Five things science has told us about Tutankhamun’s mummy

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One hundred years ago, our understanding of ancient Egypt changed forever when King Tutankhamun’s tomb was found on November 4, 1922 in the Valley of the Kings. Born around 1305 BC, Tutankhamun ruled Egypt for only about ten years. Yet his grave was stocked with riches never seen before.

Our passion for mummies is understandable. Looking into the face of a prehistoric Egyptian king makes these ethereal and majestic rulers seem more real. The discovery of Tutankhamun in his original resting place, complete with all of his possessions, makes us feel a connection to a primeval past. He takes us back in time to the funeral of a young king.

Studies of Tutankhamun’s life are often overshadowed by the sensational rumors surrounding the discovery of his tomb, such as the lingering whispers of a curse. But if we allow gossip to hinder the vision of the person Tutankhamun, we will get lost.

1. Tutankhamun’s death is still a mystery

It is difficult to find out why someone who lived a long time ago died. Tutankhamun is no exception. People in ancient Egypt lived shorter lives because they didn’t have the same health care we have. But Tutankhamun died around the age of 19, which was also young for ancient Egypt.

Recently, studies using X-rays, CT scans and DNA tests showed that Tutankhamun had malaria, along with other medical conditions such as cleft palate. He also broke his leg shortly before he died. This information helps us build a picture of Tutankhamun’s health before his death. However, it doesn’t tell us exactly how he died, except there is no sign that he was murdered.

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2. He was buried with flowers

When Tutankhamun’s tomb was opened in 1922, he wore a collar made of flowers. They were in good condition because they were sealed inside the coffin with him. Funeral bouquets have been found on other mummies. But this is the only royal burial where all the flowers were found just as the ancient mourning Egyptians left them.

Flowers were important to the ancient Egyptians, who painted images of flower gardens on the walls of their tombs. Flowers were admired for their beauty, their scent and for symbolic reasons. Studies of the flowers and fruits used in the collar show that Tutankhamun was buried between mid-March and late April. Preparing his body for burial would have taken 70 days, which means Tutankhamun most likely died in the winter.

3. Tutankhamun’s appearance was preserved with special techniques

The ancient Egyptians followed a “recipe” when they mummified a person. After removing the brain and internal organs, a salt called natron was used to dry the body. This produced a mummy that could survive for thousands of years but had a shrunken and gaunt appearance.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the soul, or Ka, needed to return to its body to exist in the afterlife, but the Ka had to be able to recognize its body. So, to make his face look more realistic than him, substances like resin were pushed under the skin of Tutankhamun’s face to plump it up.

Until recently it was assumed that Tutankhamun was embalmed quickly and badly because he died suddenly. But the most recent CT scans show this is not true. Preparing the face would take time and skill.

4. Tutankhamun had company on his journey to the afterlife

It is difficult to escape the mental image of Tutankhamun lying in his tomb in splendid isolation. He was not, however, the only person buried in the grave. Two miniature coffins were found in a wooden box in the tomb’s treasury.

A study published in 2011 showed that these coffins contained two female fetuses. One was about five to six months of gestation, the other was about nine months of gestation, dying at or around the time of birth. It is very likely that these are the daughters of Tutankhamun and his wife Ankhesenamun and that they died before their father.

It is rare to find a mummified fetus. The ancient Egyptians mummified some children but this too was rare. The loss of his children was obviously very important to Tutankhamun, so he wanted them with him in the afterlife.

5. Fame hasn’t always been kind to Tutankhamun

As many of our celebrities today will testify, fame isn’t always good for you. This is certainly the case with Tutankhamun, whose fame has resulted in overzealous scientific studies and damage to his body.

Tutankhamun is probably the most studied mummy in the world, with the possible exception of Otzi the Iceman. The most recent studies of Tutankhamun using sophisticated CT scans have shown that his body is no longer intact or even complete.

The first study took place in 1925, shortly after its discovery. In their eagerness to see Tutankhamun himself, the anatomists who studied him forcibly removed him from his coffin while he was attached to it with resin. The rough treatment separated the limbs and head from the torso.

Tutankhamun is the only known royal mummy left in his tomb in Egypt. At some point, perhaps during World War II, his tomb was re-entered by one or more unknown people. Some of Tutankhamun’s ribs were cut and removed in search of amulets or jewelry.

Science has helped us understand more about Tutankhamun’s health, life, and preparation for the afterlife. His legacy is not just a study of his personal life. It’s a record of how science fuels our fascination with the boy king.

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Jenefer Metcalfe works for the University of Manchester, UK.

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