He was just a teenager when he died. The last heir of a powerful
family that had ruled Egypt and its empire for centuries, he was laid to
rest laden with gold and eventually forgotten. Since the discovery of his
tomb in 1922, the modern world has speculated about what
happened to him, with murder being the most extreme possibility. Now,
leaving his tomb for the first time in almost 80 years, Tut has
undergone a CT scan that offers new clues about his life and death —
and provides precise data for an accurate forensic reconstruction
of the boyish pharaoh.
AN angry wind stirred up ghostly dust devils as King Tut was taken
from his resting place in the ancient Egyptian cemetery known as
the Valley of the Kings*. Dark-bellied clouds had scudded across
the desert sky all day and now were veiling the stars in casket grey.
It was 6 p.m. on 5 January 2005. The world’s most famous
mummy glided head first into a CT scanner brought here to probe
the lingering medical mysteries of this little understood young ruler
who died more than 3,300 years ago.
All afternoon the usual line of tourists from around the world
had descended into the cramped, rock-cut tomb some 26 feet
underground to pay their respects. They gazed at the murals on the
walls of the burial chamber and peered at Tut’s gilded face, the most
striking feature of his mummy-shaped outer coffin lid. Some visitors
read from guidebooks in a whisper. Others stood silently, perhaps
pondering Tut’s untimely death in his late teens, or wondering with
a shiver if the pharaoh’s curse — death or misfortune falling upon
those who disturbed him — was really true.
The mummy is in very bad condition because of what Carter
did in the 1920s,” said Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt’s
Supreme Council of Antiquities, as he leaned over the body for a
long first look. Carter— Howard Carter, that is — was the British
archaeologist who in 1922 discovered Tut’s tomb after years of
futile searching. Its contents, though hastily ransacked in antiquity,
were surprisingly complete. They remain the richest royal collection
ever found and have become part of the pharaoh’s legend. Stunning
artefacts in gold, their eternal brilliance meant to guarantee
resurrection, caused a sensation at the time of the discovery
and still get the most attention. But Tut was also buried with
everyday things he’d want in the afterlife: board games, a bronze
razor, linen undergarments, cases of food and wine.
After months of carefully recording the pharaoh’s
funerary treasures, Carter began investigating his three nested coffins.
Opening the first, he found a shroud adorned with garlands of
willow and olive leaves, wild celery, lotus petals, and cornflowers,
the faded evidence of a burial in March or April. When he finally
reached the mummy, though, he ran into trouble. The ritual resins
had hardened, cementing Tut to the bottom of his solid gold coffin.
No amount of legitimate force could move them,” Carter wrote
later. “What was to be done?
The sun can beat down like a hammer this far south in Egypt,
and Carter tried to use it to loosen the resins. For several hour
he set the mummy outside in blazing sunshine that heated it to
149 degrees Fahrenheit. Nothing budged. He reported with
scientific detachment that “the consolidated material had to be
chiselled away from beneath the limbs and trunk before it was
possible to raise the king’s remains.
In his defence, Carter really had little choice. If he hadn’t cut
the mummy free, thieves most certainly would have
circumvented the guards and ripped it apart to remove the gold.
In Tut’s time the royals were fabulously wealthy, and they
thought — or hoped — they could take their riches with them.
For his journey to the great beyond, King Tut was lavished with
glittering goods: precious collars, inlaid necklaces and bracelets,
rings, amulets, a ceremonial apron, sandals, sheaths for his fingers
and toes, and the now iconic inner coffin and mask — all of pure
gold. To separate Tut from his adornments, Carter’s men removed
the mummy’s head and severed nearly every major joint. Once
they had finished, they reassembled the remains on a layer of
sand in a wooden box with padding that concealed the damage,
the bed where Tut now rests.
Archaeology has changed substantially in the intervening
decades, focusing less on treasure and more on the fascinating
details of life and intriguing mysteries of death. It also uses more
sophisticated tools, including medical technology. In 1968, more
than 40 years after Carter’s discovery, an anatomy professor
X-rayed the mummy and revealed a startling fact: beneath the resin
that cakes his chest, his breast-bone and front ribs are missing.
Today diagnostic imaging can be done with computed tomography,
or CT, by which hundreds of X-rays in cross section
are put together like slices of bread to create a three-dimensional
virtual body. What more would a CT scan reveal of Tut than the
X-ray? And could it answer two of the biggest questions still
lingering about him — how did he die, and how old was he at the
time of his death?
King Tut’s demise was a big event, even by royal standards.
He was the last of his family’s line, and his funeral was the death
rattle of a dynasty. But the particulars of his passing away and its
aftermath are unclear.
Amenhotep III — Tut’s father or grandfather — was a powerful
pharaoh who ruled for almost four decades at the height of the
eighteenth dynasty’s golden age. His son Amenhotep IV succeeded
him and initiated one of the strangest periods in the history of
ancient Egypt. The new pharaoh promoted the worship of the
Aten, the sun disk, changed his name to Akhenaten, or ‘servant
of the Aten,’ and moved the religious capital from the old city of
Thebes to the new city of Akhetaten, known now as Amarna. He
further shocked the country by attacking Amun, a major god,
smashing his images and closing his temples. “It must have been
a horrific time,” said Ray Johnson, director of the University of
Chicago’s research centre in Luxor, the site of ancient Thebes.
“The family that had ruled for centuries was coming to an end,
and then Akhenaten went a little wacky.
After Akhenaten’s death, a mysterious ruler named
Smenkhkare appeared briefly and exited with hardly a trace.
And then a very young Tutankhaten took the throne — King
Tut as he’s widely known today. The boy king soon changed his
name to Tutankhamun, ‘living image of Amun,’ and oversaw a
restoration of the old ways. He reigned for about nine years —
and then died unexpectedly.
Regardless of his fame and the speculations about his fate, Tut is
one mummy among many in Egypt. How many? No one knows. The
Egyptian Mummy Project, which began an inventory in late 2003,
has recorded almost 600 so far and is still counting. The next phase:
scanning the mummies with a portable CT machine donated by the
National Geographic Society and Siemens, its manufacturer. King Tut
is one of the first mummies to be scanned — in
death, as in life, moving regally ahead of his countrymen.
A CT machine scanned the mummy head to toe, creating
1,700 digital X-ray images in cross section. Tut’s head, scanned
in 0.62 millimetre slices to register its intricate structures, takes
on eerie detail in the resulting image.
With Tut’s entire body similarly recorded, a team of specialists in radiology,
forensics, and anatomy began to probe the secrets that the winged goddesses
of a gilded burial shrine protected for so long.
The night of the scan, workmen carried Tut from the tomb in
his box. Like pallbearers they climbed a ramp and a flight of
stairs into the swirling sand outside, then rose on a hydraulic
lift into the trailer that held the scanner. Twenty minutes later
two men emerged, sprinted for an office nearby, and returned
with a pair of white plastic fans. The million-dollar scanner had
quit because of sand in a cooler fan. “Curse of the pharaoh,
joked a guard nervously.
Eventually the substitute fans worked well enough to finish
the procedure. After checking that no data had been lost, the
technicians turned Tut over to the workmen, who carried him
back to his tomb. Less than three hours after he was removed
from his coffin, the pharaoh again rested in peace where the
funerary priests had laid him so long ago.
Back in the trailer a technician pulled up astonishing images
of Tut on a computer screen. A grey head took shape from a
scattering of pixels, and the technician spun and tilted it in every
direction. Neck vertebrae appeared as clearly as in an anatomy
class. Other images revealed a hand, several views of the rib cage,
and a transection of the skull. But for now the pressure was off.
Sitting back in his chair, Zahi Hawass smiled, visibly relieved
that nothing had gone seriously wrong. “I didn’t sleep last night,
not for a second,” he said. “I was so worried. But now I think I
will go and sleep.
By the time we left the trailer, descending metal stairs to the
sandy ground, the wind had stopped. The winter air lay cold and
still, like death itself, in this valley of the departed. Just above the
entrance to Tut’s tomb stood Orion -- the constellation that the
ancient Egyptians knew as the soul of Osiris, the god of the
afterlife--watching over the boy king.
The Laburnum Top.
By Ted Hughes.
The Laburnum top is silent, quite still
In the afternoon yellow September sunlight,
A few leaves yellowing, all its seeds fallen.
Till the goldfinch comes, with a twitching chirrup
A suddenness, a startlement, at a branch end.
Then sleek as a lizard, and alert, and abrupt,
She enters the thickness, and a machine starts up
Of chitterings, and a tremor of wings, and trillings —
The whole tree trembles and thrills.
It is the engine of her family.
She stokes it full, then flirts out to a branch-end
Showing her barred face identity mask
Then with eerie delicate whistle-chirrup whisperings
She launches away, towards the infinite