National Geographic News
Photo of the mummy of King Tutankhamun.

King Tut's blackened mummy displays crackled skin and damage to the chest.

Photograph by Kenneth Garrett

A. R. Williams

National Geographic

Published November 6, 2013

King Tutankhamun was just a teenager when he died. For an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, presumably well fed and fiercely protected, this was a premature demise.

It was also momentous, for his death meant the beginning of the end for ancient Egypt's 18th dynasty.

How could this have happened?

Experts have speculated about possible causes ever since British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered Tut's tomb in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. (See "King Tut's Tomb.")

Now a British team apparently believes that it has solved the mystery, with details to be unveiled this coming Sunday in a television show titled "Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy."

But have they really solved it?

According to press reports from the U.K., the team worked with x-rays taken of Tut in 1968.

One report includes an image resembling a CT scan, which is perhaps an x-ray massaged with computer-imaging technology. It reveals a missing breastbone and the stubs of ribs lined up along the backbone—probably all smashed and removed by the embalmers.

A true CT scan was performed in 2005 under the direction of Zahi Hawass, then head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. The resulting images were never released to the public, but they also revealed the extreme damage to the rib cage as well as a broken leg.

Catastrophic Injuries

Clearly, King Tut had suffered some kind of massive trauma.

The recent British research used car-crash simulations to show that a speeding chariot could have run into Tut while he was on his knees.

It's a likely scenario, but there are other possibilities.

One cause of death proposed at the time of the CT scan was a chariot crash.

The king might have been riding in a chariot during a hunt or a battle—activities that ancient Egyptian rulers routinely performed as part of their kingly duties.

The damage to Tut's chest might also be explained by a swift kick from a horse—entirely possible, since horses pulled the pharaoh's chariot.

Or was it a hippopotamus that killed Tut? Perhaps the pharaoh was in the wrong place at the wrong time—hunting on foot in a marsh when a hippo charged.

Today hippos are extinct in Egypt, but farther to the south in Africa these aggressive 3,000-pound (1,360-kilogram) creatures with powerful jaws and sharp incisors are legendary for their attacks. Victims may suffer massive tearing, deep puncture wounds, and crushed bones, any combination of which could be fatal.

Other experts have wondered if modern thieves—likely operating during World War II when Tut's tomb was unguarded—sawed through the pharaoh's ribs to remove the last beads stuck to the goop that coated his chest.

Flammable Materials

That goop features in the most surprising revelation of the upcoming television program: The great quantity of resins and oils that were poured over Tut's mummy to prepare him for eternity somehow burst into flames after the mummy had been sealed in several nested coffins.

That conclusion is based on tests done to a scrap of Tut's flesh, which was apparently collected at the time of the 1968 examination of the mummy.

Tut's mummy is, indeed, very black. But did a fire really turn him into a fried pharaoh?

Some Egyptologists believe that carbonization—a chemical reaction between the mummy and the resins, fostered by the stuffy heat of the tomb—turned Tut the color of Osiris.

But catching fire? Hard to imagine.

To begin with, Tut's mummy survives.

Does that mean the fire was serious enough to make him sizzle and char but not so hot that he was reduced to ashes? According to reports about the TV show, the researchers believe the fire burned at about 390°F (200°C). A modern cremation is much hotter, occurring at 1400 to 1800°F (760 to 982°C).

But even if mere charring were possible, the burial holds more evidence that argues against a fire.

King Tut wore a beaded linen cap on his shaved head. If his flesh had burned, wouldn't his cap show similar effects?

King Tut's mummy was decked out with jewelry—bracelets, necklaces, pendants, earrings, finger rings, and amulets galore, made of gold and silver set with precious stones such as carnelian, lapis lazuli, quartz, and turquoise. Many pieces are on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and none appears to have suffered fire damage.

In addition, King Tut had three coffins. The innermost one was solid gold. But the outer two were made of gilded wood. If there had been a fire inside the gold coffin, wouldn't that at least have left scorch marks on the wooden coffins?

Delicate Garlands

Then there are the garlands. When Howard Carter removed the lid of the outermost coffin, he found a linen shroud covered in plant remains—strings of olive, willow, and wild celery leaves, strips of papyrus entwined with lotus petals and cornflowers, and a wreath of cornflowers laid at the head. They're delicate and dried, as one would expect of plants picked 3,300 years ago and left in a desert tomb, not shriveled by the heat of a fire.

There was more to come. When Carter finally got to the innermost, solid-gold coffin, he found another linen shroud lying on top of the torso section. And curved beneath the shimmering likeness of the pharaoh's face lay a great multi-tiered garland of beads, berries, flowers, and leaves.

If there had been a fire, might the linen and the garland have been toast too, burnt by the blazing hot gold?

Of course, the media may have misunderstood the researchers' findings. Or inflated them. "King Tut crashed and burned" is the sort of line that is sure to attract readers, after all.

And the television show may still reveal compelling explanations for the more puzzling aspects of the case, and for the changes that occurred to blacken the pharaoh's flesh. But it's very likely that King Tut will continue to guard some of his mysteries—including the definitive reason for his death—as he has for so many centuries.

30 comments
Ziad Taha
Ziad Taha

Poor man the English bothered him RIP for many years that's why I want to be cremated so in 6000 years from now ediots won't find me and disturb me.

Zakiruddin Nasir
Zakiruddin Nasir

King Tut will always be a mystery despite advances in science

Jan Pultr
Jan Pultr

I doubt the oil and resin impregnated mummy burst into flames, as you need plenty of air ( Oxygen) to sustain a proper fire with flames. As the coffins were sealed, there was not enough of Oxygen.

But a low Oxidation could have (possibly) occurred.

Also, the fire would have left telltale signs on the coffins. None exist, as far as I know.

Eg Estella
Eg Estella

so ,there is no a certain conclusion?

steve thomson
steve thomson

why spend the precious time and energy on a dead man? guys thats over .........move on pls

larry Magid
larry Magid

I had seen on TV last year a special on King Tut that seemed pretty extensive. They concluded that he may have been in Lower Nubia hunting and did indeed have a chariot accident, hence he broke his leg. The researchers did an extensive DNA test on some of his acquired tissue and found definite  traces of a highly infective Malaria strain. The combination of the two, without the use of an antibiotic today, certainly could have been fatal.  A fractured leg with skin penetration could certainly have been attacked by m.e.r.s.a like Staph aureus infection which is often fatal today with modern medicine.  

Abby Roberts
Abby Roberts

What! that is really cool that they found that out!

Kat Cherk
Kat Cherk

What about the diseases? The bone disorder? Other studies say that he could not have ridden a chariot because he had a foot disorder and that he was to be carried around. And some blood disorder, what do the experts think of that? The DNA testings should have some story behind it.

Ignjo Sitarić
Ignjo Sitarić

Tutankhamun was the child Akhenaton (monotheist "counter-religion") and his sister. It is assumed that he died from an accident, it is suffering from a genetically transmitted disorders, such as severe bone disease and stunted foot and that the final cause of death was malaria. A possible murder because monotheism corresponding custodian Haremhab with the priests of Amun.


Kalana ජයසිංහ
Kalana ජයසිංහ

What if, King Tut was driving a Tesla Model S and crashed???

We all know now that even a simple road debri can burst it into flames... 

;)

Pun intended (Elon, don't get mad bro!)

aankit d.
aankit d.

what about the murder case? the hard blow on the back of his head resulting a fractured skull. I read a book( The murder of Tutankhamen) and it gave a possible cause for his death but did not mentioned anything about the black mummy or chariot

ZEINEB MESSAOUDI
ZEINEB MESSAOUDI

pourquoi veulent-ils tout à coup que ce soit le feu qui ait noirci sa chair, nous avons bien vu avec " la momie moderne " que la chair noirci naturellement au contact des sels et natrons? elle est noire et desséchée d'où les craquelures , la cage thoracique  c'est le médecin de Carter qui en est responsable, le genou du a un accident " mais n'était pas mortel" , la raison de la mort de TUT est toujours ignorée, mais l'or dément la question du feu 

Roger Sinden
Roger Sinden

Is it not amazing how "archeologists" can take a tooth and then create an entire history book around it?  Why not just state the obvious---the broken bones MAY indicate that Tut died in some violent manner?  But no, the world would shrug and go on to something more intriguing so a fictional tale is in order. These guys should really be in advertising.

José Toschi
José Toschi

"The resulting images were never released to the public..." And how about Dr. Zahi Hawass' books on the subject?

Jada Sndyer
Jada Sndyer

His chariot might have come to an sudden halt, and he could have flown over the top, in which case would most likely scare the horses into trampling him when he landed. These horses were most likely Arabians, high-spirited and flighty horses. It's the perfect scene at the wrong time for him, I suppose. 

J. Bolido
J. Bolido

Maybe he was on a tour to check around his "kingdom" then a major sandstorm(don't know if Egypt experiences sandstorm) occurred then King Tut's and his attendant's chariot crashed with each other. More likely a horse kicked him because of the panic. Haha It's just my opinion though. 

chris Dolan
chris Dolan

Chariot Crash.  Tut was texting while driving a chariot?  Well that explains why Tut was wrapped in bandages, but what about the other mummies?  Did they all get broken bones in a chariot accident requiring bandages?   

master  miner
master miner

@Vanuja Perera read it agen loser it is the real story

Trending News

Celebrating 125 Years

The Future of Food Series

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

See more food news, photos, and videos »