Read an Excerpt
X rays of Tutankhamen’s skull suggest a violent death. Was it accident or murder? . . . Why was the king’s tomb so small and insignificant? Was it intended for someone else? . . . Several members of Tutankhamen’s family died around the same time—was it coincidence? . . . Why did Tutankhamen’s widow send desperate messages to the Hittite king, requesting marriage to one of his sons? And who murdered the Hittite prince on his journey to Egypt? . . . Who ordered the removal of Tutankhamen’s name from all monuments and temples, and thus from Egyptian history? . . . This fascinating, painstakingly researched book is the first to explore in depth the questionable circumstances of Tutankhamen’s demise—and to present a shocking scenario of betrayal, ambition, and murder. From one of our most renowned Egyptologists, this is an exciting journey into ancient history—and a 3,000-year-old mystery that still compels us today.
“Using forensic, archaeological, and historical evidence, Brier dramatizes the turbulent times in which Tut lived and pieces together the explanation of his murder.”
“Persuasive . . . accessible . . . exciting.”
“For the first time we see Tutankhamen as a real person, not just the famous boy in the golden mask . . . Brier [paints] a cast of surrounding court characters worthy of Agatha Christie. In addition, he provides a very entertaining and readable account of Egyptian history leading up to the time of Tutankhamen’s reign.”
—Margaret George, author of The Memoirs of Cleopatra
“All the right ingredients for the perfect murder—a death centuries old; lives steeped in mysticism and mystery; a great love affair; deceitful priests; power-mad politicians and soldiers waiting to strike on the command of a betrayed leader . . . it all adds up to one killer of a thriller . . . A breezy blend of Indiana Jones and Ann Rule working away under the scalding Egyptian sun.”
—Lorenzo Carcaterra, author of Sleepers and Apaches
“A clear and convincing case . . . an intriguing piece of speculation.”
“The miraculous sort of book that makes the arcane understandable. Brier brings the study of archaeology alive and transports the reader back to a vibrant, if vanished, world.”
—Michael and Kathy Gear, authors of People of the Masks
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ALSO BY BOB BRIER
Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Art
Ancient Egyptian Magic
Encyclopedia of Mummies
A True Story
Bob Brier, Ph. D.
In Egyptology it is normal to have a team of specialists working on a single project; this book is no exception. When knowledge failed me, which was often, colleagues always were there, ready to help.
On the medical-forensic front I have been doubly fortunate in that many of the experts are close personal friends and I often called on them at strange and inconvenient times. Dr. Gerald Irwin, head of Radiology at Winthrop University Hospital, was the first to suggest that Tutankhamen may have survived for quite a while after receiving a blow to the back of the head, and remained a close consultant throughout the writing of this book. Dr. Michael R. Zimmerman, director of Clinical Laboratories, Maimonides Medical Center, Brooklyn, New York, read an early draft of the manuscript and made important suggestions about the actual cause of Tutankhamen’s death following the blow. Dr. J. Michael Parry, Director and Traumatologist, Advanced Trauma Life Support, Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Service Systems (MIEMSS), also made important suggestions about how to determine if Tutankhamen did indeed linger before death. As always, I have benefited from discussions with Ronald Wade, director of the State Anatomy Board, Maryland. In Egypt, Dr. Fawzi Gabella, head of the Department of Anatomy, Kasr el Einy Hospital, kindly permitted me to examine the two human fetuses discovered in Tutankhamen’s tomb. Dr. Nasri Iskander, Curator of Mummies, Egyptian Museum, Cairo, was most helpful in making available to me the mummy of Tutankhamen’s grandfather, Amenhotep III. I must also thank my collegues in the Paleopatholgy Association who were always willing to discuss the medical aspects of the case.
On the Egyptological front, my colleagues have been equally helpful. Dr. Ali Hassan, former Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, permitted me repeated access to closed tombs. Dr. Mohamed Sallah, director of the Egyptian Museum, Cairo, kindly gave permission to examine objects in storage in the museum. In Germany, Dr. Dietrich Wildung, director of the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin, allowed me to examine and photograph the finger ring indicating that the Vizier, Aye, married Tutankhamen’s widow. I will never forget the day when Dr. Hannelore Kischkewitz, curator at the museum, placed the ring in my hand. Thanks are also due to Diana Magee of the Griffith Institute, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, for supplying a photocopy of Percy Newberry’s letter to Howard Carter describing the ring. Closer to home, I would like to thank Dr. Dorothea Arnold, curator of the Egyptian Department, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, for granting access to the funerary collars worn at Tutankhamen’s burial meal, and for permission to reprint Harry Burton’s 1920s photographs of Tutankhamen’s mummy. I would also like to thank Dr. Rita Freed, curator, Department of Egyptian and Nubian Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for the discussions about what daily life at Amarna must have been like.
Special thanks are due the administrators at Long Island University, who made it possible for me to reduce my teaching load and reschedule classes so that I could research this book. My colleagues in the Philosophy Department were both supportive and understanding when their chairman was away, crawling through tombs in Egypt.
I am very appreciative of everyone at The Learning Channel. When I first agreed to make a documentary about the murder of Tutankhamen I must admit, I had misgivings—that they would ask me to say things that I didn’t want to, that there would be limitations on what I did say, etc. I was delighted to discover how wrong I was. If anything, when my enthusiasm got the better of me, my director, Peter Spry-Leverton, was there saying, “Now, Bob, are you sure you can say that?” When it became crucial to see the ring in Berlin, or go back to the Egyptian Museum to check an object, The Learning Channel was always agreeable. In the end, I viewed it as private industry supporting research.
In the preparation of the manuscript I have been very fortunate. My wife, Pat Remler, spent many long hours on the computer, improving the manuscript. I may not have always been happy to hear “Brier, this doesn’t make sense,” but it certainly helped the book. My friend and colleague at the C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University, Dr. Hoyt Hobbs, read many drafts, made essential suggestions—both Egyptological and structural—and was a one-man support team throughout the revising of the manuscript. Also on the editorial front, Elizabeth Himelfarb was always there, ready to do what was needed. Above all, I would like to thank Liza Dawson, my editor at Putnam. I am sure she never knew what she was getting into when she first became involved in The Murder of Tutankhamen. It is her unerring vision of what the book should be that has made it as coherent as it is. If this book succeeds in telling the story of Tutankhamen, it is largely due to Liza’s efforts.
Tutankhamen and Ankhesenamen
Painting by Winifred Brunton
It is now seven years since the first edition of this book, and quite a bit has happened on the Tutankhamen front. As I write, a major exhibition of the treasures from the tomb is beginning a worldwide tour, Hollywood has optioned the film rights to my book, and the Egyptian authorities have announced they intend to examine the mummy of Tutankhamen to determine if the murder theory presented in these pages is correct.
This book is not the first place I presented the murder theory.
The first time was in a television documentary about the boy-king that caused far more interest than I had expected. Documentaries about Egypt are common, but the idea that this eighteen-year-old pharaoh was murdered touched the public. After the program aired, the New York Times reported the theory, and soon newspapers around the world proclaimed PROFESSOR PROVES BOY-KING MURDERED. The truth was, I hadn’t proven anything; I had merely presented a theory—a good theory—that seemed to explain a remarkable set of events that transpired on the banks of the Nile some three thousand years ago. As the theory traveled around the world, however, those who reacted fell into two categories: those who thought I had proven Tutankhamen was murdered, and those who felt I had overstated my case. High school and college students wrote and e-mailed their enthusiastic convictions that I had conclusively demonstrated murder on the Nile. Perhaps these young people identified with the eighteen-year-old pharaoh? I spent many hours replying, cautioning them not to jump to conclusions. Those who felt I had overstated the case were often older, more cautious. Some were Egyptological colleagues. I will never forget one close friend, who had read one of the over-the-top newspaper accounts, chastising me: “You know, Bob, you can’t say just anything.” After several back-and-forth letters, complete with footnotes (we both live in New York but academics tend to write), we realized where we differed. The character I had fingered as the murderer, she viewed as a kindly old man, helping to raise the orphaned Tutankhamen. In her eyes, I had libeled a beloved grandfather figure. In the end she wisely said, “These are not just cold stones.” How right she was. Although the events reported in this book took place more than thirty centuries ago, when you study them for decades, the characters live and breathe; you feel you know them. She was not the only colleague who thought I was wrong. Others wrote that yes, Tutankhamen was murdered, but I had the wrong murderer. One felt there was no murder; the young king died in a chariot accident.
As the responses came, I realized that in spite of the great interest, no one had all the facts. They were reacting either to the television documentary or the newspaper reports. Often they believed I had said things I hadn’t. In a television documentary one can never give all the details, include all the reservations by which the academic survives. So in self-defense, to make my case clear, I began writing The Murder of Tutankhamen. In a book I could give all the details, explain my doubts, reservations, and perhaps most important, tell the story of Tutankhamen and his young bride, Ankhesenamen, and their early deaths.
It might surprise the reader that after so many centuries it is possible to investigate an alleged murder and even suggest who the killer might be. Egypt is a very special place; information does not disappear. The dry climate preserves papyri, and frequently records were carved on durable stone on the walls of the temples. Fortunately for us, the ancient Egyptians were a nation of accountants. They recorded everything—the number of enemies killed in battle, how high the Nile rose at inundation, herds of cattle in the pharaoh’s fields, the jars of oil donated to the temple each year. On their tomb walls we have accurate and detailed depictions of the ancient Egyptian’s daily life: how they made wine, how they partied, how they served their pharaohs. The dry Egyptian climate has preserved these records in vivid color. On the walls of Tutankhamen’s tomb we can see the hearse bringing his mummy to the tomb—it is as close to an ancient snapshot as we will ever come. We even have the victim’s body—the mummy of Tutankhamen still lies in the tomb in which it was discovered in 1922.
My specialty is mummies. My involvement in the murder theory presented in this book began when I was watching a rather dull BBC documentary on Tutankhamen that became riveting when X rays of the boy-king Tutankhamen’s chest, skull, legs, and arms appeared on the screen. Pointing to a cranial X ray, Dr. R. G. Harrison, head of the Anatomy Department of the University of Liverpool, explained a black area on the film. His opinion was that it was:
. . . within normal limits, but in fact it could have been caused by a hemorrhage under the membranes overlaying the brain in this region. And this could have been caused by a blow to the back of the head and this in turn could have been responsible for death.1
Harrison was not an Egyptologist. He didn’t know the details of the last months of Tutankhamen and Ankhesenamen’s lives, but I did. Had Harrison known of the desperate letter written shortly after Tutankhamen’s death by his young widow to a foreign king—asking that he send her a prince whom she could marry—he might have suggested foul play. The widowed Ankhesenamen wrote, “I am afraid. Never will I marry a servant of mine.” Why was the Queen of Egypt afraid? Who was the servant she was being forced to marry? That letter is the last piece of communication we have from Ankhesenamen. In the 1930s an ancient finger ring was discovered in Cairo with two names on it, indicating that the widowed Ankhesenamen had indeed been married to a commoner.
For two delightful years I tried to pull together all the facts I could find about Tutankhamen’s life and death. Like any good murder investigation, I began with the victim’s body. There is a tremendous amount of information in a mummy, and I asked myself, What if we examined it with the goal of answering the question of murder? I had many questions I wanted answered: Did Tutankhamen die immediately from the blow to the back of his head, or did he linger? Was he robust and healthy when he died or had he been ill? What was his last meal? How soon before death did he eat? I knew I would probably not be given permission to examine the body—it was sealed in the Valley of the Kings—and the Supreme Council of Antiquities wasn’t about to give permission to remove it from the tomb for an autopsy. Still, there were the X rays, the photographs of his internal organs, the reports of the 1925 examination of the mummy. I realized there was plenty that could be investigated; in addition to the body, there are records of his reign, tombs of his officials with biographical details painted on the walls, political statements made when he first became pharaoh, and the thousands of items found in his tomb. It became clear to me that the last word on Tutankhamen had not been written.
Over dinners at home, and inside several Egyptian tombs, colleagues and I discussed clues, translated hieroglyphs, peered at X rays of Tutankhamen and his relatives, and argued considerably. When all the facts relating to the boy-king’s untimely death were examined, after I’d held that ancient ring in my hand, considered the unstable times Tutankhamen ruled in, and examined the forensic evidence with trauma experts, murder and intrigue emerged as the best explanation to unify all the facts.
The murder theory is really not mine. It was first suggested soon after the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in the 1920s and has been around ever since. All I have done is pull the pieces of the story together, order them in a coherent manner, and come to what I believe is a reasonable conclusion. Playing Hercule Poirot in an ancient setting has been great fun, and I must admit that at some point the project grew beyond the academic; I became emotionally involved. As I gathered clues, I grew fond of Tutankhamen and began to hate the prime suspect. I was delighted to discover that the murderer’s portraits in museums in Berlin and Cairo are decidedly sinister. I was unexpectedly moved when I examined the bodies of two tiny girls that were mummified and buried in Tutankhamen’s tomb—Anhkesenamen had had two miscarriages. Still, in spite of these nonobjective feelings, I believe the presentation of the facts is undistorted. Murder and political intrigue provide the most reasonable explanation for a drama that occurred three thousand years ago.
When The Murder of Tutankhamen was published in 1998 it set off another wave of interest, even larger than the one begun by the documentary. This time I was not surprised. By now I realized that the story had all the elements of an Agatha Christie murder mystery. During Egypt’s most turbulent time, and against the spectacular backdrop of ancient temples and palaces, we have a cast of characters that include young, orphaned lovers—Tutankhamen and Ankhesenamen—struggling to return Egypt to greatness, who suffer the tragedy of two miscarriages. We also have a deceitful prime minister who wants power. Add to this the story of the discovery of the greatest archaeological treasure of all time and you have a truly compelling set of elements.
The Murder of Tutankhamen has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and has inspired numerous documentaries. Most important, it has created new interest in Tutankhamen scholarship. Researchers are looking at Tutankhamen and his remarkable times with new eyes, questioning old established theories. My hope is that soon, with modern forensic equipment, the murder theory will be tested and either proved or disproved. It is possible that the results will be inconclusive, but it is also possible that very soon we may know for sure how Tutankhamen died. Often I am asked how I will feel if it is shown that Tutankhamen did not die from a blow to the back of the head. The truth is I will not be terribly disappointed. The murder theory is just a theory, and one shouldn’t become too invested in one’s theories. Theories are made for testing, and if we discover that Tutankhamen did not die by a blow to the back of the head, that is progress. No matter what, the incredible story of Tutankhamen, Ankhesenamen, and their tragic lives will remain to fascinate all of us. It is a timeless tale; enjoy it.
January 30, 2005
Tutankhamen Time Line
Early Dynastic Period
3150–2686 B.C.—Dynasties 0–II
Narmer—First king of Egypt unites Upper and Lower Egypt
The Old Kingdom
2686–2181 B.C.—Dynasties III–VI
Zoser builds the Step Pyramid
Pharaoh Khufu builds the Great Pyramid;
Pharaoh Khephren has the Sphinx carved with his features
The First Intermediate Period
2181–2040 B.C.—Period of anarchy and chaos
2040–1780 B.C.—Dynasty XII
Pharaoh Mentuhotep II restores order to the land
The Second Intermediate Period
1780–1570 B.C.—Period of weak rulers and invasion by the Hyksos ruling in the north
The New Kingdom
1570–1070 B.C.—Egypt’s Golden Age
Dynasty XVIII—1570–1293 B.C.
1570–1546 B.C.—Ahmose I—Hyksos are expelled from Egypt
1551–1386 B.C.—Pharaohs Tuthmosis III, Hatshepsut, and Amenhotep III increase Egypt’s wealth and power
1386–1349 B.C.—Amenhotep III (Tutankhamen’s grandfather)
1350–1334 B.C.—Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) (Tutankhamen’s father)
1336–1334 B.C.—Smenkare (Akhenaten’s son and Tutankhamen’s brother?)
1297–1212 B.C.—Ramses the Great—probable pharaoh of the Exodus
The Third Intermediate Period
1069–525 B.C.—The power of the pharaoh weakens
The Late Period
525–332 B.C.—Persian kings rule Egypt
The Graeco Roman Period
332 B.C.—Alexander the Great conquers Darius III, ruler of the Persian Empire
Egypt hails Alexander as a divine being and a savior
50 B.C.—Cleopatra VII becomes queen of Egypt
30 B.C.—Cleopatra VII dies and Egypt becomes the private estate of the Roman Emperor Augustus
The King Must Die
Stay away from hostile people,
Keep your heart quiet among fighters.
—The scribe Ani
circa 1400 B.C.
We possess a remarkable amount of evidence about Tutankhamen—enough to re-create what his last days may have been like. So let’s start with a fictional account, but one that is probably very close to the truth.
Sometime in late autumn, during the eighteenth year of his life, Tutankhamen went to bed alone. Although peasant husbands and wives slept in the same room, Egyptian pharaohs lived in separate palaces from those of their queen and the ladies of the harem. Conjugal visits were one thing, sleep was another. Tutankhamen reposed in a large room, sparsely furnished—a few stools, tables, and a single wood bed with feet shaped like lion’s paws. Fish, ducks, and marsh grasses painted on the room’s plastered walls glowed spectrally in the dim light.
In the depths of this night the door slowly, silently opened, just wide enough for a single man to creep through before closing it behind him. Somehow he had slipped past the sentries. Had they been told to look the other way? Stealthily the night intruder made his way to Pharaoh’s bed, the sound of his steps perhaps obscured by the drip, drip of a water clock. He found the king sleeping on his side, his head supported by an alabaster headrest. From under his clothes the man drew out a heavy object, possibly an Egyptian mace that joined a solid three-inch stone to the end of a substantial two-foot stick. After a single deep breath, he swung the heavy object at Tutankhamen’s skull.
Waiting just a moment for the sudden sound in the night to be forgotten, the intruder retraced his steps through the Royal Bedchamber, out the door, and stole through the palace to the safety of night.
The next morning servants discovered the unconscious, but not yet dead, pharaoh and quickly summoned the vizier, Aye, and Tutankhamen’s wife, Ankhesenamen. A priest-physician skilled in head injuries was ordered from the temple. The physician has seen many trauma injuries. Blocks of stone sometime fell on workmen during construction; infantrymen received blows to the head. But this was the pharaoh; the physician must be very careful what he does and says. He instructed his assistant to shave Pharaoh’s head so a proper diagnosis could be made. As the bronze blade removed the fine dark hair, the surgeon was already thinking about the consequences of treatment—both for the pharaoh and for his own career. If he took decisive action and Tutankhamen died, he could be blamed. Now the head was shaved, revealing one wound, a large, warm swollen mass. It was in an unusual place for such an injury, at the back of the head where the neck joins the skull. The great surgical papyrus did not describe how to treat such an injury.
The blow has caused unconsciousness, but only a slight fracture to the skull. There are no bone fragments that must be removed. Relieved, the surgeon replaces his bronze probe and tweezers in their wooden case. Still, blood is oozing from the pharaoh’s nostrils, a sign that the meninges, the skin enclosing the brain, has been damaged. Aye, the prime minister, stands silently next to the bed, calm, weighing what the pharaoh’s death will mean to Egypt and himself. Ankhesenamen, frightened, looks to the physician for his prognosis. He has been trained to give one of three responses: 1) “this is an ailment which I will treat,” 2) “this is an ailment with which I will contend,” and 3) “this is an ailment not to be treated.”1 If he says the ailment can be treated, he implies that the treatment will be successful. If he instead says he will merely contend with it, he implies an uncertain outcome.
The physician quickly evaluates the situation. With no splinters to remove, no bones to set, there was little he could do physically for the king. To say that he will treat the ailment asserts that the king will survive, and of this he is not sure. Should Tutankhamen die, the physician will be blamed. There are only two real alternatives, and given the importance of the patient, it is safer to say that this is an illness not to be treated. Better to hand the fate of the king over to the gods.
The predicament faced by this priest-physician was no different from modern physicians called to treat a famous patient. Doctors in emergency rooms around the world have observed and named it the “famous-patient syndrome.” When confronted with a famous patient, medical personnel are afraid to act quickly, to do instinctively what they have been trained to do. Junior staff members defer to senior staff members, discussions take place before actions are taken. Tutankhamen was probably not the first ruler to suffer the consequences of his exalted position, and he was certainly not the last.
Abraham Lincoln may have died because of his fame. After the President was shot in the head, the young surgeon attending him at Ford’s Theater did everything right. He examined the entry hole with his finger, determined there was no exit hole, and let the president rest. Then the Surgeon General was summoned, while President Lincoln was removed to a nearby boardinghouse. The Surgeon General was a bureaucrat who had not treated a patient for years, but he immediately took control of Lincoln’s treatment. He inserted a probe into the entry hole and slid it in, almost up to Lincoln’s eyes. The Surgeon General did not know that the latest medical wisdom, taught in medical schools, was not to probe—the brain is so soft you can’t tell if you are following the path of the bullet or causing additional damage. Recent reevaluation of the case suggests that Lincoln might have survived with the bullet lodged in his brain. He was a victim of famous-patient syndrome.
So the surgeon-priest turned to Ankhesenamen and spoke the very words she feared: “This is an ailment not to be treated.” As Ankhesenamen sobbed, the surgeon’s assistant was instructed to clear the king’s nostrils of blood. The pharaoh breathed more easily now, lying peacefully on his low bed. Magician-healers would be called to assist the king.
By afternoon the healers had gathered the ingredients for their poultice: equal parts of berry of coriander, berry of the poppy plant, wormwood, berry of the sames-plant, berry of the juniper plant. Mixed with honey, it formed a paste that they spread on the wound and covered with a square of finely woven linen on which had been drawn the Eye-of-Horus symbol. Horus the falcon god had lost his eye in the battle with Seth, but it was magically regenerated by Toth, god of magic. The markings around a falcon’s eye became a sign for healing.
For the first few days there was optimism. Tutankhamen briefly regained consciousness and was able to eat. Ankhesenamen brought him chopped figs mixed with eggs because eggs had regenerative properties. The magician-healers placed “flour of egg”—powdered egg shells—in Tutankhamen’s wine, so the damaged skull would knit smooth, like an eggshell.2 Yet, as days became weeks, the pharaoh, drifting in and out of consciousness, weakened. His vision blurred and the pain in his head became almost unbearable, as if something were pressing on every part of his skull. To dull the pain, Ankhesenamen brought more and more of his favorite wine, made from grapes from his own vineyards. When winter came, Tutankhamen lapsed into final unconsciousness and could receive tiny amounts of wine through a straw only with difficulty.
The wailing started with Ankhesenamen, who was with Tutankhamen when he died, spread through the female servants in the palace, then across the river to Thebes, uniting rich and poor in the primal ritual mourning cry that told Osiris, god of the dead, to expect another Westerner. Within a few hours of the shock, Aye began the plans to prepare Tutankhamen’s burial.
Our account above of Tutankhamen’s death is fiction, but is based on evidence that has survived 3,300 years since his death. We are in an even better position to reconstruct his burial.
The tomb that Tutankhamen had been preparing for himself, next to his grandfather’s in the western spur of the Valley of the Kings, was far short of completion when the boy-king died. There was, however, a nearly complete tomb in the main valley that had not been used. Originally intended for a private person, a rare but not unprecedented honor, Aye decided to appropriate this small tomb for his pharaoh. Artists commenced painting appropriate scenes on the walls immediately; there was no time to carve the scenes. As the tomb was being readied, embalmers prepared Tutankhamen’s body for eternity.
Mummification was primarily a physical process, but every stage of the embalming was accompanied by religious rituals. The most important step was to remove all moisture from the body as quickly as possible. Bacteria need moisture to destroy tissue; if there is no water, the body will not decay.
Both the brain and the internal organs are extremely moist, so to avoid putrefaction, they had to be removed soon after death. When Tutankhamen’s body was brought to the royal embalmers, it was placed on an alabaster mummification table, inclined so that as work proceeded on the body, the fluids would run off into a basin below. The brain was removed by inserting a long wire into the nostril, breaking through the ethmoid bone into the cranium. The wire was then rotated—used as a whisk—to break down the brain tissue into a semi-liquid state that would drain out through the nostrils when the body was turned upside down. The embalmers preserved almost every part of the body so Tutankhamen would be complete when he resurrected in the next world. However, they discarded the brain, unaware of its function. Egyptians believed that you thought with your heart, not your brain, since it is the heart that beats rapidly when someone is excited, not the brain. In the Bible when pharaoh stubbornly refused to let the Israelites go, we are told “pharaoh’s heart was hardened.”
After Tutankhamen’s brain was removed and discarded, an incision was made in the lower left side of his abdomen so the internal organs could be reached. The stomach, liver, intestines, and kidneys were carefully removed and placed in shallow bowls. Later the desiccated organs were deposited in four miniature gold coffins in preparation for the day the king would resurrect in the next world. Only his heart was left in the body, so that he would be able to remember and recite the magic spells that would reanimate his corpse.
Even after the brain and internal organs were removed, considerable moisture still remained locked in the body’s soft tissues. To eliminate this, the embalmers covered Tutankhamen’s body with natron, a naturally occurring compound of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, and sodium chloride—basically baking soda and salt. After the body had rested for thirty-five days in natron almost all its water had been leached out. The mummy now weighed less than fifty pounds and was ready for wrapping. As each bandage was applied, a priest wearing the mask of Anubis the jackal, the god of embalming, read magical spells that would ensure Tutankhamen’s preservation and resurrection. The priests placed more than one hundred and fifty pieces of jewelry and magical amulets within the linen bandages to ensure the boy-king’s immortality.
As the embalmers practiced their art, master craftsmen throughout the land worked to prepare his funerary goods. There were wooden shrines to be carved and gilded, a gold mask and coffins to be fashioned, furniture, linens, clothing, and jewelry to be assembled. Preparation of the ushabtis figures alone was a major undertaking. These hundreds of little servant figurines were expected to magically come alive and serve Tutankhamen in the next world, each one an individual sculpture in wood or stone carved in the likeness of Tutankhamen (fig. 19). The figures were mummiform in shape, the image of Osiris, the god of the dead. Because Egypt was an agrarian society, the work in the next world would be farming, so the ushabtis held agricultural implements in their hands. Tutankhamen had 413 ushabtis, 365 workers, one for each day of the year, 36 overseers—one for each gang of 10 workers—and an additional twelve monthly overseers.3 There must have been panic in the workshops of Egypt as craftsmen worked in teams through the night to prepare for the burial of the pharaoh.
Maya, the treasurer, commissioned a beautiful miniature wooden sculpture of Tutankhamen on a funerary couch holding a tiny gold crook and flail, so the gods would know he was a great king. Along the side of the sculpture an inscription proclaimed Maya’s devotion to his young pharaoh: “Made by the servant who is beneficial to his lord, doing what he says, who does not allow anything to go wrong, whose face is cheerful when he does it with a loving heart as a thing profitable to his lord.”4
At some point in the preparation of Tutankhamen’s funerary goods, time ran out. The seventy days had elapsed, the embalmers’ work and all the coffins were complete, but other ritual objects simply couldn’t be finished on time. So the tomb of Tutankhamen’s brother, Smenkare, was opened and the miniature coffins that held his internal organs were reused for Tutankhamen. Inside each coffin, inscribed in gold, is a prayer from the Book of the Dead, a collection of about 200 spells, incantations, prayers, and hymns. The prayers inside refer to Tutankhamen, but beneath his cartouche are traces of the name Smenkare, his brother.
Seventy days after Tutankhamen’s death, the funeral procession gathered on the west bank of Thebes to conduct his mummy to its house of eternity. The body was placed on a sled and a wooden shrine draped with garlands was placed over it. Across the top of the shrine two rows of beautifully carved and painted wooden cobras reared up to protect Tutankhamen on his journey to the netherworld. The sled was pulled by the palace officials. Pentu and Usermont, the ministers of Upper and Lower Egypt, wore the distinctive robes of their office, and were joined by ten other officials, all wearing white mourning bands around their heads. As the procession slowly made its way over the barren land toward the Valley of the Kings, the women wailed, tore their garments, and threw sand on their heads in the traditional gestures of mourning. Among them, but feeling very alone, was Ankhesenamen.
When the pallbearers reached the tomb, the procession paused. In the course of wrapping the mummy Tutankhamen’s mouth and nose had been covered. Now, before he entered the tomb for eternity, a ceremony was performed to magically open his mouth so Tutankhamen would be able to breathe and say the magical spells of the Book of the Dead. The pallbearers, joined by the priests and members of the funeral procession, performed the opening-of-the-mouth ceremony for Tutankhamen.
More a mystery play than a religious ritual, a dozen participants were required for the performance.5 The officiating priest held a papyrus describing how things should proceed. A small group of the officials played roles of the guards of Horus, who would help Tutankhamen be resurrected like Osiris in the next world. The area in front of the tomb where the play was to be performed was purified with water from four different vases, each representing one of the four corners of the earth. Four burners holding incense were lit, and various gods were invoked. A ritual slaughter was performed, commemorating the battle in which Horus avenged Osiris’s death.
In the myth, Seth’s conspirators, after dismembering Osiris’s corpse, attempted to escape Horus by changing into various animals, but Horus caught them and cut off their heads. Thus, at the opening-of-the-mouth ceremony various animals were ritually killed—two bulls (one for the south and one for the north), gazelles, and ducks. When the bull of the south was slaughtered, one of the legs was cut off and, along with the heart, offered to the mummy. By sympathetic magic, Tutankhamen became Osiris: The sacrificial killing of the animals represented the conspirators who tried but failed to destroy the body of Osiris, and assured that the body of Tutankhamen would remain safe from such an attack. The slaughtered animals provided food for Tutankhamen’s long journey.
The high priest touched the mouth of the mummy with the leg of the bull, and then an assistant came forward with a ritual instrument shaped like an adze. Touching the mouth of the mummy with this implement, the priest recited:
Thy mouth was closed, but I have set in order for thee thy mouth and thy teeth. I open for thee thy mouth, I open for thee thy two eyes. I have opened thy mouth with the instrument of Anubis, with the iron implement with which the mouths of the gods were opened. Horus, open the mouth! Horus, open the mouth! Horus hath opened the mouth of the dead, as he in times of old opened the mouth of Osiris with the iron, which came forth from Set, with the iron instrument with which he opened the mouths of the gods. He hath opened thy mouth with it. The deceased shall walk and speak, and his body shall be with the great company of all gods in the Great House of the Aged One in Annu, and he shall receive the ureret crown from Horus, the lord of mankind.6
While this ritual was being performed, Tutankhamen’s body was resting inside the shrine on the sled, so a statue of Tutankhamen—one of the two life-sized guardian statues almost exactly the height of Tutankhamen—was used instead.
At the conclusion of the ritual, the priest raised the adze and touched it to Tutankhamen’s mouth, uttering the spell that would give the young king breath in the next world. “You are young again, you live again, you are young again, you live again, forever.” He was now ready for immortality.
The pallbearers carried the body of Tutankhamen-Osiris—he was now a Westerner like Osiris—down the thirteen steps leading to the tomb. At the bottom they turned right toward the burial chamber. On their left side they could see three five-foot-high ceremonial beds on which various rituals had been performed for Tutankhamen during the seventy days of mummification. At the corners of the head end of one bed were two beautifully carved hippopotamus heads covered in gold, the second bore the head of a cow with a sun disk between its horns, the third lion heads. These were the gods who controlled whether Tutankhamen could enter the next world. As the pallbearers slowly carried the mummy to the burial chamber, they took quick sideways glances, trying to take it all in—the burial treasures of a king.
Waiting for them in the burial chamber was a rectangular stone sarcophagus containing three coffins, one inside the other like Russian dolls. Their lids lay on the floor. The pharaoh was placed inside the innermost one. While the lector priest recited prayers, unguents were poured on the body to perfume Tutankhamen’s way to the next world. Then the lid of the innermost coffin was placed over Tutankhamen, sending him into darkness, the last time anyone would see his face for thirty-three centuries. The lid to the middle coffin was placed on its lower half, and finally the outermost coffin lid was lowered into place. Each coffin bore a likeness of the boy-king. Once the final lid was in position, Ankhesenamen placed a miniature wreath—the “Wreath of Victory”—around the sculpted vulture and cobra protecting her husband’s forehead. The tiny wreath commemorated the god Osiris’s victory over his enemies. As the wreath was positioned, a priest recited:
Thy father Atum binds for thee this beautiful wreath of vindication on this thy brow. Live, beloved of the gods, mayest thou live forever.7
With that, heavy the heavy stone lid of the sarcophagus was slid into place. The sad party of mourners walked slowly up the steps of the tomb into the blinding sunlight. As soon as the mourners left the tomb, a team of workmen hurried into the burial chamber to assemble the panels of three nested shrines around the sarcophagus, as an overseer watched. When their work was completed, they were replaced by masons who constructed a plaster wall sealing the burial chamber from the rest of the tomb. The statue used for the opening-of-the-mouth ceremony and its twin were placed in front of the wall, guarding their king. The last objects for the tomb—chariots, chests of linen, ebony foot stools—were quickly carried into the antechamber by servants, watched all the while, lest the pharaoh’s treasures be stolen from him. Now the antechamber was sealed by the masons, the wet plaster stamped with the seal of the Royal Necropolis, a jackal over nine bound captives, the nine traditional enemies of Egypt. Even in death, Tutankhamen was victorious.
Ankhesenamen’s long day was not yet over. A ritual last meal in honor of Tutankhamen’s victory over death had to be eaten at the entrance to the tomb. The participants wore brightly colored pectorals made of flowers and beads sewn onto a papyrus collar (fig. 16). Normally the meal was eaten by the family of the deceased, but in this instance Ankhesenamen, Tutankhamen’s last living relative, was joined by the palace officials—Pentu, Usermont, Aye, Aye’s wife, Tey, and General Horemheb. The servants brought a banquet of sheep, four different kinds of duck, three different kinds of geese, all washed down by considerable quantities of wine poured from an elegant long-necked vase painted with blue lotus petals. But none present were thinking about the meal. They pondered their futures. Who could have known that two of the men eating together would become kings of Egypt, and, within a very short while, one of the two women would be dead.
When the meal was completed, servants ritually broke the dishes, cups, and beautiful wine jar, and placed the fragments, along with the bones of the meat and fowl, inside large storage jars. They then swept the area with brooms and placed the brooms in the jars. The jars were sealed, carried to a nearby pit that had been dug, and buried. The funeral was over.
We actually have the broken dishes, collars, and brooms from the last meal. They are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. There is indeed a surgical papyrus that instructs physicians whom to treat and whom not. Painted on Tutankhamen’s tomb wall are scenes of the funeral procession and the opening-of-the-mouth ceremony. Of course, we have the treasures from Tutankhamen’s tomb, but we also have X rays of his skull.
But before we can get to the evidence of his murder, we must first understand what brought him to this moment. We must understand the evolution of Egyptian society, religion and its pharoahs. The next chapter is Egypt 101—a crash course in the history of Egypt that made the murder of a pharaoh possible. Stick with it and you will see the forces develop that bent Egypt until it snapped.
Egypt Before Tutankhamen
The wealth of an army is its leader.
—Instruction of Ankhsheshonq
circa 300 B.C.
Two thousand years before Tutankhamen was born, three distinct forces were set in motion that would determine the course of Egypt’s social organization and which would ultimately lead to his death. Egypt would get its first king, a national military would be established, and a priesthood would develop. Over the centuries these power bases grew strong and rich; they became so essential to Egyptian society that to change any one of them could bring disaster. Thus for centuries and centuries Egypt presented a seemingly static face to the ancient world. Internally Egypt was a wealthy, well-oiled machine, with each of the three powers supporting the others. Tutankhamen had the unfortunate distinction of being alive when there was a dramatic, revolutionary effort to change all three simultaneously. To understand how shockingly different the times Tut grew up in were, we first have to understand how and why the country had enjoyed such an unparalleled period of stability. Before we get to play detective, we have to do our history lessons.
EGYPT BEFORE KINGSHIP
The concept of a pharaoh in many ways defines our notion of ancient Egypt, but of course Egypt did not always have a king. Let’s look back to Egypt around 4000 B.C. when the verdant Nile Valley was dotted with small villages stretching for a thousand miles along the Nile. We don’t have written records from this period, but there seem to have been two independent political entities, Upper and Lower Egypt, each governed by its own chieftain. All indications are that life along the Nile was safe and satisfying, partly because Egypt was relatively inaccessible to the rest of the world and thus had few marauding enemies to fear and partly because the river provided economic bounty.
Each year the Nile overflowed its banks, depositing fresh rich topsoil on the flat plains that spread to either side of the river, enabling Egypt to grow an abundance and variety of crops. Other countries relied on unpredictable rain that only during certain seasons fell in sufficient quantity to irrigate fields. Even if rainfall were spread perfectly throughout the year, fields would soon be exhausted of nutrients if they were planted more than once a year. Egypt’s great good fortune was to have a river that renewed the topsoil annually and flowed in sufficient volume to water the crops. Every year Egypt harvested a variety of crops, while other countries thanked the gods when when they produced one. No wonder the ancient Greek traveler Herodotus called Egypt the “Gift of the Nile.”
The annual inundation amazed the Egyptians, who had no explanation for its sudden great growth, nor the fact that its color changed to red and then to green. It was a natural occurrence, of course, but it must have provided the equivalent mystery and pyrotechnics of a Las Vegas magic show. Today we know that torrential spring rains in Ethiopia, far south of Egypt, ran off granite bedrock to swell the Nile. The oversized Nile rushed north from sub-Saharan Africa, arriving in Egypt almost twenty feet above its normal level. It was red in color from all the runoff soil suspended in the water, but as it overflowed and the soil settled, its color changed to the green of the floating vegetation. The annual show provided by the Nile was surpassed only by the dazzling daily performance put on by the sun. Each day it rose in the east, traveled across a cloudless, jewel-like sky, and descended in a fireball of colors in the west, constant and predictable, like the Nile.
The population of the Nile Valley was probably less than a million. Although Egypt was a vast country, 95 percent of the population lived on the 5 percent of the land that hugs the Nile. The Nile was the heart of the country—even the seasons of the year were determined by the Nile. Our 365-day calendar comes from the Egyptians, but they counted only three seasons: 1) Inundation, when the Nile overflowed and flooded the land; 2) Emergence, when the waters receded; and 3) Summer, the dry season. Each season had four months of thirty days each. At the end of the year, “5 extra days” were added to make 365 days in the year. Inundation was Egypt’s most unusual season for it was a time for relaxing—the fields were underwater and little agricultural work could be done. During these weeks, plows and implements were repaired, future crops were discussed, and plans for the future were made. Emergence was the season for planting, in Summer crops were harvested.
The food staple of the farmer was bread and beer, a phrase that became synonymous with “food”—our “meat and potatoes.” A common funerary prayer begins, “May the king make an offering to Osiris, Lord of the West. May he give bread and beer, cattle, geese, and oxen and all things good and pure upon which the gods live.” The long growing season allowed the Egyptians to raise a variety of crops—the most important being emer (wheat) and onions. Meat was reserved for the upper classes, but the farmers had fish from the Nile and perch was the favorite, but whatever the Egyptians ate, it was accompanied by onions. Year after year Egypt’s crops were reassuringly plentiful and inevitably a sense of security arose along the banks of the Nile, a feeling that nature and the world would not present any horrifying surprises.
This feeling was encouraged by Egypt’s geographical isolation from her neighbors. To the west of Egypt spread endless miles of desert. In order for ancient peoples to cross, wells had to be dug, provisions stored; in all, tremendous organization and careful planning were required. From Libya, for example, the journey to Egypt would be across more than four hundred miles of arid shale. Six centuries after Tutankhamen, when the mighty Persian king Cambyses sent an army of 20,000 men across this wilderness, they disappeared without a trace.
Egypt is bordered by the Red Sea on the east, backed by one hundred miles of inhospitable sand. (Incidentally, the camel, “the ship of the desert,” did not arrive in Egypt until the Roman occupation, more than a thousand years after Tutankhamen.) To the north, hundreds of miles of the Mediterranean formed a third natural barrier, even if it was more psychological than real. Egyptians had developed their navigational skills on the smooth-flowing Nile, and they remained river sailors, not tempted by the lure and dangers of the open sea. The south offered a river-borne ingress into Egypt, for the Nile stretched far below Egypt’s southern border. Since the current flows from south to north and the prevailing winds are from north to south, travel in either direction was easy. Going north, sailors floated with the current, steering with oars; for the southward journey they hoisted sails and followed the wind. Boat travel was easy except at Egypt’s southern border where huge river boulders create a cataract. Although it was possible to travel south past this barrier, navigation was quite difficult and laborious. The crew had to haul the boats out of the river and drag them around the boulders or use ropes to guide them through the rapids. It was not an easy journey.