King Tut Wasn't Bludgeoned to Death: Study

CT scans of King Tutankhamun's mummy may put the world's oldest "cold case" to rest, refuting the notion that the ruler's enemies bludgeoned him to death.

Instead, a festering leg wound may have led to the boy-king's early demise at 19, more than 3,300 years ago, researchers say.

The scans, the first ever performed on an identified royal Egyptian mummy, "finally lay to rest this rather loosely based conjecture about a murder plot. I don't think that anyone who reads the findings as they are written can believe that any longer," said Dr. David Mininberg, a New York City physician who also holds a degree in Middle Eastern Art and is an expert in the medicine of ancient Egypt.

Mininberg was not directly involved in the study but reviewed the paper prior to its presentation Monday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, in Chicago.

Because of the spectacular trove of objects found in 1922 in his intact tomb, Tutankhamun remains the most famous of the hundreds of royal mummies buried throughout Egypt. However, the reasons for his early death remain mysterious.

One of the more sensational theories stems from the fact that his skull appeared to contain loose bone fragments. This led to the notion that the young man was bludgeoned to death by his enemies, then quickly entombed to hide the evidence.

It's a theory few serious Egyptologists ever entertained seriously, according to Mininberg.

For the new research, a team led by radiologist Dr. Ashraf Selim of Cairo University's Kasr El Aini Teaching Hospital used high-tech CT scans to examine Tutankhamun's corpse in minute detail. The corpse had been cut into several pieces and was in a "critical stage of preservation," they wrote.

According to the researchers, Tutankhamun died at between 18 and 20 years of age and measured about 5-feet, 11-inches in height. They also concluded that the bone fragments found inside the pharaoh's skull came from the first vertebrae in his neck, not his cranium.

Some mishap, perhaps during a modern X-ray examination, probably explains the dislocated fragments, Selim's team concluded. The upper vertebrae may even have made their way into the skull 84 years ago, when a team led by British Egyptologist and Tut discoverer Howard Carter pried off the mummy's golden mask.

"I think this lays to rest the notion that the bone fragments in the head were caused pre-mortem, before his death," said Dr. Joseph Tashjian, a St. Paul, Minn., radiologist and member of the RSNA's public information committee. "It's pretty clear, looking at the images from this study, that they almost certainly came from the removal of the mask from the head. It definitely didn't occur either pre-mortem or even during the embalming period."

Mininberg believes the new study is the final nail in the coffin for the murder-plot hypothesis. "The old theory, which was believed by very few people, has now been completely laid to rest by good scientific work rather than conjecture," he said.

So, what did Tutankhamun die of? The CT scans show evidence of a major fracture to the thigh bone that could have occurred prior to the king's death. According to Selim's team, this wound may have led to a fatal infection.

The wound was still unhealed at the time of the pharaoh's death because "embalming fluid went into the fracture," noted Tashjian, who was not involved in the Tut research but has had prior experience scanning a long-dead mummy.

"I think the femur fracture probably is significant," Tashjian said. "Number one, it's not healed. Number two, femur fractures -- any long-bone fracture -- can have a number of complications, any of which can lead to death, either from infection or an embolism. It's an unusual way to die, from a fracture, but it does happen, even now."

However, a final answer on that score may never emerge, Mininberg said.

"The problem is that the soft tissue is changed by the mummification process, and there is no clear evidence of infection in the bone," he explained. "However, with a fracture as extensive as that was, it wouldn't be unheard of for it to become infected. That's a reasonable conjecture."

The new research probably won't dim the aura of mystery surrounding Tutankhamun's remains -- or the supposed "curse" that follows anyone who disturbs them.

"While performing the CT scan of King Tut, we had several strange occurrences," Selim noted in a prepared statement. "The electricity suddenly went out, the CT scanner could not be started, and a team member became ill. If we weren't scientists, we might have become believers in the curse of the Pharoahs."

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