In 1922, a team led by Howard Carter discovered the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun, which had been untouched for over 3,000 years. They could never have imagined what they unleashed: Tutmania that swept across the world, tales of the boy king’s curse that still enchant audiences a century later, and treasures of glittering gold that are second to none. But there’s one mystery that holds a special place in the popular imagination: how did Tut end up in that tomb in the first place?
King Tut’s Life
Tutankhamun was probably the son of Egypt’s infamous heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten. Following his father’s death, Tut came to the throne at around 9 years old and presided over a sharp conservative pivot that undid his father’s Aten-focused religious reforms and embraced traditional Egyptian polytheism. Tut did this with the guidance of two key advisors: Ay and Horemheb. Tut married his sister Ankhesenamun and he likely conceived two daughters with her, although neither of them survived birth and their mummified fetal remains were later discovered in their father’s tomb.
Tut’s brief reign is shrouded in mystery. Aside from the restoration of the old gods and hints of minor campaigning in Asia, we know surprisingly little about what transpired during his reign. We can say that Egypt was unprepared for his death in year 9 or 10 of his reign when Tut was just 18-19 years old. Even his tomb was unfinished and he ended up in a smaller tomb that was probably originally intended for Ay. Ay would follow Tut onto the throne, leading to speculation that perhaps he had a hand in the young king’s premature demise, only to be succeeded by Horemheb after a few years. Horemheb took a hammer and chisel to all records of Tutankhamun, Ay, and the heretical legacy of Akhenaten.
Perhaps the most popular theory is that Tut was murdered. This theory was popularized by renowned Egyptologist Robert Brier who argued that damage to the back of Tut’s skull identified in a 1968 x-ray was consistent with a fatal blow to the back of the head. Brier suggested that Tut had been murdered by some sinister agent who felt that the young king got in the way of their own plans.
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Brier supports this theory with other circumstantial evidence. Tut’s widow Ankhesenamun wrote an astounding letter to the Hittite King Suppiluliuma requesting a Hittie prince for her to marry and rule alongside. In one of those letters, she ominously wrote, “I will not marry a servant of mine. I am afraid.” Brier suggests that the widowed queen was aware, or at least suspected, that Tut had been murdered by someone in Egypt and could only turn to foreigners in her time of need. This plan failed when the Hittite Prince Zannanza was killed en route to Egypt and Ankhesenamun herself disappeared from history. Perhaps they had both shared in King Tut’s fate.
Who Was the Culprit?
There are three obvious suspects in the murder. The first is Ay, the powerful courtier who became Tutankhamun’s successor. Ay obviously did well out of Tut’s death, which gives him a motive. Such a powerful man with a military background and access to the king could have had any number of resources at his disposal to dispatch Tut. Ay had the means, motive, and opportunity to dispatch his sovereign, and his succession fits the mold of a scheming advisor murdering the noble young king to seize the crown for himself.
The second suspect is Horemheb. Horemheb was a powerful man in Tut’s court and his title of Hereditary Prince is believed by some Egyptologists to have been an indication that Horemheb was Tut’s provisional heir. If this was the case, then Horemheb stood to gain from his death but was outmaneuvered by Ay in the wake of the murder. Proponents of the Horemheb murder theory suggest that his complete absence from Tut’s tomb could have been because Ay and the remaining officials knew or suspected that Horemheb had killed Tut. Horemheb eventually became Pharaoh after Ay’s death and engaged in a thorough campaign of erasure that wiped out all traces of Ay, Tutankhamun, and Akhenaten from official and public records. Was this a manifestation of a deep-seated hatred that could have motivated the murder of Tut as well? Was Horemheb wiping away his own shame by getting rid of any reference to the boy he murdered? We don’t know, but Horemheb’s power in court, the possibility that he was the intended successor, and his erasure of King Tut paint a suspicious picture.
A third suspect is Tut’s sister-wife Anhkesenamun. Perhaps Ankhesenamun’s letter to the Hittites was no desperate plea, but a calculated effort to seize power for herself. By marrying a foreign prince with no power basis in Egypt, Ankhesenamun could have effectively taken control of Egypt. Such a thing was not unprecedented. Ankhesenamun was the descendant of Queen Hatshepshut and, of course, the daughter of Nefertiti who probably reigned in her own right under the name Neferneferuaten. Powerful women were something of an 18th Dynasty staple. Did Ankhesenamun dispatch her brother-husband to secure her own rule? We simply don’t know the nature of their relationship. Artwork from Tut’s tomb portrays a happy couple, but the reality could have been anything but.
Did Ay scheme his way onto a throne he had no claim to? Did Horemheb decide to ensure his succession before an alternative heir could be born? Did Ankhesenamun dispatch her own brother to claim power? Let’s take a look at the counter-evidence before deciding.
The murder theory is popular, but it has its flaws. Closer inspections of the mummy in 2005 and 2016 revealed that the damage to the back of the skull was not a fatal murder blow but a side effect of the mummification process. Brier himself immediately conceded the point and accepted that the ‘blow to the head’ theory had been disproven. Brier maintains that the circumstantial evidence favors a murder, but he now suggests it was done through other means. Poison or some other injury that the mummy has not yet revealed for example, but there is no compelling physical evidence to support such a theory at this time.
Others caution against wild speculation about potential suspects and motivations. We simply do not have the evidence to construct a robust picture of politics or the desires of Ay, Horemheb, or Ankhesenamun. Speculation that Ay was a scheming power-hungry manipulator, that Horemheb was an ambitious man willing to kill for the throne, or that Ankhesenamun would kill her last family for power belong more to the realm of historical fiction than historical fact. For all we know, Ay, Horemheb, and Ankhesenamun all adored Tut and were distraught at his sudden death. Their later actions could simply be their reaction to disastrous events rather than a continuation of some sinister scheme or other.
Despite its popularity, the murder theory ultimately rests on little more than speculation. With the ‘blow to the head’ theory debunked, and no clear physical, textual, or archaeological evidence to support the rest, the murder theory remains just that.
2. The Chariot Crash
Another popular theory for Tut’s death is that he was involved in a fatal chariot accident. Significant damage to other parts of Tut’s body has led some scholars to suggest that severe physical trauma killed the boy king, and a chariot accident is one of the only explanations for this. Chariots were an essential part of leisure and warfare for elites in Ancient Egypt. Not only do we have several artistic depictions of Tut riding one, but Tut’s tomb provided no less than 6 disassembled chariots. This theory suggests that a training exercise or hunting trip with one such chariot turned fatal.
The physical evidence for this is threefold: missing ribs, a broken leg, and a missing heart. It was argued that Tut’s ribcage and heart were damaged beyond repair in an accident that also caused a break in his left leg. The physical trauma from this damage would have been undeniably fatal, and if he didn’t die on impact then he would have bled out within minutes.
Although this theory enjoyed some brief popularity, further investigation has all but demolished it. Firstly, one would expect more conspicuous damage from a catastrophic chariot accident. The mummy dubbed the KV35 ‘Younger Lady’ — which a controversial DNA study concluded to be Tut’s own mother — shows catastrophic damage to one cheek that many believe was a horse or chariot accident. If a similar fate befell Tut, the damage would have been considerable. Secondly, photos from Carter’s excavation show that Tut’s missing ribs were present when the mummy was first uncovered. The ribs were damaged or removed sometime between 1922 and a 1968 study, probably by robbers during the Second World War, not by a 3,000-year-old chariot crash.
As a result, there are few Egyptologists who would support a chariot crash theory for Tut’s death today.
3. The Broken Leg
There is something that the chariot crash theory raises that invites more speculation: Tutankhamun has a compound fracture in his left leg. The presence of embalming fluid within the break and the lack of any signs of healing suggest that the break occurred shortly before he died and never had time to heal. It’s a proverbial smoking gun.
The break could have caused his death in several ways. The most likely scenario is that the break got infected and Tut shared the fate of countless others in a pre-antibiotic world. Alternatively, Tut might have been afflicted with other health problems and the break was just an additional strain that weakened him and overwhelmed his body — the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The circumstances of such a break could be many. Perhaps a minor chariot accident really did kill Tut, just not as dramatically as its theorists originally suggested. A trip down the stairs, an accident while hunting, or even a fall from his bed, could explain the injury. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but there is broad agreement among Egyptologists that Tut indeed broke his leg shortly before his death. Whether it was the fatal element in Tut’s last days is impossible to be certain of.
Another persuasive theory is that Tut died from malaria. A 2010 study of Tut’s mummy found evidence that Tut suffered from repeated malarial infections throughout his life. As with the leg infection theory, Tut would hardly be alone in this cause of death, even among ancient royals. Malaria remains a popular theory for the death of Alexander and is a perfectly reasonable explanation for Tut too.
Malaria can kill on its own easily enough, but the malaria theory is often combined with the broken leg to suggest that the two combined to overwhelm his immune system and send the boy king to an early grave.
It sounds like a simple answer but not everyone is convinced. Tut having signs of past malarial infection is no guarantee that he was infected at the time of death. In all likelihood, practically everyone in Egypt in this period would have had malaria at some point so we cannot assume that Tut died of it simply because he’d been infected before.
While malaria would make sense, we cannot conclude with certainty that it was what killed him. Despite this, malaria is probably the most popular explanation for modern Egyptology, although it must be said that the most popular theories have been proved wrong plenty of times in the past.
5. A Cocktail of Complications
A broken leg and malaria isn’t the only combination of health problems that Egyptologists have theorized. Analysis of Tut’s mummy and family has suggested a long list of genetic and medical conditions that could have affected the Pharaoh. These include, but are not limited to: Marfan Syndrome, Kinefelter syndrome, Frolich syndrome, scoliosis, and sickle cell anemia. Not all of the suspected conditions would have been fatal, but they are indicative of Tut’s dire genetic heritage. DNA studies strongly support the idea that Tut was the product of an incestuous relationship between siblings or cousins. Incest was common in Egyptian royal life and Tut could have been descended from dozens of incestuous relationships stretching back to the start of the 18th dynasty.
One interesting diagnosis from 2012 was that Tut inherited temporal lobe epilepsy through his paternal line. Epilepsy is a fascinating diagnosis because it is often held up as a rational explanation for religious visions or experiences in historical figures. Moreover, epileptic seizures can be induced by light, such as from the sun. It might not be a coincidence that two of Tut’s direct male ancestors — his father Akhenaten during the Amarna revolution and his great-grandfather Thutmose IV on the ‘Dream Stela’ at Giza — spoke of intense religious experiences relating to the sun or light. Even his grandfather Amenhotep III displayed an unusual affinity for the solar deity Aten. Inherited epilepsy in the late 18th dynasty males could offer a rational explanation for the religious reforms that shook Egypt in this period. As well as being potentially fatal in themselves, such seizures could also cause falls, choking, or other injuries that could have spelled the end for King Tut.
The list of genetic conditions that Tut has been diagnosed with seems endless. However, Egyptologists like Zahi Hawass stress that these diagnoses should be made with caution. Whether mummies can even preserve reliable DNA or genetic material that would support a diagnosis is up for debate. Even if these conditions were established, it does not follow that Tutankhamun died from any of them. In our eagerness to solve the mystery of his final days, we should not rush to diagnose him with everything under the sun and hope one of them sticks.
The Bottom Line
The unfortunate conclusion is that we don’t know exactly what killed Tutankhamun. On the current evidence, a broken leg and a malarial infection are the most likely culprits but neither diagnosis is categorical. Technological advances might yield new clues that force us to rewrite the history books once again in the coming years and the popular theories of today might be ridiculed tomorrow.
Our obsession with the death of Tutankhamun reflects the way he comes to us. He came to us in a tomb and even his most recognizable image was his death mask. Few people have been so defined by their death and our enchantment with the treasures of the tomb of Tutankhamun has always carried with it a morbid fascination with how he ended up there.
As Howard Carter said, “the mystery of his life still eludes us… the shadows move but the dark is never quite dispersed.” That is equally true of Tut’s death. His treasures and his mortal remains may have been exposed to the world, but Egypt’s most famous Pharaoh still keeps some of his secrets to himself.