In 2014, using data from 2,000 C.T. scans of his mummy as well as other research material, a BBC show came up with a new answer to an enduring question: what killed the ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamun? But it was the image that the program-makers created of what the legendary pharaoh probably looked like that deeply shocked viewers. That’s because it’s a representation that clashes harshly with the beauty of Tutankhamun’s funerary artifacts.
King Tutankhamun ruled some 33 centuries ago, from about 1332 BC to 1323 BC – or during the ancient Egyptian era that academics call the New Kingdom. He came to the throne aged about nine or ten, after the death of his father Akhenaten.
Tutankhamun’s mother, meanwhile, was most likely Akhenaten’s sister or cousin. Eminent French Egyptologist Marc Gabolde in fact believes that the latter is the case, and he has named Nefertiti as the pharaoh’s female parent. At that time, members of the Egyptian royal family normally married siblings or close relatives.
In any case, the truth about exactly who Tutankhamun’s mother was remains unresolved after more than 3,300 years. But we do know that Tutankhamun carried on the pharaonic tradition of sibling unions by marrying his own half-sister, Ankhesenamun. The couple are said to have had two stillborn daughters, whose mummified fetuses were probably buried with their father.
And since Tutankhamun was just a child when he ascended the throne, we can only assume that there must have been influential figures who actually ran the affairs of state. It seems, in fact, that one General Horemheb took the position of lord of the land. Grand Vizier Ay, a powerful man who was to succeed Tutankhamun, may have been engaged in an advisory role too.
During his reign, Tutankhamun rolled back some of the religious reforms that his father had instigated. He initiated a program of building works to glorify the god Amun – in contrast to his father, who had favored another Egyptian deity, Aten. He also gave up his original name, Tutankhaten, becoming Tutankhamun, meaning “living image of Amun.”
However, Tutankhamun’s reign was cut short by his death in about 1323 BC, when the young pharaoh was aged only around 18. He was then buried in an extravagantly decorated and furnished tomb in the Valley of the Kings. And it is the discovery of that tomb in the 20th century that has made Tutankhamun possibly the best known of all Egyptian pharaohs – despite his relatively short reign.
It was the British Egyptologist and archaeologist Howard Carter who in 1922 discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb – a vault known to academics by the distinctly unglamorous name of KV62. Carter had been working in Egypt excavating ancient sites since 1891, when he was only 17. And the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, with its lavish burial goods, made him a household name.
However, what was particularly outstanding about Tutankhamun’s tomb wasn’t that it was unusually opulent. In fact, by the standards of Egyptian royalty, it was relatively modest. Instead, the vault was notable for the fact that it had largely escaped the attention of looters over the centuries – meaning it was pretty much intact.
The tomb was also a last-gasp discovery for Carter, since his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, had become disillusioned owing to a lack of significant finds. Carnarvon had therefore told Carter that this would be his last season of funding for excavation. But on November 26, 1922, with Carnarvon in attendance and using a chisel that had been a 17th birthday present from his grandmother, Carter made the first break in the door of the tomb.
Once inside the tomb, the sheer luxury of Tutankhamun’s last resting place soon became apparent to Carter, Carnarvon and others. In particular, it was filled with incredible artifacts that were lying around in heaps. Presumably, they had been disturbed by the two grave robberies that had happened probably not long after the interment.
Carter himself wrote about the experience of the discovery, saying, “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 light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist: strange animals, statues and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.” In fact, it was to take eight years of painstaking work to clear the tomb.
One of the prevailing mysteries surrounding Tutankhamun has, however, been that of the cause of the pharaoh’s premature death. And since some 3,300 years have passed since the boy pharaoh was entombed, it is no easy task for even the most advanced science at our disposal in the 21st century to come up with answers to this conundrum.
Furthermore, since the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, there has been no shortage of theories over the years about the strange, unexplained death of the young man. After all, you would expect that a king would enjoy the best care that could be offered in his era. So what was it that killed him?
Hypotheses about the cause of Tutankhamun’s demise have included murder; perhaps, it’s been said, the king fell victim to political assassination. However, no compelling evidence has been uncovered to support this idea. It has also been surmised that he may have died in an accident, potentially in a chariot crash – or even killed by an angry hippo.
But a virtual autopsy carried out in 2014 for the BBC came up with a different answer to this conundrum. The post-mortem was carried out by analyzing some 2,000 C.T. scans that had been taken of Tutankhamun’s mummy in 2006. Added to this was evidence gained by analyzing DNA.
Specifically, the C.T. scans showed that Tutankhamun had suffered a break in his leg. Subsequent to this incident, the fracture had also become badly infected – an affliction that even royalty could not escape 3,300 years ago. And the researchers additionally discovered that Tutankhamun had had a club foot.
On top of that, Tutankhamun had suffered some unpleasant diseases, as the scientists discovered from the DNA analysis. It turned out, in fact, that he had contracted malaria; he was also apparently a victim of Kohler disease – a painful and rare condition that affects the bones. In addition, the genetic evidence further backed up the idea that the young pharaoh’s parents were siblings.
What’s more, in 2014 Egyptologist Gayle Gibson, a consultant on the BBC program, told the History network’s website, “We have to give up the idea that he was a healthy young prince riding across the desert in his chariot, or that he was at war and killed by an enemy. What we’re looking at is a young man who was not in good health and had a pretty sad life in a lot of respects.”
So did Tutankhamun die from a mixture of infirmities and diseases, his health fatally compromised by the habitual inbreeding of his royal ancestors? Well, some scientists are unconvinced, and Egyptologist Bob Brier of Long Island University is one such skeptic. “It’s a very difficult thing to get DNA out of ancient bodies. Most of us in the field are a little hesitant to say this is right,” Brier told History. So Tutankhamun is, it seems, yet to reveal all of his secrets.