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The Cause of Death of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen

Dr. W. Benson Harer, M.D., practiced medicine from 1957 until his retirement in 2004. His interest in Egypt began in the early 1970s, since which he has actively involved himself with ARCE and sponsored the work of many Egyptologists.

Dr. Harer was privileged to be allowed to study the CAT scans of Tutankhamun’s mummy, as well as those of other royal mummies, which were created in 2005. As a result of his analysis of the scans he has developed a new theory regarding the cause of Tutankhamun’s death – the topic
of his lecture.

Tutankhamun’s remains were originally autopsied between 11 & 19 November, 1925 by Howard Carter, the tombs excavator, and Dr. Douglas Derry of Cairo University. Derry published the results of his findings in a short appendix to Carter’s three-volume report of the discovery and excavation of the tomb.

Based on the autopsy, Derry determined that Tutankhamun was 5” 6” tall, weighed between 120 and 125 pounds, was 18 years old plus/minus one year, and the cause of death was - undetermined. There were plans to X-ray the remains but the radiographer died before the X-rays could be taken. It was not until 1968 that the remains of Tutankhamun were first X-rayed by Professor Harrison of Liverpool University.

To begin the discussion of the results of the cause of Tutankhamun’s death, Dr. Harer screened a picture of Picasso’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and noted that when Quixote was confronted with his madness, he said, “facts are the enemies of truth and truth is what is believed”, as a means of launching a discussion of Egyptian beliefs about death and the after life. The Egyptians believed firmly in a life after death, and were well aware that one must be found worthy to get to the after life, as is frequently portrayed in scenes of the weighing of the heart against the feather of Maat. The afterlife was visualized as essentially the same as traditional temporal life along the Nile, but with plenty of time for fun and entertainment. The ancients also clearly believed that you CAN take it with you, to wit, Tutankhamun’s tomb which was filled with jewelry, linen, clothing, shoes, personal items, games, furnishings, food stuffs, an array or weapons, and all the other things that the young king might need or want in the next life. Additionally the Egyptians believed that one could come and go from the tomb in the form of one’s Ba, but to be able to do that, the temporal body must be preserved, so the Ba had a place to return to.

How then were bodies preserved so that they would last for eternity? Herodotus describes three classes of mummification, beginning with a very basic procedure which did little more than dissolve the internal organs, dry the body and wrap the remains, to the most elaborate and costly procedure reserved for the very wealthy and the royals. In addition, royal mummies were usually embalmed with their hands crossed over their chests – a position thought to have been reserved for royalty. In the New Kingdom, deceased royals definitely received first class treatment. The body was delivered to the hall of embalming where the body hair was shaved. Sometimes the head was also shaved and eventually replaced with a wig, or the natural hair was left in place. The brain was extracted either via a puncture through the ethmoid sinus that separates the nasal & brain cavities or via the foramen magna at the base of the scull, stirring up the brain tissue, then introducing hot resin into the cranium which in turn liquefied the tissue so that it could be drained out of the cranium. Next an incision was made in the left flank which allowed the embalmer to reach inside the body and cut loose then remove the intestines, stomach, liver and lungs, each of which was then separately embalmed. The body was stuffed with packets of natron and covered with loose natron for a period of approximately 30 days during which time the tissues dehydrated and dried out. When the natron was removed the body was often packed with linen to retain shape and sometime noses were plugged, again to retain shape, then a special heart scarab amulet was placed on the chest over the deceased’s natural heart which had been left in situ, and an embalmers plate was placed over the incision in the flank. Wrapping of the mummy commenced with the individual wrapping of all the appendages then the entire body was wrapped in multiple layers of linen bandages. Throughout the wrappings, amulets were included, especially in the region of the chest, as protective devices. Finally the mummy was placed in a sarcophagus and the organs in individual jars – canopic jars, and the assemblage was ready for the tomb.

In Tutankhamun’s case there are some anomalies related to his embalming and mummification which became very apparent during the CAT scanning process. The specialists who reviewed the scans in Egypt, found a severe fracture of the left leg, and came to the conclusion that the cause of death was most likely septicemia or an embolism resulting from the fracture. There were, however, many fractures in Tut’s body and the one which was considered indicative of the cause of death has natron in the break, so clearly did occur prior to the king’s death.

When the young king’s burial was excavated, Carter attempted to lift the mummy from the casket and found that was impossible to do so because there was such a lot of rock hard resin in the bottom of the casket into which the linen wrappings were firmly imbedded. Thus, the mechanism used to get to the corpse was to spread a layer of liquid paraffin over the linen, allow it to harden then cut through to the body. There were 13 layers of linen bandages over Tutankhamun’s chest and amulets were found at every level. When the linen was finally peeled back, it was still necessary to chisel the body out of the hardened resin – a process which resulted in many breaks and the removal of the body in 14 pieces. It is known that Carter snapped off a finger here to get to a ring, and a hand there to retrieve bracelets.

The entire corpse of Tutankhamun had been shaved, including his head. A beaded cap had been placed on his shaved pate. His brain had been removed via his nose initially, but it apparently didn’t do an adequate job of emptying the cranium so a second application of resin was introduced via the foramen magna. This time the job was completed properly, but the result is that there are two layers of dried resin in two different parts of the scull. The incision in is flank runs from his belly button to his hip bone – a very different configuration than normally seen. His ribs & sternum are missing, and the ribs have clearly been cut way (Dr. Harer believes by the embalmers), so the lungs were just lifted out from the opened chest. His natural heart is not in situ and no heart scarab was found. The entire thorax is filled with linen soaked in resin that then solidified to rock hard. Two cheap stings of faience beads had been left imbedded in the resin soaked linen when Carter removed the other jewelry and amulets in 1922. Sometime prior to the X-raying of the body in 1968, someone chiseled them out. The king’s arms are not crossed over his chest, but across his waist parallel to each other. There was no embalmers plate over the incision in the king’s belly.

Dr. Harer, in discussing these anomalies, advised that it is his assumption that the condition of the corpse was such that unusual embalming was called for. The missing ribs and heart are indicative of a crushing blow to the chest. What might have caused such a blow? Dr. Harer listed several: goring by an aurrochs bull, mauling by a lion, a hippo attack, a crocodile attack, a chariot accident, or being kicked by a horse. After evaluating the implications of each of these options, Dr. Harer believes that Tutankhamun died as a result of a crushing blow to the chest when he was kicked by a horse. Such accidents happen with lightening speed and the damage to the chest and heart would kill instantly. The wound would be such that the most straightforward way of dealing with the body would be to just cut away the ribs and remove the damaged tissues. Why they were not saved is a question, but Dr. Harer believes that it is likely they were so badly damaged that it desecrated his body so much that it should be excised and not be carried with him through eternity.

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