Very little is known about Tutankhamen’s life, other than that he took power around 1332 B.C. between the ages of 8 and 10, and that he ruled until his death a decade later around age 19. His likely father, the so-called heretic king Akhenaten, had purportedly instituted a number of chaotic religious reforms based on the belief that the sun god Aten should be worshipped above other deities, including moving the capital from Thebes to the new city of Amarna. But Tut, the 12th or so pharaoh of the 18th Egyptian dynasty, reversed these changes early in his reign. In order to promote stability, he even changed his name from Tutankhaten, meaning the “living image of Aten,” to Tutankhamen, meaning the “living image of [the creator god] Amun.” Producing no living offspring, he was succeeded on the throne by his close advisor Ay.
From that point on, King Tut wallowed in obscurity until 1922, when British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered his tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Thieves had long ago looted other tombs in the area. But his remained virtually intact, complete with a now-famous gold burial mask, statues, jewelry, chariots, toys, perfumes, walking sticks, shrines and weapons, among other invaluable treasures. A stone sarcophagus with Tut’s solid-gold coffin also lay inside, as did two little coffins with his presumed stillborn daughters. “He comes from an age when they had the very finest artists working with the very finest materials,” said Gayle Gibson, an Egyptologist who teaches at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada.
Over the years, a number of hypotheses have been put forth regarding Tut’s cause of death. Originally, many experts believed he had been brutally murdered or had fallen from his chariot while hunting. That line of thinking fell somewhat out of fashion, however, after tests determined that the damage to his skull occurred during either the mummification process or Carter’s excavation. More recent conjecture centers on everything from epilepsy to sickle-cell anemia to a hormone imbalance disorder called gynecomastia. One professor has even speculated that a hippopotamus did him in.
The latest entry to the field comes courtesy of the BBC, which on Sunday will air “Tutankhamen: The Truth Uncovered,” a documentary promising a “revolutionary new theory to explain Tut’s sudden and unexpected death.” It relies on a study completed in 2006, for which scientists obtained about 2,000 CT scan images of the pharaoh’s mummified body, which still resides in the Valley of the Kings. As part of the study, the scientists concluded that he had developed a potentially deadly infection in his left leg after fracturing it. Scientists then performed a DNA analysis of Tutankhamen, finding traces of malaria and Kohler disease (a rare and painful bone disorder), along with evidence that his parents were siblings, a common practice among ancient Egyptian royalty. In fact, Tut himself apparently married his half-sister.
For the documentary, scientists used the CT scan data, the DNA analysis and some newer material to conduct what they described as a “virtual autopsy.” A related life-like image of Tutankhamen —some artistic license is required—shows off his club foot, overbite and womanly hips. He couldn’t even walk unaided due to his foot and Kohler disease, the scientists claim, and therefore could not have died from a chariot fall. “We have to give up the idea that he was a healthy young prince riding across the desert in his chariot, or that he was at war and killed by an enemy,” said Gibson, who served as a consultant on the documentary. “What we’re looking at is a young man who was not in good health and had a pretty sad life in a lot of respects.”
Not everyone, however, is convinced by the results. Bob Brier, an Egyptologist at Long Island University in Brookville, New York, widely known as Mr. Mummy, explained that he would first like to see them replicated by an independent lab. “It’s a very difficult thing to get DNA out of ancient bodies,” he said, adding that it had never before been done with an Egyptian mummy. “Most of us in the field are a little hesitant to say this is right.”