Bullshit Memes #11: Tutankhamen's condom

Most archaeologists are actually amazed that people fall for this tripe

I must confess, I have been putting off writing this post for over a year. 

Partly out of a desire to get all my ducks in a row, and partly because it has always seemed like the most clickbaity topic I could tackle ... 

I mean a condom AND Tutankhamen .... It is almost too much of a cheap shot.

And last time I discussed ancient Egyptians and their reputed sex toys the post was quite popular (here), but that is a road I don't wish to be driven down.

Next thing you know I am competing with Ancient Whoever for the most hyperbolic piece of meaningless fluff involving alien Anunnaki giants.

(Bearing firmly in mind that I do have a post related to that topic lurking around somewhere in my files... shifts awkwardly in chair).

Yet today I have thrown my various cautions briskly to the wind, because this particular factoid is not going away anytime soon, and after some years spent researching the tomb of Tutankhamen I know where to find the information.

Somebody has to do it, so here we go again. 

Pictured below you can witness the moment that I decided to write this blog post:

Facebook 24.09.23


They pretty much had me at different coloured condoms.

And then I discovered that it wasn't just coloured condoms, but that articles about the history of prophylactics were claiming that in ancient Egypt condoms were colour coded to indicate social rank... 

So if you were pharaoh you wore a different coloured rubber to a noble, a soldier or a farmer......lol lol lol ... being a colour theory type archaeologist I want to know the colour code.... blue for royalty?

Khan et al 2013 republished at Brewminate in 2019

After this I really needed to know where this information was coming from, and the reference to Coll(i)er 2007 from Brewminate was a good start. 
But let's approach this in an orderly fashion by beginning with Tut's alleged condom.


If you've been living under a rock since 1922 you may not be aware of Egypt's favorite pharaoh, Tutankhamen, who was king of Egypt for 9-10 years at the end of the 18th Dynasty (ca. 1334-1324 BCE). He died at about 18 years of age and was buried in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor.

His notoriety is mainly the result of modern associations with the word 'treasure', due to the tomb surviving the ravages of looting more or less intact, with a massive inventory of objects fit for a very rich dead king, which one cannot say of many other Egyptian royal tombs. 

Tutankhamen's tomb was carefully examined and documented by an excavation team led by archaeologist Howard Carter over a period of many years.

The excavation report from Howard Carter

Don't laugh, but one of the singular advantages to the enquiring mind in this day and age is easy access to reliable information, inclusive of such luxuries as the excavation notes and catalogue of Howard Carter from Tutankhamen's tomb. 

These are online at the Griffith Institute, Oxford, Tutankhamen; Anatomy of an Excavation here

In Carter's excavation notes the sheath is listed as no. 079q, which means it was found early during excavation in the main Antechamber of the tomb, in box number 079. The q refers to the numbering of objects from this box.

Achaeological context is important

However, the tomb was looted in antiquity, not greatly, just the easily carried expensive stuff like jewellery, linen and oils. So objects found in this box may not have been its original contents. The priests who tidied up after discovering the robbery were not overly scrupulous about repacking.

Howard Carter calls this object a finger-stall in his notes, based on its size and the other objects that it was found with: cloth bandages and pads, rolls of fabric and a sling. There were also gauntlets and loincloths. As a result it was assumed the sheath was a medical halter or finger stall. And that is how it is described in the excavation notes.

Carter No: 079q. A linen finger-stall, http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/gri/carter/079q.html

Problem no. 1. Size is important

I am aware that this might be stating the obvious, but things can look larger in a photograph on the internet.

So there is reason behind Carter's identification: this object is quite small.

It is made of double thickness coarse linen sewn into a sheath, and as a result has a seam along one side. It has tapes attached to a reinforced triangle on the back making the back even more reinforced. These tapes may have been about 50 cm long (19.68 inches), but this is not certain, currently there is only one long string, the other tape is much shorter. 

Nonetheless, even if both tapes were originally 50 cm long this is not long enough to tie around the waist of an average built adult man. And remember Tut was 18 when he died, not 11. This means he was either very small or this object wasn't meant to tie around the hip.

And on that topic: Since when do condoms come as strap-ons?

(c) Griffith Institute http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/gri/carter/079q.html

But back to the more important issue: the stall is 5.5 cm (2.16 inches) long. 

It is 7 cm (2.75 inches) only if one includes the reinforced tape triangulation on the back where the straps were attached. This triangulation is not relevant to the length of the body part it fitted.

The stall is also thin, being no more than 3 cm wide (1.18 inch).

So whatever was intended to go in this sheath was not more than 5.5 cms long and 6 cm in circumference.... that is a bit less than the size of my thumb.

This stall is also not made of lightweight material, and is designed to tie to something (on one side).

To add to the problem, according to a report on the mummy of Tutankhamen (Leek 1972), his mummified penis was 5 cm (1.97 inches) long. I feel like I shouldn't need to say this, but weeks of mummification in natron salts and 3000+ years in a tomb will have reduced the original size. 
In addition, there is no reason to assume that his penis was anywhere near this size when Tutankhamen was aroused. The average length of an erect human penis is 13-15 cm (5.1-5.9 inches). This stall is simply not big enough. 
It might be argued that it too has shrunk, as linen can shrink when washed for the first time when combined with hot water, but this is less likely. Even if it did, the fabric would not shrink by 50% or more.
Kahun gynaecological papyrus, image Petrie Museum UC 32057.

Problem no. 2. Contraception in ancient Egypt focussed on women

With the high infant mortality rate and the need for a regular supply of children to support a family (the Egyptian social ideal), ancient Egyptian medical texts related to family planning were mostly interested in achieving pregnancy, although there are a few recipes intended to prevent this (see Ebers Papyrus spell 783)

In these spells the emphasis is resoundingly placed on the woman in this process. Egyptian medical papyri therefore only contain recipes for women to prevent or cause conception. The onus of baby production in ancient Egypt was on women (Nunn 2006).

These recipes involved ground up pastes that were placed in the vagina, but with no connection necessarily provided to administration before or after sexual intercourse. These recipes could contain ingredients like honey and natron, or crocodile dung and plant pulp (Kahun Papyus spell 21-22, Ramesseum IV). 

Ancient Origins 2017, from one condom in one tomb to 'some pharaohs' had condoms
Male fertility

On the other hand, there appears to have been little interest in methods for inhibiting male fertility.

In fact, there is currently no evidence from pharaonic Egypt that men were expected to actively prevent conception, or that condoms were used... nothing. Not one has been found from any tomb or temple or domestic context... If a book or website tells you otherwise they are perpetuating a modern myth.

The earliest legitimate evidence for the use of something resembling a condom in the ancient world is from the Roman era. The earliest evidence of use of a condom that resembles the modern prophylactic is much later, around the 16th century CE (Riddle 1992, Cain 2014, Bullough 2001).

Problem no. 3: Egyptian pharaoh was a model of virility

I am also going to point out the rather obvious flaw:

Why would a king, 'Mighty Bull, the very image of Birth' (Tut's Horus name), need a condom?

Condoms are usually intended to prevent pregnancy, yet pharaohs were the Egyptian embodiment of virility and procreation. It was part of their job to produce heirs with as many wives as was physically allowable in the hope that one child would reach maturity and succeed their father as living god.

And the infant mortality rate in ancient Egypt was dire.

There really is no context where I can imagine an Egyptian king needing a condom in his medicine cabinet. Tutankhamen, for example, left no male heir, and at 18 had already produced still-born offspring who were buried with him. There is also little logic to his needing to take a condom with him into the Afterlife, which was the sole intention of objects buried with a king.

The argument that is sometimes given, that the king of Egypt was trying to prevent exposure to tropical diseases is weak at best, and a porous fabric condom would simply not prevent disease transmission. In addition, he certainly wouldn't need to worry about catching herpes in the Afterlife.

So where has this myth come from?

Tracing the travels of misinformation

There is no scientific evidence to support claims about this linen stall from the tomb of Tutankhamen. The object is small and impractical as a condom, being made of double thickness course linen. The tapes would not tie around an adult male pelvis, but they would easily tie around a wrist, making finger-stall much more likely. 

No scientific tests have established that this object was a condom. These claims appear to be fabricated, and then combined with telephone game factoids sourced from a few cheery broad reach books on the history of contraception. 

No legitimate Egyptological publication makes these claims...

The source for some of these myths today appears to be the book by historian Aine Collier The Humble Little Condom from 2007 already mentioned above, in which the author devoted some time to quirky anecdotes regarding ancient sexuality and contraception. 

Among others, claiming that the ancient Egyptian pharaohs used papyrus condoms to protect themselves from disease, and arguing that the Egyptians probably did not consider these to be contraceptive devices. All I can say is Collier clearly has never dealt with wrapping papyrus sheets around an unusual shape.

Collier also indulges in emotive and biased language believing that the ancient Egyptians were 'sex obsessed', due to some ribald myths involving, 'gosh'... masturbation... and phallic worship...

In addition, the book has a quite flexible approach to what constitutes a condom, confusing the wearing of penis sheaths, loin cloths and highly starched linen kilts with actual sexual practices. 

This problem appears to be rife for this topic, because the confusion of penis sheath and condom is at the source of this factoid.

Citation pls

However, the most frustrating part about Collier's book, apart from the breezy writing style, is that there is no referencing of sources.  Nonetheless, many websites, some academic papers and social media sites are citing Collier for these myths.

So where did Collier find them?
Problem no. 4: Confusing things that can be attached to penises

The idea that the ancient Egyptians used coloured condoms for disease prevention and that these were associated with social status has had a healthy life of its own through various books and papers from the 1970s to the 90s, but the myth appears to ultimately stem from a book on contraception by Bernard Finch and Hugh Green, Contraception through the Ages (1963).

These authors again provide no source for their claims and appear to have a book by sociologist Norman Himes, Medical History of Contraception (1936) as their general source in the bibliography, although it is unclear that he ever said this about the Egyptians. Himes appears to only have been discussing penis protectors ('sheaths') as protection from disease or indicators of rank.

Nonetheless 60 years of telephone games later and the ancient Egyptians of the New Kingdom wearing coloured condoms to demonstrate social status is an embedded factoid in social media and in academic papers associated with contraception. 

Yet these claims are grounded in early 20th century assumptions about  'primitive' peoples wearing penis sheaths for ceremonial occasions and as symbols of status, these sheaths are then equated with condoms and with sexual practices. The addition of colour appears to be associated with the dyed animal hides used to make these.

The Egyptians were not wearing penis sheaths in the 18th Dynasty (Tutankhamen), or even the Old Kingdom, they were more of a smart-casual fashion item for Egyptian men in the Predynastic, about 2000 years earlier than the New Kingdom. However, the Egyptians of the New Kingdom did sometimes represent their enemies dressed in this way.

The illustration from Green 1971 (above) shows the pitfalls of not knowing what you are looking at when viewing another culture's art, as it is a drawing of a bound foreign prisoner from a New Kingdom royal monument. 
It is not an Egyptian wearing a penis sheath, the man is a traditional enemy of Egypt, a Libyan tribesman.
The contraceptive does not pop up in Egyptian hieroglyphs.
And never trust someone who says 'some historians' without saying who.
To close I will just reiterate that a penis sheath/protector is not a condom, and these more elaborate contraptions could be worn for display, adornment, protection and/or to show social status. They can be a wide range of materials and in early Egypt were likely made from materials like ivory, horn or leather. 
As a result, they would seriously make for impractical contraceptive aids.
Equally, of the publications repeating these claims not one has cited Egyptological research on medicine or contraception, instead they cite their own discipline, sometimes going back 80 years, and occasionally a translation of an Egyptian medical papyrus from 100 years ago. 
This is simply not rigorous enough. 
Gallivantrix.com 2019

Back to Tutankhamen

On the other hand, none of these publications mention Tutankhamen possessing a condom that was buried lovingly with him in his tomb, nor that DNA had been found in this linen stall. 

Instead, the DNA factoid seems to be relatively new, and the outcome of an anecdote told by an Egyptian tour guide to a tourist who blogs as Gallivantrix (in 2015), that provided the source for Ancient Origins (2022), and from there it was downhill all the way. 

In addition, an association to Tutankhamen may be traced to a paper on the history of contraception by Lesley Smith (2013) that begins with the claim that the linen stall from the Cairo museum may be a condom and that ancient Egyptians may have used these to prevent disease rather than conception. 

The source Smith cites for this is an article in BMJ.com News Roundup (2006). However, that article is a response to another article about a condom in an Austrian museum. Being an fyi kind of answer it provides no sources, repeats the factoids discussed here, and is essentially the opinion of the individual concerned.

Academically speaking this is completely bogus.

In reality, the source of these myths appears to be Egyptian tour guides and perhaps the Cairo museum itself, as Smith also claims the linen sheath was displayed (labelled?) as a condom in the case in the Cairo Museum.


Therefore, you can take statements online about the ancient Egyptians using condoms with a pinch of salt.

There is no evidence the pharaonic Egyptians ever cared about restricting male potency. There is also no evidence of condom use... nothing. The original source of these claims is not Egyptology, it is a book on contraception from 1936, and this was basically suggesting condoms might have evolved from penis protectors. The sources for Tutankhamen's *small* linen stall being a condom are anecdotal.

Trust no-one who doesn't provide sources, and when they do, don't automatically assume that they interpreted it accurately, or that the source is reliable. They could just be sharing a factoid that has been floating around the less scrupulous edges of their own discipline for 60 years. 

On that note, if you are an academic, there are three things I need you to do:

  • Please read outside your discipline, do it, you will learn stuff.
  • Read the latest research and double check the sources, just in case... we are all human.
  • Also, please, please check the original research rather than regurgitating secondary interpretations.
To all the academics and lay-people writing on contraception who were rigorous enough ... thank you.

Everybody else: Do not trust online clickbait sites, they exist to repeat viral yet attractive misinformation.

And the name Tutankhamen brings all the clickbaiters to the yard.


Andrea Sinclair
Don't just trust me: References
(I am not citing the clickbaiters)
Tutankhamen: Anatomy of an Excavation, Griffith Institute, Oxford - http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/discoveringtut/ 
Leek, FF. 1972. The Human Remains from the Tomb of Tut'ankhamun. Griffith Institute, Oxford.
Phelps, DO. 2020. 'The Postmortem Agency of Tutankhamun (ca. 1336-1327 BCE).' Distant Worlds Journal 4: 137-53.
Publications that do not perpetuate the factoids
Bullough, VL. 2001. 'Condom.' Encyclopedia of Birth Control, VL. Bullough (ed). ABC CLIO, p. 79-86. Also see 'Ancient Civilizations and Birth Control,' p. 18.
Cain, T. 2014. 'History of Condoms from Animal to Rubber.' Wellcome Collection - https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/W88vXBIAAOEyzwO_
Guiter, J. 2001. 'Contraception en Egypte ancienne.' BIFAO 101: 221-36.
Jütte, R. 2008. Contraception: A History. Polity Press. 
Lieberman, H. 2017. 'A Short History of the Condom.' JSTOR Daily - https://daily.jstor.org/short-history-of-the-condom/
Moore, W. 2008. 'Searching for Dr Condom.' BMJ 337: https://www.bmj.com/content/337/bmj.a1166
Nunn, J.F. 2006. 'Contraception,' in Ancient Egyptian Medicine. British Museum, p. 196.
Riddle, JM. 1992. Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance. Harvard. 

Publications that do cite the factoids
Abdel-Hafiz, MH. 2006. 'Rapid Response to M. Leidig 2006'. BMJ.com News Roundup 333.
Collier, A. 2007. The Humble Little Condom: A History. Prometheus, pp. 13-15.
Feldblum, PJ. & MJ. Rosenberg 1981. 'A Historical Perspective on Condoms'. Condoms in the Prevention of Sexially Transmitted Diseases. American Health Association, p. 1. 
Finch, BE. & H. Green 1963. Contraception Through the Ages. London. No citation, p. 47.
Green, S. 1971. The Curious History of Contraception. Ebury Press, p. 78.
Himes, NE. 1936 (reprinted 1970). Medical History of Contraception. California.
Khan et al 2013. 'The Story of the Condom'. Indian Journal of Urology 29(1): 12-13. Republished in Brewminate 2017 - https://brewminate.com/the-story-of-the-condom-from-early-civilizations-to-today/
Rense, S. 2016, 'A Brief History of Men Wrapping Their Penises in Weird Sh*t.' Esquire - https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/sex/a5901/best-condoms-0609/
Smith, L. 2013. 'History of Contraception'. Contraception: A Casebook from Menarche to Menopause, P. Briggs, G. Kovaks & J. Guillebaud (eds). Cambridge, p. 18.
Tatum, HJ. & EB. Connell-Tatum 1981. 'Barrier Contraception: A Comprehensive Overview'. Fertility and Sterility 36(1): 3.
Youssef, H. 1993. 'The History of the Condom'. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 86: 226.

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