Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Life, Death, and Modern Discovery of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, Part II


The young king Tutankhamun, 12th ruler of Egypt’s 18th dynasty, met a sudden and untimely end while still a teenager. The exact nature of his death is uncertain, and prevailing theories have changed over time. However, it was known almost from the time of his mummy’s discovery that he died young – this led to speculation that he had been killed, either accidentally or intentionally.


After Tutankhamun died, he was buried in the Valley of the Kings – a necropolis in the hilly southwestern desert where royalty of the New Kingdom era were buried.

The Valley of the Kings

Tut’s tomb is smaller than most royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings; its size is more in keeping with the tomb of a prominent advisor, or a royal family member. Additionally, only the burial chamber is painted – unlike most other royal tombs that have paintings on all the chamber walls. These facts, along with his untimely death, indicate that Tut was probably buried in haste, and was not buried in a tomb of his own commissioning.

The paintings on the tomb indicate that there were eight official mourners for the deceased pharaoh, and that Tutankhamun’s principle advisor, Ay, presided over the funerary proceedings. Ay is depicted performing the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony on Tutankhamun.

Ay, at right, performing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony on Tut's mummy

This was a religious ritual that symbolized the breathing of life into the deceased. The same wall also depicts the spirit of the king (his “ka”) being welcomed by the goddess Nut and the green-skinned god of the underworld, Osiris.

Full image of the rear wall. Ay and Tut at right. Nut greeting Tut in the center. Tut and his ka embracing Osiris at far left.

Another painting in the tomb depicts Tut’s sarcophagus begin transported to burial on a sledge accompanied by three advisors, one of whom may have been the general of Tut’s armies, Horemheb. According to one source (http://www.egyptsites.co.uk/), this is an unusual type of scene, and was more common in private tombs than royal tombs.

Other paintings show Tut, accompanied by the jackal-headed Anubis, standing before the goddess Hathor.

Anubis at left, Tut in the center, and Hathor at right offering an ankh to Tut

Still another shows Tut being welcomed by Isis, Hathor, and Anubis. Additionally, one wall is decorated with a series of apes, representing a passage from the Amduat – an Egyptian funerary text. This text told of the sun god’s passage through the 12 hours of the night before his rebirth at dawn. The Egyptians believed their kings would make this passage in a solar boat, and the apes represented the first hour of the 12-hour passage.

The baboons of the first hour. Note Tut in his solar boat at the top left.

The fact that only the first hour was depicted in art is indicative of the haste with which Tut was evidently buried, and the limitations of the small tomb.

A shot showing three walls of the tomb. At right are the eight mourners, pulling Tut's coffin on a sledge

Tutankhamun did not have any surviving children; he was buried along with two mummified daughters, both apparently stillborns. His wife, however, seems to have outlived him by several years, and there is an intriguing mystery about just what happened to her in the wake of his death. This mystery may also serve as a clue to determine how Tutankhamun, himself, met his end.


As I mentioned above, many historians have speculated that Tutankhamun was murdered. The most recent and prominent of these historians is American Egyptologist Bob Brier, who wrote a best-selling book called “The Murder of Tutankhamun: A True Story” in 1998, followed by several television documentaries discussing the same subject. Buy the book here.

Brier’s theory was largely based on a 1960’s X-ray exam of Tut’s skull which indicated the pharaoh had suffered head trauma. This was based on a bone fragment that was discovered in the rear of the cranium – a fragment apparently broken off from some other spot in the skull. Furthermore, an expert used by Brier to analyze the X-ray film suggested that there was evidence of a subdural hematoma at the base of the skull. This sort of injury occurs with a major blow to the head. The bone fragment, according to Brier and his expert, came from the site of this trauma.

The pointer indicates the spot of the alleged subdural hematoma. The bone fragment in question is in the upper left corner of the dark skull cavity.

However, the presence of a subdural hematoma and a bone fragment – while indicating a probable cause of death – does not tell us whether it was intentional or accidental.

However, other historical evidence also suggests foul play, and it was this evidence, together with the 1960’s radiological data, that led Brier to speculate on a murder plot surrounding Tutankhamun.


Among the historical evidence suggesting foul play, the most prominent is an ancient correspondence that has come to be known as the Hittite Letter. This letter, and the story surrounding it, comes to us from the capital of the Hittite empire, Hattusa. The correspondence was sent to the Hittite king Suppiluliuma I, and was sent from a widowed Egyptian queen, called Dakhamunzu in the Hittite annals. This name – Dakhamunzu – is believed to be a Hittite translation of the Egyptian title “Tahemetnesu” – the Royal Wife.

In the letter, this Egyptian queen informs the Hittite king that her husband has died without any male heirs. The implication is that she is fearful about what will happen to her without any sons to protect her. She goes on to say that she knows the Hittite king has many sons, and she asks him to send one to her, so she can marry him. She finishes by saying that she is afraid that she will be forced to marry “one of her subjects.”

The Hittite king received this letter with great suspicion. According to Hittite chronicles, he sent an envoy to Egypt to meet with the queen and determine if the story was legitimate. When the envoy returned, confirming the queen’s story, the king sent one of his sons, a prince named Zannanza. Zannanza, however, was ambushed at the borders of Egypt and murdered.

Most Egyptologists believe the queen in question was Tutankhamun’s widow, Ankhesenamun.

Bust of Queen Ankhesenamun

The time period fits, as does the content of the letter. King Tut died without any obvious heirs, leaving his wife without a royal protector. Furthermore, other kings of the era – such as Amenhotep III and Akhenaten – clearly had successors in line for the throne.

Putting the evidence together, an intriguing scenario begins to form. Without a son to take the throne and bring her under his protection, Ankhesenamun appears to have been fearful that she would be forced to marry one of her subjects. This may seem odd at first glance, but it is clear that no widowed Egyptian queen would have been forced to marry a common laborer or farmer, even under the direst of circumstances. Most historians believe Ankhesenamun was referring to one of Tut’s advisors – a man of power and influence, but still a non-royal commoner (thus, one of her “subjects”). Bob Brier believes this person was Tut’s principle advisor, Ay.

One of the few surviving busts of Ay

According to Brier’s theory, Ay had his heart set on succeeding Tutankhamun to the throne, and there could have been no better way to legitimize his claim than by marrying Tutankhamun’s young widow. Ankhesenamun, however, seems to have been repulsed by this idea, so she appealed to the Hittite king to send her a royal prince. Brier believes Ay got wind of Ankhesenamun’s treachery and had the Hittite prince murdered when he arrived in Egypt.

After that, it appears that Ankhesenamun was left without much choice; she apparently married Ay and helped to legitimize his claim to the throne. This is testified to by an artifact discovered in the 1930’s listing Ay and Ankhesenamun as the royal couple.

A ring depicting Ay and Ankhesenamun married

Shortly after Ay became pharaoh, Ankhesenamun disappears from the historical record, and Ay’s own tomb depicts another woman as his principle wife.

This evidence, when connected back to the radiological evidence of a subdural hematoma and bone fragment in Tut’s mummy, makes Ay a prime suspect for also murdering Tut. Ay, the king’s principle advisor and a shrewd politician, would have made most of the important decisions during the young pharaoh’s reign. This taste of unrestricted power may have tempted Ay to use his own influence to arrange Tutankhamun’s assassination. Afterward, he pressured Tut’s widow to marry him, in order to seal his claim on the throne. When she tried to subvert this by asking the Hittite king for a princely husband, Ay stepped in and murdered the prince before he could reach Ankhesenamun. After marrying Tut’s widow and securing the throne, Ay had her killed as well. In the aforementioned painting in Tut’s tomb, where Ay is shown performing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony on Tut’s mummy, Ay is depicted already wearing a royal crown. This is unusual, and is yet more evidence for Brier and others that Ay may have been involved in duplicity regarding Tut’s death. In his book, Brier even goes so far as to suggest that Ay was responsible for the murders of Tut’s predecessors, Smenkhkara, Neferneferuaten, and even Akhenaten (although there is no historical evidence to suggest any of these pharaohs was murdered).

For Brier, Ay was the classic villain willing to wait many years for his prize, and willing to lie, cheat, steal, and kill to achieve his cunning and well-crafted goal.

Whatever the case, Ay lived only a short time, ruling for about four years before his death.


While Brier’s theory is certainly intriguing and makes for a great story, his ideas are probably more fiction than fact.

First of all, much of the evidence drawn from the Hittite Letter and the Hittite annals is speculative – we do not know for certain that the author of the letter was, in fact, Ankhesenamun. Secondly, even if she was the author, we do not know if her fears were actually the result of pressure from Ay, or simply that she feared being caught up in the tribulation that was surely to follow the death of a pharaoh without an heir. It may simply have been that she feared being forced to marry a commoner – any commoner, even a royal advisor – which, after having first been the daughter of a pharaoh, and later the wife of a pharaoh, would have been understandably horrifying for her. Finally, even if Ankhesenamun was the author, and even if her fears were due to pressures from Ay, that does not mean that Ay was responsible for Prince Zannanza’s murder, and it certainly does not mean that Ay arranged the assassinations of Tutankhamun and his predecessors.

In the end, Brier’s conclusions are, at best, speculation based on very circumstantial evidence. In Brier’s defense, however, he openly admitted at the time of the book’s publication that his “charges” against Ay would not hold up in a modern court of law, but were simply speculations based on the evidence.*

But what about the radiological evidence of trauma to Tut’s skull? That was, after all, a key aspect to Brier’s theory. Unfortunately for Brier (as we shall see), and actually resulting, in part, from the hype surrounding Brier’s theory, a more detailed study of the mummy using CT technology took place in 2005, about seven years after Brier’s book was published.


The CT study in 2005 conclusively dismissed the earlier studies and found no significant evidence of trauma to Tut’s skull.

Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, by Tut's mummy as it enters the CT scanner

The researchers did not find evidence to support Brier’s own conclusions about a subdural hematoma, and the team concluded that the bone fragment was from damage that occurred post-mortem, possibly even in the 20th century. Their conclusion on this point was primarily based on the fact that no other evidence of head trauma existed to explain the fragment, and the fragment itself was not covered in embalming materials, as it would have been if it had been loose inside the skull during mummification.

Additionally, the team found no evidence of any disease process in the body, and asserted that: “Judging from his bones, the king was generally in good health…There are no signs of malnutrition or infectious disease in childhood…”

The 2005 researchers, instead, concluded that Tutankhamun died from a massive fracture to his left femur.

Tut's legs, side by side, in an enhanced CT image. The view is roughly centered on the knees. The arrow points to the fracture, which moves from that spot down to the right.

This fracture had been noted before, but had been dismissed by earlier researchers as having occurred after death – either during embalming or during excavation in the 20th century. The CT study, however, indicated that it occurred very shortly (no more than several days) before death and had become infected with gangrene, almost certainly leading to Tut’s demise. Speculation is that the young king may have been thrown from a horse or injured in a chariot accident. Falling from a great height could also have caused the same injury, but such a fall would almost certainly have broken the pelvis as well, and Tutankhamun’s pelvis was intact.

While ruling out murder by blunt force trauma to the head, and concluding that Tut likely died from a leg fracture, the team admitted that their examination could not evaluate other possible murder scenarios, such as poisoning.

Other interesting information was gained from this CT examination. Of note is that Tutankhamun had an overbite, which was a trademark of many of his royal ancestors and provides a genetic link between Tutankhamun and his predecessors. Additionally, the teenage Tut also had an impacted wisdom tooth, which may have caused him discomfort. Finally, it was found that Tutankhamun had a slightly cleft palate and an elongated skull.

Enhanced CT images of Tut's head (bottom). Note the elongation, depicting a dolichocephalic skull

This is significant not just for historical purposes, but also because it connects him to an unidentified mummy found in another tomb in the Valley of the Kings – a tomb called KV55.


KV55 was discovered in 1907, about fifteen years before the discovery of Tut’s tomb. The artifacts found in KV55 indicate a connection with Tut’s 18th dynasty, and it is commonly believed that the tomb was built to hold the mummy of Queen Tiye, the wife of Amenhotep III and mother of Akhenaten (if it is true, as discussed in the first installment, that Akhenaten was Tutankhamun’s father, then Tiye would have been Tut’s paternal grandmother).

Queen Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III, and probable grandmother of Tut

The sealed door of the tomb actually had Tutankhamun’s name on it, causing its earliest excavators to believe they had found the boy king’s tomb. The mummy found inside KV55 was male, leading many to suggest that the body was that of Queen Tiye’s son, Akhenaten, whose mummy has otherwise never been found. The theory is that Akhenaten’s body was moved, from its tomb in the city of Akhetaten to his mother’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, for protection long after his death. What happened to Tiye’s mummy is a mystery.

Curiously, this mummy also had a cleft palate and an elongated skull, like Tut. Surviving art of Akhenaten and his family routinely depicts them with very long, almost distorted, heads. It is assumed that these stylized images are simply exaggerations of a known familial trait. If that is true, then this is simply more evidence that the unknown mummy from KV55 is, indeed, Akhenaten, and that Akhenaten was, in fact, Tutankhamun’s father. Of course, the wrench in all this is that a lot of evidence (though not all) suggests that the mummy in KV55 was only about 20 years old – far too young to be Akhenaten, but perhaps just about right to have been his brother and direct successor, Smenkhkara – Tut’s uncle. So the mystery simply deepens. In the end, it is all speculation. What can be certain is that the mummy in KV55 is genetically related to Tutankhamun and his predecessors, and may, itself, be pharonic.

Tutankhamun clearly lived during a time of great social and religious upheaval. The reign of his predecessor, Akhenaten, and the effects that Akhenaten’s religious revolution had on Egyptian society, were certain to reverberate down through the ages, much as modern British people still remember the treachery of Oliver Cromwell and the failed British Commonwealth. While Tut’s own reign was apparently inconsequential, the circumstances of his ascendancy, and the circumstances of his demise, were clearly significant events in Egyptian society. Yet, it is a fact that King Tut was lost to history. By the time Egyptology began to emerge as a valid post-Enlightenment science in the 19th century, knowledge of Tut’s existence had been lost. His tomb, his monuments, his statues, his pictures, even his name, were all absent from the historical record. We now know that even the ancient Egyptians, in centuries after his death, had forgotten his existence.

To understand why, we must next turn to the reign of Horemheb, Tut’s principle military advisor, and the man who took the throne after Ay’s short kingship.

* My “criticism” of Brier in this essay should not be taken as a general criticism of Brier as an Egyptologist. In fact, I have great respect for Brier’s work (he is known in some circles as “Mr. Mummy”), particularly in his role as a “champion” for Ancient Egypt, helping to bring the study of Egyptology to “the masses,” so that even amateur enthusiasts like me can study and learn about this fascinating culture.


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