February 6, 2008

The Boy King | Tutankhamun

1341 BC - 1323 BC: Age 18

Tutankhamun is the most famous pharaoh today, but this is so by virtue of his obscurity: his tomb was robbed only two or so times before being forgotten. It was buried by stone chips from subsequent tombs, either dumped there or washed there by floods, and eventually some workers built their huts over the entrance, oblivious to the riches beneath. Within two hundred years, at a time when all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were being dismantled, his was overlooked, and possibly even his name was forgotten.

In 1922, more than 3,000 years after his death, Howard Carter discovered the tomb, setting off a mania for all things Egyptian that has continued to this day. By post-20th Dynasty standards the tomb was in fantastic shape, still full of treasure and many things in their proper place, relatively undisturbed. He was able to photograph things like a tiny wreath of olive leaves and flowers on one of the king's sarcophagi: flowers that had bloomed three millenia before. It took eight years to clean out the tomb, carefully recording every detail.

Tutankhamun was only nine when he became pharaoh. His parentage is uncertain, as it's not specified exactly in the writings ("king's son" — pretty vague) but it seems likely he was the son or grandson of Akhenaten. He was married to his half-sister or aunt, and they had two babies who died very young, probably stillborn. During his short rule, the spiritual innovations of Akhenaten were being reversed (they centred around elevating a single minor deity, Aten, to one-god status).

Well-fed teenagers don't generally just drop dead, even 3,000 years ago. His remains have been X-rayed three times since the tomb was opened: in 1968, 1978 and 2005 (when a CT scan was also performed). Notable findings included a great deal of physical information, especially from the CT scan, leading to the National Geographic-sponsored recreation of his face and head (shown above). He had a "slightly" cleft palate and an elongated head, both family traits, and he was 5 feet 11 inches tall, taller than originally supposed. Initial speculation was that he was murdered, as the first set of X-rays seemed to reveal a dense spot at the lower back of his skull, the spot that normally only gets knocked by bad guys with coshes sneaking up from behind. This theory is doubted now as the CT scan revealed no such spot.

So what killed him? The most likely theory is based on evidence of a severe fracture to his left leg. It was initially thought to have been caused either by embalmers or by Carter and his team (they had to do some pretty hairy things to peel that gold mummy-form sarcophaguss off him, including sawing the body into sections. The CT scan confirmed that the fracture happened before death, probably just a few or hours before. The consensus at the moment seems to be that he died of an infection after severely fracturing his leg, falling from a height. A likely cause would be a chariot accident. Which would mean that, like so many tragic teenagers today, Tut died in a car crash.

The new National Geographic exhibition "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" is in London now, and will be in Dallas in October.

Lots of fun extras here. Now that the tomb is open to the public, the small amounts of humidity and warmth finding their way into the tomb have been accelerating the decomposition of Tut's body. On November 4, 2007, 85 years to the day since Carter discovered the tomb, Egyptian curators lifted the linen-wrapped mummy from its sarcophagus to put it on display in a climate-controlled glass box. And YouTube has it for you to view.

The Boy King has inspired a lot of fun in recent years. When a large exhibition of his artifacts toured the world 30 years ago, it was a sensation. The brilliantly funny Steve Martin did a classic routine on it on Saturday Night Live, and you can see it...you know where.

Finally, here is Adam West as Batman, his mind destroyed by torture, forced to dance for the evil supervillain King Tut. He does the Batusi, of course. The music is fabulous, and it all ends with a classic Batman and Robin fist fight...well, have a look.

Sources: Wikipedia pages on Tutankhamun and his tomb

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