King Tut Mummy Scanned -- Could Solve Murder Mystery

Ted Chamberlain
National Geographic News
January 6, 2005
Was Tutankhamun murdered? In an effort to solve that mystery and others, scientists CT-scanned the 3,000-year-old mummy of the ancient Egyptian king yesterday.

In 1968 an x-ray of "King Tut" revealed a bone fragment in his skull. Ever since, rumors have swirled that a blow to the head had killed the boy king. The break, though, could also be explained by a fall or a mishap during mummification.

The three-dimensional image that will be created from yesterday's CT scan will be many times more informative than any x-ray. As such, it may help uncover just how Tutankhamun died.

"Through the scan, we hope to learn about any diseases Tut had, any kind of injuries, his actual age, and maybe more about how he died," project leader Zahi Hawass said in a press statement. Head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, Hawass also serves as a National Geographic explorer-in-residence.

The answers will only come after Hawass and his team have undertaken the time-consuming task of analyzing the scans.

How They Did It

Though not exactly Egypt's most illustrious pharaoh, Tutankhamun arguably became the most famous when his treasure-filled tomb was discovered in 1922 (see photos of tomb treasures). He was about 18 or 19 when his reign was cut short by his death in 1323 B.C.

Tutankhamun's low status in the pantheon of pharaohs is underscored by the relatively cramped quarters of his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, which is where Hawass and his team began their delicate operation yesterday.

The team first removed the stone lid from his sarcophagus. They then lifted up the wooden box containing the rarely seen mummy and slowly carried it out into daylight.

A van outfitted with a CT-scanning machine was waiting just outside the tomb. (The original plan—to transport the fragile mummy to Cairo for scanning—was canceled due to public protest.)

Inside the van the scientists pulled aside layers of cloth swathing the king. Still in its box, the mummy was fed into the CT (or CAT) scanner for about 15 minutes, during which some 1,700 cross-sectional images were taken.

Only the Beginning

The Tutankhamun CT scan is only the first step in a five-year endeavor to scan and preserve the ancient mummies of Egypt, many of which are crumbling. Partly through the scans, the effort also aims to solve mysteries pertaining to the diseases and lifestyles of ancient Egyptians.

Called the Egyptian Mummy Project, the effort is supported by the National Geographic Society and Siemens Medical Solutions of Germany. As project leader, Hawass is in charge of archaeologists, conservators, paleopathologists, epidemiologists, radiologists, and physicians from around the world.

"Protecting the mummies and all that we can learn from them is extremely important to Egypt and the world," Hawass said. "The mummies represent 3,000 years of Egyptian history."

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