrap you so that nothing falls off. So the next 30 days are spent re-anointing the body, positioning it, wrapping it in linen bandages, and placing amulets in key positions.
BRIGGS: So what’s unusual about Tut’s mummy?
IKRAM: So Tutankhamun was—first of all, the amount of this black resin substance that was used over him. People used to call it bitumen. But technically, if you have not done your analyses of these embalming materials, it is safest and probably most scientific to call this black material “black goo.”
BRIGGS: So he’s got a lot of black goo.
IKRAM: Yeah, he had all this black goo all over him. So and it—and also, he was mummified with a—his member was erect, and also his embalming cut was in a very different place. It went from his belly button out to the left side as opposed to vertically or diagonally on the left side. So that was weird. When I was looking at his mummification, it occurred to me that maybe he had been mummified so that he was showing himself as the reborn god Osiris, because the king during his lifetime is the god Horus. Upon his death, he morphs into the god Osiris, god of the dead, and Osiris is shown, because he is rebirth, resurrection, and fertility, with the erect member, and a dark color because this blackness is—the same word for Egypt is “kemet,” means “the black land,” because of the black fertile soil that the Nile flood deposited. And so this was, in a way, showing himself as Osiris. And he’s also wearing the headdress that we associate with Osiris. And on one of the walls of his tomb, he is shown very much as Osiris, which you don’t see generally.
BRIGGS: Tut’s mummy, you know, with a broken leg or a clubfoot—do you think he was a weakling?
IKRAM: I mean, he’s often portrayed and you get—look at these restorations, reconstructions of him being like that. But I don’t necessarily think that’s so, because as you know, still we need more of the evidence from the CT scans that will allow us to interpret this more clearly. But even sometimes with a clubfoot, you can manage to walk relatively well. And certainly none of his sticks and none of his shoes show any evidence of uneven wear. That was quite interesting. And also we do have images of him being in battle. Now, of course, that’s a trope. That’s what a king does. But he also had weapons in his tomb from when he was a child and when he was an adult. And also, weirdly, a suit of leather armor. Now the parade armor, you know, fine. But this was real, usable stuff. You wouldn’t really have that in a tomb unless you might have used it or worn it, not just for parade purposes. So I think there is a sufficient body of evidence to say that he was active, even if he had some sort of thing wrong with him. It doesn’t mean that you’re confined to a chair.
BRIGGS: So it sounds like, too, from the mummy itself we’re not able to determine how he died. That that’s a subject of debate.
IKRAM: Yes. Oh, there are so many theories about how he died.
BRIGGS: What’s your favorite?
IKRAM: Oh, I don’t—I’ll just list them, shall I?
IKRAM: Chariot accident. Being kicked by a horse. Being bitten by a hippo. Murdered—not quite sure how. Maybe the malaria was worse than we thought. And I’m sure I’m missing a couple.
BRIGGS: The hippo one is intriguing.
IKRAM: Anything is possible.
BRIGGS: So what do you think King Tut’s legacy means for modern Egypt?
IKRAM: Tutankhamun is probably the best pharaoh Egypt ever had. He is the only pharaoh who has looked after that country, not just during his reign but since he was rediscovered in 1922. Because he has brought good press, tourists, and all of the good things associated to Egypt. And also he has inspired the world: clothes, furniture styles, dance styles, cosmetics, music—all things that have been Egyptianized thanks to Tutankhamun. So he is really the gift that keeps on giving so that people learn about ancient Egypt and therefore want to know more about it and modern Egypt.
BRIGGS: And we kind of have to thank Horemheb for that, too, dammit.
IKRAM: Just, you know, don’t say his name that often. He doesn’t get that much credit.
BRIGGS: There are a lot of perks to working at National Geographic. Among them, free tickets to the museum.
TICKET TAKER: Two adults, perfect.
(Ticket printing and tearing sounds)
BRIGGS: This season’s exhibit is about King Tut’s tomb and his journey into the afterlife.
Here to guide me through this exhibit is Archaeologist in Residence Fred Hiebert.
BRIGGS: Why don’t we get started?
BRIAN GUTIERREZ, PRODUCER: OK, great. Could you close the door behind you, Amy?
BRIGGS: Yes, I will close the door behind me. Bye. All right, we’re locked in now.
HIEBERT: Yeah, we’re locked in. Click.
BRIGGS: OK, so we’re coming into the first gallery, and we’re looking at a black-and-white picture of the outside of Tut’s tomb.
HIEBERT: So this is really a celebration of the centennial of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. It was discovered by an Englishman named Howard Carter.
BRIGGS: Didn’t some archeologists think that he didn’t exist? Like, wasn’t there debate about whether it was even real?
HIEBERT: There are very few documents about him. For two reasons. He died when he was 19, so he didn’t really have a lot of track record. But also his family name was still sort of on the black list. And literally we had one or two mentions of Tutankhamun in the record, and that was it.
BRIGGS: So this is sort of a wild-goose chase, then, for Howard Carter. I mean, he’s really rolling the dice.
HIEBERT: He spent a lot of money. He spent a lot of his bankroller’s money. And by 1922, they hadn’t found anything. And his funder was really tired and said, like, No more. Forget it.
BRIGGS: He was going to cut him off?
HIEBERT: He was going to cut him off. And Howard Carter just said, like, “We just have this one place I really, really, really, really want to go,” in 1922. So the funder said, “OK, you go. One last time.” After he arrived in November of 1922, he finds the first step.
BRIGGS: So is that a picture of it on the wall right there? There’s a black-and-white picture …
HIEBERT: There is the entrance of the tomb …
BRIGGS: … of stairs leading down to an ominous dark entrance.
HIEBERT: An ominous … And if you could imagine, after all those years, he wrote a telegram back to England and said to his funder, “Please come right away. We found a tomb.” By the end of November 1922, he had cleared down the steps to a doorway, and he peered in through that door. And that’s when he started to see the glint of gold. That’s one of the most famous phrases in the whole history of archaeology: What do you see? Wonderful things.
BRIGGS: It looks like there’s pieces of a chariot. I can make out a bust. I think of Tutankhamun kind of, like, tucked away underneath some of the wreckage. Chests ...
HIEBERT: There are so many things in here that we’ve never seen before, because this is the first time we’ve seen pretty much an intact royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
BRIGGS: So we’re coming up on one of the parts of the exhibit that I’m really, really excited about it. It’s the re-creation of the burial chamber.
So when we’re looking at the re-creation of the shrine here, it’s huge. It’s taller than me. It’s taller than Fred.
HIEBERT: This is about the size of the space. This is a smaller scale. But here, the ritual oars that were laid out.
BRIGGS: So we’ve got the oars. And then the exhibit re-creates on the walls the paintings that are on the inside of the …
HIEBERT: So it’s depicting that party. And in the middle scene, you see the “opening of the mouth” ceremony, where the new pharaoh, the high priest, is opening Tut’s mouth—the mummy’s mouth—to give him air, to give him voice. So cool. It’s all depicted right here. My favorite objects, believe it or not, are not the gold objects, right? Not the beautifully inscribed ones. I like the things like the brooms. I like the underwear. There’s this one little tablet that was made out of unbaked clay that was placed right in front of the anubis. You can go take a look at that. An anubis is a statue of a jackal. And this statue stared at the burial chamber, and it was staring at the tomb for 3,200 years.
BRIGGS: It’s staring at me right now.
HIEBERT: Yeah, it’s staring at you. In between its paws—and it’s, like, hardly ever mentioned or described or photographed—was this little modest clay tablet that said, By the way, nobody should touch this secret chamber. And if you do, this … the fire of sands will burn you up. And that, Amy, it’s just a verse from the Book of the Dead. That was interpreted by the journalists as the curse on the tomb. That’s the origin of that.
BRIGGS: Of that little clay tablet.
HIEBERT: Little clay tablet. Now there’s one more story I want to tell you, and we can talk about it here on the other part. You’ll notice that there’s a little panel in the second part of the exhibition that says one fact. I think a lot of people kind of miss it.
BRIGGS: Let’s see, we’ve got six steps. Six steps to mummification. What’s number one?
HIEBERT: Removing the organs. And here in sort of like a footnote, says, Oh, by the way, Tut was buried without his heart.
BRIGGS: Yeah, the sentence says, “The heart was essential for the final judgment, but for unknown reasons, Tut’s heart was removed.” All right. So, Fred, where’s the heart?
HIEBERT: Do you think when we get together with 400 Egyptologists on a regular basis that we talk about anything else? So what’s up with Tut? What happened to his heart? We don’t know. The heart is essential for going to the afterlife.
BRIGGS: Because wasn’t the Egyptian belief at the time that the heart was like your center of intelligence, your center of emotional …
HIEBERT: That’s right. And you also have to realize that there are a lot of differences in the mummification of Tutankhamun, because he was involved in this time of change, going back to the old order. So the priests were probably, like, anxious, right? You know, how do we get Tut to the afterlife?
BRIGGS: So the theory is that the priests were doing a little bit extra …
HIEBERT: Totally extra.
BRIGGS: … to earn the gods’ favor again.
HIEBERT: Totally. They were just sort of like, You know, our biggest challenge has to get Tut to the afterlife. No, nothing—nothing will be spared. We’ll put more resin on him than anybody has ever seen before. We’ll put more stuff in his tomb than anybody has had. We’ll have more depictions of him as Osiris. You know, we need to get him to eternity, otherwise our world as we know it will come to an end.
BRIGGS: So the heart might be somewhere else sacred. It’s not like they were mummified, you know, like, Whoops, lost the heart. Like they were probably very deliberate.
HIEBERT: They were deliberate. There are some other theories. I mean, literally, we don’t have any idea. When I was out in California with the Egyptologists, I got sat down by a guy who said, “I know exactly what happened. I’m a medical doctor.” He said, “He was gored by a hippopotamus.” And it’s like, what? We can’t test that one.
BRIGGS: So there’s no—
HIEBERT: No, there’s nothing really to do with that, right?
BRIGGS: Well, this has been amazing, Fred. Thank you so, so much.
HIEBERT: You know, that’s great. And what’s not to love?
BRIGGS: And then we exit through the gift shop.
One of the many things that makes King Tut unique is the sheer quantity of stuff that was found in his tomb. One of our graphics editors for the magazine, Patricia Healy, counted and found that there are more than 5,000 total artifacts there. This gave me an idea for a game.
After my museum tour with Fred, I invited producer Brian Gutierrez to get behind the mic so I could quiz him on his King Tut knowledge in a segment I call “Tutankhamun Sense.”
(Applause, game show music)
BRIGGS: Is that too much? So I figure before we actually play the game, I want to talk to you just a little bit about the episode so that we’re both … we’re both, like, in the Tut zone.
BRIGGS: Where are we with the episode? How’s it coming?
GUTIERREZ: Good. We’ve got two interviews. You did a tour of the museum with Fred. And we had Salima right where I’m sitting just a few days ago. And she told you everything she knows about King Tut.
BRIGGS: Both Salima and Fred are just so unbelievably, like, human and normal when you sit down with them. That you’re like, I don’t think many people know King Tut’s mummy was covered in goo.
BRIGGS: But like there’s something sort of, like, charming and cool about A) learning that fact and being like, Wow, that was weird. But also that, like, there’s still stuff they don’t know. Like, they don’t know what the goo is. Hence calling it goo.
GUTIERREZ: Yeah. And it’s, it’s more compelling and interesting, I think, when you call it black goo than if you call it, you know, ancient resin.
BRIGGS: Goo. I know exactly what that is, and it stays put.
GUTIERREZ: Everyone has seen goo before.
GUTIERREZ: But not this goo.
BRIGGS: No, this is ancient Egyptian goo. It’s very, very specific. It’s King Tut’s ancient Egyptian goo.
BRIGGS: All right. So, you ready to start?
GUTIERREZ: Let’s play a game.
BRIGGS: Let’s play a game. All right, I’m going to give you a category. And you have to guess how many there were of that thing in the tomb. You get three tries at each one. If you get it right, you get a point. If you don’t, I get a point.
GUTIERREZ: What do I do if I win?
BRIGGS: I don’t know. We haven’t figured out the prize yet. OK, well, what do you want? Do you want ...
GUTIERREZ: I’ve always wanted a King Tut mouse pad.
BRIGGS: I will buy you a—you will … OK,. that’s what you’re going to get. Brian, if you win, you get a King Tut mouse pad. If I win, I guess I get a King Tut mouse pad.
GUTIERREZ: All right. All right. We’re playing for the pad.
BRIGGS: We’re playing for the pad.
BRIGGS: So the ancient Egyptian belief was that the king was going on a journey through the afterlife. And it was the responsibility of the living to pack his tomb like a giant suitcase with everything he might need. Not just golden goodies and jewels and things, but think, like, practical stuff. clothes, toiletries, food, furniture. They’re even like bouquets of flowers in Tut’s tomb that are preserved. OK. How many underwear were found in Tut’s tomb?
GUTIERREZ: What does Egyptian underwear look like? Ancient Egyptian underwear?
BRIGGS: Ancient Egyptian underwear doesn’t look like modern underwear. So we’re not thinking about, like …
GUTIERREZ: Some Hanes.
BRIGGS: Yeah, Hanes. No boxers or briefs. They’re loincloths.
GUTIERREZ: I will say. Maybe he needed a month of underwear. I’ll say 30.
GUTIERREZ: Two months, 60 pairs of underwear.
GUTIERREZ: Wow. OK, I’ll add another 30. I’ll say 90.
BRIGGS: The correct answer is 130 loincloths, aka underpants.
BRIGGS: Tut was ready for any occasion, it seems. OK, so next category is food.
GUTIERREZ: Food? Oh, OK. There’s food in there.
BRIGGS: Yes. Even the dead have to eat in the afterlife. And Tut’s tomb was packed with a feast fit for a pharaoh. There was meat, there were grains, there were fruits, there was garlic, and there was even cake. So, in all, how many containers of food were there?
GUTIERREZ: These are … there like Tupperwares of ... ?
BRIGGS: It’s the ancient Egyptian version of Tupperware.
GUTIERREZ: Hmm. Well, OK, so if he needs underwear to last him for 130 days, I’m guessing that’s how long he’s got until he can, like, refresh on stuff, and you need three meals a day. So I will say 390 foods.
GUTIERREZ: 200? (Correct ding) Wow!
GUTIERREZ: Right on the nose.
BRIGGS: There are almost 200 containers: baskets, vessels, boxes. Forty-eight of them are chicken shaped or duck shaped. They’re probably duck shaped. When I saw them, they looked like chicken. And those contained dried meat. So these are some of the first things that Howard Carter sees when he looks into the tomb.
BRIGGS: OK. Last, not least: Tutankhamen also has a wine cellar going on in his tomb. How many jars of wine did King Tut have?
GUTIERREZ: OK, so I feel like I’ve been underestimating a lot of these things, so I’m going to guess a big number. I’m going to say 150.
GUTIERREZ: How about 30? (Correct ding) Wow!
BRIGGS: On the nose. There were 30 giant jars of wine plus wine cups to drink them in. So, yeah, Tut was up for a dinner party. He had food, he had clean clothes, and he had wine. So at the end of our game, the score is: Amy one, Brian two. Congratulations, Brian. You are the winner. (Canned applause)
GUTIERREZ: Hooray! Thank you, thank you, thank you, studio audience.
BRIGGS: And you’ll be the winner of a King Tut mouse pad.
GUTIERREZ: I’m a human polygraph. I’m actually not listening to the questions at all. I’m just paying careful attention to your pulse, and you know, the color of your face.
BRIGGS: And whether I’m touching my nose or not.
GUTIERREZ: Yeah. Are you looking down to the left?
BRIGGS: That’s where my laptop is. So usually looking down to the left.
GUTIERREZ: I can tell you’re lying to me right now.
BRIGGS: All right. I think we’re good.
If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.
Next week, we’ll have an episode from our sister show, Greeking Out, about King Tut’s father, Akhenaten, the pharaoh who overhauled the religion of Egypt.
And if you want to learn more about Tut, take a look at our website where you can read our feature story on the hundredth anniversary of his discovery and see Patricia Healy’s graphic of the 5,000-plus items found in the tomb.
And if you happen to be in the Washington, D.C., area, you might want to take a look at our museum exhibit for yourself.
That’s all in your show notes, right there in your podcast app.
This week’s Overheard episode is produced by senior producer Brian Gutierrez.
Our other senior producer is Jacob Pinter.
Our producers are Khari Douglas and Ilana Strauss.
Our senior editor is Eli Chen.
Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.
Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.
Our photo editor is Julie Hau.
Our copy editors are Caroline Braun, Cindy Leitner, Amy Kolczak and Jennifer Vilaga.
Ted Woods sound-designed this episode, and Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music.
This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.
Michael Tribble is the vice president of integrated storytelling.
Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.
And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.
King Tut’s tomb is one of the most significant archaeological sites ever discovered, but it was almost never found. To learn more about the discovery, take a look at our magazine cover story about the discovery.
Want to see National Geographic’s King Tut exhibit for yourself? Information and tickets can be found on the museum website.
Egyptologist Salima Ikram is one of the leading experts in mummification. Her website is a treasure trove of information.
Fred Hiebert once spent two nights in King Tut’s tomb with researchers searching for the mummy of Nefertiti. That story can be found here.
If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe today.