Who Killed King Tut?


    The tomb of the boy King Tutankhamen created a sensation from the moment it was uncovered in 1922. One of the few royal burial chambers that survived the centuries relatively intact, it was by far the richest — filled with gold, ivory and carved wooden treasures, including what may be the world's most famous funerary mask. But there was also something troubling about the way King Tut was buried — hints and omissions that suggested foul play.

    Tut was barely 18 when he died — young for Pharaohs, who always enjoyed the best nutrition and medical care in what was one of the ancient world's most civilized kingdoms. What's more, he is thought to have been the son of a controversial — in some quarters, hated — leader, which would have made Tut controversial too. But more than anything it was the state of the boy's tomb — its diminutive size, its unfinished condition — that suggested he had died unexpectedly. All of this raised suspicions that his demise may have been an unnatural, even violent one. And now a new case is being made that supports those who have long surmised that he was, in fact, murdered.

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    More than 3,300 years after Tutankhamen was entombed, Greg Cooper, a former FBI profiler and chief of police in Provo, Utah, and Mike King, director of the Ogden, Utah, police department's crime-analysis unit, have tackled the case at the request of British film producer Anthony Geffen. Working with Geffen's London-based company, Atlantic Productions, the two investigators have used a wealth of sources — including books, scholarly papers, photographs of Tut's tomb, X rays of the mummy itself and interviews with contemporary experts — to apply modern forensic science to the ancient case. So well did the techniques work that the two sleuths believe they have proof of a murder as well as a pretty good idea who did it. The Discovery Channel will air a two-hour documentary on their investigation Oct. 6.

    Prominent Egyptologists, however, say the conclusions are nonsense. Cooper and King's work, they argue, is merely warmed-over theories with a dash of forensic science thrown in. This field has been plowed before, they note, and has yielded nothing conclusive. "People love to speculate," says Marianne Eaton-Krauss, a Tutankhamen expert at the Berlin Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. "But there isn't any evidence."

    Whoever is right, it's clear that when British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb 80 years ago, he found a grave like no other. As Pharaonic burial sites go, Tut's was slapdash. Not only did its modest size suggest it had been intended for a nonroyal, but it was also hastily decorated, with wall paintings marred by splashes of paint nobody ever cleaned up. Some of the elaborate artifacts that so captivated the world appear to have been obtained from a funerary warehouse, since close examination reveals that other people's names were erased from them and Tut's name was applied. And the embalming was marred by buckets of unguents dumped over the mummy at the end. Was that part of the ritual or a crude attempt at a cover-up?

    To try to solve the mystery, Carter commissioned an anatomical study of the corpse in 1925 that turned out to be less autopsy than butchery. The unguents that saturated the mummy's bandages glued them in place, which meant the body was damaged as it was removed from the sarcophagus. Studying the corpse literally limb by limb, the first anatomist found nothing suspicious. More than 40 years later, however, in 1968, a University of Liverpool researcher received permission to X-ray the mummy and discovered some intriguing clues: there was a sliver of bone floating in the brain cavity and a dense area at the base of the skull that may have been a blood clot, suggesting a severe — perhaps deliberately lethal — blow to the back of the head.

    To shed sharper light on the problem, Cooper and King obtained the original X rays and took them to a medical examiner, a radiologist and a neurologist. The experts quickly spotted more clues. Abnormalities in the thin bones above Tut's eye sockets may be the kind of fractures that can occur when the head strikes the ground during a backward fall and the brain snaps forward. What's more, the vertebrae in Tut's neck were fused — a sign of a musculoskeletal malformation called Klippel-Feil syndrome. People with Klippel-Feil cannot turn their heads without moving the entire torso, an infirmity that's impossible to hide and makes the sufferer highly vulnerable to injury from a fall — or a push. "It was like having a bowling ball on top of a pool cue," says King.

    To take advantage of Tut's apparent frailty, an ancient criminal, like a contemporary one, would need means, opportunity and motive. Using these criteria, "we initially looked at the entire Egyptian empire," Cooper says. "But we quickly narrowed the focus to Tut's inner circle." Eventually, they winnowed the field to just four suspects: Maya, Tut's chief treasurer; Horemheb, his military commander; Ankhesenamen, his wife; and Ay, his Prime Minister. (Warning: plot spoiler ahead.)

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