The death of Tutankhamun – also known as King Tut – has long been shrouded in mystery. The ancient Egyptian leader lived 17 short years and his life came to an abrupt end. Experts have tossed around a slew of theories based on the trauma he suffered in the moments leading up to his death. Now, though, they think they’ve pinpointed the real reason why his light went out so early.
King Tutankhamun came into the world as Tutankhaten, a name chosen in honor of his father Akhenaten’s belief in Atenism. The baby’s mother was also his father’s sister, and Tut’s inbred DNA left him weak in a number of ways. University of Tübingen geneticist Carsten Pusch told National Geographic magazine in 2010, “He was not a very strong pharoah. He was not riding the chariots.”
Instead, Pusch described Tutankhamun as “a frail, weak boy who had a bit of a club foot and who needed a cane to walk.” On top of that, the future king of Egypt had his DNA working against him. The geneticist explained, “Inbreeding is not an advantage for biological or genetic fitness. Normally the health and immune system are reduced and malformations increase.”
Nevertheless, Tutankhamun had the strength to ascend to the throne of ancient Egypt at just nine years old. He rose to power during a time of great unrest in his country, which stemmed back to his father’s reign. Specifically, Akhenaten had forbidden his people from worshipping multiple gods, as was the norm at the time.
Instead, Akhenaten chose to worship a single god named Aten, also known as the sun disk. This didn’t sit well with the ancient Egyptian people, who began to refer to him as the “heretic king.” However, when Tutankhamun became pharaoh, he reversed his father’s decision. He also changed his name to what we know it to be, removing the homage to the god his father worshipped, Aten.
Tutankhamun’s reign required him to fix many mistakes that his father had made. For one thing, Akhenaten had run Egypt into the ground economically, and he had allowed relationships with other countries and kingdoms to break down. So, his son had to pick up the pieces as a pre-teen pharoah.
Experts have some evidence that Tutankhamun’s relationship-building efforts were successful – namely, he had gifts from other kingdoms tucked into his tomb. But the ancient Egyptians still faced conflict under King Tut’s leadership. Specifically, they battled with the Asiatics and the Nubians, as recorded in the pharaoh’s Thebes-based mortuary temple.
Further distancing himself from his father’s reign, Tutankhamun restored Thebes as Egypt’s capital, demoting and abandoning Akhetaten. He also removed his father’s body from a tomb in the latter city and brought his body to its final resting place in the Valley of the Kings. These moves only served to strengthen King Tut’s grip on power.
In fact, it was rare for any ancient Egyptian kings to receive such strong adoration during their reigns – many of them became revered only after death. However, Tutankhamun had devoted worshippers praising him long before he passed away. Far-flung locales had temples built so that people there could appeal to their king for forgiveness of their sins.
But King Tutankhamun’s reign wouldn’t even last a decade, in spite of his apparent popularity with his subjects. Indeed, the young leader had a variety of health problems that plagued him throughout his life. He stood at only 5 foot, 6 inches tall, and many depictions of him feature an oddly shaped frame. Experts have theorized his figure could have been caused by any number of different syndromes or genetic conditions, although none have been wholly confirmed.
Matching Tutankhamun’s short stature, strangely enough, was the tiny tomb in which his mummy was laid to rest. A pharaoh would normally spend eternity in a grandiose, extra-large tomb. The fact that King Tut ended up in a relatively small resting place indicated that he died sooner than anticipated, and those left behind needed somewhere to bury him.
In ancient Egypt, officials had to wait 70 days between a person’s death and their burial. Still, ten weeks wouldn’t be enough time for them to construct a tomb fit for King Tutankhamun, so they likely buried him in a space meant for someone else – someone of lesser importance than their 17-year-old pharoah.
Over time, too, the location of King Tutankhamun’s tomb was forgotten. As more important Ancient Egyptian figures passed away, more tombs popped up around Tut’s. Debris buried his resting place, so workers eventually started to build their quarters directly on top of the tomb’s entryway.
The erasure of Tutankhamun’s tomb is just one way he disappeared from the public’s consciousness. No one made any King Tut-related records after his death, which allowed him to slip from public consciousness. Those who knew about him wanted to find his final resting place, though, including British archaeologist Howard Carter.
As a child, Carter had spent time with family members in the small English town of Swaffham, Norfolk. There, he’d visit Didlington Hall, a sizeable family home that displayed the resident’s Egyptian antique collection. When the young Carter caught a glimpse of the treasures, he instantly became interested in that time in history.
By 1914 Carter had nabbed the perfect archaeological role for him: he was hired to helm a dig in the Valley of the Kings. At first, World War I interrupted his efforts, as the conflict forced him to work as a government courier and translator instead. In 1917, though, Carter happily returned to the desert to resume his digging.
By 1922 Lord Carnarvon (who funded Carter’s work) was growing more and more dissatisfied. He informed the archaeologist that he had one last season in which to make a worthy discovery, or the gig was up. So, Carter trekked back to the Valley of the Kings to revisit a nondescript line of huts he had once examined but abandoned.
Slowly, Carter’s crew dismantled the huts and cleared away the rocks that had built up beneath them. Then, a boy delivering water tripped over something – a rock of serious importance. This stone marked the top of a staircase, and Carter made the obvious decision to dig down to see where the steps led.
As it turned out, the stairs trailed down to a doorway, which Carter waited two-and-a-half weeks to open. He made sure Carnarvon stood by his side as he chiseled open a corner of the tomb’s door. When Carter peered inside, Carnavaron asked him if he could see anything. The archaeologist famously replied, “Yes, wonderful things!” according to the 1992 book Howard Carter Before Tutankhamun.
A sneak peek inside didn’t do justice to the treasures contained within King Tut’s tomb. In fact, it would take Carter a whopping ten years to catalogue everything that he had found. The space contained multiple thrones, archery bows, food, wine, a lotus chalice, trumpets, sandals and even underwear made of linen.
Still, the most stunning pieces within Tutankhamun’s tomb were found at the spot where the king was actually laid to rest. A stone sarcophagus hid a trio of coffins, stacked inside one another. And, contained within the first two nested boxes sat the final coffin, made entirely of gold. Lifting its lid revealed the teenage king’s mummy, still intact after 3,000 years.
The mummy wore some bling of his own, too: archaeologists found rings, bracelets and collars dangled from Tutankhamun’s body. Plus, he wore a 22-pound mask that glittered with gold and gemstones, designed to look like the Egyptian god of the afterlife, Osiris. The stunning adornment quickly became one of the most famed works of art ever known.
It wasn’t just the gold that drew people into Tutankhamun’s story, either. Some felt intrigued to follow the tale because rumors about his tomb being cursed appeared to be true – at least, according to tabloids. They pushed the idea that those who entered the pharaoh’s final resting place ended up dying prematurely, and they had one big example on which the myth centered.
Lord Carnarvon, who gave Carter the chance to dig in the Valley of the Kings, died five months after the archaeologist found the first step into the tomb. Taking a step back, though, of the 58 people present when the tomb and sarcophagus were cracked open again, only eight died within 12 years.
Nowadays, most people derive interest in Tutankhamun from his stunning burial site and shiny adornments – global exhibitions display these artefacts to history buffs around the world. Still, the discovery of the teenage pharaoh’s body didn’t answer every single question that people had about him. Instead, one big question lingered for decades: how exactly did King Tut die?
Ancient records provided no information regarding Tutankhamun’s death, so experts have long debated what caused the teenager’s demise. In the late 1960s, an x-ray showed that the mummy had a pair of bone fragments contained within his skull. This pointed to murder as his cause of death, specifically from a blow to his head.
The murder theory didn’t stick for long, though, as scientists traced back the steps they had taken to reveal Tutankhamun’s body. Experts concluded that when they had unwrapped King Tut from his mummy garb, it was likely that they had loosened the inter-cranial fragments that appeared in the x-ray. The revision also explained why these shards hadn’t shown traces of the embalming formula.
In 2013 a new theory arose: perhaps Tutankhamun died in a chariot accident that crushed his already fragile body? Some signs pointed to such a painful, violent end. He had what appeared to be injuries consistent with such physical trauma. Plus, he had a bit of his chest wall and a few ribs missing.
Again, a bit more research disproved this theory, too. Photos of Tutankhamun’s body when uncovered by Carter in 1926 confirmed that his chest wall remained upright at that time – he could still wear a beaded collar when the picture was taken, too. By 1968, though, the sternum had actually disappeared, as had the beaded neck piece that the king wore.
With that, experts realized that they had a crime on their hands: a thief who had operated between the years of 1926 and 1968. The front of Tutankhamun’s chest had simply disappeared during this time, as had the beaded accessory he wore. Yet even if those relics aren’t ever found, scientists now think they may have discovered why King Tut died.
Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass – one of the world’s leading Egyptologists – said that he and his team had used a new machine to analyze Tutankhamun’s body. He hoped their findings would confirm his theory about the pharaoh’s death. Hawass felt that the boy king had died in a chariot accident, but not because he had been crushed.
Instead, Hawass told the Daily Star newspaper in November 2019, “We know that he had a fracture on his left leg and that fracture was an accident that happened to him two days before he died.” But pinpointing a breakage wasn’t enough. Hawass also had to confirm that the injury had become infected, killing the pharaoh.
And that’s precisely where modern technology would help the team, Hawass went on. He explained, “We will find out through this machine if he had an infection or not. If he had an infection, then this will confirm the idea that he died in an accident. If he had an infection, it meant that he died in a chariot.”
On top of that, Hawass claimed, updated technology would paint a clearer picture of Tutankhamun’s bill of health overall. The Egyptologist said, “We will find out through a new machine that we have for DNA, we will find out all the genetics [sic] diseases that he had.” Most people think he had club feet, an elongated skull and malaria, which the test could potentially confirm or negate.
What Hawass wouldn’t entertain was a more sinister cause of death for Tutankhamun. Some thought that the broken leg appeared jagged, and they took that rough appearance as a sign that he had been slain. However, the Egyptologist asserted that Tut’s hobbies had contributed to his broken bone – a murderer hadn’t done it.
Hawass painted a picture of King Tutankhamun as a young boy who loved to be outside. The archaeologist said, “He lived in Memphis in his palace and he was interested in hunting wild animals in the valley of gazelles that connected between the Valley of the Sphinx and the Saqqara.”
Such a proclamation from Hawass made waves not just because it revealed more about the mysterious Tutankhamun. Previously, he had spoken out against the use of DNA testing on mummies like King Tut. Hawass told news agency Associated Press, “I never thought that we would really reach a great important discovery.”
Instead, the testing method has unlocked a whole new side of Tutankhamun. Not only have experts realized how he is likely to have perished, but they also know more about his family. DNA tests have helped link him to his descendants, as well as those who gave birth to him, to his parents and more.
Along with those proven connections, DNA has shown scientists that Tutankhamun didn’t look as strange as some people have suggested. Although artwork shows him with feminine curves and a long head, genetics prove that the pharaoh didn’t have any conditions that would have given him such a physique. Instead, it was just the art style at the time.
Although Hawass seemed to feel quite confident about his Tut-related theory, he still has to wait for it to be fully confirmed. The archaeologist told the Daily Express newspaper in November 2019 that genetic testing would take until 2020 to paint its clearest picture. Hawass promised, “Next year will be the year we announce exactly how he died.” Until then, the mystery of King Tut continues.