On 4 November 1922, British Egyptologist Howard Carter discovered the entrance to the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb, prompting Tutankhamun to become the most famous Egyptian of all, and his tomb to be one of the most famous archaeological discoveries of all time.
When the 3,300-year old tomb was found, it sent shockwaves around the world, turning the boy-king into a household name overnight and kickstarting an international media obsession that endures to this day. In her book, ‘Treasured: How Tutankhamun Shaped a Century‘, Christina Riggs offers a bold new history of the young pharaoh who has as much to tell us about our world as his own.
Tutankhamun ruled Egypt for under a decade, until his death aged around 19. After his death, records of his reign were erased – his legacy nearly lost to the sands of time. Since the tomb’s discovery, the circumstances surrounding Tutankhamun’s death have long-been debated by Egyptologists. Decades of research along with high-tech forensics offer multiple theories over what ultimately killed the boy-king, and his remains have been studied first-hand on four occasions.
There’s no doubt various medical conditions afflicted Tutankhamun during his lifetime, leading to speculation over to what extent these contributed to his death, or whether they were unrelated. Here we explore the different theories.
Murdered by a blow to the head?
An x-ray of the mummy from 1968 found inter-cranial bone fragments, showing a fracture to the back of the skull. This prompted theories that Tutankhamun was murdered with a blow to the head by his political enemies during a volatile time in Egyptian history – or had been kicked to the head by a horse or beast.
However this damage was later seen to have been either the result of extracting his brain as part of the embalming and mummification process, and/or from modern unwrapping of the mummy (and removal of his gold mask, glued tightly to the body) and postmortem.
Died in a chariot accident?
In 2013, because parts of the chest wall and ribs are missing from Tutankhamun’s body, a theory emerged that the king had died in a chariot accident. The thought was that the crash had also broken his leg and pelvis, and resulted in an infection and possible blood poisoning. Damage to the body in an accident may have forced embalmers to remove ribs and the heart to try and make the body resemble as normal an appearance as possible prior to mummification.
Tutankhamun did indeed have a leg fracture to his thigh bone, and several chariots were found in his tomb. Supporters of this theory note that Tut was depicted riding on chariots, and that he suffered from a deformed left foot, which could have been caused by a fall and breaking his leg.
Nevertheless, no records were found that such an incident had occurred. Furthermore, when the body was photographed at the time of Carter’s excavation in 1926, the chest wall was still intact. The damaged chest wall seems to have been inflicted by robbers during the theft of the beaded collar.
Injured in battle?
It had originally been thought that Tutankhamun had never actively been engaged in battle. Yet studies of decorated blocks scattered at Karnak and Luxor show that they appear to have come from monuments erected by Tutankhamun. The scenes depicted apparently show a military campaign in Nubia, and Tutankhamun in a chariot leading Egyptian forces against a Syrian-style citadel. These therefore give credence to the possibility that Tutankhamun may have been injured in a chariot accident, possibly on the battlefield.
A bone disease or inherited blood disease?
It’s also entirely possible the young king died from natural causes. Studies of DNA analysis and CT scans of the mummy and some of his relatives suggest that Tutankhamun was born with a cleft palate and a clubfoot, which would have caused him a lot of pain. This bone disorder could have been caused by Kohler’s disease (leading to poor circulation to the bones in a foot), or by the death of bone tissue. Many walking sticks (130) with evidence of wear and tear were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb which back this theory up.
It is very likely that death by malaria could have been the reason for Tutankhamun’s short life. Scientists found DNA from a mosquito-borne parasite that causes a severe form of malaria in his body – ‘malaria tropica’, the most virulent and deadly form of the disease. More than one strain of malaria parasite was present, indicating that Tutankhamun had caught multiple malarial infections during his life.
This would have weakened his immune system and interfered with the healing of his foot.
In-breeding in the royal family?
At the time, the Egyptian royal family married within their own family. Tutankhamun’s father, Akhenaten, is alleged to have married one of his sisters, and Tutankhamun himself married his own half-sister. This would have exacerbated any existing genetic problems in the family and also contributed to a general physical weakness or even a condition known as pectus carinatum – pigeon chest, with sagging abdominal walls and flat feet.
2005 CT scan data revealed that Tutankhamun had suffered a fracture to his left femur (thigh bone). It was observed that embalming fluid had entered the break of the bone, indicating that the wound that caused the break was still open at the time of Tutankhamun’s death.
This suggests that the fracture had occurred during the king’s last few days of life. Whilst not enough to kill him outright, if the accompanying wound had become severely infected (and in the absence of antibiotics 3,000 years ago), this could have been the factor that ultimately lead to his death.
Alternatively, if his body was trying to heal the fracture, his immune system may have been impaired and he caught some other kind of disease that left no trace.
Parts of the chest wall, ribs and section of the left pelvis are missing from Tutankhamun’s body. Furthermore, the embalming incision is in the wrong place and larger than normal, and significantly, the heart was missing.
The heart would not normally have been removed as the Ancient Egyptians considered it crucial for the survival of the individual in the afterlife. Therefore did these anomalies indicate another injury, or was this also merely damage from the initial removal of the mummy from its nest of three coffins in its ‘Russian doll’ arrangement?
Whilst not fully proven, it seems likely that Tutankhamun was weakened by his broken leg (fractured thigh bone and its accompanying infected wound) possibly from a fall. This, combined with a malaria infection (highlighted by the traces of malaria parasites in Tutankhamun’s remains) most probably was the cause of Tutankhamun’s death.
Ultimately, no matter his cause of death, the discovery Tutankhamun’s 3,300-year old tomb created a huge level of interest in Tutankhamun – and indeed Egyptology – that endures to this day.
To this day, the boy-king captures our imagination about Ancient Egypt. In ‘Treasured’, Christina Riggs weaves compelling historical analysis along with tales of lives touched by an encounter with Tutankhamun, including her own, helping showcase just how Tutankhamun shaped a century.
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Christina Riggs is Professor of the History of Visual Culture at Durham University and an expert on the history of the Tutankhamun excavation. She is the author of several books, including Photographing Tutankhamun and Ancient Egyptian Magic: A Hands-on Guide.