Archaeology ROCKS!

Cultural History for the REST of us!

What REALLY killed Tut?

October 21, 2007

Many theories of Tut’s death have been passed around the world of archaeology since Carter originally unnested our gold-shrouded young friend. Was he murdered? Poisoned perhaps? Did he fall from a chariot? Did he die from complications from a knee fracture? I recently attended a lecture at UCLA and enjoyed an entertaining speaker, Dr. Ben Harer, MD, talk about his findings - from a medical perspective, not a purely archaeological perspective - after carefully examining the ct-scans of the mummified remains of our teen King. Enjoy!



A New Explanation of King Tutankhamen’s Death

by W Benson Harer Jr, MD, DHL

ABSTRACT Recent unwrapping and computerized tomographic studies of the mummy of King Tutankhamen confirm major anomalies as compared to other royal mummies. Most notable is the excision of a large segment of the anterior thorax by the embalmers. This unique feature was probably required by the condition of the corpse. The most likely explanation is that Tut sustained a crushing injury to the chest. An incidental distal femur fracture occurring shortly before death was also noted. How these findings would impact the embalming process is discussed along with the reasoning why the most likely cause of all postulated injuries would be due to the kick of a horse. —————————————————————————————————

Controversy and speculation have abounded since the original autopsy of King Tutankhamen revealed he was just a youth when he died. The recent uncovering and computerized tomographic (CT) scanning of the mummy of King Tutankhamen provide evidence of multiple anomalies in the preparation of his mummy compared to other royal mummies of the era. These include:

  • entry to the skull through the foramen magnum as well as the nose to extract the brain
  • removal of the sternum and adjacent rib portions and overlying skin
  • absence of a heart scarab and NO heart present
  • use of a transverse unsutured abdominal incision to extract abdominal viscera* replacement of all viscera including kidneys with resin soaked linen packing
  • absence of an embalmers wedjat eye plate over the incision
  • placement of the lower arms across the abdomen rather than crossed over the chest

SkullWhile the mummification process varied over the millennia according to wealth and status and style, it was quite consistent for the royal mummies known to us from the New Kingdom. The brain was extracted through the nose. The liver, stomach, intestines and lungs were extracted via a left abdominal flank incision. The heart was left in place. The mummy was wrapped with a heart scarab to protect it and a wedjat eye plate to protect he abdominal incision. Arms crossed over the chest signified royalty. As we see, such was not the case for Tut. Analysis of factors which might induce the embalmers to deviate so markedly from the standards of the day in such a lavish burial may provide insight into the cause of the king’s death– a subject of much speculation and often of a sensational nature. Since no expense was spared in equipping him for the after life, why would his corpse be treated so differently? The answer must be that the condition of the king’s corpse mandated these unparalleled deviations from the norm.

KneeThese anomalies could be accounted for if the embalmers were confronted with a body with a lacerated, crushed-in chest and a broken leg. They could easily deal with the leg, but such a chest would pose major difficulties in the embalming process. Perhaps they first tried to achieve some sort of normal configuration of the thorax, but failing that they then chose to excise the damaged area by cutting the skin around it and neatly sawing through the ribs to remove most of the anterior chest wall.

Figure 1Furthermore, the CT of the thorax shows it to be entirely filled by linen packing up to the level corresponding to the normal external chest. ( Ref. 1, Fig 1) Therefore, the embalmers must have removed both heart and lungs. Many have believed that Derry and Carter removed the chest wall and failed to record it; but they could not have removed the heart while all the chest packing remained intact as it is today.

Figure 2Another recent theory is that the ribs were sawed through with a hacksaw and that the chest wall including the clavicles was removed en bloc by tomb robbers stealing two last strings of beads left by Carter ( Ref 2). This would have occurred sometime between his reinterrment and 1968 when Harrison x-rayed the mummy. It would have been a formidable task for eitherDerry or the robbers because of the rock hard packing which would prevent anything but sawing almost level with the chest. That in turn would result in cutting of the ribs in a fairly straight line. Such is not the case as is readily seen from both x-rays and the CT scans which also show that the clavicles are still present , but displaced (Fig. 2 ). The pattern of cut ribs is more compatible with the embalmers sawing though in an irregular pattern dictated by the extent of injury.

It might also be viewed by the officials and priests in charge that such a horrific injury represented a source of danger to the king in the afterlife and, therefore, must be expunged. This would especially be true if the heart was also damaged by the initial injury. Such belief would account for the failure to preserve the excised section of the body. To avoid contamination by this defiled area, the arms were placed below it instead of the typical arms crossed position of other kings. I know of no other mummy, royal or otherwise, in which the chest was treated in this fashion. Such belief would also justify the need for excessive amounts of sacred oils which were poured over the body causing the “spontaneous combustion” which reduced much of the linen wrapping to a carbonized state. (Ref 2: pp 120,151)

This excision would expose the heart and lungs which would then be easily removed. Under these circumstances it would be pointless to carry out the usual flank incision to extract lungs and abdominal contents, so instead they made a simple transverse incision from the left of the umbilicus to extract the abdominal viscera. (Fig. 3) Since the body already had a huge opening in the anterior thorax, it would be pointless to suture the abdominal incision and protect that artificial orifice with the standard wedjat eye embalmer’s plate.

Since the chest was lying open, amuletic jewelry and a beaded “bib” was placed to cover that area where the sternum, ribs and skin had been excised. A dozen layers of other protective jewelry above the bib also included a large “scarab of resin” as ”a meager substitute for the usual heart scarab.” (Ref 2: pp127-128)

The photos taken by Harry Burton after removal of the last layer of cover of the thorax show the cut ends of the ribs (Fig 4), but neither Carter nor Derry remarked on this nor did they describe the skin of the chest as being present or absent. The recent examination showed clearly that there is no skin present and that the entire section was excised by the embalmers. Furthermore, in that photo we can now clearly recognize that the protective strings of beads imbedded in the resin and packing in the chest were at a level contiguous with the remaining chest wall.

It is equally clear from the original x-ray of the body that the sternum and adjacent ribs are absent with the ribs cut more widely on the left than the right (Fig 5 ). Careful inspection of the original photograph of the exposed body shows that the cut ends of some ribs were visible but were not identified as such at the time. The recent CT scans provide confirmation of this, and that the ribs were neatly cut out.(Fig 6)

A corpse with a caved in chest may also have posed some problems with the usual procedure for extraction of the brain through the nose. Clearly this was attempted, but probably was unsatisfactory because of difficulty in positioning the body prone with the skull properly aligned to permit drainage. This first effort would produce the first occipital fluid level (Fig 7) as seen in most royal mummies.

In order to complete the process they resorted to separating the first cervical vertebra, the axis, from the skull and pouring in additional resin through the foramen magnum. This would be done with the head pendant anteriorly resulting in a second fluid level at a 90 degree angle to the first. This larger orifice would permit easy drainage of the liquified cerebral tissue by simply flexing the head forward from the supine position. King Aahmosis, the first king of the 18th Dynasty, is the only other royal mummy of the era in which the foramen magnum approach was used. (Ref 4) The recent CT scans confirm that the embalmers did utilize the foramen magnum (Fig 8). Had this been done first there would have been no need for the attempt to extract the brain through the nose.

FemurFaced with a massive chest defect, which may have been considered as an area of desecration, the arms were positioned below that region with the right arm on the left upper pelvis and the left over it to the level of the inferior thorax. In addition to the postulated chest trauma the recent CT confirms the presence of a fracture of the distal femur which occurred shortly before his death (Fig 9). Such a fracture would pose no challenge to the embalmers to provide satisfactory alignment. Today there are countless numbers of fractures in the brittle bones, but the left femur fracture is unique with evidence of some of the embalming material seen in it.

We now see that the postulated injuries could account for the embalming anomalies,. But what could cause such a pattern of injury? Trauma is the obvious answer, and there appears to be a consensus that Tut died an accidental death with a chariot accident proposed as most likely. However, my analysis indicates that no type of chariot accident is likely to cause such trauma.

Consider the nature of the chariot and possible accidents. One is not caught unaware of the thundering hooves of a speeding chariot to be hit head on. There would be some effort to avoid it, to assume a defensive posture. The horses would strike first rather than the body of the vehicle. The height of the axles of Tut’s six chariots was under 50cm. Even if it were turning so that the wheel hit first, it would strike at about the level of Tut’s knee. If it continued to roll over him, there would be much more than the postulated chest injury.

KneesIf Tut fell from a speeding chariot there would also be a different pattern of injury. When people fall from a moving vehicle their bodies are in motion. This results in a tumbling action as they hit with multiple fractures of extremities and often the skull and /or spine rather than the isolated leg fracture, Tut ‘s body does not conform to this pattern. While an isolated open fracture of the leg could easily cause death, it would not justify the unique treatment of excising the anterior chest wall.

Let us now consider the nature of injury to the victim of a kick by a horse. The victim can be alone or with a large group, but just has to be momentarily in the “kill zone”.The event occurs without warning and with lightening speed like the blink of an eye. The victim has little chance to avoid it. Tut was 5′6″ tall, so a horse could easily strike him in the lower chest. With little or no clothing in that area to protect him, the hooves would easily tear the skin and fracture multiple ribs. Even if his lungs were not punctured, his chest would not be able to expand adequately for him to breathe. The impact to the heart could also cause instant death. The thrust of the kick would be up and back. Since Tut weighed only 125 pounds, his body could easily be tossed so that he fell in such a manner as to fracture his leg on landing.

An isolated fracture such as demonstrated on the CT could be a cause of death, especially if the skin were broken to permit infection. However, that explanation fails to justify the dramatic deviations from the typical mummification of a king. It is unlikely that there was any other cause of the postulated chest trauma other than a kick from a horse. <

There were three other animals in Tutankhamen’s environment capable of inflicting such injuries–the crocodile, the hippopotamus and the wild aurochs bull. Certainly exposure to them would have been vastly less frequent than to horses.

The wild aurochs bull, which kings are sometimes shown hunting, is capable of inflicting the postulated injury. However, the circumstances of the hunt with the king in a chariot with a large entourage makes a scenario with him facing a bull to be gored in the chest like a modern matador exceedingly unlikely.

Traveling with an entourage, it is equally unlikely that the king would be in a situation on land where he would be exposed to attack from either crocodile or hippo. However, he might somehow fall out of a skiff in which case a crocodile could draw him under to drown him and then devour part of his body. However, a crocodile’s jaws would grasp across his chest and its sharp teeth would inflict damage on both front and back. Tut’s body did not sustain such injury. An open fracture of the femur is also improbable from such an encounter.

Hippos have been reported to upset a small boat and then bite their victims. The hippo has sharp tusks on the lower jaw which can easily rip open the body while the upper jaw serves as an anvil or vise. Such a hippo attack is defensive rather than gastronomic, and could produce the damage postulated for the king’s corpse. Again it is unlikely that the King with an entourage could end up isolated on land in such circumstances that a hippo could catch him head on to inflict such injury.

Death by hippo is an enticing consideration because of the association of the hippo with the god Seth. This would add a special component of evil and desecration of the body. It might explain the arms being placed below the area of injury instead of across the chest. Certainly they would not want to record the triumph of the evil Seth in murdering the young god king.

Beguiling as the hippo theory may be, I must rate this a distant second choice. His exposure to horses would be far more frequent, and a horse can kick someone who is with a group who just happens to be in the wrong zone at the wrong moment. Therefore, a kick in the chest by a horse is the most likely explanation for the unique aspects of the king’s embalmed mummy and the cause of his death.

I want to thank Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, for permitting me to study the CT scans of the royal mummies and for providing these illustrations.

  • A. Selim. Radiologists Attempt to Solve Mystery fo Tut’s Demise. Presentation at Radiological Society of North America 92nd Annual Assembly, Chicago, 27 November, 2006.
  • D. Forbes, S. Ikram and J.Kamrin. Tutankhamen’s Missing Ribs. KMT 18:1, pp 50-56.Spring 2007.
  • H. C. Carter and A.C. Mace. The Tomb of Tutankh-Amen discovered by the Late Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter Vol. II. (London, 1927). 120,127-128, 151..
  • G.E. Smith and W.R. Dawson. Egyptian Mummies (London, 1924) 89.

Fig.1 Longitudinal CT section through thorax showing only packing with no heart present.
Fig.2 CT of chest showing clavicle present, but displaced.
Fig 3. Location of transverse incision. High lateral incisions were performed until the time of Tuthmoses III. Thereafter the low lateral incision was used.
Fig 4. Photo of chest after removal of final covering. Ends of ribs can be seen as well as the position of arms across upper abdomen.
Fig 5. X-ray of chest. Note absence of sternum and anterior ribs.
Fig 6. CT scan of chest confirming identification of ribs from Fig 3.
Fig 7. X-ray of skull showing two discrete resin fluid levels. The occipital level 1 with resin introduced through the nose with the head in normal supine posture. Level 2 resulted from introduction through the foramen magnum with head dependent and flexed anteriorly. A loose fragment of bone (3) from perforation of the foramen magnum is also seen.
Fig 8. CT scan showing where embalmers opened the foramen magnum to instill resin and complete extraction of brain.
Fig 9 CT scan showing incidental fracture of distal femur which probably occurred when he landed after his body was tossed by the lethal blow to his chest.