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Tutankhamun’s likely cause of death uncovered

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New findings revealed in BBC documentary Tutankhamun: The Truth Uncovered provide evidence of the ancient pharaoh’s poor health and likely cause of his untimely death.

“When you think of Tutankhamun, you immediately think of a big golden mask, that you imagine must have been fit for a king”, said the show’s presenter, Dallas Campbell“and when we think of a king we usually think of hunters and warriors and strong healthy people, but actually Tutankhamun wasn’t very healthy at all.”

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Thanks to new advancements in technology, the program was able to reveal that King Tut actually suffered from a genetic bone-wasting disease and a club foot, making him unable to walk, casting serious doubt over some of the more popular theories about his death.

Until now, the life and death of Egypt’s best-known pharaoh has been shrouded in mystery. Dallas said; “Tutankhamun was a rather uneventful pharaoh that was almost lost in history, and yet in 1922 when Howard Carter discovered his tomb, Tut-mania took over and he became a bit of a rockstar pharaoh. However, there are very few historical records about him. We know he died in his late teens, there were various ideas about who his parents might have been, but no one knew for sure. The whole story was wrapped up in these wonderful mysteries and I think that’s part of the attraction to it. All the treasure that was found with him, the fact that it was an undisturbed royal tomb, it all has this Indiana Jones quality to it.”

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Dallas and the team were able to solve some of these mysteries with the help of state-of-art forensic equipment and DNA testing, revealing the shocking secret about Tutankhamun’s family background. Dallas said; “Even though it’s very difficult to do DNA testing with ancient mummies, because DNA is very fragile, we’ve got it good enough now that we can start to look at Tutankhamun’s lineage and discover who his father was. We can test other mummies that were found and start to match things up. We can also look at mitochondrial DNA and look down the maternal line to see who his mother was. Now we have done all that we know categorically that he was a product of incest. This was likely to be because back in the day, they wanted to keep the bloodline pure, and they had no knowledge of genetics and the health implications that would arise from incestuous relationships.”

New technology also led to the program being able to carry out the fist-ever ‘virtual autopsy’ on the pharaoh’s 3,000-year-old remains, and with the help of CGI, were able to give us a fascinating look at the boy behind the mask. Although X-rays of Tutankhamun had already been carried, rare access to CT scans of his body allowed them to look at the tissue as well as the bone. “We were very lucky and privileged to get the amount of CT scans we did”, said Dallas. “We got thousands and thousands of images of the mummy, which just weren’t available before. Occasionally, companies are allowed to use one or two of the images, but we had the whole lot so we could really look at it in depth.”

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Not only does the first-ever scientifically accurate, full-size image of the real Tutankhamun show us he actually had a feminised form and a pronounced overbite, but CTs also helped to uncover a new theory about his cause of death. Campbell explained: “When the mummy was first discovered and prised from the sarcophagus by Howard Carter it was quite badly damaged, so it’s actually in lots of different bits. That makes it very hard to tell which breaks are from natural causes and which are from the fact that it got a bit smashed up. But as we were looking at the thousands and thousands of CT scans, the only break we are sure happened during his lifetime and most likely caused his death was a femoral fracture just above the left knee, which is the thickest bone in the human body. Nowadays, if you broke your leg there you wouldn’t die, but if you left it untreated you probably would die as it would get infected, and as you can imagine, back then without any antibiotics, that would have been very bad.”

However, while examining the CT scans, Dallas also made a rather more bizarre discovery. “Just below the femoral fracture, his kneecap, the patella, is actually missing, which is not unusual because lots of bits of him are missing, including his chest, but as I was looking I actually found his kneecap in his left hand. I don’t know if anyone noticed that before, but how weird! And we’ll never know the answer, perhaps it fell off and someone just rammed it in his hand, god only knows.”

Tutankhamun: The Truth Uncovered airs on BBC One on Sunday 26 October at 9pm.

For more revelations about ancient history, including the secrets behind the Romans’ brilliant architecture, pick up Issue 65 of How It Works magazine.

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