What killed Tutankhamun?
Ever since Howard Carter found his tomb 90 years ago, Egyptologists have been striving to establish how the iconic pharaoh met his end...
This article was first published in the August 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
In 1922, Howard Carter and his team made what would become perhaps the greatest archaeological discovery of all time. It was the intact tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty: Tutankhamun. The ‘boy-king’ has since become one of the most famous figures from the ancient world and his face – more particularly his golden death mask – provides us with one of the most iconic images from anywhere, and at any time.
The Valley of the Kings was the burial place of the pharaohs throughout the great era we now call the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BC), and its use helps to define the period.
Fast-forward 3,000 years, and the valley was the site of a series of spectacular discoveries in the 19th and early 20th centuries AD. A map made by Napoleon’s scientific expedition in the early 1800s recorded the position of 16 tombs. By the time of the First World War, that number had risen to 61.
The great American lawyer and patron of work in the valley, Theodore Davis, was responsible for many of the more recent of these discoveries, but in 1914, after a couple of disappointing seasons, he declared the valley to be “exhausted”. Carter, however, thought otherwise, believing there still to be tombs left undiscovered, including that of Tutankhamun. Under the patronage of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon he began excavations in the valley in 1917. After a few unproductive seasons, and with Carnarvon’s patience very nearly exhausted, he made the greatest discovery of them all.
Although he does not appear in any contemporary king-lists, scholars were aware of Tutankhamun prior to Carter’s masterstroke, and that he had reigned at least into a ninth year. He was believed, correctly, to have been a king of the Amarna period (when the pharaohs’ residence was sited in the city of Amarna). He was also noted for his role in reintroducing the worship of the god Amun, following the reign of his predecessor and probable father, Akhenaten, who had abandoned traditional Egyptian polytheism and introduced worship centred on the god Aten. This much is revealed by the fact that Tut changed his name at some point from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun.
A cartouche of the king when his name was Tutankhaten, ‘the living image of Aten’. He later reintroduced worship of the god Amun, and changed his name to the more familiar Tutankhamun. © Bridgeman
A scattering of decorated blocks bearing Tutankhamun’s inscriptions showed that he had been a builder, but otherwise he remained shrouded in mystery. Although the contents of his tomb were astonishing, they did not lead to any great leaps forward in what we know about the king or his times. This led Carter to lament that “of what he was and what he did we are still sadly to seek”.
The one element of the discovery that had the potential to tell us most about the life and death of the king was his mummified body. Tutankhamun’s remains have been studied at first-hand on four occasions. First, on 11 November 1925, the body was examined by Carter and a team of forensic experts led by Douglas Derry, an anatomist at the Government School of Medicine in Cairo.
Tutankhamun’s solid-gold death mask has helped make the king one of the most instantly recognisable figures in history. © Chris Naunton
In 1968 a team from Liverpool University, headed by Ronald Harrison, produced a series of x-ray images of the mummy, which enabled Egyptologists to carry out a more detailed study than had previously been possible. Then, in 1978, Dr James Harris conducted a closer examination of the skull and teeth, with the help of new x-ray technology. Finally, in 2005, a team led by Dr Zahi Hawass performed a CT scan of the mummy and, in doing so, generated the most detailed images of the body yet.
Collectively, these studies have established that Tutankhamun died between the ages of 17 and 19, more or less as Carter and Derry had concluded, and was between 1.6 and 1.7 metres (5ft 2in and 5ft 6in) tall. Beyond this, however, very little is certain.
The first x-ray of Tut – showing a piece of bone (circled) detached from the skull – sparked speculation that his death was the result of foul play. © University of Liverpool
There has been a great deal of speculation about the various medical conditions that may have afflicted Tutankhamun during his lifetime, and to what extent these contributed to his death. Possibilities suggested over the years include general physical weakness, perhaps caused by in-breeding within the royal family (which almost certainly did occur); pectus carinatum, or pigeon chest; and even ‘Tutankhamun syndrome’, with symptoms such as breast development, sagging abdominal wall and flat feet.
Secondary evidence, such as the presence of walking sticks in the tomb, and Tutankhamun’s representation in the art of the times, has sparked further speculation. The debate has also been influenced by depictions of Akhenaten, who was often shown as being a grotesque, almost deformed figure. Yet, no one knows whether this was an attempt to capture the likeness of a king genuinely suffering from some kind of illness or a mere artistic convention.
Foremost among the theories on Tutankhamun’s death – at least in terms of the amount of attention it has gathered – is the idea that he may have been the victim of foul play.During the 1968 investigation, Harrison observed a small piece of bone inside, and apparently detached from, the skull. This led him to suggest that the king may have suffered a blow to the head, and others to conclude that this was evidence that the boy-king had been murdered.
In light of further scrutiny of Harrison’s x-rays and the 2005 CT scan data, most experts now agree that the detached bone was the result of a postmortem, and nothing whatsoever to do with the king’s demise. Yet this still hasn’t prevented the theory taking hold that he was murdered.
Dr Hawass’s investigations in 2005 led to a new theory gaining traction. The CT scans revealed that the king had suffered a fracture to the left femur. Perhaps more important was the observation that an amount of embalming fluid had entered the break. This suggested that the wound that caused it was still open at the time of death, and also that there were no signs that it had started to heal.
On this basis, the fracture probably occurred in the last few days of the king’s life. While this alone could not have killed the king, Hawass’s team has suggested that the wound may have become infected, and that it was this that finally finished Tutankhamun off. Yet, even this has failed to persuade everyone. In a recent book on the subject, Hawass notes that his theory was not shared by every member of the team.
At this point, it’s worth emphasising just how unusual Tutankhamun’s mummy is. It displays a series of highly unusual features, particularly around the torso, where a number of the ribs and a section of the left pelvis are completely missing. The embalming incision through which certain internal organs would have been removed – as was standard – is in the wrong place and considerably larger than normal; much of the soft tissue inside the chest cavity was removed and replaced with rolls of linen; and the arms were crossed in an unusually low position. Finally, the heart, which would not normally have been removed and which was crucial for the survival of the individual into the afterlife, was missing.
It was clear that if these anomalies were the result of some kind of injury, they might well provide the clues as to the cause of death.
But one question we have to answer is to what extent these injuries might have been caused by Carter and his team when they removed the mummy from its nest of coffins. Carter’s notes on the process, which are freely accessible online thanks to the magnificent efforts of our colleagues at the Griffith Institute in Oxford, are full of references to the difficulties in separating each of Tutankhamun’s three coffins, first of all from the sarcophagus and subsequently from one another. (The two smaller coffins sat snugly inside the largest one in a ‘Russian doll’ arrangement.)
King Tut’s bust is carried from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, after the initial discovery of the mummy in 1922. Egyptologists are still trying to establish how much damage Howard Carter’s team did to the body when they removed it from its innermost coffin. © Bridgeman
The mummy itself was a very tight fit for the innermost coffin, and was stuck fast to the inside by a layer of embalming oil, which had been poured over the king’s body. The team tried various methods to loosen it, and even left it out in the sun in the vain hope that the heat would help to melt the oils. Derry’s autopsy had, in the end, to be carried out while the mummy was still in the coffin and the death mask still in place.
Howard Carter (left) and his patron, Lord Carnarvon, pictured above, as they were about to enter the burial chamber. © Corbis
Tutankhamun’s body was adorned with jewels and other precious paraphernalia, much of which the team had difficulty in removing. At the time the body was reinterred in the tomb, having finally been unwrapped and lain on a sand bed, the king was still wearing a skull-cap and a beaded necklace. By the time of Harrison’s examination in 1968, both were missing. Harrison’s x-rays showed clearly the damage to the thorax and missing ribs, but this was something that Derry had not observed. This has led some to suggest that at some point the mummy was illicitly disturbed in order that the skull cap and necklace could be stolen, and that the robbers removed a section of the human remains, including the missing ribs, in order to free the booty.
However, it is perfectly possible that Derry was unaware that the ribs were missing given he did not have the benefit of x-rays. What’s more, there is evidence that they were removed in ancient times: while some of the ribs were broken, others were cut smoothly, and the linen packing beneath them was undisturbed. Egyptologist W Benson Harer argues that the direction of the cuts suggest they could only have been made prior to the body being packed, and also that the bones must have been fresh when this took place, as older bone cannot be cut so cleanly.
Harer also suggests that the king’s torso was damaged in a massive accident, which forced the embalmers to remove the ribs, heart and perhaps other parts of the soft tissue to give the body a superficially normal appearance in preparation for mummification. This is persuasive. But what kind of accident could have brought this about?
While filming a 2013 Channel 4 documentary examining the death and burial of Tutankhamun, we ascertained that the damage to the mummy seemed to be concentrated around the left-hand side of the torso, from the clavicle downwards, as far as the pelvis: a tall, blunt object, it seemed, had struck the king with great force.
No weaponry we knew of could have caused the necessary injury. However, we felt that another theory was worth investigating again: the possibility that Tutankhamun died in a chariot accident, and that, more specifically, the fatal impact was caused by a chariot wheel.
A team from Advanced Simtech – a company that, among other things, provides computer-generated simulations of car crashes for the UK courts – used a replica New Kingdom chariot to model the maneuverability and maximum speed that could be achieved using one of these vehicles. (Several chariots were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb, and were a common feature of the iconography of kingship during the New Kingdom.)
This information, and what is known of the king’s height and likely weight, was then used to test a series of accident scenarios to establish whether any could have produced the injuries Tutankhamun sustained. Given the forces involved, it was not difficult to create a situation that would have led to serious injury. In almost all cases, however, the most serious injury sustained would have been to the head and neck, and as we have seen, the mummy presents no clear evidence of any such trauma. However, one scenario did appear to result in precisely the injuries we had observed in the mummy.
Had the king been kneeling or crouching down and struck by the wheel of the chariot, he would undoubtedly have suffered massive injuries to his torso; and crucially – although the head would, on impact, have been thrown violently forward – it would, at the last moment, have been pulled away before striking the wheel. The victim would undoubtedly have suffered from whiplash but by this point that would hardly have mattered.
The gods Anubis (left) and Hathor (shown in part, far right) flank Tutankhamun on the southern wall of the king’s burial chamber. They are holding Ankhs which symbolise the pharaoh’s eternal life in the afterworld. © Chris Naunton
A team from Cranfield University was called upon to help ascertain whether the injuries sustained in such an accident would have been enough to cause the king’s death. To do this, we needed to know what the effect of a chariot wheel impacting the human rib cage at high velocity would be.
The team modelled the forces involved and conducted a test using the rib cage and flesh of a pig procured from a local butcher. Unsurprisingly the test showed that the impact would puncture the ribs and that the wheel would have penetrated the soft tissue underneath by at least an inch or two, enough to cause massive internal damage. In modern times, had paramedics been on hand quickly enough, there is a chance that the victim of such an accident could survive. In New Kingdom Egypt this would not have been the case.
We can only speculate as to how the king might have come to be in such a position. He may have fallen out of his own chariot and been picking himself up when another came careering into him from behind. Or could, just could, he have been killed in battle?
It had been thought for a long time that Tutankhamun had never been actively engaged in war – there was no clear evidence for it. But that has now changed. Dr Raymond Johnson of the University of Chicago has spent many years studying the decorated blocks scattered throughout the temple complexes at Karnak and Luxor, which represent the remains of now-dismantled temples. Many of these appear to have come from monuments erected by Tutankhamun and, after years of painstaking work piecing together these vast jigsaw puzzles, Dr Johnson has concluded that the young king may well have been actively engaged in battle.
Several scenes have emerged, apparently showing a military campaign in Nubia. Another shows Tutankhamun in a chariot leading the Egyptian forces against a Syrian-style citadel. This strengthens the possibility that Tutankhamun may have been injured in a chariot accident on the battlefield.
We cannot know for certain that this is what happened, but it is as credible as any other hypothesis put forward so far, and provides an explanation for the mummy’s most puzzling anomalies.
We have no idea, in fact, how the vast majority of Egyptian kings died but it’s perhaps worth noting also that, in most other cases, few people have cared enough to ask the question. Tutankhamun, by contrast, continues to fascinate us. In terms of his life and achievements, the king remains almost as obscure as he was before his tomb was revealed. And yet its contents, including the remains of the man himself, have, more than 3,000 years after his demise, made him one of the most famous individuals ever to have lived.
Like all ancient Egyptians, Tutankhamun would have wished for that very Egyptian immortality encapsulated in the phrase ‘to cause his name to live’. Whatever his Earthly achievements, whatever the circumstances of his life and death, he has perhaps been more successful in this than anyone else from that great civilisation.
Dr Chris Naunton is an Egyptologist and director of the Egypt Exploration Society.