Who Killed King Tut?

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MOHAMED EL-DAKHAKHNY/AP

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Maya was soon ruled out. Although his work probably brought him into close contact with Tut, giving him means and opportunity, he lacked motive. A gift in Tut's tomb bears Maya's name, which could be a sign that he genuinely grieved for the youth. Additionally, when Tut's tomb was robbed shortly after his death, Maya saw to it that it was restored and resealed. Finally, Maya had the least to gain from murder, since he was not likely to move up in the next government. "In fact," says King, "he risked being demoted."

Horemheb was a harder nut to crack. Cooper and King speculate that the military commander spent much time with Tut, teaching him hunting and chariot driving — activities that offered plenty of opportunity for a contrived accident. If Tut did die while on the road, the body would have begun decomposing before Horemheb could take it home, which might explain the extra unguents on the mummy. Horemheb's likeliest motivation for regicide would have been to assume the throne himself, something that would have been easy with the army behind him. When Tut died, however, Horemheb stayed where he was. "If Horemheb wanted the Pharaohship, he could have taken it," Cooper says.

Ankhesenamen too was ruled out. It was not impossible for the Pharaoh's wife to ascend the throne after her husband's death, and she may have been motivated by a mere power grab. A likelier scenario was that she was thinking more about her heirs. Two mummified fetuses were found in Tut's tomb. Both are thought to have been the royal couple's premature or stillborn daughters. If Tut was unable to sire healthy children, Ankhesenamen may have wanted him out of the way so she could marry someone who could.

But Cooper and King are convinced that Ankhesenamen and Tut were a close couple. They were half-siblings and had known each other from childhood. The paintings in Tut's tomb portray them as a loving pair, and the fact that their unborn children were mummified is unusual. Says King: "These are signs of a close family unit."

This leaves Ay. The Prime Minister, who served in the same role under Tut's father, had been de facto King while advising the young Tut and had won the boy's trust. (Tut became Pharaoh when he was 9.) Ay may have coveted the throne himself — a position he in fact assumed after Tut's death. Wall paintings in Tut's tomb show Ay performing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony at Tut's funeral, which is reserved for the heir apparent.

Tut's widow may also provide evidence against Ay. A cuneiform document reports that a letter was sent from an unnamed widowed Egyptian Queen to the Hittite King in what is now Turkey, pleading that one of his sons be sent south to marry her. The writer's fear was that she would otherwise be forced to wed one of her "servants." Ankhesenamen, as onetime Queen, would surely have seen Ay as a servant. Some people, including Cooper and King, believe that an ancient ring bearing her and Ay's names indicates that the two were in fact married, a move that would have legitimized Ay's Pharaohship.

Other scholars are not persuaded. Relying on tomb paintings to determine the nature of relationships, for example, is naive, they say. "Tomb paintings were always happy," says Rita Freed, of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. "They were idealized depictions."

Additionally, it has never been proved that Ankhesenamen wrote the letter to the Hittite King; some scholars believe the author was not Tut's widow but his father's. Similarly, the ring bearing Ay's and Ankhesenamen's names may indicate little, since in ancient Egypt there were no such things as wedding rings. "The ring merely shows an affiliation," says Eaton-Krauss.

However firm or flawed the case is against Ay, it's unlikely to put the speculation to rest. Other 21st century tools — which can search for diseases or provide images more detailed than X rays — might shed more light, and King and Cooper would have liked the chance to use them too. "Criminal behavior is criminal behavior," Cooper says. "It doesn't matter if it's today or 3,500 years ago." The statute of limitations on some crimes, it appears, will never run out.

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