Tutankhamun: a re-examination of age in Egyptian society

For too long people have referred to Tutankhamun as a “boy king”, today I discuss why in ancient Egyptian society, Tutankhamun was not a young boy!

It is true that Tutankhamun was young by our standards when he came to throne, and it is easy to assume that he would be no more mature than a boy of nine in our own society. However, this was a boy schooled in the royal palace as a potential heir to the throne. Due to Tutankhamun’s premature death, it has often been speculated that he was victim of murder. The most common hypothesis being that as he grew in to his role of Pharaoh and aged in to maturity, he was less likely to accept the word of his advisors and their power probably diminished as a result. A blow to the back of the head does seem to have been sustained at some point in the King’s life, with clear calcification and new bone formation being observed, proving a period a healing. We must remember, however, that average life expectancy for ancient Egyptians was approximately 40 years of age, with the elite sometimes living beyond this. We can then, not think of Tutankhamun as a boy King, as he would by Egyptian terms have reached puberty and “maturity” at fourteen years of age (when circumcision took place). So to assume that his advisors only saw him as an assertive adult at an age above 18 years is to totally misinterpret the social norms of a society who observed maturity at a different age to our own society. Tutankhamun actually probably died of Malaria Tropica, the most virulent form of malaria that is still prevalent today, as Plasmodium falciparum, a protozoan parasite that lives in its primary host, the Anopheles mosquito, was recently revealed by microscopic analysis in Tutankhamun’s aDNA. This has also been coupled with a fracture of his leg and several debilitating weaknesses that could have led to an immune-suppressed state, ultimately leading to his demise.

I have visited cultures where children have no childhood like western countries, where children help out in multi-generational households, and although they are cherished they know there place is to help. Ancient Egyptian’s were undoubtedly the same, with the term Xrd usually being applied to both children and servant, re-enforced with artistic depictions where children are often drawn to the same scale and stand near to servants. Also the Instruction of Ani suggests that children had a large debt to repay for the burden of their birth and upkeep and we have evidence from Deir el-Medina of offspring providing for elderly parents and an example of what happens if you don’t. (To be discussed another time). By modern standards a child usually passes as an adult between 18 to 21 years. They are of course, still the ‘child’ of their parents, but they are no longer classed as adolescents. Nowadays, with reference to most western societies, the life expectancy of a person has dramatically increased over centuries to around 80+ years. However, in ancient Egypt, as previously mentioned life expectancy (on the higher end) averaged at about 40 years. Therefore, we must make a reasonable judgment on what the Egyptians would have classed as a young child. It is reasonable, based upon what children were expected to undertake and how their roles changed that at around 12 they were probably considered adults. Even in modern bioarachaeological terms we normally talk of a juvenile as anybody under the age of 15, and biologically we class anyone between 15-20 as young adults.

Tomorrow I will discuss children in the context of education and learning.

I hope this has given you something to think about, I know my research is taking some turns and twists that I can’t wait to explore.

All the best,


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