King Tut is known as the Boy King for two reasons. The first is the young age at which he assumed the throne—around eight or nine. The second is that he died at around nineteen, so he never really reached adulthood. Why he died so young is a question that has been with us since his tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922.
In 2005 a team of top radiologists conducted a series of CT scans on Tutankhamun’s mummy, and when the results were announced the following year at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, the results were not 100% conclusive. Most of the team felt they had settled the question of what had caused Tut’s early death, but there were some holdouts.
So when Zahi Hawass announced last August that he was on the verge of announcing the exact cause of Tut’s death, Em Hotep! took notice. So does a new article and video on Dr. Hawass’ website finally put the question to rest?
As Em Hotep! readers have been reminded, perhaps to the point of tedium, Dr. Zahi Hawass declared to a sold out crowd in Indianapolis on August 7, 2009, that the “exact cause” of Tutankhamun’s death would be revealed in ”one month.” This was exciting news because, despite the best efforts of the radiological team that conducted the 2005 CT scans, there was still just a tiny bit of doubt about the “exact cause.”
Of course, this wasn’t exactly what you might call a scandalous controversy. Most of us were fairly satisfied with the majority opinion of the team—that Tut had died of a secondary infection resulting from a traumatic compound fracture to his left thigh. But the fact that Dr. Hawass had raised the issue again, with a promise of a conclusive answer, led to speculation that some new study had been conducted that resolved any remaining doubt. We have been following the story very closely ever since.
In late November Dr. Hawass posted a story and video clip to his website entitled “VIDEO: How Did King Tut Die?” Following on his August announcement, the title seemed pretty self explanatory. But before we evaluate this latest offering, let’s have a quick review of the controversy, minor though it may be.
Murder Most Foul?
Ever since Howard Carter first introduced us to Tutankhamun in 1922, there has been conjecture regarding the cause of his death. Here we had an apparently healthy young man from the absolute top strata of privilege who died in his late teens. By itself this would have been unfortunate, but not unheard of. However, given the tumultuous political climate he had inherited from his heretical predecessor, and the Eighteenth Dynasty’s penchant for court intrigue, speculation of regicide was inevitable.
Tutankhaten, as he was then known, grew up amidst controversy. His father (or older brother, by some accounts), Akhenaten, had made some rather unpopular changes in Egyptian politics and religion during his reign. He moved capital from Memphis to Amarna, and suppressed Egypt’s traditional religions in favor of a sort of monotheism based on Aten, the deification of the solar disk. Memphis had long been the administrative center of Egypt, and Thebes, the Holy City of Amun, was Her spiritual center.
This sudden disenfranchisement of the political and religious elite did not win Akhenaten many friends.
Young Tut spent the first decade of his life cloistered with his parents in a sort of counter-culture retreat. It is tempting to imagine Amarna as being like Southern California during the Sixties, when a lot of social elites joined new religions and moved to communes. Even the art of the Amarna Revolution went through a shift away from the conservative idealized forms of the past in favor of a radical new realism encouraged by Akhenaten and his glamorous wife, Nefertiti. Meanwhile, the elder statesman Ay, was the Richard Nixon waiting in the wings.
When Tutankhaten was only eight or nine years old, Akhenaten died and the Summer of Love came to an end. Monarchies abhor a vacuum, especially when the political and religious apparatus of the state, not to mention the citizenry, are already close to a revolution of their own. To preserve the peace (and the dynasty), Tut was hastily put on the throne through the machinations of his crafty grandfather, Ay.
Ay undoubtedly had political ambitions of his own dating back to his days of advising his son-in-law, Akhenaten, and he exerted his influence through Tut. On Ay’s advice, the Boy King moved the capital back to Memphis and began the process of restoring the old religion of Amun. He even changed his name from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun to reflect this return to the Good Old Days. But Ay was getting on in years, and if he was going to have his turn on the throne, it would have to be soon.
Fortunately for Ay, it was soon. Tutankhamun conveniently died at around age 19, allowing Ay to finally ascend to the throne, where he reigned as pharaoh for a grand total of four years before he died.
Given these circumstances, and Tutankhamun’s early demise, we can be forgiven for thinking the worst. When an X-Ray performed on his mummy in 1968 found a hole in the base of his skull, apparently delivered from behind, images of Caesar dead on the floor of the senate leapt into our fertile imaginations. We had our smoking gun.
Only, we didn’t.
New Study, New Conclusions, New Possibilities
When the radiology team conducted the CT scans on Tut in 2005, they also revisited the hole in his skull. On closer examination, it appeared that the hole was a result of either the embalming process or damage that occurred shortly after the mummy was discovered, most likely the latter.
The team found that the bone fragments from the hole were loose and rattling around inside Tut’s skull. If the damage had occurred prior to or during the embalming process, then the bone fragments should have been stuck in, or at least covered with, resin. Neither was the case.
“The damage probably occurred because of the bad handling of the mummy” says Ashraf Selim, a radiologist who worked with the team that conducted the scan (National Geographic News: “King Tut Died From Broken Leg, Not Murder, Scientists Conclude,” p. 2). So while the hole may have occurred during the embalming process, the most likely explanation seems to be Howard Carter’s notorious abuse of the mummy while trying to remove its wrappings (and gold).
So it seemed that Tutankhamun wasn’t murdered after all, at least not by a blow to the head. But the CT scans did raise another possible cause of death. Tutankhamun’s left thighbone had suffered a traumatic break which, if it had occurred while he was alive, would have caused a nasty puncture wound. Lacking effective antiseptic treatments, such a wound have become infected, likely resulting in his death.
So how does a healthy young regent acquire a deadly compound fracture?
In spite of the depictions of the young pharaoh riding into battle on his chariot, Richard Covington, writing for The Smithsonian, postulates that Tut probably spent much of his time attending to religious functions at Thebes, with the occasional hunting foray on the Giza Plateau (The Smithsonian Mysteries of the Ancient World, Fall 2009: “Looking into Tut,” p. 69).
A fall from a galloping horse, particularly if the horse ends up on top of you, could easily produce the sort of break found on Tutankhamun’s leg. So while Tutankhamun may not have suffered a mortal wound at the hands of the Nubians, it has been suggested that he may have died as a result of a hunting accident. But the question remains, did the wound occur before or after he died?
Pre- or Postmortem: That is the Question
When the radiology team analyzed their scans, they were looking for certain indicators that would tell the story of Tut’s life and death, and what happened to his body after he died. By observing the condition and location of the bone fragments in his skull, for example, they were able to conclude the hole was made after Tut had died. Because the fragments were not covered with embalming resin, they were able to conclude that the hole was likely a product of mistreatment rather than mummification.
The break in Tutankhamun’s thigh told a story as well. The job of the radiology team was to interpret the evidence in order to translate that tale. Most of the evidence seemed to indicate that the broken left thigh occurred prior to death. Two very convincing observations led the majority of the team to this conclusion.
First, there is the shape and appearance of the break. Living bone is moist and somewhat pliable. Like a living tree branch, when live bone breaks it tends to splinter and have ragged edges. Dead bone is dry and brittle. Like a dead twig, it tends to snap and leave sharp edges. Unlike the damage that was definitely caused by Carter, the broken thigh has ragged splintery edges. Tutankhamun’s thigh was more branchy than twiggy.
The second indicator of the fracture having occurred prior to death is the presence of resins inside the fracture itself. According to most of the radiology team, the embalming fluids could only have gotten into the break if it had occurred while Tut was alive.
If the break had been done by Carter, then the resin should have been on the surface only and the break should have been clean. Again quoting Ashraf Selim, “The resin flowed through the wound and got into direct contact with the fracture and became solidified, something we didn’t see in any other area,” (Source).
There is no sign of the break having begun healing, but the team offers two possible reasons for this. First, infection may have set in early causing a rapid deterioration and quick death. Second, the embalming process may have obscured any signs of healing.
But not every member of the team agreed with this interpretation. Some of the radiologists felt that the break could only have occurred as a result of Howard Carter’s mishandling of Tut’s mummy. Had the wound occurred while Tutankhamun was alive, they insist, there would have been clear evidence of hemorrhaging and/or hematoma in the scans. The lack of internal bleeding and massive bruising, they contend, point to the damage being postmortem (Source: “Press release, Tutankhamun CT scan, 8 March, 2005”).
As for the resin inside the fracture, they feel this could have occurred while Carter’s team was breaking the mummy apart. As the broken edges of the bone grated against the resin-coated surfaces, resin could have been deposited into the break. And the lack of healing seems to speak for itself—dead bones don’t heal.
So the CT scanning team offered a very probable answer to how King Tut died, but it still wasn’t quite conclusive. As National Geographic writer Brian Handwerk summarized it:
While scientists were unanimous in concluding that there was no evidence of head trauma, they differed when interpreting a fracture found in the mummy’s left thigh. Some researchers felt that the break represented a serious injury that Tut had sustained shortly before death, perhaps resulting in an open wound and the possibility of a life-threatening infection. Others dismissed the broken bone as yet another example of damage inflicted by Carter’s team. (National Geographic News: King Tut Not Murdered Violently, CT Scans Show)
So the story of the 2005 CT scans was essentially a story without an end, which brings us back to Zahi Hawass’ promise to reveal the “exact cause” of Tutankhamun’s death, supposedly in September, 2009.
When Dr. Hawass promised back in August to disclose in one month what killed Tut, I took him at his word and reported the news both on Em Hotep! and in an article I wrote for Heritage Key (Lecture Review: Zahi Hawass’ Mysteries of King Tut Revealed). When one month came and went, I wrote a follow-up article (King Tut: And the Cause of Death is… To Be Announced) and continued my vigil.
Toward the end of September I assembled a list of items Dr. Hawass had “promised, hinted, or suggested” would occur by October, 2009 (A Banner Month for Egyptology? October Promises, Hints, and Teasers). The promised announcement of Tutankhamun’s cause of death was on the list.
A follow-up to this was written on November 4, 2009 (Nefertiti, the Life and Death of King Tut, and KV64: The October Checklist). As of then, despite several public speaking engagements, including the opening of the Carter House (named for Howard Carter, a rather obvious connection to Tutankhamun), no news of Tut’s cause of death had been made public.
Finally, without the customary fanfare of a Zahi Hawass announcement, an article and video clip entitled VIDEO: How Did King Tut Die? appeared on Dr. Hawass’ blog. So was this the revelation Dr. Hawass had promised three and a half months ago?
And The News Is: Old and Contradictory.
There is no new information in the article on Dr. Hawass’ website. He makes mention of a “recent” CT scan, which is apparently a reference to the scan that occurred in 2005. No new analyses are detailed, no new interpretation is offered. The video clip was recorded in March, 2008, nearly a year and a half before his announcement in August, 2009, that the “exact cause” of Tut’s death would be announced in “one month.”
With regard to the hole in the back of Tut’s head, Dr. Hawass states in his article that “studies of the CT scans show that this hole was made in the back of his head in order to pour the liquid used in mummification into his body after he died.” This is in contradiction to Ashraf Selim’s statement that the bone fragments were not covered in resin, and the hole probably occurred as a result of Carter’s mishandling of the mummy (source). In fact, due to how the resins pooled in the skull, the team concluded that the embalming fluids had been poured in through the nasal cavity once the brain was removed.
With regard to the fractured leg, Hawass states in the article on his site that “Previous scholars thought this fracture in the leg was caused by Howard Carter, but we discovered it was the result of an accident that happened shortly before [Tut] died.” This statement is troublesome on a number of levels.
The fracture was not detected until the 2005 CT scan, so who are the “previous scholars”? If the previous scholars are the members of the radiology team who held a dissenting opinion, then is Dr. Hawass saying that a new study has been conducted? When? Where? Who is the “we” who discovered that the cause of death was the broken thigh? If it is the radiology team that conducted the 2005 scan, then how can the dissenters be “previous scholars”?
Hawass offers more detail in the video, where he declares:
[Howard Carter] damaged the mummy to 18 pieces. And this is why many people could think that this fracture could happen because of that damage that Howard Carter did. But radiologists found that’s not true. They found that this fracture is an accident that happened to Tutankhamun one day before he died. (source—in the video)
But not all of the radiologists “found that’s not true.” Nowhere in the video (or the article) does Hawass mention that the “previous scholars” who disagreed were part of the radiology team itself. The team did not reach a consensus. They did not find that the fracture occurred before he died; most of the team interpreted the evidence as being consistent with a pre-mortem accident.
So how did Tutankhamun die?
Frankly, I agree with Zahi Hawass with regard to the cause. I believe that the majority opinion of the radiology team that conducted the 2005 CT scan is the most convincing interpretation of the evidence. I believe that Tutankhamun suffered some terrible accident before he died that resulted in a compound fracture which became infected, resulting in his death.
Where I disagree with Zahi Hawass is the level of certainty he claims for this conclusion. I do not believe we can prove with absolute certainty what killed Tutankhamun with the evidence that we posses and the tools at our disposal. I feel that a case has been made for the fracture-and-infection theory that is reliable and likely enough that I choose to believe it. I think that in the article on his website and in the 2008 video clip Dr. Hawass withholds some of the facts in an attempt to portray a level of certainty which is not there.
As for what Dr. Hawass had in mind on August 7, 2009, when he promised to reveal the exact cause of Tut’s death in one month, I can’t speculate. As I said above, I took him at his word and what he has offered us is a three-year-old theory and a year-and-a-half old video clip presented as something new. “At least we can know the cause of his death for the first time,” Dr. Hawass concludes in his video clip.
Why? Apparently because Zahi Hawass says so, and contrary opinions are to be dismissed for no good reason.
- King Tut’s Feet Fatale: Did Frail Feet Fell the Famous Pharaoh?
- Families and Frailties of the Eighteenth Dynasty
- The Mummies Gallery
- Zahi Hawass and Beyonce: Pay No Attention to the Story Behind the Curtain
- Zahi Hawass to Announce Results of DNA Tests this Fall
- Shemsu’s Interview with Zahi Hawass
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2009. All rights reserved.
Photograph “Head of Tutankhamun” by P. A. Hudson is used in accordance with this Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Photo “PortraitStudyOfAy” by Keith Schengili-Roberts is used in accordance with this GNU Free Documentation License. Photograph “Pharaoh Akhenaten” by Szczebrzeszynski is used in accordance with this Creative Commons Attribution 1.0 Share Alike license. Photograph “Ägyptischer Maler um 1355 v. Chr. 001” is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project and is in the public domain. Photo “Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children” by Gerbil is used in accordance with this GNU Free Documentation License.