ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY
ASU bioarchaeologist challenges King Tut royal mummy findings
When Howard Carter unearthed King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, the world was introduced to a fantastical cache of ancient Egyptian artifacts and the mummy of a young royal who died, mysteriously, at the age of 19. In the years since, speculation has raged about the life of the boy king, and more pointedly, how he died.
This past February, that mystery was heralded as solved when the Journal of the American Medical Association published the results of a two-year study by noted Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass and an international team of researchers. The project – involving DNA, radiological and anthropological examination – ended with the suggestion that Tutankhamun was felled by malaria and a bone disease.
Also studied were 10 other royal mummies, all of the famed 18th Dynasty. The project sought to establish kinship among the mummies, identifying such well-known figures as Amenhotep III and the “heretic pharaoh” Akhenaten and placing them, respectively, as Tutankhamun’s grandfather and father. The article also pegs Tutankhamun’s parents as siblings and notes among the royal mummies several linking physical deformities, such as cleft palate, club foot and scoliosis.
In the wake of the publication, and a related Discovery Channel special, several scientists have come forward to challenge the assumptions made by Hawass’ team. Among those questioning the findings is Arizona State University bioarchaeologist Brenda J. Baker, whose letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association appears in the June 23 edition.
A specialist in human osteology and paleopathology, Baker takes issue with the identification of the skeletonized mummy KV55 as Tutankhamun’s father, Akhenaten. The authors place this individual’s age at the time of death at 35-45, despite producing no evidence that repudiates well-known prior examinations citing the age in the 18-26 range.
These earlier analyses – documented with written descriptions, photographs and radiographs – show a pattern of fused and unfused epiphyses (caps on ends of growing bones) throughout the skeleton, indicating a man much younger than Akhenaten is believed to have been at the time of his death. Baker also uses a photograph of the pubic symphysis of the pelvis to narrow the age of KV55 to 18-23 based on recent techniques used in osteology and forensic anthropology.
In addition, Baker questions the supposed pathology shared between KV55 and King Tutankhamun, none of which are supported by previous studies. Her conclusion is that KV55 are the remains of another son of Amenhotep III.
Baker, an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is known for her ability to reconstruct the health conditions and lifeways of ancient people based on the examination of skeletal remains. She has done extensive work in Egypt as the senior physical anthropologist for the University of Pennsylvania Museum-Yale University-Institute of Fine Arts, New York University Expedition to Abydos since 1988 and directs an archaeological project investigating ancient Nubia in northern Sudan. Among the classes she teaches are Advanced Human Osteology and Life and Death in Ancient Egypt.
The Journal of the American Medical Association