Infection, Not a Rival, May Have Dealt the Fatal Blow to King Tut
Refuting some modern conspiracy theories, researchers who for the first time examined the mummy of ancient Egypt’s best-known ruler, Tutankhamen, with a sophisticated CT scanner said Tuesday that his death was not due to foul play.
The Egyptian team still does not know precisely how the 19-year-old king died, about 1323 B.C. But the most likely explanation is a natural cause such as the flu or bacterial infection associated with a broken leg, said Zahi Hawass, head of the country’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, who organized the project.
The findings are a disappointment to a number of Egyptologists, who have suggested elaborate conspiracies against the king.
“There has been so much wild speculation about the cause of death, most of it based on very poor observations,” said Emily Teeter of the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago.
“I’m delighted to find out that those of us who have been very conservative about this have to some extent been vindicated,” she said.
Much of the speculation has been based on previous X-rays of Tut’s skull that showed broken fragments at the back, possibly indicating a fracture. Based on that, researchers such as Bob Brier of Long Island University have woven theories about murder and intrigue.
In his book “The Murder of Tutankhamen,” Brier speculated that the foul deed was ordered by Aye, the commoner who ruled Egypt as regent while Tutankhamen grew up. Aye succeeded Tut, married his widow and possibly killed her.
But the new CT scans clearly show that the skull fracture occurred well after Tut’s death -- possibly during the embalming process but more likely some 3,200 years later when explorer Howard Carter discovered Tut’s tomb and dismantled the body to remove almost 150 jewels, amulets and other artifacts.
Some archeologists had found support for the murder theory in the widely accepted belief that Tut’s embalming was hurried and careless.
But the team found extensive evidence, including the presence of five different embalming materials, that great time and care had been taken in the king’s mummification.
“Conspiracies are not beyond the realm of possibility, but at least in this case, if there was a murder, it didn’t happen because of a blow to the skull,” said archeologist David Silverman of the University of Pennsylvania Museum.
Brier saluted the findings, saying, “I’m glad they have the data now.” His idea, he noted, was “really only a theory. Nobody should be too invested in their theory.”
The CT scans, which were done in early January, are part of a larger project to analyze, inventory and preserve the mummies of Egypt.
The 15-minute session, which produced more than 17,000 images, was conducted with a mobile scanner donated to the government of Egypt by Siemens Medical Solutions of Germany and the National Geographic Society.
The scans unexpectedly revealed a fracture in the king’s left femur, or thighbone. The ragged fracture differs from the sharp bone breaks known to have been produced by Carter’s team in its effort to pry the body out of its inner coffin. Two layers of embalming material were found in the fracture.
The team is divided on the fracture’s significance. Some members think the break occurred a few days before Tut’s death, which may have resulted from an infection in the wound. Others think the break occurred after death and that Carter’s team inadvertently forced the embalming material into the opening.
Silverman noted that an unusually large number of walking sticks were in the tomb, which might support the idea that Tutankhamen fractured his leg. “But the truth of the matter is, the early Egyptians liked walking sticks and used them a lot,” he said. “They are a mark of the upper class.”
The scans determined that Tutankhamen was about 5 feet 6 with a slight build. The condition of the bones indicated he was between the ages of 18 and 20 when he died.
There were no signs of malnutrition or infectious diseases during childhood, and he appeared to have been well fed and cared for.
Although the king’s teeth were in relatively good shape, he had a small cleft in his hard palette, the bony roof of the mouth, although it probably did not affect his appearance.
His lower teeth were slightly misaligned and he had large front incisors and an overbite -- both characteristic of kings from his line.
He also had an impacted wisdom tooth, but it showed no evidence of an infection that could have been fatal.
The team also believes they have found Tut’s penis, which has been missing since Carter’s examination.
They think it is in the sand bed in which the mummy has been lying, along with a thumb, other digits and pieces of vertebrae.
Hawass said Tuesday that the mummy had been placed back into its tomb and was unlikely to be disturbed again.
“I believe these results will close the case of Tutankhamen, and the king will not need to be examined again,” he said. “We should now leave him at rest.”
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