Nineteen seventy-eight was the year of Tut.
That year, more than 1.2 million people squeezed into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view a blockbuster exhibit showcasing the King Tut called “The Treasures of Tutankhamun,” which rollicked through New York, Los Angeles and Seattle. Then Steve Martin got onstage on “Saturday Night Live” and, dressed as the boy king, crooned an ode to the pharaoh that hit No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100.
One little fact was left out of the saga. Tut — this boy king, this lover of monotheism, this thrower of many temper tantrums — may have been many things. But handsome wasn’t one of them. He was infirm and wobbly.
This addition to the story of Tut, whose golden image has always conveyed a certain divinity, will be revealed in a new BBC documentary called “Tutankhamun: The Truth Uncovered,” set to air on 16 August. The fresh portrayal is the result of a “virtual autopsy” that used more than 2,000 computer scans of Tut along with a genetic analysis of his entire family. And the new picture is not pretty: buck teeth, club foot and a pronounced overbite.
King Tutankhamun in pictures
King Tutankhamun in pictures
1/7 English Egyptologist Howard Carter supervising carpenters preparing to re-seal Tutankhamun's tomb.
2/7 Mr Callender, assistant to Howard Carter at the entrance to the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun
3/7 The Viscera Coffin of Tutankhamun
4/7 The interior of Tutankhamen's tomb depicting the god Osiris
5/7 Medical imagery of Tutankhamun shown above a replica of King Tut's skull
6/7 Members of the team that discovered the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun pose before the entrance to the tomb, Valley of the Kings, Thebes, Egypt, 1922.
7/7 British archaeologists Howard Carter (left) and Arthur Callender carry out the systematic removal of objects from the antechamber of the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, with the assistance of an Egyptian laborer in 1923.
The findings are important for several reasons. For one, it appears to disprove a pervasive hypothesis King Tut died in a chariot accident. “It was important to look at his ability to ride on a chariot and we concluded it would not be possible for him, especially with his partially clubbed foot, as he was unable to stand unaided,” Albert Zink, director of the wonderfully-titled Institute for Mummies and Icemen, told the Independent. “We need further genetic analysis that would give us more insight into his conditions.”
It also shows the extent of the effects inbreeding had on Tut, who reigned over Egypt around 1320 B.C. Corroborating earlier research, which held Tut was disabled and malarial, the genetic analysis of Tut’s family showed that young pharaoh’s parents were brother and sister.
“Inbreeding is not an advantage for biological or genetic fitness,” Carsten Pusch, who worked on a 2010 study of Tut’s family, told National Geographic. “Normally the health and immune system are reduced and malformations increase. … He was not a very strong pharoah. He was not riding the chariots. Picture instead a frail, weak boy who had a bit of a club foot and who needed a cane to walk.”
A Tut mystery has percolated since the year his opulent tomb was discovered in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in 1922. His body, ensconced in the arid conditions of the desert, was remarkably well-preserved, but no one could figure out what killed him. For years, as his tomb’s artifacts became some of the world’s most-traveled, a debate raged over what felled the youth. Some said murder. Others thought leprosy, or tuberculosis, or malaria or a snake bite — or, yes, an ill-fated chariot ride.
Eventually, researchers have gotten closer to the truth not through the study of Tut himself, but through the study of his family. He belonged to “one of the most royal houses of ancient Egypt,” stated a 2010 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Tut’s dad, Akhenaten, “is considered one of the most controversial of the Egyptian pharaohs, because his attempt to radically transform traditional religion affected all facets of society and caused great turmoil.”
It wasn’t just Tut who had a striking appearance, the study continued. It was the whole family: “Artifacts show the royalty of that era as having a somewhat androgynous appearance or a bizarre form of gynecomastia,” according to the research. The study, which concluded Tut had malaria among other illnesses, identified Tut’s grandfather, father and two stillborn children he appeared to have fathered with his half-sister.
Then a London doctor named Hutan Ashrafian entered the fray with another startling theory: Tut had epilepsy. Several pharaohs related to Tut were said to have visions that were the basis of later monotheistic religious beliefs, the New Scientist reported.
“It’s significant,” Ashrafian said, “that two had stories of religious visions associated with them,” suggesting a symptom of a heritable form of temporal lobe epilepsy. One of the pharaohs had his religious experience on a sunny day, which made sense to the London doctor. “People with temporal lobe epilepsy who are exposed to sunlight get the same sort of stimulation to the mind and religious zeal.”
Either way, it’s clear the Tut tribe were not the healthiest of folk. And Tut may have been the unhealthiest of all. One of the most striking revelations of his tomb were all the walking canes. There were, in all, 130 of them.
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