Was the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun Murdered?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: History of Ancient Egypt

By: Professor Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

Tutankhamun was one of the most famous pharaohs of ancient Egypt, even though he ruled only for ten years and died at a very young age of 18. He is often referred to as the ‘boy-king’. His mummy was discovered in its intact form in his tomb in 1922 by the British archaeologist Howard Carter. Tutankhamun’s tomb enabled archaeologists to learn a lot about the young pharaoh and his life. The mystery behind his death ,however, remains unsolved. Did King Tut die a natural death or was it murder?

Entrance to Tutankhamun's tomb
Tutankhamun’s mummy was found intact inside the tomb that rests in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. This image shows the entrance to Tutankhamun’s tomb. (Image: Nick Brundle/Shutterstock)

Learn more about the first nation in history.

X-Ray of Tutankhamun’s Tomb

Tutankhamun’s tomb enabled archaeologists to learn about his life in the ancient period. This is one of the original photos of Tutankhamun’s mummy. (Image: Howard Carter/Public domain)

From the early examination of Tutankhamun’s tomb, archaeologists were able to learn little of his life. In the 1960s, however, a more scientific examination of the tomb was planned. The mummy, that was inside the tomb, was going to be x-rayed for the first time. X-ray equipment were bought to the Valley of the Kings, where Tutankhamun’s tomb is. Archaeologists did not want to bring out the mummy, so a portable x-ray machine had to be brought in and Professor R.G. Harrison, a professor of anatomy, oversaw the x-raying. The x-ray revealed interesting results. First, it confirmed that Tutankhamun was about 18 years old when he died. It was his autopsy that led archaeologists to believe that he was murdered. Dr. Harrison had an x-ray of the skull of Tutankhamun that pointed to a spot where it looked like there was a bump. Dr. Harrison quoted that, “It could have been caused by a hemorrhage under the membranes overlaying the brain in this region. It could have been caused by a blow to the back of the head, which in turn could have caused death.”

The x-ray of Tutankhamun’s skull does not just provide information about the cause of his death, but also how he was mummified. A detailed look at the x-ray of the skull shows what looks like a very thick bone at the top of the skull. However, the x-ray revealed that it was not a bone, but an extraordinarily thick skull! At the time of Tutankhamun’s mummification, the brain was removed because it would rot and decay. But after the brain was removed, hot tree resin was poured through the nose into the braincase, into the cranium to cauterize the area. As a result, it pooled at the back of the head and solidified, and that was the bone-type structure that was seen in the x-ray. The x-ray also shows a loose bone floating in the cranium. However, that is not proof of murder. It was a bone that was maybe dislodged by the embalmers when they were embalming him. One could tell that it was post-mortem because it would be stuck in the resin if it happened before.

Know more about Tutankhamun’s death from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Circumstances Surrounding Tutankhamun’s Death

Tutankhamun married his stepsister Ankhesenamen, who was a year older to him. This image shows Tutankhamun with his wife, Ankhesenamen. (Image: Tiger cub/Public domain)

The x-ray of Tutankhamun’s mummy provides the physical evidence of his death, but it never proved murder. While investigating a murder, it is necessary that one looks at the circumstances surrounding the physical evidence. Dr. Harrison was not an Egyptologist, hence he had no idea about the circumstances under which Tutankhamun lived. Tutankhamun died suddenly at the age of 18 and was hastily buried in a very small tomb. The embalmers had only 70 days for mummification. The entire mummification ritual took 70 days and everything that needed to be put in Tutankhamun’s tomb had to be prepared within those days.

Tutankhamun left behind a widow, Ankhesenamen, his wife, who was about 19 years old at the time of his death. It is crucial to remember that when they were married, they were the only two royal people alive. She was now the last surviving member of the royal family going down from Hatshepsut, and Tuthmosis III, and Amenhotep. To ensure her survival, she wrote a letter to the Hittite king.

Ankhesenamen Requests the Hittite King’s Help

During Tutankhamun’s rule, the Hittites ruled the area, which is modern-day Turkey. They were one of the traditional enemies of Egypt and had been battling it out for a long time. They did not share a friendly relationship, and Ankhesenamen’s letter to the Hittite king came as a big surprise. In her letter, Ankhesenamen wrote, “My husband has died. I have no sons. They say that you have many sons. Send me one of your sons, and I will marry him and make him the king of Egypt.” She ends her letter saying that she was afraid. She was the queen of Egypt and this raises the question—what was she afraid of? Her letter provides the answer. She wrote, “Never will I marry a servant of mine.” In this case, “a servant of mine” refers to a commoner. It sounds like for some reason this 19-year-old widow was afraid of being forced to marry a commoner. This raises one more question—who would threaten the queen of Egypt?

The Hittite king, however, did not believe the letter and sent an ambassador to Egypt to verify its contents. When the information turned out to be true, the king sent a prince to marry the widowed queen. There are Hittite records that show that a Hittite prince had actually traveled to Egypt, but there are no Egyptian records to support it. Unfortunately, the Hittite prince was murdered on the borders of Egypt before he entered the country. For a prince who was going to become the king of Egypt to be murdered was a bold and outrageous move. It had to be an official government-sponsored hit. If so, who authorized it?

All these circumstances led archaeologists to believe that Tutankhamun did not die a natural death but was murdered. He became the king when he was just 8 years old, which gave power-hungry nobles and officials the opportunity to plot and conspire against him.

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Commonly Asked Questions About Tutankhamun’s Death

Q: When was a scientific examination of Tutankhamun’s tomb planned?

In the 1960s, a more scientific examination of Tutankhamun’s tomb was planned.

Q: Who was responsible for x-raying Tutankhamun’s mummy?

Professor R.G. Harrison, a professor of anatomy, was responsible for x-raying Tutankhamun’s mummy.

Q: Who were the Hittites?

During Tutankhamun’s rule, the Hittites ruled the area which is the modern-day Turkey. They were one of the traditional enemies of Egypt and had been battling it out for a long time.

Q: Why did Ankhesenamen write a letter to the king of the Hittites after Tutankhamun’s death?

After Tutankhamun’s death, his wife, Ankhesenamen, wrote a letter to the Hittites king because she was afraid that she would be forced to marry a commoner and wanted to ensure her survival.

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