It's pretty long, but I'll try posting it. By the way, I apologize for not posting it earlier; I've been out of town all week.
Here it is:
Tutankhamen’s Mysterious Death
Murder or Natural Causes?
“...I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon...inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things’” (Hoving 88.) This famous quote from Egyptologist Howard Carter describes archaeological history’s most well-known event: the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922. “King Tut” became a household name nearly overnight. Today, more than eighty years later, he is still the most famous of all the Egyptian pharaohs. Yet the main reason he is so well-known is because of the treasure found in his tomb. Most people would recognize his name, but know little or nothing about the life, reign, and death of the king himself. What were the events of his life? How did he die, at the age of eighteen? Was he murdered or did he die of natural causes? There is evidence both for and against the theory that Tutankhamen was murdered.
When investigating a suspicious death, the natural first place to look is the body. Tutankhamen’s mummy has been examined several times: in 1925 by Dr. Douglas Derry, Professor of Anatomy at Cairo University, and by Dr. R. G. Harrison, head of the Anatomy Department at the University of Liverpool, in 1969. Dr. Harrison and his colleagues took several intriguing x-rays that have caused much speculation on Tutankhamen’s death. Firstly, Harrison’s x-rays of the spine debunked the theory that Tutankhamen died of tuberculosis. Tuberculosis causes damage to the epiphysial plates between a person’s vertebrae, but Tut’s plates were normal.
However, when it comes to determining whether or not the Pharaoh was murdered, the most important x-ray is that of the skull. On a BBC television documentary about his findings, Harrison pointed out an area of density on the x-ray, at the base of Tutankhamen’s skull. He said, “This is within the normal limits, but in fact it could have been caused by a hemorrhage under the membranes overlaying the brain in this region. And this could have been caused by a blow to the back of the head and this in turn could have been responsible for death” (Brier 165).
Yet another question about the skull was raised when Dr. Gerald Irwin, head radiologist at Winthrop University Hospital, examined the cranial x-ray. Dr. Irwin noticed an area of increased density on the x-ray above the hematoma Harrison had pointed out, and surmised that it might be a chronic subdural hematoma--a calcified membrane formed over a blood clot. This introduced the possibility that Tutankhamen lingered after receiving the injury. It takes at least two months for calcification to form over a hematoma. If Tut lingered, he couldn’t have been in a coma the whole time. The ancient Egyptians didn’t have the medical knowledge, such as IV feeding, to sustain an unconscious patient that long. If Tutankhamen did linger, he must have remained awake at least long enough to be fed. He may have drifted in and out of consciousness. However, this is all conjecture as it is not completely established that there is calcification at all. Dr. Irwin pointed out that, while there is evidence for it, the density on the x-ray is too faint to know for sure.
Another interesting observation from Tutankhamen’s mummy is that his heart may be missing. It is difficult to tell for sure, because the corpse is covered in black resin, but many Egyptologists believe the heart is indeed absent from the body. This is a highly unusual, even blasphemous, omission. The ancient Egyptians always left the heart in the body during mummification as they believed that it, not the brain, was the center of thought and emotion. It’s possible that if Tutankhamen was murdered, the killer purposely had his heart removed. This would prevent Tutankhamen’s spirit from haunting the murderer.
Of course, there are two sides to every coin, and there is plenty of physical evidence that suggests Tutankhamen was not murdered. The same cranial x-ray that some interpret as showing a blow to the head is explained differently by others.
One suggestion is that Tutankhamen died not from a blow but from a brain abnormality, anything from a tumor to an aneurysm or an arteriovenous malformation. Meningiomas are one of the more common types of brain tumors. They can grow for years and may show either no symptoms at all or vague symptoms like memory loss and headaches. A tumor such as this would have pressed on Tutankhamen’s skull, causing the density and bone thinning that is seen on the x-ray.
A brain aneurysm or arteriovenous malformation (two types of blood vessel abnormalities) may also have caused the young Pharaoh’s death. Both aneurysms and arteriovenous malformations are common among victims of connective tissue disorders such as Marfan’s syndrome, and there is a definite possibility that Tutankhamen suffered from this disorder. Many Egyptologists believe that Tut’s father, the pharaoh Akhenaten, was a victim of Marfan’s syndrome. The disease is hereditary, so if Akhenaten did have Marfan’s, it is quite possible that he passed it on to his son.
The possibility of a brain abnormality is also evidenced by a fact which might at first seem insignificant: Tutankhamen’s head is completely shaved. Nearly all royal figures were buried with a full head of hair; some balding mummies were even given wigs made of dyed string. Why was Tutankhamen buried with his head shaved? If the king had
suffered a blow to the skull, the doctors would shave his head to determine if there was an open wound, which there was not. There were no visible cracks or fractures in the Pharaoh’s skull. After the doctors had seen there was not an open injury, they would not have shaved his head again; there would have been no need. However, if Tutankhamen received a head injury and then lingered, as the possible calcification and thinning bone suggests, some hair would have grown back. The lack of hair weakens the argument for an injury and lingering. Here is an alternate scenario: a tumor began growing behind Tutankhamen’s left ear. The pressure of the tumor would have caused the bone thinning and density seen on the x-ray. As time passed and the tumor continued to grow, Tutankhamen would have complained of head pains, until one day he fell unconscious. Doctors were called in to treat him, and they shaved his entire head to look for an open injury. It would be too late, however, and the king would die within minutes or hours of the examination. This explains why he was buried with only a minuscule amount of hair.
Of course, physical evidence alone cannot prove murder. To determine whether or not Tutankhamen was killed, the circumstantial evidence must be examined. Who are the suspects? What are the motives?
There are several people who would have been in a position to murder the king, but the most likely suspect is his vizier, Aye.
Aye had served Tutankhamen’s father Akhenaten, and when Akhenaten died
Aye took the position of Tutankhamen’s advisor. He guided Tutankhamen and made decisions while the young Pharaoh was growing up.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that Aye had everything to gain from the Pharaoh’s death. He was nearing his sixties, an old man by ancient Egyptian standards, and he may have sensed his time was growing short. Meanwhile, Tutankhamen was coming of age. He was making more decisions on his own; he needed his vizier’s influence less and less every day. Aye’s hold on power was slipping. It’s also a possibility that Tut held some hard feelings towards Aye. After Akhenaten died, Aye was the one who initiated the decision to abandon the Atenist religion, disowning the only god Tutankhamen had ever known. Aye forced the boy to leave the city where he’d grown up and move to unfamiliar Thebes, and on top of all that, made him change his name from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamun. Could Tutankhamen have had plans to reverse Aye’s work and return to the Atenist religion? It’s possible. If so, it would be another motive for Aye to murder the Pharaoh. Aye had seen the havoc wreaked on Egypt by the change from polytheism to monotheism. If Tut had held aspirations of going back to worshiping one god and continuing his father’s work, removing the king would have made sure the Atenist religion was abandoned for good.
Another important factor is that Aye, as Tutankhamen’s vizier, was above the law. When the Pharaoh died, his vizier became the most powerful person in Egypt. Who could punish him? Adding support to this is a sentence inscribed in the tomb of the vizier Romose: “Let no man punish the vizier in his office” (Brier 202). Ancient Egypt didn’t have a system of checks and balances like we do today. They had no Congress or Supreme Court to ensure that justice was done. With Tutankhamen dead, no one could punish Aye.
The walls of Tutankhamen’s tomb hold another piece of evidence indicating Aye. In the recording of the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony on the tomb wall (the ceremony which would enable the deceased to eat and breathe in the next world), Aye is depicted as the priest performing the ritual. This is unusual enough, but even more atypical is the fact that Aye is wearing the Pharaoh’s crown--he has already succeeded to the throne, despite the fact that his predecessor is not yet buried. This is unheard of -the only instance in Egyptian history of a successor being crowned before the previous Pharaoh is buried. Aye, as Tutankhamen’s vizier, would have looked after the details of the tomb arrangements, so he must have ordered this depiction. Perhaps he meant it as a way to legitimize himself, a commoner, as Pharaoh of Egypt.
One of the most fascinating issues surrounding Tutankhamen’s death is a letter written by his queen, Ankhesenamen. The young widow sent a request to the king of the Hittites, Egypt’s greatest enemy, saying, “...my husband died. A son I have not. But to thee, they say, the sons are many. If thou wouldst give me one son of thine, he would become my husband. Never shall I pick out a servant of mine and make him my husband!...I am afraid!” (Brier 176)
This is an incredible request. Why would an Egyptian queen want one of Egypt’s sworn enemies to rule her country? And why would a person of such high importance be forced to marry “a servant,” a commoner?
Understandably, the Hittite king was suspicious. He sent a chamberlain to Egypt to verify the queen’s request. When the chamberlain returned to Hatti, he was accompanied by an envoy from Egypt who
confirmed that the Pharaoh was indeed dead, and that he had no heir. By this time, Ankhesenamen was getting desperate and sent a second letter. Finally, the Hittite king complied with the widow’s request and sent one of his sons to Egypt to become Pharaoh. However, the unfortunate prince was murdered while en route to Egypt.
This situation raises two chief questions: who was “the servant” Ankhesenamen was being forced to marry, and who murdered the Hittite prince? Evidence points to Aye in both cases. He was the most powerful person in Egypt, more powerful even than the former Great Royal Wife. He could force her to marry him if he wanted. He was a commoner; he had no royal blood. It also makes sense that Aye ordered the murder of the Hittite prince. If the prince had claimed the throne, Aye would have lost his chance to rule. He had come this far, he wasn’t about to let a Hittite get in his way.
What about the other side of the story? If Tutankhamen wasn’t murdered and there was nothing sinister about his death, why would Ankhesenamen be afraid and asking her country’s sworn enemy for a ruler? This is where Horemheb comes in. Horemheb was the Commander-in-Chief of the army and Regent of Lower Egypt. Like Aye, he was a commoner, but his standing in the military gave him a great deal of power and a legitimate claim to the throne of Egypt. He would have been aware of everything crossing Egypt’s border, and no doubt intercepted all the mail entering or leaving the country.
The Hittite prince would be accompanied by an entourage complete with servants and guards. The entire party was ambushed and murdered, which indicates someone with a lot of power knew they were coming and orchestrated the attack. Horemheb had no love for the Hittites; in fact, his tomb walls are covered with scenes of him battling and conquering the Hittite enemies. For years he had been fighting them, now the queen wanted to make one of them Pharaoh? The notion must have been
infuriating for Horemheb, and he would immediately begin planning to make sure it never came about.
Yet perhaps this was exactly what Aye wanted. At the very moment Aye was being crowned Egypt’s new Pharaoh, Horemheb was away preventing the Hittites from entering Egypt, and missing his chance to take the throne. It is possible that Ankhesenamen didn’t write the letters at all, or if she did, that it was not her idea. Instead, they were a ploy by Aye to keep his rival Horemheb far away. By the time Horemheb murdered the Hittite party and returned to Thebes, it was too late. Aye was already crowned.
What would have had to happen for Aye to become Pharaoh? He was Tutankhamen’s vizier and the most important man in Egypt, but he had one fault: he was a commoner. How could he have legitimized his taking the throne? By marrying the one remaining person who had royal blood: Ankhesenamen. Not only did Aye possibly murder Tutankhamen, but he stole Tut’s widow as well.
What evidence exists for a marriage between Aye and Ankhesenamen? The strongest piece of data is a ring found by Egyptologist Percy Newberry in 1931. At that time, it was common for Egyptologists to to look for artifacts among antiquity dealers’ wares. Newberry was visiting one such dealer’s shop when he found a blue faience finger ring.
Inscribed on the ring were two cartouches: those of Aye and Ankhesenamen. Nearly all Egyptologists agree that the two cartouches side by side can indicate only one thing--that Aye and Ankhesenamen were married.
That is one interpretation of the ring, but of course there are others. Some Egyptologists believe the ring is fake, and that Aye and Ankhesenamen were never married. Egyptologist Christine El Mahdy argues that the ring must not be genuine because it is the only one ever found. Rings commemorating marriages or other special events are relatively common, but certainly more than one would have been made. Why has only one been found?
Another view is that the ring is genuine, but does not indicate a marriage between Aye and Ankhesenamen. Egyptologist Paul Doherty believes the ring commemorates a political alliance between the two, rather than a marriage. A political alliance would have had the same effect as a marriage, legitimizing Aye’s claim to the throne.
Regardless of which interpretation is correct, there is still one question dangling. What happened to Ankhesenamen? Aye’s fate is known. He took the throne and had a short, inconsequential reign of four years. But what about the woman he most likely either married or allied himself with? The Newberry Ring is the last sign of her before she disappears
from history. There should have been a picture of her included on the walls of Tutankhamen’s tomb to ensure that she would be with him in the afterlife. But there is no trace of Ankhesenamen on the walls of Tutankhamen’s tomb, and no tomb for the queen herself has ever been found. Why did she vanish so suddenly?
Aye was the one overseeing Tutankhamen’s tomb preparations. It’s possible that he had Ankhesenamen omitted from the walls because he was already planning to marry her. He would not want her to spend eternity with her first husband. This raises the question: if Aye kept Ankhesenamen off Tut’s walls because he wanted to marry her, then is there any trace of her on Aye’s tomb walls?
In Aye’s tomb, there is a woman painted on the walls and proclaimed as “The King’s Great Wife.” Her name is inscribed in a cartouche, but it has been hacked out. However, the cartouche is too short to contain the long name “Ankhesenamen.” It is just right to hold the shorter name “Tey,” the name of Aye’s first wife.
Aye and Tey had been married a long time--at least 40 years. Tey was a well-known and powerful woman, so it’s doubtful that she would willingly fade into the background as her husband took a younger woman as his queen. Tey probably wanted to be the Great Royal Wife, but that would be impossible as long as the royal-blooded Ankhesenamen was alive. If Aye had already murdered Tutankhamen, he would have no qualms about removing Tut’s widow as well. It’s possible that Aye murdered Tutankhamen, married Ankhesenamen and claimed the throne, then disposed of his new wife so that Tey could be queen.
But if Aye did not marry then murder Ankhesenamen, what is the explanation for her disappearance? In the Museum of Damascus there is a fragment from a marriage vase found at Ugarit, a city of ancient Syria. The fragment depicts an Amarnan princess paying homage to her husband Niqmat, the Ugant king. It is possible this Amarnan princess is Ankhesenamen. Alabaster vessels from Egypt dating to Horemheb’s reign have been excavated in Ugarit. Perhaps Horemheb had Ankhesenamen sent to Syria as part of a peace treaty. If this is the case, she may have died and been buried there, which would explain why no tomb for her has been found in Egypt.
Clearly, there is more to Tutankhamen’s story than the treasures found in his tomb. The story of his brief life and mysterious death is as riveting as a murder mystery novel. Will we ever know for certain if the young Pharaoh was murdered? Perhaps Tutankhamen’s mummy will be autopsied again. Medical technology has come far since R. G. Harrison studied Tut in 1969. It is possible that in the future the king’s mummy and internal organs will be examined with a CAT scan, MRI, or another form of medical technology. Maybe then the mystery surrounding Tutankhamen’s
untimely death will be erased, and we will know once and for all if “King Tut” was murdered.
Brier, Bob. The Murder of Tutankhamen. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Penguin Putnam Inc., 1998.
Doherty, Paul. The Mysterious Death of Tutankhamun. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2002.
El Mahdy, Christine. Tutankhamen: The Life and Death of the Boy-King. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
Hoving, Thomas. Tutankhamun: The Untold Story. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2002 ed.
Reeves, Nicholas. Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet. New York: Thames & Hudson Inc., 2001.