Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 March 2005
Issue No. 733
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

How did the boy king die?

After studying a comprehensive CT-scan of Tutankhamun's mummy, scientists discounted a century-old idea that the boy king died after being hit on the back of the head. Nevine El-Aref reports

Click to view caption
CT-scan of Tutankh- amun's mummy

The 3,300-year-old mummy of Tutankhamun underwent a CT-scan in January; ever since then, Egyptology enthusiasts everywhere have been eagerly awaiting the results. Would the scan help to uncover the secret behind the boy king's early death?

In a small, dimly lit room in the basement of the Egyptian Museum, a group of Egyptologists, radiologists, anatomists, pathologists and forensic experts examined the 1,700 CT-scan images of Tutankhamun's mummy that were taken in Luxor. After weeks of thorough discussions, the group unanimously agreed that the young king, who died at age 19, was not killed after being hit on the back of his head, as was traditionally believed.

There was nothing at the back of the mummy's skull indicating a blow. The two loose bone fragments in the skull, the researchers said, could not possibly have resulted from a pre-death injury, as they would have become stuck in the embalming material. After matching these pieces to the fractured cervical vertebra and foramen magnum, the team concluded they were broken either during the embalming process, or by Howard Carter's team (the archaeologist who first discovered Tutankhamun's tomb in the early 20th century) while trying to remove the famous golden mask glued onto the face.

The team theorised that the open fracture at the back of the mummy's head was most likely used as a second route through which embalming liquid was introduced to the lower cranial cavity and neck, via the back of the upper neck. The two layers of different density solidified material that were found in this area support the claim. The first cervical (topmost) vertebra and the foramen magnum (large opening at the base of the skull) are fractured -- which may have occurred either when the hole was made to pour the embalming liquid, or when Carter's team clumsily removed the head from the mask.

Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Secretary-General Zahi Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly that he had always "totally believed that this young Pharaoh was killed, as the Amarna era was a stage of chaotic events and a play with missing acts." Hawass said he still thought Tutankhamun did not die of natural causes, and might have been murdered with poison.

The team found no evidence of a blow to the back of the head, or any other indication of foul play, Hawass said. They also found it extremely unlikely that he suffered an accident in which he crushed his chest. He pointed out that some team members interpret a fracture in the left thighbone as evidence of the possibility that Tutankhamun badly broke his leg just a few days before he died.

"However, this injury alone could not have directly caused the king's death," said Italian pathologist Eduard Eqarter Viql. "He was a young man and it was normal that while playing sports or fighting in a battle or anything, he broke his leg."

The team has concluded -- based on the identification of at least five different types of embalming material -- that great care was taken in the mummification of this king. "Tutankhamun's body was perfectly mummified. This counters previous arguments that the body of the king was prepared hurriedly and carelessly," said Zurich University's Frank Rèhli, a Swiss anatomist who was part of the team. Rèhli told the Weekly the CT-scans were beyond his expectations "from [a] technical point of view... the combination between the high- tech device and how to use it perfectly was very well-organised,"

CT scanning is a non-invasive tool used to scan the entire body in a very short time, differentiating between various types of soft tissues and bones using three-dimensional images. Conventional X-rays see only two planes, and cannot clearly distinguish the soft tissues. Tutankhamun's CT-scan was "relatively limited", said Cairoscan Centre Executive Director Ashraf Selim, "because of the deterioration of the mummy, examination of a better preserved mummy could reveal more of the deceased's medical history during his life time."

Selim told the Weekly that "even though the possibility of his having been killed by a blow to the back of the head has now been proven wrong, we are still not sure that Tutankhamun's death was natural. He could have been murdered with poison."

The team leader, Cairo University radiology professor Mervat Shafiq, said the group had ruled out a pathological cause for the bent spine and elongated skull noted in a previous examination of the mummy. Tutankhamun's bones, which indicate a slight build, show that he was nonetheless well fed, healthy and suffered no major childhood malnutrition or infectious diseases.

While the speculation and controversy surrounding the scan for the past two months has been interesting, the actual results announced yesterday are certain to be fodder for an even livelier round of debates.

"I believe these results will close the Tutankhamun case for a while, but the mystery surrounding his death will continue," Hawass said.

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