The Controversial Afterlife of King Tut

A frenzy of conflicting scientific analyses have made the famous pharaoh more mysterious than ever

(David Degner)
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The Valley of the Kings lies on a bend in the Nile River, a short ferry ride from Luxor. The valley proper is rocky and wildly steep, but a little farther north, the landscape gives way to gently rolling hills, and even the occasional copse of markh trees. It was here, in a humble mud-brick house, that the British Egyptologist Howard Carter was living in 1922, the year he unearthed the tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun, forever enshrining both the boy king and himself in the annals of history.   

These days, the house serves as a museum, restored to its nearly original state and piled high with Carter’s belongings—a typewriter, a camera, a record player, a few maps, a handful of sun hats. Toward the back of the museum is a darkroom, and out front, facing the road, is a shaded veranda.

On the September day I visited, the place was empty, except for a pair of caretakers, Eman Hagag and Mahmoud Mahmoud, and an orange kitten that was chasing its own shadow across the tiled floor. 

Most of the lights had been turned off to conserve electricity, and the holographic presentation about Carter’s discovery was broken. I asked Hagag how many visitors she saw in a day. She shrugged, and studied her hands. “Sometimes four,” she said. “Sometimes two. Sometimes none.” 

Mahmoud led me outside, through a lush garden overhung with a trellis of tangled vines, and toward the entrance of what appeared to be a nuclear fallout shelter. An exact replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb, it had opened just a few months earlier, and Mahmoud was keen to show it off. 

A new computer reconstruction depicts Tut with a club foot and a “feminizing” hormone disorder. (BBC / Smithsonian Channel)
Others question the Tut DNA studies, saying they can’t rule out contamination. ( Kenneth Garrett)
“Discovered tomb,” Howard Carter noted in his diary on November 5, 1922. (Art Media / Print Collector / Getty Images; Apic / Getty Images)
Today, near the house Howard Carter lived in, a replica tomb awaits visitors. (David Degner / Reportage)
Radiologist Ashraf Selim says experts fiercely debated the meaning of Tut's CT scans. (David Degner )
Ismail, Gad and Hawass analyzed tissues from a female mummy in 2008. (Kenneth Garrett)
Salima Ikram is skeptical that Tut had epilepsy or was murdered. (David Degner )
A CT scan of Tut’s skull. (David Degner )
Tut’s sarcophagus is in its original resting place in the Valley of the Kings. The mummy is displayed in another case. (David Degner )
Tourists to Luxor have no shortage of things to see (above, a stand of postcards of some of Egypt’s top sights, including Tutankhamun’s magnificent funeral mask). (David Degner )
Wares in a Luxor shop highlight the irony that Tut, a minor pharoah in his time, is by far the most famed in ours. (David Degner )
A stall in Luxor’s tourist market tempts passersby with pharaonic knick-knacks and other souvenirs. (David Degner )
The boy king died around 1323 B.C. at about 19 years of age (above, his mummy in the tomb). The cause of his death is unknown, although theories abound, including a chariot accident. (David Degner )
The tomb of King Tutankhamun, discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, in the Valley of the Kings, attracts tens of thousands of tourists a year. (Above, visitors wait in line near the entrance.) (David Degner )
Known as KV62, Tut’s tomb is one of 63 royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Though less impressive than other tombs—it’s low-slung and cramped—it remains the valley’s star attraction. (David Degner )
Tourists take a carriage ride through a vegetable market in Luxor. (David Degner )
Over the years researchers have conducted all kinds of medical tests on King Tut (above, an X-ray of his skull taken in 2005) to find out more about how he lived—and died. (Courtesy BBC)
King Tut’s tomb was nearly intact when Carter discovered it. Among the treasures it contained was this magnificent gold burial mask, now on display at the Egypt Museum, in Cairo. (David Degner )

“We knew that tourism in the real tomb was having a disastrous effect—all that foot traffic, all that breath, all those hands,” Adam Lowe, the British artist whose company, Factum Arte, created the facsimile, told me. “We wanted to encourage a more responsible tourism before the decay progressed.” 

The first step in creating the replica was closely studying the surfaces of the original tomb and then scanning every inch with laser and light devices as well as high-resolution photography—a process that took five weeks. The resulting data was taken to Madrid, where it was processed and used to precisely carve the surface of the tomb and other structures, which were covered by slightly elastic printed acrylic skins; artists fashioned the sarcophagus facsimile of hand-painted resin.

Lowe had originally hoped to open the exhibit in 2011, but the Egyptian revolution threw everything into chaos, and it wasn’t until 2013 that the pieces made their way to Luxor. Meanwhile, the number of visitors entering the Valley of the Kings dwindled significantly because of the threat of terrorism and political unrest.

Mahmoud predicted that soon there would be an upswing in tourism. “And then,” he said, hopefully, “the original tomb will close, and lots of people will come to us.” For now I was the only visitor. Mahmoud pointed at his favorite painting: a mural of 12 seated baboons, each representing a different hour of the night. Above the baboons, a scarab, here representing the coming dawn, sailed on a solar barque. 

The detail was astonishing to behold. Not only had the murals been perfectly reproduced, so had the mottled spores of mold that grew on them. I ran my fingers through the grooved hieroglyphs on the sarcophagus and across a painting depicting Tut—his skin Frankenstein green—being welcomed into the afterlife.

Standing there, it was possible to feel one step closer to history, and to the young king whose life and apparently untimely death around 1323 B.C. continue to bedevil Egyptologists of all stripes. In that sense, advances in technology have brought us closer than ever to understanding who King Tut was. But in another, profound sense, three millennia after his death—and with a spate of philosophical and scientific arguments still roiling the field of Tut studies—we’ve never seemed further away. 

“Tutankhamun has been a projection screen for theories for almost a hundred years,” the Egyptologist Salima Ikram, co-author of a key 2013 paper that sizes up a long century of Tut theorizing, told me over coffee in Cairo. “Some of that, frankly, is researchers’ egos. And some of it is our desire to explain the past. Look, we’re all storytellers at heart. And we’ve gotten very much addicted to telling stories about this poor boy, who has become public property.”

***

Egyptology has always been a game of conjecture—some of it well-rooted, and some of it decidedly not. As the protagonist of Arthur Phillips’ 2004 novel The Egyptologist writes of the bygone pharaohs, “these once-great men and women now cling to their hard-won immortality by the thinnest of filaments...while, across that chasm of time from them, historians and excavators struggle to build a rickety bridge of educated guesses for those nearly vanished heroes to cross.”

Since Howard Carter discovered the tomb now known as KV62, in 1922, no pharaoh has inspired more “educated guesses” than Tut. He probably came of age during the reign of Akhenaten, a ruler who famously broke from centuries of polytheistic tradition and encouraged the worship of a single deity: Aten, the sun. Born “Tutankhaten”—literally, “the living image of Aten”—Tut is thought to have become king at age 9, and ruled (likely with the help of advisers) until his death at 19 or 20. 

Compared with the long reigns of powerful pharaohs such as Ramses II, Tut’s rule can seem insignificant. “Considering how much attention we pay to Tut,” said Chuck Van Siclen, an Egyptologist at the American Research Center in Egypt, “it’s as if you wrote a history of the presidents of the United States and devoted three long chapters to William Henry Harrison.” 

Even so, it doesn’t take a Jungian analyst to understand why Tut has captured the world’s attention for so long. Egyptologists had long been forced to make do largely with scraps and fragments, but Tutankhamun’s tomb was found nearly intact and piled high with fantastical treasures. There was the absurdly beautiful burial mask, with its jutting false beard and coiled serpent, poised to strike. There were the rumors of the “curse” that had supposedly claimed the life of Carter’s deep-pocketed backer, Lord Carnarvon. And above all, there was the mystery of Tut’s death—he perished suddenly, it seems, and was placed in a tomb constructed for another king.

No one can be blamed for hoping that modern science, with its ever-increasing powers to reconstruct the past, would come to the rescue of this tantalizing mystery. The most recent phase of scientific Tut-ology began in 2005, when Zahi Hawass, then the head of the Egyptian antiquities service, used the latest technologies to study Egyptian mummies. He began with CT scans on a few royals at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, in Cairo (a.k.a. the Egyptian Museum), before driving the CT scanner to Luxor, for a test on Tut himself.

He found the mummy in appalling condition. It had been interred in three coffins, which sat in the sarcophagus like Russian nesting dolls. Over time, resins and ointments used in the mummification process had congealed, sealing the two inner coffins together. Carter had employed increasingly violent maneuvers to remove the mummy from the coffins, and to get at the jewelry and amulets. First, the innermost coffin was left out in the sun to roast, in the hope that the heat would melt down the resins. Next, at Carter’s suggestion, an anatomist named Douglas Derry poured hot paraffin onto the mummy’s wrappings. Later, they pried the body out and yanked various limbs apart, and used a knife to slice the burial mask away from Tut’s head. Carter later reassembled the mummy as best he could (minus the mask and jewelry), and placed it in a wooden tray lined with sand, where it would remain. 

Hawass was looking at a shriveled, broken thing. “It reminded me of an ancient monument lying in ruins in the sand,” he wrote. Still, he and his scientific co-workers walked the mummy, which reclined on the tray, out to the CT scanner. 

Hawass soon returned to Cairo with roughly 1,700 CT images of Tutankhamun. There, they were examined by Egyptian scientists and three foreign consultants: the radiologist Paul Gostner; Eduard Egarter-Vigl, a forensic pathologist; and Frank Rühli, a paleopathologist based at the University of Zurich. 

When Hawass announced the team’s findings, in March 2005, the banner revelation was that the free-floating bone shards in the skull, first documented during an X-ray scan in the 1960s, were probably not the result of a violent, perhaps murderous, blow to the head, as professional and amateur scholars had contended. In fact, the CT scans showed that one shard had come from the vertebrae, and another from an opening at the base of the skull. It appeared that embalmers had drilled a second hole in Tut’s head, a technique used in other royal mummifications. 

So how had Tut died? Analyzing the CT scans, Hawass and his colleagues had found a fracture of the lower left femur. “This fracture,” the press release read, “appears different from the many breaks caused by Carter’s team: it has ragged rather than sharp edges, and there are two layers of embalming material present inside.” Perhaps Tutankhamun had been injured in battle or while hunting and the wound had become mortally infected, and he was mummified while the wound was still fresh. And thus the broken femur theory, splashed across newspapers and newscasts worldwide, came to be regarded as something close to fact. 

Yet two scientists who were present for the CT examination told me there was expert disagreement about the fracture at the time, with some arguing that it had led to Tut’s death and others arguing there wasn’t enough data to conclude that. As Jo Marchant notes in her 2013 book The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy, “interpreting the clues inside a three-thousand-year-old body isn’t easy, especially one that has been gutted by ancient embalmers, dismembered by modern archaeologists, and thrown about by looters.” Rühli initially believed that the leg fracture might have contributed to Tut’s death. But he has grown more skeptical of the idea. “I still think it’s the most likely diagnosis,” he told me in a Skype interview. “But eight or nine years have passed, and I’ve become much more experienced with the science. I’ve had a lot of time to think about how much pressure we were under.” 

Of course, as Rühli suggested to me, it might be possible to settle the debate if he and other researchers were able to re-evaluate the CT scans. But Egyptian antiquities authorities have been stingy with the images—in 2005, none of the experts were allowed to take the entire data set home, for instance—and only a few of the 1,700 scans have been made public. The rest are controlled by Hawass and his coworkers. 

I asked Hawass in an email when they planned on releasing the scans. He replied, “we are working to do that now.” He did not specify a date. 

***

Returning to the Valley of the Kings, I went this time by the long bridge that connects Luxor proper with the West Bank. A shimmering, liquid light played over the sugar fields, and the sun, already damningly large, clung to the horizon. Guards in jellabiyas manned the checkpoints on the entry road, some clutching assault rifles, others rusted shotguns. The only other traffic consisted of donkey carts and skinny cattle that looked half-starved. 

Soon, the taxi was hemmed in by the Theban Hills. Historians have long marveled at the manner in which the ancient Egyptians had managed to mold car-size chunks of rock into the Giza pyramids, or burrow deep into the earth to create the elaborate necropolis under the Valley of the Kings. To me it seemed equally incredible that the first Western archaeologists could arrive in these hills and even think they had a chance of getting inside. The cliffs and hills are fortresses—imposing, hard, impenetrable. 

The taxi left me at the visitors center. After purchasing tickets, I rode a golf cart up a short gravel slope. In a shaded pavilion, a guide was delivering a lecture on Tutankhamun to a pair of sweat-sheened and clearly fatigued Australian women. “One year we think we know something for sure. The next year, they tell us, no, you’re completely wrong,” the guide said, frowning ruefully. “But that’s OK, I think. It’s OK to have a little mystery. And maybe we will never know what really happened to him. That would be OK, too.” 

Of the dozens of tombs that honeycomb the Valley of the Kings, Tutankhamun’s is among the least impressive. It’s low-slung and cramped, and since all the treasure currently resides in the Egyptian Museum, in Cairo, there isn’t much to see in KV62, save for the murals and Tut himself. Still, the tomb remains the Valley of the King’s star tourist attraction.

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