King Tut Died in Hunting Accident, Expert Says

Steven Stanek in Cairo, Egypt
for National Geographic News
October 23, 2007
King Tutankhamun likely died after falling from his chariot while hunting, Egypt's top archaeologist says in an upcoming TV documentary, offering new insights into the boy pharaoh's long-debated death.

Tutankhamun is widely thought to have died of an infection stemming from a broken leg, after CT scans in 2005 revealed a severe fracture in his left thighbone, challenging theories that he had been murdered.

"He had an accident when he was hunting in the desert," said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who has overseen recent examinations of the pharaoh's mummy.

"Falling from the chariot made this fracture in his left leg, and this really is in my opinion how he died."

Hawass made the comments in the film Tutankhamun: Secrets of the Boy King, a documentary scheduled to air October 30 on Britain's Channel Five.

(Hawass is a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence. National Geographic News is a division of the National Geographic Society.)

The new theory stems largely from examinations of some of the 5,000 artifacts found in the king's tomb, which suggest he was an active, sporting young man and not the sheltered and fragile boy often portrayed by history.

Mystery Solved?

Among the evidence for the theory are at least two chariots entombed with the king that show signs of frequent use, presumably by Tut himself.

"There is something greasy, something that made it easy for the wheel to move on the axle," said Nadia Lokma, general director of conservation of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

"The movement from the wheel on the axle also left a deep line."

Lokma said she found these clues when she restored one of the pharaoh's chariots in the 1980s, but they only surfaced recently during interviews with British filmmakers.

The new documentary film also investigates the clothing discovered in Tut's tomb, including a specially designed corset that was likely worn as protection while riding at high speeds.

The tomb also contained hundreds of arrowheads that show evidence of having been fired and retrieved, the film reports.

Additional clues come from the floral arrangement that adorned the king's neck at the time of his burial.

The garland contained cornflowers and mayweed, which only bloom in the spring, setting up a timetable for the pharaoh to have died around hunting season.

"If the plants were alive when they were put in the tomb, they must have been in flower at the time, and then so you can deduce that it was spring," Nigel Hepper, a botanist with Britain's Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said.

"The time for the mummification process would take about six weeks … so you can then push that back and say he died something like the beginning of December or January," which was the middle of the winter hunting season, he added.

An Active King

The new theory of Tut's death comes as perceptions of the boy king are changing.

Though he has commonly been depicted as a sickly and overprotected boy, most evidence suggests he was a robust and active adolescent who was probably a well-trained sportsman, experts say.

"There's been, to some extent, a perception in the past of Tut as the 'tragic' boy king," said John Coleman Darnell, an Egyptologist at Yale University and author of a recent book called Tutankhamun's Armies.

"I think this has been done less in terms of looking at the evidence and what we know and more to sort of heighten the pathos of the wealth of the tomb and the fact that he wasn't terribly old when he died."

Other experts agree that Tutankhamun was a highly active ruler.

"There is certainly plenty of evidence to suggest that he was not only an archer, but also a good charioteer," said David P. Silverman, an Egyptologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who wrote text for the King Tut exhibition currently on a world tour (learn more about the King Tut exhibition).

"He came from the Tuthmosis family, who were well known earlier in the dynasty as military men and also huntsmen," Silverman explained.

Various artifacts also bear depictions of Tut in the act of hunting, Silverman said.

Darnell, of Yale, said Tut would have used a chariot often, as it was common for pharoahs of his era to present themselves as powerful warriors and take every opportunity to highlight their physical prowess.

"He would have used a chariot in ritual setting," Darnell said.

"He would have used it in ritualized shooting displays, riding the chariot, shooting his bows from the chariot. He might very possibly have used it on military campaigns.

"There would have been all these times when Tut would have been expected—and Tut would have expected himself—to get in the chariot," he added.

If Tut were injured in a chariot accident, Darnell said, it would be impossible to tell exactly what he was doing when he died, but the hunting scenario put forth by Hawass is as good an explanation as any.

"I would say it makes a nice story," he added. "It's a good scenario."

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