A touring exhibition to mark the centenary of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun arrives in London this month. BRLSI has marked the occasion by inviting Egyptologist Lee Young to unravel some of the mysteries of the boy king and his tomb. By Lee Hooker, BRLSI’s convenor of antiquity.

Landing in London at the Saatchi Gallery this autumn, the Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh exhibition represents the pinnacle of Ancient Egyptian culture. It celebrates Howard Carter’s discovery of the glittering contents of the pharaonic tomb of Tutankhamun, the young ruler of Ancient Egypt, on the west bank of the Nile in 1922, a golden treasure trove of jaw-dropping beauty, fine craftsmanship and luxury. The new touring exhibition, which runs at the Saatchi Gallery until early May, shows 150 artefacts from the pharaoh’s tomb, 60 of which have never been seen before outside Egypt.

The forthcoming talk at BRLSI by Egyptologist Lee Young, illustrated with photographs taken at the moment of the tomb opening and the drawings of Howard Carter, gives the background to the boy king and tells the fascinating story of the finding of the tomb.

The reveal

Carter wrote, as he recorded the opening of the tomb, “At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the lights, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.”

Howard Carter opening the doors of the tomb in 1922

The story of the golden boy

Nearly 100 years later, what is it that continues to fascinate us about this long-ago king? Well, Tutankhamun’s tomb is by far the most intact Ancient Egyptian pharaonic tomb ever to be found. The tomb of a king born around 3,300 years ago preserved the context and meaning of ancient royal burial practices of the time and offered an unprecedented insight into Egyptian culture and life during this era. More than 5,000 exquisite items – including Tutankhamun’s famous golden death mask, a chariot and a dagger made from meteorite iron, along with furniture, clothes, weapons and 130 of the lame king’s walking sticks – were crammed inside his small tomb, demonstrating the staggering wealth and importance of this New Kingdom pharaoh.

Although Tutankhamun is our touchstone to the ancient past, it was his royal father, Pharaoh Akhenaten, who was the king who changed history and his son’s destiny. After succeeding his own father Amenhotep III around 1352 BC, Akhenaten lost no time in making changes to his vast empire, building a new capital at Amarna where he implemented widespread political and religious reforms. He overturned a centuries-old religious system involving the god Amun and the state pantheon of deities and stripped the priesthood of wealth and power in favour of a religion worshipping a single deity.

While Tutankhamun’s own rule was notable for reversing these unpopular religious reforms of his father, his legacy was largely negated by his successors, and his name was little known until Carter’s 1922 discovery of the tomb.

His rule

Like his father and grandfather, Tutankhamun’s life was short. He succeeded to the throne of Egypt at the age of nine and died around the age of 19. He left a wife (who was also his half-sister), but no living heirs, just two poignant mummified foetuses within his tomb. Failure to leave an heir brought his bloodline to an end. This situation may have sprung from a tradition of kings marrying their sisters: Akhenaten and his own sister were the parents of Tutankhamun.

Tutankhamun’s regnal years oversaw a massive swing back to polytheism. Why would Tutankhamun have permitted this? A restoration decree formally records Tutankhamun’s decision to revert to the old religion because the gods no longer heard the prayers of the people. As a nine-year-old taking the throne we may conjecture that he was steered towards this reinstatement of the old pantheon of gods. After his death, with no bloodline heirs, his vizier (high official) Ay became pharaoh.

Carter’s investigation

The King List in Abydos records every pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, but significantly omits the names of three pharaohs who followed Amenhotep III, Akhenaten’s father: Akhenaten, his son Tutankhamun and his vizier Ay. In this list, Amenhotep III is succeeded by Horemheb, who was not of royal blood but legitimised his rule by erasing all evidence of these men and their successors. Name erasure such as this deprived the Amarna kings of their full death right, a passage into the afterlife, and left an almighty problem for chronologists attempting to reconstruct the era’s timelines.

But Horemheb’s efforts failed because the first traces of the existence of Tutankhamun had come to light on a small cup, along with gold fragments bearing the figures of Tutankhamun and his wife. Carter’s determination to find more evidence resulted in the finding of the tomb. Here was first-hand evidence of the intricate embalming preservation process and the rationale behind it – to accurately preserve the appearance of the deceased to ensure safe progression into the afterlife.

Ancient Egyptian belief regarded death as the opportunity for rebirth. Despite the efforts of Akhenaten’s detractors to expunge these dynastic names from history, the tomb of Tutankhamun restored his family honour. Surrounded by funerary objects to assist his journey to the afterlife, this king has become immortalized in our time.

• Tutankhamun lecture, 20 November, 7.30pm, BRSLI, £4–7
• Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh exhibition, 2 November – 3 May, Saatchi Gallery, London, £16.50–£28.50
• Akhnaten, a live screening of Philip Glass’s opera, 28 November, Little Theatre Cinema