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Tut’s leftover bandages yield new clues

King Tutankhamun's mummy was wrapped in custom-made bandages similar to modern first aid gauzes, an exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has revealed.
Image: Leftover linen from Tut's tomb
Leftover linens from the wrapping of King Tutankhamun's body bear an inscription including the date the linen was woven.Metropolitan Museum of Art
/ Source: Discovery Channel

King Tutankhamun's mummy was wrapped in custom-made bandages similar to modern first-aid gauzes, an exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has revealed.

Running from 4.70 meters to 39 centimeters (15.4 feet to 15.3 inches), the narrow bandages consist of 50 linen pieces especially woven for the boy king.

For a century, the narrow linen bandages were contained in a rather overlooked cache of large ceramic jars at the museum's Department of Egyptian Art. The collection was recovered from the Valley of the Kings between 1907 and 1908, more than a decade before Howard Carter discovered King Tut's treasure-packed tomb.

Now on permanent display in the museum's Egyptian galleries and highlighted in the exhibition "Tutankhamun's Funeral," the objects provide important insights into King Tut's mummification.

"The linens on the actual mummy were so much decayed by excessive use of resins that the bandages on display at the museum are actually the best-preserved lot of Tutankhamun wrappings," Dorothea Arnold, curator of Egyptian art at the Metropolitan museum, told Discovery News.

"When the floors was swept after wrapping the body of a king, naturally, there were quantities of pieces of linen, some of them bandages and some wider bits, gathered up," Herbert E. Winlock (1884-1950), the Metropolitan's curator, wrote in a 1941 account.

Bearing inscriptions with dates — the Egyptians used to write the date the linen was woven so that they knew how old it was — the sheets provided Winlock with precise evidence for dating the cache's material.

One linen featured an inscription with "Year 8 of the Lord of Two Lands, Nebkheperure" (Tutankhamun's throne name). Indeed, "Year 8" was the final year of Tutankhamun's life (1341-1323 B.C.).

Modern-looking gauze
"Usually bandages to be wound on a body were rolled up to make the wrapping easier," Winlock said. He identified the ends of some six bandages, still tightly rolled.

But the most "curious things among the bandages" were 50 pieces of narrow linen tape with finished edges on each side.

Image: Bandages
Bandages that were custom-made for Tut's mummy bear an eerie resemblance to modern-day gauze.

"I do not recall ever having seen any ready-made, 18th Dynasty bandages like them before," Winlock wrote.

How these modern-looking gauzes were applied is still uncertain.

"According to known later custom, they were used to fix the larger sheets around the body," Arnold said.

Especially woven for King Tut, some of these expensive linens still evoke the presence of the embalmers, as they show fingerprints indicating that someone had wiped his hands on them.

The large jars containing the linens were first discovered buried in a pit (subsequently called KV 54), just 110 meters (360.8 feet) away from the yet-undiscovered tomb of King Tut. The jars also held what appeared to be an unexciting array of broken pieces of pottery, animal remains, collars of dried flowers, kerchiefs and embalming material.

A poor man's tomb?
Its discoverer, New York lawyer Theodore M. Davis, was rather disappointed with the find and donated the materials to the Metropolitan Museum. "Mr. Davis seems to have felt that he had discovered a poor man's tomb," Winlock wrote.

Indeed, Davis was used to much more impressive findings.

His archaeological team, which included such well-known Egyptologists as Howard Carter, photographer Harry Burton and archaeologist Edward R. Ayrton, had uncovered about 30 tombs in the valley during excavations between 1902 and 1914.

King Tut

Slideshow  16 photos

King Tut

Take a look at the treasures from the "Tutankhamun And The Golden Age Of The Pharaohs" exhibition.

Among Davis' most important findings are KV46, the tomb of Yuya and Tuya, King Tut's great-grandparents,; and KV55, which held the burial equipment of the Amarna royal family, such as that of Queen Tiye, who was probably Tutankhamun's grandmother.

The unassuming cache entered the Metropolitan Museum as a mystery. It was several years later, after further studies and analysis, that Winlock identified the items as leftover remains from King Tut's funeral.

"It was a perfectly undisturbed cache which Mr. Davis found ... a cache of materials which, according to Egyptian beliefs, were too impure to be buried in the tomb with the dead man, but which had to be safely put not far away from his body," Winlock wrote in his account of the material found in the pit.

According to Frank Rühli, head of the Swiss Mummy Project at the University of Zurich and a member of the team that carried out the CT scan analysis of Tutankhamun in 2005, modern analysis of the Met's embalming material could offer interesting new clues.

"The bandages on display are very important because they provide another insight on Tutankhamun's mummification," Rühli told Discovery News.