King Tut’s mummy slow-cooked by its own wrapping

That’s not even the vampire cat people sensationalized title, believe it or not. Egyptologist Dr. Chris Naunton, director of the Egypt Exploration Society, has taken a new look at old data and enlisted nifty modern technology in a quest for answers to some of the many questions surrounding the death and burial of iconic boy king Tutankhamun, among them why there is evidence of charring on the mummy and in the tomb. A documentary following Naunton’s voyage, Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy, airs on the UK’s Channel 4 Sunday, November 20th, at 8:00 PM, which is why there are tons of stories in the press today with titles screaming about Tut’s mummy spontaneously combusting.

I’m not sure if it’s a shortened version of a documentary that aired on PBS’ Secrets of the Dead series in July or just the first episode, but I’ve already watched Naunton explore the question of Tut’s charred mummy and the chariot accident for two riveting hours and you can too because the whole episode is available on the PBS website. Or you can just skip to the end of my prolix prose and click play below.

Out of respect for the late Mr. Krook from Bleak House, I’ll state for the record that there is no spontaneous human combustion at work here. SHC refers to people who die in fires generated by some unknown internal mechanism rather from an external ignition source. The fire that appears to have struck King Tut had an external cause: rushed mummification.

The investigation starts at the beginning of the modern Tut era: the 1922 discovery by Howard Carter of the sealed tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in the bottom of the Valley of the Kings. Carter took insanely detailed notes and spent the remaining years of his life documenting every artifact in the tomb intending to publish the definitive account. He died before publication and his notes, the excavation diaries and the photographs Harry Burton took in 1922 went to Oxford University’s Griffith Institute for archiving. They have digitized the collection and made it freely available online, albeit with unfortunately small pictures.

In the notes, Carter describes King Tut’s mummy, which the excavation team unwrapped in the tomb, as a “charred wreck” and indeed you can see in Burton’s photographs that it’s and nowhere near as well-preserved as 18th Dynasty mummies usually are. At various places in the tomb, Carter found lightly wrapped packets of linen which he described as being “like soot” and “charred powder.” To discover whether the mummy and linens really were burned and when, Naunton turned to Dr. Robert Connolly of Liverpool University who was part of the team that X-rayed Tut’s mummy in 1968.

At the time, small samples of the pharaoh’s flesh were taken from his shoulder and tested for blood type using a technique Connolly developed that mixed mummy tissue with modern human blood. (King Tut was type A, just for the record.) Connolly still has those samples, the only part of the pharaoh outside of Egypt. He also has a few samples from other mummies. Using a fragment of flesh from another 18th Dynasty mummy as a control, Connolly examined King Tut’s tissue with a scanning electron microscope to identify its chemical composition. The control mummy showed high levels of carbon and oxygen with traces of salts and other elements. Tut’s mummy had a much higher carbon peak consistent with charring of body during or immediately after mummification process. This is the only royal mummy that has ever been found to be charred.

But couldn’t that additional carbon have gotten into the mummified tissue upon discovery? Carter’s team did something to the mummy that by modern archaeological standards seems, well, horrific. King Tutankhamun was laid to rest in a coffin of solid gold and then various unguents were poured over him during the funerary rituals. Over the millennia, the unguents hardened and were now acting like glue, sticking the mummy unbudgeably to the coffin. Carter tried to soften the material in the sun, roasting the coffin on a row of primer stones, but it didn’t work, so he and his anatomy specialist Douglas Derry snapped off Tut’s arms and legs, decapitated him and sawed the body in two. Once they had the large pieces of his dismembered body out of the coffin, they scraped the rest of him off with hot knives.

So, could that harsh treatment have charred the mummy? Connolly and his colleagues don’t think so. In order for the tissue to burn as it did, you need temperatures approaching 500° Centigrade (932° Fahrenheit). Carter’s hot stones probably didn’t get past 200°C (392°F). What could have happened in antiquity, however, to char the mummy and some linen bundles but not burn the rest of the tomb’s contents?

Naunton looked for answers at the Building Research Establishment, a non-profit that does research and testing for construction standards. There they ran an experiment using linen bandages and linseed oil, one of the oils applied to the body and wrappings during the mummification process. Linseed oil is known to generate heat when mixed with oxygen, a reaction that accelerates when the oil is used over a large surface, like, say, a body. For the experiment, linseed oil was poured over four sets of linen bandages and distributed evenly throughout. The linseed-imbued linens were then each wrapped in layers of clean linen, as would have been done to the mummy, and a thermocouple (a wired thermometer that sends readings back to the control room) inserted in the bundles. Left in the open air, the bundles got hot fast. Within an hour the temperatures had reached 360°C (680°F) and the linen was beginning to blacken and smoke. You see in the documentary that smoke pours out of the testing chamber when the door is open. Inside, the linens are black and the edges are actually on fire. (Not an open flame; more of a slow ember that sort of eats away at the linen.)

Now Tut’s mummy was not in an open space with lots of oxygen to feed a spontaneous linseed oil fire, so the combustion reaction in his coffin would have been much slower, with little smoke and no fire. He was slow-cooked by his own bandages over a period of days, maybe even weeks. This afterlife-sabotaging disaster was the result of haste. Proper mummification applied oils slowly, deliberately, given them a chance to dry fully. Tut’s embalming was so rushed the oils were still wet when he was entombed, and wet oils = cooking.

There is other evidence of how rushed this burial was. The main mummification incision is usually small and discreet. Tut’s is a large, rough gash. His arms weren’t even properly crossed. Instead of being crossed tightly high on his chest in the Osiris pose, they’re low, almost at his waist, and very relaxed. They look thrown together. This kind of brutish handling is unheard of for a royal mummy.

King Tut is also missing something that every royal mummy ever found has: his heart. For the ancient Egyptians, the heart was the locus of the soul, intellect and emotional life of the deceased. It was always kept in the chest cavity with a heart scarab added. Even with this sloppy embalming, leaving out the heart is so massive an oversight that there must have been a reason for it. A virtual autopsy table (like the one that solved the 5,500-year-old Gebelein Man cold case) created by forensic scientists at the Cranfield Forensic Institute compiled all the data from the 1968 Liverpool University X-rays, a 2005 CT scan by Cairo University radiologists, facial reconstructions and every other study of the mummy done over the past 90 years.

The virtual autopsy table shows that while the skull and left clavicle are still intact, underneath the collar bone on his left side there is a straight-line injury going all the way down his torso to his pelvis. Ribs on the left side are broken, cut, missing and his sternum and the left side of his pelvis are gone. If that’s how the bones on his left side responded to whatever happened to him, his soft organs would surely have fared even worse. That could explain the missing heart: it was just too destroyed to embalm.

Naunton enlisted Advanced Simtec, specialists in computer modeling of traffic accidents for court cases and auto safety investigations, to see if they could explain the injuries as the result of a chariot accident. They laser scanned stunt riders on a replica of an ancient Egyptian chariot and then input the data into their modeling software. They then ran simulations of various kinds of chariot accidents and found only one that could result in the trauma seen on the scans. He had to be sitting up on his knees on the ground when he was struck on the left side and run over by a heavy, narrow chariot wheel. That would have snapped his ribs, crushed his pelvis and made unembalmable hamburger of his heart.

Dr. Naunton thinks this is the smoking gun:

“We believe there is now a very distinct possibility that he was struck by a chariot wheel in the torso at high speed, enough to do him very serious damage. In fact, that’s what killed him. His body would have been a real mess – he would not have been left a little bloodied – and that would have given the embalmers a real problem. They were used to dealing with dead bodies, not mangled ones.”

Many possible causes of death have been proposed over the years, most recently that weakened from malaria and a congenital bone disorder, he died from a leg fracture that became infected. After the X-rays were taken in 1968, the popular theory was murder, classic blunt force trauma to the head. There were fragments of bone inside the skull and a thin area at the base of the skull that looked like it may have been the site of a hemorrhage. The 2005 CT scans found there was no depressed fracture of skull and thus no blow to head. The fragments inside the skull were broken piece of neck vertebrae from when Carter decapitated the mummy. They somehow got into the skull when the head was reattached to body after removal of the golden mask.

The chariot accident theory seems solid, until the next one comes along, of course. But hey, enough of my yakking. What do you say? Let’s boogie.*

*2,000 Internets to the person who recognizes that quote.