Since the discovery of his tomb in the 1920s, the 14th Century BC Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun–AKA King Tut–often has been depicted as a sickly, physically frail child, more of a figurehead than a monarch. The “Boy King,” as comedian Steve Martin labeled him in a late 1970s satirical song, even poked good-natured fun at his premature demise at age 19, suggesting that “he gave his life for tourism.” Other, darker rumors have persisted that he was murdered with a brutal blow to the head in order to clear the throne.
But new research, detailed in a book by archaeologists Zahi A. Hawass and Sandro Vannini and this article from the September 2010 issue of National Geographic, puts the lie to some of those popular myths. The new finds also yield some surprising new insights about the life of the ancient ruler.
When Tutankhamun came to power in the 1330s BC, the nation of Egypt already was 16 centuries old, and was a military and economic superpower of the ancient world. Its empire stretched 1,200 miles from the Euphrates in the north to the Fourth Cataract of the Nile in the south. But the decade before Tutankamun’s rise had been filed with tumult. Amenhotep IV, the first ruler to call himself Pharaoh, disrupted the society’s status quo. He disenfranchised the wealthy priesthood by abolishing worship of the traditional pantheon of gods and replaced it with devotion to a single deity, the sun god Aten. After Amenhotep IV’s death in the mid-1340s BC, Egypt seems to have been ruled for brief periods by two different monarchs. One may have been his wife Nefertiti, and the second was a shadowy figure named Smenkhkare, possibly a brother of Amenhotep IV, about whom little is known.
How exactly young Tutankhamun–whom DNA analysis indicates was product of an incestuous union between Amenhotep IV and one of his five sisters –came to power in the 1330s is a bit murky. He ruled Egypt for about a decade, during which his father’s radical legacy was rolled back and the traditional gods were restored to their place. Tutankhamun died before he could sire a male heir, which was windfall for an elderly man named Ay, possibly a relative, who then got the chance to become Pharaoh.
Those circumstances, combined with Tutankhamun’s youth, have led many to assume that he was little more than a figurehead, and that the powers behind his throne may have decided to dispose of him before he became old enough to try to take a stronger hand.
CT scans of of his mummy, made in 2005, show that the Tutankhamun did have an imperfect, pear-shaped physique. Additionally, his left foot was clubbed, one toe was missing a bone, and bones in part of the foot were destroyed by necrosis. Well-worn walking sticks in his tomb suggest that he needed a cane to walk. DNA evidence also shows that he had contracted a severe form of malaria several times. The researchers also suspect that he had a partially cleft palate.
Child-sized weaponry, chariots and fitted charioteer attire found in his tomb, which show signs of extensive use, suggest that Tutankamun was a vigorous young man, despite his physical flaws. He apparently trained in the arts of war, and fragments of reliefs at Luxor depict him leading his armies into battle against Egypt’s foes. He also enjoyed the manly pastime of hunting.
Additionally, the CT scans show no evidence that he was assassinated with a blow to the head, as some had believed. Instead, researchers found that the young king’s leg was broken just below the knee in a hunting accident, and the amount of healing indicates that the injury occurred perhaps a day before his death. It may well be that Tutankhamun died from internal injuries from the accident that caused the broken leg, or that the injury may have further weakened his already compromised body, leading him to die from an infection.
Another interesting discovery: DNA analysis shows that two mummified fetuses in Tutankamen’s tomb were his offspring. Since genetic defects often prevent a fetus from surviving full-term, it could be that royal incest is what prevented him from leaving a successor.