2.19.2010

Commentary on the recent Tutankhamun research Part 3: Tutankhamun

Before progressing with my wall o' text, I thought I'd mention that the following books have been very handy for jogging my memory and providing other tidbits of information.  They are both lavishly illustrated, too, which is nice:
"The Complete Tutankhamun" by Nicholas Reeves

"The Complete Valley of the Kings" by Richard Wilkinson and Nicholas Reeves

Regarding Tutankhamun's parentage a variety of suggestions have been put forth:  Amenhotep III and Tiye?  Amenhotep III and minor wife or other woman?  Akhenaten and Nefertiti?  Akhenaten and Kiya?  Akhenaten and someone else?  Smenkhare?  Most have thought Akhenaten and someone other than Nefertiti, probably the lesser wife, Kiya, were the likely candidates.   Others, arguing for an extended period during which Amenhotep III and Akhenaten reigned together as co-regents suggested Amenhotep III as Tut's father based primarily on iconographic evidence.  There isn't a lot of other evidence for the co-regency though and I've always thought it unnecessarily complicated an already ridiculously complicated history.  We now have the parentage issue resolved to be Akhenaten and an unknown woman who probably neither Nefertiti nor Kiya.  Based on the analysis, the parents of Tutankhamun were full siblings (feel free to sing Dueling Banjos or make whatever references to West Virginia in particular or the South in general here).  Neither Nefertiti nor Kiya are attested as daughters of Amenhotep III so they are probably not Tutankhamun's mother.  Amenhotep III married a few of his daughters (not going there!) which presumably precludes them from having been married again later on, so the daughters that are left are Nebetiah or Beketen.

I'm sure everyone remembers a few years ago the mini Tut show on tour and the National Geographic sponsored facial reconstruction that looked like Barbara Streisand and the sort of associated, oooh, Tut was murdered press.  Especially the headlines that said “Tut was murdered” over articles that said “actually, we're not sure, he busted his leg and stuff.  We're going to interview this random retired police detective and see if he thinks a teenager separated from him by several thousand miles and a few thousand years was murdered.  Because that's science, kids!”
Previous research suggested a fall and cranial damage which was later found to be caused during the process of mummification rather than during life.  An unhealed leg break suggested another possible cause of death.  There has also been speculation regarding various genetic diseases or defects affecting Akhenaten and/or Tutankhamun.

While there is evidence of various genetic problems leading to skeletal abnormalities, these are not themselves sufficient to have caused death.  They did cause a degree of disability and help to explain the large number of canes found in Tutankhamun's tomb.  It's worth noting here that Tutankhamun remains the largest, best known intact royal burial found in Egypt.  (There are the 22nd Dynasty royal burials from Tanis, but that's a separate story...) Because it's our only example, it's very difficult to establish what was “typical” for a New Kingdom royal burial in the Valley of the Kings and what wasn't.  So, when over 130 walking sticks were found, it was noted as interesting, but not much more was made of it. In particular, Howard Carter speculated that Tut may have been something of a collector of walking sticks, and it was noticed that several of them show clear signs of use, but so far as I know, no one suggested that they might actually have been necessary mobility aids for the young king.  For all we knew, maybe there were always a bunch of walking sticks included.

He definitely needed mobility aids, though – his left foot was seriously messed up – joint abnormalities, evidence of bone necrosis, in general, the poor kid was probably in discomfort a lot of the time and needed his collection of canes.  There was also a “pharmaceutical kit” in the tomb, consisting of Zizyphus spina-christi L. Willd, Coriandrum sativum L., Cocculus hirsutus Diels, Juniperus oxycedrus L., as well as raisins and dates, all of which were used internally and/or externally to treat pain, fever, fatigue, and various other symptoms you'd expect from a severe foot deformation and malaria.  And the authors of the JAMA paper note that there are a few scenes of Tutankhamen showing him seated during activity that is usually shown with the king standing, which could be a nod to his disability.

They've also found evidence of malaria infection in Tut and several of the other mummies examined.  This is pretty interesting, especially given the distribution of ages in the study. Some fairly old adults (Yuya and Thuya) show evidence of malaria infection.  While it could mean that they weren't infected until late in life, I find that very unlikely.  More likely, as the JAMA article notes, is that most people had a degree of resistance to malaria, as is seen in areas where malaria is endemic today.  Very interesting.
Overall, the question of how Tut died is still open as there is no single injury, infection, or genetic problem that alone would have caused death.  Multiple factors and combinations of infection, the genetic skeletal problems, the broken leg, etc., could well have killed him though.  Also, someone smashed his mom's face in (more on that later).  Who knows when the hell that happened, though.

Also, because I am incredibly immature, a direct quote from the article:
“The penis of Tutankhamun, which is no longer attached to the body, is well developed.”  
As noted before with Akhenaten, no word on moobs.

2 comments:

bellsknits said...

Came here via Samurai knitter and read these posts entirely. Thanks so much for the write up. In the Sydney Morning Herald it was concluded that he definitely died of malaria and a broken leg that wouldn't heal' or something - whereas you've shown it wasn't conclusive. So having a go at the media for beating it up over the years is spot on - they take one line and run with it. There's a surprise.

Great reading. Thanks.

Shoveling Ferret said...

Thanks! The media is always fun to deal with - we need them in hopes of increasing interest and therefore funding, but they so frequently get stuff just plain WRONG!