The Funeral Mask of King Tutankhamen

Perhaps one of the most amazing finds in Egyptian archeology is the tomb of King Tutankhamen. Howard Carter, the archaeologist whose subsequent death fueled speculation of the actuality of the mummy’s curse, discovered it in 1923 (“Tutankhamun,” par. 2). Most well known because it was largely intact at the time of its opening, the site gives modern viewers a rare insight into the life and death of a pharaoh.

Today, the tomb remains shrouded in fascination as people all over the world visit displays of the artifacts retrieved from the crypt. According to the National Gallery of Art, archaeologists retrieved fifty-five items from the site, and among the items, King Tutankhamen’s Funeral Mask is possibly the most recognized (par. 1). It is also the most stunning example of Egyptian art recovered from the tomb.

The mask of King Tutankhamen, better known as King Tut, is a large headpiece with the face of the young king, worn over the head and shoulders of the deceased. The entire mask is made of solid gold with inlaid blue glass and stones that create horizontal lines along the right and left sides of the head, down to the shoulders. This blue and gold striped headdress, also known as a “nemes,” which is a “royal head cloth” to be worn only by the ancient kings (“Death Mask,” cap. 1).

On the forehead portion of the nemes are two small statuettes, one of a vulture and another of a cobra. According to experts, the “vulture, Nekhbet, and the cobra, Wadjet, protected the pharaoh” (“Death Mask,” par 1). On the back, the lines of the nemes converge at the bottom, in the center. The piece spares no detail, including the eyeliner worn by the ancient king.

As a piece of Egyptian art, the Funeral Mask shows masterful use of the elements of design. The use of color is simply exquisite. Blue, gold, red and black, which comprise the piece, are still colors representative of royalty today. The use of line and space on the sides and collar create the illusion that the young king was large and imposing. In addition, the level of symmetry and balance in the piece is textbook. However, perhaps the most overtly powerful element in the piece is the use of symbols.

Iconography and symbols are key to understanding the artists and the subject. The shape of this mask itself is reminiscent of the cobra, ostensibly representative of his power and fierceness. Also, the lines along the sides of the nemes seem to reflect the image of sunrays. In fact, it appears as if the rays of the sun were radiating from the king’s face. The sun god did play a large role in ancient Egyptian religion, but it is also possible that this represents the artists’ love of their young pharaoh.

The most obvious symbols on the mask are of the cobra and vulture. Other than their use for King Tut’s protection, they may also represent his adherence to the old religions. According to Britannica Encyclopedia, “…serpent, vulture, and sphinx are all motif symbols tied up with such religious cults as the cult of the pharaohs and the gods and the cult of the dead” (par. 2).

Considering the animals’ religious affiliation, and the fact that Tutankhamen spent his short reign reestablishing the various god religions of the past, one must speculate as to the  animals’ religious significance as well (“Tutankhamun,” par. 5). Perhaps these two particular animals were representatives of the gods that the pharaoh worshiped.

Above all, these artists give the impression of adoration for King Tutankhamen in the medium chosen. The entire work is comprised of precious metals and stones that are historically synonymous with wealth and power. Goldsmiths spent a great deal of time refining and molding the metal, while small stones were cut and polished by hand to fit together almost seamlessly in the piece.

Today, not only would the piece be expensive to recreate, it would also be somewhat laborious. Even with the use of modern tools, the work would be tedious at best. While it must have been somewhat difficult to achieve this level of work, without these elements the image of their king would have been somewhat dimmed. Although the Funeral Mask would have been exquisite even in clay, ancient craftsmen used materials fit for a pharaoh.

Furthermore, ancient artisans obviously put a great deal of care into making their pharaoh’s mask a true representation of the ruler. It appears that their hope was to represent the king accurately and powerfully in the afterlife. Although their belief was that Tutankhamen would carry all the elements of his tomb into the underworld, they fitted him perfectly for presentation to an audience thousands of years later with all the riches one would expect to accompany such a powerful man as pharaoh of ancient Egypt. Even today, the Funeral Mask awes visitors with its royal visage.

While some of the elements, such as facial features, seem crude on the surface and lacking realism, they are perfect in their simplicity. Thousands of years later, the artistry of the mask is virtually unmatched. Modern artists and goldsmiths would find the exact recreation of the mask difficult, if not improbable. When combined with the use of color, line, and symbols used by the ancient Egyptians, the mask is perfect.

Twenty-first century artisans could not complete such an important task more appropriately. When given the commission of designing a similar piece, with the originality of this one, most artists would fail to find such a faultless balance of elements and design, which makes King Tutankhamen’s Funeral Mask the most superb piece of ancient Egyptian artwork found in the tomb, and perhaps even the world.

Works Cited

  1. “Death Mask of King Tutankhamun”. King Tutankhamun by Wysinger. 27 March 2007. <>.
  2. “Jewelry.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 27  March 2007.  <>.
  3. “NGA – Treasures of Tutankhamun.” National Gallery of Art. 27 March 2007. <>.
  4. “Tutankhamun.” 27 March 2007. 27 March 2007. <>

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