The results of a virtual autopsy on the mummy of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun have created a brouhaha among Egyptologists, reports
When British explorer Howard Carter stumbled upon the magnificent treasures of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, the world agreed that this was one of the most splendid archaeological discoveries ever found.
Over time, however, the find produced more than just lustrous treasures, since it also provided evidence of Tutankhamun’s life, death and royal lineage. In 2005, some of the mysteries that this evidence raised were solved when the Pharaoh’s mummy was subjected to an intense check-up, comprehensive forensic analysis, and CT-scan.
Using 1,700 high-resolution CT-scan images, an Egyptian scientific team concluded that Tutankhamun had died of natural causes at the age of 19 and had not been killed by a blow to the back of his head as had been traditionally believed. They discovered no indication of violence, discounting theories that he had received such a blow.
Instead, 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. At the same time, they noted a fracture above the left knee that may have occurred a day or two before the Pharaoh’s death, suggesting that this could have become fatally infected.
Although these results solved some of Tutankhamun’s mysteries, they did not suffice for some Egyptologists. Early this month and using Carter’s notes that Tutankhamun’s mummy had been burnt, British Egyptologist Chris Naunton, director of the London-based Egypt Exploration Society, conducted a virtual autopsy on a piece of Tutankhamun’s body that he considers to be the only known sample outside Egypt.
The piece of tissue was taken in 1968 by an anthropologist at Liverpool University, Robert Connolly, while he was carrying out X-rays on the Pharaoh’s mummy. The results, aired on the British TV station Channel 4 in a documentary entitled “Tutankhamun: the Mystery of the Burnt Mummy”, present Naunton’s theories on the Pharaoh’s life, death and burial.
In collaboration with scientists and a forensic team, Naunton announced that chemical tests had confirmed that Tutankhamun’s body had been burnt while it was sealed inside the coffin. He said that researchers had discovered that embalming oils combined with oxygen and linen had caused a chemical reaction which had “cooked” the Pharaoh’s body at temperatures of more than 200 degrees centigrade, leading the body to spontaneously combust shortly after burial.
Naunton added that a virtual autopsy, which revealed a pattern of injuries down one side of the body and the disappearance of the heart, suggested that a chariot accident had occurred while Tutankhamun had been sitting in it, smashing his chest, shattering his ribs and pelvis and crushing his heart.
“It is not the first time that this mode of death has been mentioned,” professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo Salima Ikram told Discovery News. However, she raised questions regarding the damage to the internal organs, since “we won’t know about this until the canopic jars housing his organs are examined.”
Frank Rühli, head of the Centre for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, supported Ikram’s point of view, telling Discovery News that “the mechanism of explanation for the accident is not fully provable.”
Former minister of state for antiquities Zahi Hawass has raised doubts about the authenticity of the tissue sample used, saying that the sample cannot be proved to have belonged to Tutankhamun. He also condemned Connolly’s action in obtaining a tissue sample from the royal mummy, accusing him of “breaching the ethical code, as his job was only to X-ray the mummy back in 1968”.
Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly that the assumption that the tissue really belongs to the royal mummy of Tutankhamun has to be seen in context with the well-known and brutally invasive methods used by Carter during the examination of the mummy in 1925 in order to remove it from the inner coffin where it was stuck using resin.
The mummy’s neck was cut, separating the head from the body using hot knives, and the skull was taken out of the mask and the chest was separated from the pelvis and the arms and legs detached. “Such documented damage to the mummy during its unwrapping should be considered before making up stories about injuries that might have happened to the king or caused his death,” Hawass said.
He said that the claim that the mummy was burnt due to the reaction of the embalming oil with the linen and oxygen was totally unfounded. Hawass said that during the 2005 investigation of tissue samples from tens of royal mummies dating to the same period as Tutankhamun no burning signs or charring had been seen. “The idea that the embalming process caused burning or damage to the mummies is scientifically untrue and has not been recorded,” Hawass confirmed.
The suggestion that Tutankhamun had an injury down one side of his body was also not new, Hawass said. “This new study does not provide any new data,” he added, saying that the results of a thorough study of the CT images by Egyptian scientists and approved by international experts had indicated an injury to the lower left thigh bone of the mummy and had suggested the possibility of a chariot accident.
“We announced this and published it in several studies after 2010,” Hawass said.
The new report did not clarify the data used for the virtual autopsy, he added. “If the material was the plain X-rays done by Connolly in 1968, we emphasise that X-rays provide only limited information about soft tissues injuries,” Hawass said.
The CT scans carried out by Egyptian scientists had revealed that much of the front of the chest, including the sternum and large parts of the ribs, was missing, and the ends of the fragments could be seen to have been cut by a sharp instrument at different sites. “This could not have been the result of a trauma during the life of the king, as the new study claims, because parts of the missing bones were buried within the sand beneath the mummy inside the wooden box into which Carter’s team placed the dismantled mummy,” Hawass noted.
He pointed out that the Egyptian CT examination had noted no evidence of heart tissues, and that these are also probably missing from other royal mummies, such as those of Amenhotep III, Akhenaton’s grandfather Yuya, and Merenptah. “A missing heart cannot be taken as evidence of an intra-vitam trauma,” Hawass said.
As this latest controversy reveals, even 91 years after the tomb’s discovery the mystery of Tutankhamun’s life and death still seems to be perplexing archaeologists.