Death of King Tut: Was it Murder?
performs the autopsy on King Tut.
In the middle of the night a man moves silently
through the halls of the Pharaoh's palace. Avoiding the sentries,
he makes his way to the bedroom of the king himself. Entering,
he stealthily approaches a form asleep on the bed. The king,
still not quite a man, sleeps on his side, unaware of the danger
he is in. The man pulls out a heavy weapon and takes careful
aim. He strikes one blow to the lower back of the sleeper's
skull. There is a sickening thump. The man then moves quietly
out of the room, leaving the king to die.
The location of this tale is Egypt. The year
is 1325 B.C. The Pharoh is King Tut.
And intriguing tale, but is it true? Was King Tutankhamen,
perhaps the most well-known Pharaoh im Egyptian history, murdered?
When looking back from modern times, we do not often
appreciate the long history of ancient Egypt. It is estimated
that Tutankhamen was born in 1334 B.C.. Before his birth Pharaohs
ruled Egypt for almost 2,000 years. The Egyptian nation, protected
from its neighbors by burning desert and nourished by the abundant
crops brought by the Nile River, was stable and wealthy in a
way that few other ancient societies could match.
The first Pharaoh, Narmer, united upper and lower
Egypt under him and established the king's office. As head of
both the government and religion, the Pharaoh had absolute power
in Egypt. The tool he used to enforce his will was the army.
Because of the abundance the Nile gave Egypt, the country could
afford to build a standing army while most other nations could
barely manage to feed themselves.
The Pharaoh used this army to subdue bordering nations
and establish an empire. They extracted heavy tribute from their
neighbors, and any nation not paying up risked having the Egyptian
army show up the following year to collect payment in a most
With goods and gold flowing in from other lands
the Egyptians became even richer and could afford to take on
projects like immense irrigation systems for their fields and
extensive tombs for their leaders. A complex religion developed
with the Pharaoh (considered a living god) at its center. Temples
appeared up and down the Nile and a priesthood employing thousands
of men developed.
These three important centers of power, the Pharaoh,
the military, and the perished, controlled Egypt for most of
its history. Their role in Egyptian society though the centuries
remained largely unchanged until just a few decades before Tutankhamen's
Akhenaten's Break with Tradition
Pharaoh Amenhotep III his ruled over Egypt at a
time the nation was at the peak of its power and wealth. His
armies had extended Egypt's influence as far as Sudan in the
south. From there a steady stream of gold enriched the nation's
treasury. With it the Pharaoh went on a unprecedented building
program extending the great Temple of Amen at Karnak and building
and refurbishing other temples, palaces and public buildings,
much to the pleasure of the priesthood.
When Amenhotep IV came to power after his father's
death, however, things changed in Egypt. They changed in a way
that was not pleasing to many of the most important people in
For reasons that are not completely clear, Amenhotep
IV turned his back on the traditional religion of Egypt and
turned to worship Aten, the sun disk. Changing his name to Akhenaten,
meaning "it is beneficial to Aten," the new Pharaoh
moved himself, his family and his government from the traditional
capitals at Thebes and Memphis to a new city built in the desert
called Amarna. Akhenaten declared he would never leave this
Pharaoh Akhenaten's radical changes must have been
very upsetting to the Egyptian establishment. The Pharaoh had
no interest in wars, so the army was not well maintained. Having
decided that he believed in only one god, Aten, he no longer
worshiped at, or spend money on, the traditional temples, making
the priesthood unhappy.
Tutankamen Becomes King
As Akhenaten grew old his son, Smenkare, was groomed
to take his place as the new Pharaoh. Then tragedy struck when
Smenkare unexpectedly died. The throne needed a new heir. It
came in the form of a young boy named Tutankhaten (who would
later change his name to Tutankhamen). Scholars debate just
what the relationship was between Akhenaten and Tutankhaten,
but it seems likely that he was the son of a Akhenaten's second
Tutankhaten was prepared for the kingship, but he
was only ten when Akhenaten died. No more adults of royal blood
were left at that point, only Tutankhaten and his half-sister
Ankhesenpaaten. Tutankhaten was declared emperor and was married
to Ankhesenpaaten. They were both only children, though, and
there must have been some powerful figure in Amarna, advising
Tutankhaten what to do. Most likely this was a man called Aye.
Aye was one of the oldest and powerful of the advisors
in Akhenaten court. It seems likely that under his influence
the young King decided to abandon the city his father built
and return to the traditional capital at Thebes. Aye also appears
to be responsible for getting Tutankhaten to change back to
supporting the original gods of Egypt instead of following his
father's belief in Aten. This resulted in the young Pharaoh's
name being changed from Tutankhaten to Tutankhamen.
Aye's council on these matters appears to have been
politically wise since these changes pleased the powerful priesthood
and military leaders. The army was rebuilt and once more ventured
into foreign lands to collect tribute, this time under the direction
of a general who had risen up through the ranks of the army
Things were looking good for Egypt, when suddenly
something unexpected happened: after only eight years on the
throne the young ruler mysteriously died, leaving no heir.
King Tutankhamen's tomb was finished in haste and
loaded with treasures for his use in the afterlife. When it
was found by Howard Carter some 3000
years later, it was the only royal tomb found virtually intact.
The mummy of the boy-king still lay in its gold mummy case within
a stone sarcphagus.
Bob Brier Investigates
The mummy of Tutankamen was first examined by Dr.
Douglas Derry shortly after it was found. Derry estimated the
king's age at between eighteen and twenty years. Because of
his youth there was much speculation about the cause of his
death. It wasn't until 1963, however, that the body was x-rayed
by. R. G. Harrison, a leading University of Liverpool anatomist
studying mummies. After looking at an x-ray of the skull, Harrison
began to suspect that King Tut might have been killed by a blow
to the back of the head, though Harrison never published a written
report of his findings.
In the mid-1990's a man named Bob Brier became interested
in the death of King Tut. Brier, a researcher at Long Island
University, was an Egyptologist interested in paleopathology,
the study of disease in the ancient world. He obtained a copy
of Harrison's head x-ray of Tut and took it to Dr. Gerald Irwin,
head of the radiology department at Winthrop University Hospital.
Irwin, an expert in trauma, examined the X-ray. He agreed with
Harrison's judgment that the image showed what could have been
a hematoma at the lower base of the skull, probably caused by
a blow to the back of the head.
Irwin also noticed what he thought might have been
calcified membrane formed over the hematoma. If so it's existence
suggested to Irwin that Tut had not died immediately after the
blow, but lived for some time after the injury occurred.
Brier was told that a trauma to the back of the
head (just where the neck joins the skull) is very unusual because
that location is so well protected. It occurred to Brier that
if Tut had died of an injury there he'd either suffered from
an extremely rare accident, or someone had purposely attacked
him from behind. Irwin suggested that if it was an attack, it
might have occurred as the victim slept on his side
With this in mind Brier began to wonder if he could
find other evidence that Tutkanhamen had been murdered. Could
he follow a murder trail that was over 3,000 years old?
The Plea for Help
Brier found supporting evidence for his theory not
in Egyptian records, but the records of the Hittites, a nation
that fought Egypt for control of territory during that period.
In the Hittite records there was an account of a letter sent
to the Hittite king from the Queen of Egypt. In part it read:
"...my husband died. A son I have not.
But to thee, that say, the sons are many. If thou would give
me one son of thine, he would become my husband. Never shall
I pick out a servant of mine and make him my husband!"
Later in the letter she also declares, "I am
It seemed likely to Brier that this extrodinatary
message came from Ankhesenpaaten, Tut's widow. The letter seemed
to indicate she was being forced to choose one of her "servants"
to marry. Marrying into royal family this way would make the
groom the new Pharaoh.
Archaeological evidence shows that Ankhesenpaaten
did marry one of her servants, Tutkanhaman's advisor, Aye, who
then became the new Pharaoh. If that was the case, then Ankhesenpaaten
may have indeed had cause to worry. After the wedding she disappeared
from the historical record completely. In the pictures in his
tomb that show Aye as Pharaoh, only his original wife is pictured,
Brier also found evidence the Hittites had sent
an envoy to verify the Queen's unusual request and later sent
a prince to marry the Pharaoh's widow. The Hittite records later
indicate that the prince was ambushed and killed while on his
way to the Egyptian capitol..
Motive and Opportunity for Murder
After finding all these facts Brier put together
a theory that might explain what happened to King Tut:
As Tut grew older he had an increasing desire to
handle his own affairs and make his own decisions without Aye's
help. Aye, being pushed into the background, decided that he
wanted to be the new Pharaoh, so he arranged it so that a hired
killer could slip past palace security and into the King's quarters
and strike him down as he slept. Only a few people, including
Aye, would have had the authority to arrange that with the guards.
So sure he was of his plan's success, he even had himself painted
wearing the Pharaoh's headdress during Tutankhamen's funeral
as pictured on the wall of the Tutankhamen's tomb before the
king was interred.
With Tut out of the way and leaving no heir, Aye
was in a position to put pressure on the King's widow to marry
him, so that he could become Pharaoh. Ankhensenpaaten, who was
not yet 20 years old, would have resented being forced to marry
a man as old as Aye (who was about the same age as her grandfather).
When she tried to do an end run around him by offering marriage
to a foreign prince, he had the prince murdered before he ever
arrived at the palace. Ultimately Aye was able to force the
Queen to marry him and after the wedding she disappeared. Another
Brier first expressed his theory publicity on a
special on The Learning Channel, then later wrote a book
on the same subject which was published in 1998 under the title
The Murder of Tutankhamen: A True Story.
Some Archaeologists Disagree
While many scholars think that Brier is on the right
track with his theory, others disagree. Instead of Aye as the
culprit, they suspect Horemheb may have been responsible. He
did become Pharaoh himself when Aye died only four short years
after assuming the throne. Horemheb was also the one responsible
for erasing that names of Tut, Aye and Akhenaten from official
records and statues, probably in an attempt to connect himself
more closely with the earlier Pharaohs and erase the memory
of Akhenaten's "heresy" from Egyptian history.
researchers argue that the messages to the Hittite King might
well have come from some Queen other than Ankhesenpaaten.
There may well be some merit to the idea that Horemheb
was at least involved in the murder of the Hittite prince. As
a general he had fought the Hittitis and would not have welcomed
one as a ruler. The ambush would have probably required the
use of his troops and therefore his consent, if not his outright
Still, Aye was the person who would most immediately
benefit from Tut's death. Was he a trusted family servant, guiding
the boy King after the rest of him family passed away? Or an
opportunist following Akhenaten's new religion when it seemed
politically correct, then dropping it and going back to the
old gods (and taking Tut with him) as soon as the Pharaoh died?
Mohammed Saleh, Director-General of the Egyptian
Museum doesn't think either man is responsible. "...in
my opinion this is not the case because Tutankhamen had no enemies;
on the contrary, he was loved by the priests and population
because he reestablished the state religion of Amun-Re after
the religious revolution under Akhenaten, and reopened all the
temples. Moreover Aye and Horemhab would have had no reason
to kill Tutankhamen because he was a youth and did not hold
Some argue that King Tut's death wasn't necessarily
murder. We know Tut enjoyed hunting (its was pictured on the
walls of his tomb). Could the supposed injury, as unlikely as
it seemed, be the result of a hunting accident? Also when Derry
opened the mummy up he found its breastbone was missing. This
could have been the result of poor mummification, but it could
also have meant that the had king suffered a serious chest injury.
We may never be able to truly determine if Tutankhamen
was murdered, and if he was murdered, who was responsible for
his death. Brier's work reminds us though, that the mummies
of ancient Egypt were once real people, with real lives and
real problems and that they rejoiced and suffered and loved
as much as we do today.
Update: Early in 2005 Zahi Hawass, Egypt's
top archaeologist, announced that results of a computer tomography
(CT) scan of King's Tut's remains did not support the idea that
he had been killed by a blow to the back of the head. The scan
also indicated that he did not suffer a sever injury to the
chest either, a theory advanced by some archeologists. What
the scan did find, according to Hawass, was that the King had
suffered a fracture to the left thighbone within a few days
of his death. While such an injury would normally not be fatal,
if it were accompanied by a break in the skin, an infection
might have set in with terminal results.
The team that examined the remains pointed out that
the leg fraction might also have been done accidentally by the
embalmers after death. If so, Tut's demise at such a young age
still remains a mystery. In the end, even murder cannot not
be completely ruled out if the King were done in by poison.
Book: "Ancient Egypt"
"The Murder of Tutankhamen: A True Story"
Murder of King Tutankhamen by Bob Brier, Phd., G.P. Putnam's
Complete Tutankhamen by Nicholas Reeves,
Thames and Hudson Inc. 1990.
History of Ancient Egypt by Nicolas Grimal, Blackwell Publishers,
Copyright Lee Krystek
2002. All Rights Reserved.