Who, or what, Killed Tutankhamen? 

One of the biggest mysteries of archaeology is who, or what, killed the pharaoh Tutankhamen.

Tutankhamen lived about 3,000 years ago and was born in a time of turmoil in Egypt brought about by huge religious changes made by his predecessor, the pharaoh Akenathan. Tutankhamen became pharaoh at the age of 15 and died under mysterious circumstances, to be replaced by the head of the army.  

In 1924 an expedition to the Valley of the Kings, led by Harold Carter and financed by Lord Carnarvon, discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen. Remarkably it was almost intact and contained a vast quantity of priceless ancient treasure. Even more remarkable, it also contained the intact mummy of Tutankhamen himself, protected by the magnificent death mask in the photograph. Almost immediately a myth arose about the curse of Tutankhamen, so that anyone associated with the breaking in of the tomb was cursed forever. The death of Lord Carnarvon shortly after the discovery of the tomb only encouraged the rumour to spread!

One of the big mysteries surrounding the mummy was: How did Tutankhamen die? This is a very hard question to answer as the process of mummification, during which the internal organs and brain are removed, causes much damage to the dead body, destroying many of the clues about the cause of death. In the 1960s, the mummy was X-Rayed and it was concluded from the X-Ray images that Tutankhamen had been killed by a blow to the head. However, the quality of the images was not high enough for this conclusion to be certain.

Wanting to be sure, in 2005 Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Antiquities (SCA), decided to use more modern imaging methods to see why Tutankhamen had died. In an investigation sponsored by National Geographic Magazine, his mummy was very carefully scanned inside a CAT scanner. Below we can see a photo of the mummy about to be scanned with Zahi Hawass looking on.

The results of the investigation were surprising! The blow to the head turned out not to be the cause of Tutankhamen’s death. Instead this was just the results of damage during the mummification process. However, what was discovered was a huge swelling around Tutankhamen’s knee. This was a swelling that showed no signs of healing, and that he must have had on the day that he died.

The conclusion was that the swelling was the result of a massive infection which would have been more than enough to have killed Tutankhamen. The most likely cause of this was some sort of injury that may have arisen as a result of a serious fall. Perhaps he died as a result of an accident from falling from his chariot. Of course, the question remains, did he fall or was he pushed? That question remains a mystery that even a CAT scanner cannot solve.