A note on the King Tut documentary

Tutankhamun: The Truth Uncovered aired last Sunday on BBC and has already sparked controversy. In the documentary, Tut is shown bare-boned, CT-scanned and computer modeled to an unflattering degree. Previous theories concerning his death (a blow to the head, a fall from a riding chariot) are discarded and instead, the king is presented as a sickly, club-footed epileptic, the product of incest no less. Not the subtle image of pharaonic dignity and wealth as reflected by his tomb treasure, which has inspired millions since its unscathed discovery in 1922.

Jonathan Jones from The Guardian comments: ‘Leave poor Tutankhamun alone. Let him sleep in the dignity of his golden mask’. He urges to use the new scanning methods and digital imaging ‘with intelligence and sensitivity’ and calls the virtual autopsy ‘a morbid freak show’. The fact that King Tut was a short-lived, minor ruler only gives us the pleasure of having discovered his tomb intact. A better example of the use of modern medical techniques Jones finds the British Museum exhibition Ancient Lives, New Discoveries, which also features 3D visualisations of CT scanned mummies. The dead should be investigated without insulting them and making them into video game characters, says Jones.

Rupert Hawksley from The Telegraph likewise thinks the documentary destroys the mystery and excitement around King Tut. The king is ‘reduced to a revolving Sims-like bundle of pixels to be pored over and analysed on a screen’. The legend is sorely demystified, earning the documentary a mere two star review.

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Having watched the documentary, I have some comments of my own. Of course we cannot let the dead rest, or there would be no archaeology. And new methods can be very insightful to use. But perhaps Tutankhamun’s body has been screened often enough now.

The fragmentary state of the mummy is mostly caused by its rude unwrapping at the time of discovery. It is said that the body was effectually hacked to pieces because it was stuck to the coffin by embalming resin. In modern times, the skeleton has been examined on several occasions using non-invasive techniques such as x-ray and CT (computerized tomography). But even using non-invasive methods, the body has to be disturbed and handled, causing further damage to the fragile remains.

The first x-ray was conducted in 1968, revealing the loose bone at the back of Tut’s skull which instigated the blow-to-the-head theory. In 1978, the mummy was x-rayed again, and the theory gained hold that Tutankhamun was murdered. A CT scan was made in 2005, on site in a mobile scanner after protests against transporting the remains to Cairo. The 1,700 cross-section images showed that the skull was intact during mummification, but instead a fracture of the left thighbone, just above the knee, was identified.

The king, who died aged 19 (judging by the stage of fusion of the epiphyseal plates), was found to be of slight build, well-fed and healthy, suffering no major childhood malnutrition or infectious diseases. He had a slightly cleft palate, characteristic Thutmoside overbite and one impacted wisdom tooth. No mention was made of a club foot, although the tomb did contain 130 canes and walking sticks. The Egyptian team that examined the skeleton found that the leg fracture could have occurred just before death (the edges were ragged and unhealed), but could not be the cause of death itself. Part of the research team believed that the break could have led to an infected wound, which in turn could have led to death. The chariot ride was suggested later as a possible cause of injury.

Now, in a ‘virtual autopsy’ (3D model based on 2,000 CT scan images) Ashraf Selim (radiologist at Cairo University) recognizes Köhler disease in the left foot of the king. This is interesting in itself, but is used in the documentary in combination with the (partially) clubbed foot to prove that Tutankhamun could not have driven a chariot. This fact in itself is quite irrelevant. Even if the king could not drive a chariot himself, he might still have ridden in one with a driver (note also the beautiful specimen found in his tomb). But the chariot theory was already quite speculative to begin with.

Albert Zink (head of the EURAC-Institute for Mummies and the Iceman) goes on to explain how Y-chromosome DNA and genetic fingerprinting identified the father of Tutankhamun: the anonymous mummy found in KV55, who was in turn found to be the son of Amenhotep III and is thus a likely candidate for identification with Akhenaten. Mitochondrial DNA furthermore points to the mysterious ‘Younger Lady’ found in the tomb of Amenhotep II as Tut’s mom. Juicy fact: the two were siblings.

Finally, Hutan Ashrafian suggests that Tutankhamun suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy. The evidence for this is rather scant. Ashrafian is a Clinical Lecturer in General Surgery, and interprets Egyptological clues quite freely. He bases his statement on three premises:

  • Since Amenhotep III (40-50), KV55 (20-25/35) and Tutankhamun (18/19) died at an increasingly younger age, Ashrafian suspects an inheritance disease.
  • Based on the Amarna art, showing Akhenaten and to a lesser degree Tutankhamun in a feminine manner with wide hips and a long skull, Ashrafian suspects an inherited hormone imbalance.
  • The Dream Stele of Thutmose IV (father of Amenhotep III) and religious visions of Akhenaten are interpreted by Ashrafian as a sign of epilepsy.

Together, the unstable argument is built that Tutankhamun fractured his knee during an epileptic fit. The wound would have gotten infected which led to death. Think of it what you will. Interestingly, no mention is made of malaria, a condition which has previously been suggested.

The 3D reconstruction that is presented in the documentary is not flattering indeed, but I find forensic reconstructions rarely are. Their goal is to emphasize skeletal deformities, and not to reflect character, poise and stature. A face is also more than just bone structure covered with flesh and skin. The club foot is overdone (compare the 3D image to the skeletal remains) and they could have dressed the king up a bit.

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Curiously, Tutankhamun’s enormous bum goes unexplained (the skeleton’s pelvis is certainly less pronounced than the 3D image suggests). In the credits to the documentary one finds the name of Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, director of the Textile Research Centre in Leiden. Gillian does very admirable work at reconstructing ancient textiles, a theme which is often wholly disregarded in archaeology, and has made replicas of Tutankhamun’s full wardrobe as it was discovered in the tomb. These garments indeed show that Tut’s upper body was very slight, while his underwear reveals that he was fairly big-bottomed. This fact, without having to be comical, in my opinion brings the person of the king much closer to us than the 3D image does.

Why are we so obsessed with what killed Tutankhamun? Although archaeologists find it hard to leave the dead unstirred, it could be time to let the poor boy rest. All archaeology is inevitably destruction. Even non-invasive methods take their toll. If we are not careful, and keep screening Tutankhamun for possible pathologies and causes of death, we may end up with a mere pile of dust. Let’s hope that the pharaoh doesn’t succumb to his own success. That would be a real curse.

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