Mystery of King Tut's Death Solved? Maybe Not.

CREATED Dec. 14, 2013

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King Tutankhamun was just a teenager when he died. For an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, presumably well fed and fiercely protected, this was a premature demise.

It was also momentous, for his death meant the beginning of the end for ancient Egypt's 18th dynasty.

How could this have happened?

Experts have speculated about possible causes ever since British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered Tut's tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. (See "King Tut's Tomb.")

Now a British team apparently believes that it has solved the mystery, with details to be unveiled this coming Sunday in a television show titled "Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy."

But have they really solved it?

According to press reports from the U.K., the team worked with x-rays taken of Tut in 1968.

One report includes an image resembling a CT scan, which is perhaps an x-ray massaged with computer-imaging technology. It reveals a missing breastbone and the stubs of ribs lined up along the backbone—probably all smashed and removed by the embalmers.

A true CT scan was performed in 2005 under the direction of Zahi Hawass, then head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. The resulting images were never released to the public, but they also revealed the extreme damage to the rib cage as well as a broken leg.

Catastrophic Injuries

Clearly, King Tut had suffered some kind of massive trauma.

The recent British research used car-crash simulations to show that a speeding chariot could have run into Tut while he was on his knees.

It's a likely scenario, but there are other possibilities.

One cause of death proposed at the time of the CT scan was a chariot crash.

The king might have been riding in a chariot during a hunt or a battle—activities that ancient Egyptian rulers routinely performed as part of their kingly duties.

The damage to Tut's chest might also be explained by a swift kick from a horse—entirely possible, since horses pulled the pharaoh's chariot.

Or was it a hippopotamus that killed Tut? Perhaps the pharaoh was in the wrong place at the wrong time—hunting on foot in a marsh when a hippo charged.

Today hippos are extinct in Egypt, but farther to the south in Africa these aggressive 3,000-pound (1,360-kilogram) creatures with powerful jaws and sharp incisors are legendary for their attacks. Victims may suffer massive tearing, deep puncture wounds, and crushed bones, any combination of which could be fatal.

Other experts have wondered if modern thieves—likely operating during World War II when Tut's tomb was unguarded—sawed through the pharaoh's ribs to remove the last beads stuck to the goop that coated his chest.

Flammable Materials

That goop features in the most surprising revelation of the upcoming television program: The great quantity of resins and oils that were poured over Tut's mummy to prepare him for eternity somehow burst into flames after the mummy had been sealed in several nested coffins.

That conclusion is based on tests done to a scrap of Tut's flesh, which was apparently collected at the time of the 1968 examination of the mummy.

Tut's mummy is, indeed, very black. But did a fire really turn him into a fried pharaoh?

Some Egyptologists believe that carbonization—a chemical reaction between the mummy and the resins, fostered by the stuffy heat of the tomb—turned Tut the color of Osiris.

But catching fire? Hard to imagine.

To begin with, Tut's mummy survives.

Does that mean the fire was serious enough to make him sizzle and char but not so hot that he was reduced to ashes? According to reports about the TV show, the researchers believe the fire burned at about 390°F (200°C). A modern cremation is much hotter, occurring at 1400 to 1800°F (760 to 982°C).

But even if mere charring were possible, the burial holds more evidence that argues against a fire.

King Tut wore a beaded linen cap on his shaved head. If his flesh had burned, wouldn't his cap show similar effects?

King Tut's mummy was decked out with jewelry—bracelets, necklaces, pendants, earrings, finger rings, and amulets galore, made of gold and silver set with precious stones such as carnelian, lapis lazuli, quartz, and turquoise. Many pieces are on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and none appears to have suffered fire damage.

In addition, King Tut had three coffins. The innermost one was solid gold. But the outer two were made of gilded wood. If there had been a fire inside the gold coffin, wouldn't that at least have left scorch marks on the wooden coffins?

Delicate Garlands

Then there are the garlands. When Howard Carter removed the lid of the outermost coffin, he found a linen shroud covered in plant remains—strings of olive, willow, and wild celery leaves, strips of papyrus entwined with lotus petals and cornflowers, and a wreath of cornflowers laid at the head. They're delicate and dried, as one would expect of plants picked 3,300 years ago and left in a desert tomb, not shriveled by the heat of a fire.

There was more to come. When Carter finally got to the innermost, solid-gold coffin, he found another linen shroud lying on top of the torso section. And curved beneath the shimmering likeness of the pharaoh's face lay a great multi-tiered garland of beads, berries, flowers, and leaves.

If there had been a fire, might the linen and the garland have been toast too, burnt by the blazing hot gold?

Of course, the media may have misunderstood the researchers' findings. Or inflated them. "King Tut crashed and burned" is the sort of line that is sure to attract readers, after all.

And the television show may still reveal compelling explanations for the more puzzling aspects of the case, and for the changes that occurred to blacken the pharaoh's flesh. But it's very likely that King Tut will continue to guard some of his mysteries—including the definitive reason for his death—as he has for so many centuries.