When Tutankhamun’s tomb was first discovered in 1922, archaeologist Howard Carter was stunned by the astonishing array of grave goods – more than 5,000 artifacts were left for the boy king to use in his afterlife. But amongst all the gold, silver, ebony, ivory , precious jewelry, weapons, furniture, fine linen and rare perfumes, a small piece of cloth caught the eyes of the experts; it was King Tut’s condom and, apparently, it was deemed essential for him to take into eternity.
Tutankhamun’s condom, which contained traces of his DNA, consisted of a sheath made of fine linen, soaked in olive oil, and attached to a string that would have tied around his waist. Dated to 1350 BC, it is the oldest known condom in existence. If the condom was used for contraceptive, rather than ritual purposes or the prevention of disease, it is unlikely to have been very effective. Indeed, the remains of two fetuses were also found in his tomb, and genetic testing revealed King Tut was the father.
The ancient Egyptians had other methods of contraception too. The Kahun Medical Papyrus (known also as the Gynaecological Papyrus), which has been dated to around 1825 BC, recommends the use of a mixture of crocodile dung and some other (now unknown) ingredients as a contraceptive. This mixture would then be formed into a pessary. According to one hypothesis, the dung of crocodiles is alkaline in nature, thus acting as a spermicide.
Page 1 and part of page 2 of the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus dated around 1825 BC. (Francis Llewellyn Griffith. (1862-1934)/ Public Domain )
The Egyptians may have been among the first civilizations to use condoms, but others soon followed. In ancient Rome, condoms were made from linen and animal intestine or bladder. The ancient Chinese fashioned sheaths from silk paper soaked in oil. In Japan, they used tortoise shell or animal horn that was used to cover the glans only. The archaic Djukas tribe of New Guinea had a female condom made from a specific plant. Muslims and Jews during the Middle Ages covered the penis in tar or soaked it in onion juice.
When the first well-documented outbreak of the sexually transmitted disease syphilis occurred in the 15th century among French troops, the need for something to protect against disease became more essential, and linen sheaths soaked in a chemical solution were widely adopted. In addition to linen, some condoms during the Renaissance were made out of animal intestines or bladder. The condom was revolutionized in the early 19th century with the introduction of rubber. By 1850, several rubber companies began the mass production of condoms, and the rest is history.
Top image: Tutankhamun’s condom. Source: Cairo Museum, Egypt
By Joanna Gillan