Egyptologist unearths clues on Tutankhamun's botched mummification


Nearly a century after Howard Carter’s momentous discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, Egyptologist Dr Chris Naunton has returned to his personal hero’s vast excavation files. Hidden within Carter’s thousands of notes he has uncovered clues that point to a bizarre burning of the Boy King’s mummy.

With the mummy permanently locked behind glass in his tomb, the emergence of a fragment of the pharaoh’s flesh in the UK now provides an opportunity to crack this mystery.

Dr Robert Connolly of the University of Liverpool was part of the 1968 team that first x-rayed Tutankhamun and obtained tissue samples for blood testing. Now unique chemical tests confirm that the mummy was indeed burnt whilst still sealed inside his coffin. But having lain untouched for millennia, how was this possible?

For the first time, leading fire investigators demonstrate how an incredible chemical reaction of the embalming oils used on Tutankhamun’s mummy led to his spontaneous combustion – providing brand new evidence that his mummification was botched.

These new findings, revealed for the first time in a special Channel 4 documentary to be screened on Sunday 10 November (Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy – Secret History, 8pm), completely rewrite the story of Tutankhamun.

But this mystery of the burnt mummy is also a major clue to the greatest enigma of Ancient Egypt – what caused the young pharaoh’s death.

Drawing upon the expertise of forensic scientists from the Cranfield Forensic Institute and combining x-ray and CT scanning data, Dr Naunton and team use a virtual autopsy of Tutankhamun to uncover a highly distinct pattern of injuries down one side of his body. Their investigation also explains why King Tut’s mummy was the only royal pharaoh to be missing its heart – it had been damaged beyond repair.

For many Egyptologists a chariot accident has been the most plausible theory behind Tutankhamun’s death but no one has matched the mummy’s injuries to an exact scenario. Now Dr Naunton has drawn upon the expertise of leading car crash investigators to do just this, as they reconstructed a series of chariot accidents using computer software and, for the first time, reveal the only plausible event that could have caused Tutankhamun’s unique set of injuries.

Combined with new, historical evidence of the young pharaoh leading the charge in Egypt’s foreign wars, what emerges in this investigation is a new image of the young ruler as a warrior king – and a tragic battlefield death.

But the question remains why Tutankhamun became the greatest legend of the Ancient World. It leads Dr Naunton to a sinister story of an ageing vizier Ay, who seized an opportunity for power and immortality by switching tombs and giving King Tut a hasty burial.

It is a story that ends with an extraordinary twist of fate. After years scouring the Valley of the Kings for clues, geologist Stephen Cross has uncovered evidence of a colossal flash flood that would keep Tutankhamun’s treasures safe from tomb raiders for millennia – and make it the only near intact royal tomb ever found. Until Howard Carter made headline news when he broke through the necropolis walls and uttered the immortal words of ‘gold, glistening everywhere’.

Dr Naunton says: ‘Howard Carter is probably still underrated as an archaeologist, his achievements are cast into shadow by the splendour of Tutankhamun’s treasure. His recording of the excavation and material, under uniquely pressurised circumstances, was incredibly good and his notes are full of intriguing observations and suggestions, many of which were never followed up. The archive of the excavation therefore represents a treasure trove of archaeological information in its own right. Although the death mask and other treasures are very familiar a staggering amount of the evidence has been overlooked. It’s amazing how many questions have not even really been asked let alone answered.

Despite all the attention Tut’s mummy has received over the years the full extent of its strange condition has largely been overlooked. The charring and possibility that a botched mummification led the body spontaneously combusting shortly after burial was entirely unexpected, something of a revelation in fact.

I think what the project shows is that when it comes to ancient material there is always more to learn, and there probably will be in the future, but with this study we have taken a big step forward in terms of understanding what happened at the end of Tut’s life.’

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