Who killed King Tut?

April 10, 1998

Was Tutankhamen murdered by anadviser who coveted his wife and his throne? Bob Brier follows up the leads ina 3,000-year-old mystery.

Tutankhamen is one of Egyptology's great mysteries. The most famous of Egypt's pharaohs, his was the only tomb found virtually intact in the Valley of the Kings. We have thousands of objects that he owned, but we do not even know for certain who his parents were. It took Howard Carter, the discoverer of the tomb, nearly a decade to remove and record all the treasures in the tomb, but in the end he felt that Tutankhamen had eluded him.

Tutankhamen's mummy revealed that he was indeed a boy-king, about 18 when he died, but the mummy was in such poor condition that the cause of death could not be determined. One thing for certain is that soon after his death there was a concerted attempt to destroy all evidence that Tutankhamen had ever existed. His name was erased wherever it appeared on monuments, never added to the ancient lists of the kings of Egypt and he slipped quietly into oblivion. If you had asked Cleopatra who Tutankhamen was, she would not have heard of him.

All Egyptologists agree Tutankhamen is an enigmatic pharaoh, but the accepted view is that there is not much we can do until new evidence turns up. Like most Egyptologists, I was not particularly interested in Tutankhamen. I had seen all the treasures in the Cairo Museum, escorted my students on study tours through his tomb in the Valley of the Kings but had not thought much about the long dead boy-king. I had my own speciality, mummies.

Then, a few years ago, I found myself watching a rerun of the BBC's series the Mask of Tutankhamen. I was about to turn it off when a professor appeared on the screen showing X-rays of Tutankhamen he had taken in 1968. He was R. G. Harrison, head of the anatomy department of the University of Liverpool, and he was explaining a curious dark mark on the lateral cranial X-ray of Tutankhamen. He said "it could have been caused by a haemorrhage under the membranes overlaying the brain in this region, and this could have been caused by a blow to the back of the head and this in turn could have been responsible for death.'' Now I was hooked.

On the screen came X-rays of Tutankhamen's chest, long bones, legs and arms. Tutankhamen had lived through the most tumultuous time in Egypt's glorious 3,000 years. There had been speculation before that he had been murdered, but could anything new be discovered? The X-rays gave me the idea that a thorough forensic investigation might put things in perspective. The evidence had never been examined with an eye to answering questions such as if he did die from a blow to the back of the head, was it immediate or did he linger? Was he healthy when he died or had he been ill?

I knew I would probably never be granted permission to examine Tutankhamen's mummy - it was sealed in his sarcophagus in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. But there were still the X-rays, photographs of his internal organs, the report of the 1925 autopsy on his mummy and other material known to the Egyptological community for years. What could be learned if it were all pulled together?

What academic could resist the temptation to play Hercule Poirot and try to solve a 3,000-year-old murder mystery? Over the next few years the puzzle became an obsession legitimised by the term "research". Even better, colleagues from other departments at Long Island University became intrigued by my research.

When I showed the cranial X-ray to our radiological technology department everyone jumped in. I never saw a radiologist who did not love a mummy X-ray. Gerald Irwin, our medical consultant was also head of radiology at Winthrop University Hospital and had considerable experience reading X-rays of head trauma victims. He noticed that near the site of the possible blow was an area of increased density. This could be from a calcified membrane formed over a blood clot - a chronic subdural haematoma - a phenomenon that takes a considerable time to develop. Tutankhamen may have lingered before dying.

Irwin also noted that the blow was in an unusual area for head trauma - at the back of the head at the point where the neck joins the skull. This is a well-protected spot, not where you hit your head when you fall backwards. Perhaps Tutankhamen was struck from behind, or while he was sleeping. This was all interesting stuff, but far from conclusive and certainly not proof of murder. As colleagues in criminal justice were quick to point out, even a bullet in the brain does not prove murder. You need motives, means, opportunities - you have to look at the circumstances surrounding the death. In the end, it was the circumstantial evidence that led me to conclude that Tutankhamen had been murdered.

Most Egyptologists agree Tutankhamen's father was Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh who tried to turn the religion of Egypt from polytheism to monotheism. When Akhenaten died after a 17-year reign, Egypt was in a shambles because of his neglect and only two members of the royal family survived - ten-year-old Tutankhamen and his half-sister, Ankhesenamen. The two were married to each other. Under the guidance of the old family adviser, Aye, Egypt returned to the old religion and normality was established. The old temples that Akhenaten had closed were reopened, statues of the gods were repaired and Egypt seemed on track to greatness once again. Then Tutankhamen died, leaving the widowed 19-year-old Ankhesenamen as the only surviving member of the ill-fated royal family. It is at this point the circumstances suggest murder.

Ankhesenamen wrote a letter to the Hittites, Egypt's traditional enemy, asking their king to send one of his sons to marry her. The Hittite prince would thus have become Egypt's ruler. We learn about this letter because the Hittites were great record-keepers. Excavations in Turkey have yielded thousands of clay tablets recording everything from land deeds to military exploits. At the beginning of this century a dig at the ancient capital of Bogazkoy found tablets chronicling the reign of King Suppiluliuma. The archive contained a quotation of Ankhesenamen's letter: "My husband died. A son I have not. But to thee, they say, thy sons are many. If thou wouldst give me one son of thine, he would become my husband. Never shall I pick out a servant of mine and make him my husband! I am afraid!" It is a remarkable letter and its desperate tone raises questions about Ankhesenamen's situation. Of whom is the Queen of Egypt afraid? Who is the "servant'' she does not want to marry. And, above all, why is she seeking a husband from Egypt's enemy? Even Suppiluliuma did not believe it and sent a messenger to see if the story were true. Eventually the Hittite king sent one of his sons to marry Ankhesenamen, but he was murdered on nearing Egypt's border. A Hittite never became king of Egypt.

Tutankhamen's successor was uncertain until the discovery of the young king's tomb. Painted on one of the tomb walls, however, is Tutankhamen's successor wearing the crown of Egypt and performing the opening of the mouth ceremony on Tutankhamen's mummy, giving him life and breath in the next world. It is the old family adviser, Aye. But how did Aye, a commoner, become king? The answer was found in a Cairo antiquity shop in the spring of 1931. Egyptologist Percy Newberry found an ancient blue ceramic finger ring with the cartouches of both Aye and Ankhesenamen. Such a combination of names on the same ring could mean only one thing. Aye had married the widowed Ankhesenamen. Newberry immediately wrote to Howard Carter: "My Dear Carter, It will interest you to know that I have just seen a finger-ring at Blanchard's which has on it the cartouche of Ankhesenamen alongside the prenomen of King Aye. This can only be interpreted as meaning that King Aye has married Ankhesenamen the widow of Tutankhamen. The ring is of blue glaze and was found somewhere in the Eastern Delta."

It looks as if Aye was the "servant'' Ankhesenamen so desperately wanted to avoid marrying but, as in any good murder mystery, there is a problem. Newberry had seen and copied the ring, which was probably sold to a tourist unaware of its historical significance. As the decades passed, some Egyptologists began to doubt its existence. Fortunately in the 1970s a ring almost identical to Newberry's was purchased by the figyptisches Museum in Berlin. The ring had never been displayed and I wanted to confirm its existence. I called the museum and spoke with a curator who told me she had never heard of such a ring. After my initial shock, we realised what had happened. Berlin's two Egyptian collections had recently been combined and curators were not yet familiar with each other's collections. The ring was indeed located and a month later I held the fragile bit of evidence in my hand.

So Aye became pharaoh by marrying the desperate Ankhesenamen. We know for sure that the Prince was murdered, and possibly Tutankhamen, but what happened to Ankhesenamen? The last we hear of her is the letter to the Hittite king; she then disappears from history. She is not mentioned on the walls of Aye's tomb in the Valley of the Kings, and her tomb, if she ever had one, has never been found. Could she too have been murdered?

It is a great story and there are plenty more clues - the remains of the meal eaten by the mourners on the day Tutankhamen was placed in his tomb still exists, in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then there are the hundreds of objects from the tomb on display in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. But the most touching of all are the two foetuses Ankhesenamen miscarried. They were mummified and buried in Tutankhamen's tomb.

When I examined them in Cairo's Kasr el Einy Hospital I could not help thinking that if either of the two little girls (one was eight months and the other five) had lived, the royal line would have continued and a tragedy might have been averted. The line ended with the deaths of Tutankhamen and Ankhesenamen, but not the story. Aye ruled only a few years and when he died all traces of his name were hacked out of his monuments and tomb. Today he is known only by Egyptologists, primarily because of his association with the boy-king he may have murdered.

Bob Brier is professor of philosophy at the C. W. Post campus of Long Island University. He is the author of The Murder of Tutankhamen, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, Pounds 20.00.

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