Oct 22, 2007
The mystery behind the sudden death of Tutankhamun, the boy king who ruled Egypt more than 3,000 years ago, may have been finally solved by scientists who believe that he fell from a fast-moving chariot while out hunting in the desert.
Speculation surrounding Tutankhamun's death has been rife since his tomb was broken into in 1922 by archaeologist Howard Carter. X-rays of the mummy taken in 1968 indicated a swelling at the base of the skull, suggesting "King Tut" was killed by a blow to the head.
More recent studies using a CT medical scanner, however, revealed he suffered a badly broken leg, just above his knee just before he died. That in turn probably led to lethal blood poisoning. Now further evidence has come to light suggesting that he suffered the fracture while hunting game from a chariot.
The new findings are still circumstantial but one of Egypt's leading experts on Tutankhamun will say in a television documentary to be screened this week that he believes the case is now solved on how the boy king met his sudden and unexpected end.
"He was not murdered as many people thought. He had an accident when he was hunting in the desert. Falling from a chariot made this fracture in his left leg and this really is in my opinion how he died," said Zahi Hawass, general secretary of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.
Until now, many historians had assumed that he was treated as a rather fragile child who was cosseted and protected from physical danger. However, Nadia Lokma of the Cairo Museum said that a recent analysis of the chariots found in the tombs of the pharaohs indicated that they were not merely ceremonial but show signs of wear and tear. Hundreds of arrows recovered from the tomb also show evidence of having been fired and recovered. "These chariots are hunting chariots, not war chariots. You can see from the wear on them that they were actually used in life," Dr Lokma said.
A cache of clothing found in Tutankhamun's tomb, which was stored in the vaults of the Cairo Museum, suggest that he was accustomed to riding these chariots himself. They include a specially-adapted corset which would have protected the wearer's abdominal organs from any damage from an accident or the heavy jostling of a chariot ride.
A final piece of evidence comes from a garland of flowers placed around the neck of Tutankhamun's mummy. Botanists found it included cornflowers and mayweed that were fresh at the time the decoration was made.
"The cornflower and mayweed on the garland around the mummy were in flower in March and April, which tells us the time of year he was buried," said Nigel Hepper of the Royal Horticultural Society at Kew Gardens.
Because the flowers could have been collected only between the middle of March and the end of April, and as the complex process of mummification lasted 70 days, this meant Tutankhamun probably died in December or January. That timing coincided with the middle of the winter hunting season.
The results of the latest research into Tutankhamun, which are to feature in a Channel Five documentary tomorrow evening, come just a few weeks before Britain hosts the first exhibition of his tomb's artefacts in 35 years at The O2 centre, formerly the Millennium Dome, in south-east London.
When the first Tutankhamun exhibition in London was held at the British Museum in 1972, some 1.5 million people made the pilgrimage to see his fabulous solid-gold facemask. This time, however, the mask will remain in Egypt because of fears it might not withstand the trip.
The present-day Lord Carnarvon, whose ancestor paid for Howard Carter's 1922 expedition, said the latest findings indicated that Tutankhamun was an active young man who took risks with his life.
"I thought he was an over-cosseted child, but I think he was really out there in the field and taking part in things towards the end of his short life," Lord Carnarvon said. "His chariots could have reached considerable speeds, up to 25mph. If a chariot turns over at that speed, you could easily break your leg very seriously."