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Tutankhamun's burned mummy: could it be spontaneous combustion?

Scholars have long studied one of history's most famous figures, Pharaoh Tutankhamun, whose life ended suddenly under mysterious circumstances in 1323 BC, when the Pharaoh was about 20 years old. The apparent burning of the pharaoh's mummy at the moment of its discovery deepens the mystery. Science tries to provide some plausible explanations.

Pharaoh's profile picture
Published in 
 · 17 Mar 2024
The mummy of Tutankhamun
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The mummy of Tutankhamun

The aura of mystery surrounding Tutankhamun's death has been felt ever since archaeologists Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter discovered the pharaoh's tomb in 1922, in Cairo. A mystery that has lasted for thousands of years and that 21st century forensic science tried to unravel.

Based on the study of the mummified body, researchers have concluded that Tutankhamun was not poisoned, did not die from malaria, or from necrosis due to a fracture in his femur. He wasn't even hit by a sledgehammer on the base of the skull, as was initially thought. Instead today scholars, based on the fractures observed on the body, believe that ancient Egypt's most famous pharaoh was on his knees when he was tragically hit by a chariot. Tutankhamun may have died in a road accident, struck by his chariot while leading the Egyptian army into battle.

Interestingly, Tutankhamun's mummified body appeared burnt, as if it had been exposed to a temperature of 200 °C or more. This would have nothing to do with his death, as the burning process probably begins after the mummification process.

Dr. Robert Connolly, an anthropologist at the University of Liverpool who has studied Tutankhamun for years and took part in the 1968 X-ray examination of the mummy, is the only expert in possession of a small piece of the pharaoh's flesh.

After having studied it with an electronic microscope and subjected it to chemical tests, he came to the conclusion that the combustion would have been triggered by an incorrect embalming process, in which the used oils and resins, mixed with oxygen and linen from the bandages, had burned the pharaoh's skin after burial.

The phenomenon would explain the difficulties encountered by Howard Carter in extracting the body from the inner sarcophagus in 1922: the body was so glued to the walls by the resins that not even a strong heat at very high temperatures allowed him to removed the mummy.

Carter was forced to use levers and chisels, damaging the mummy quite a bit.

Left: mummy of Tutankhamun; right: reconstruction of how the pharaoh's face might have appeared.
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Left: mummy of Tutankhamun; right: reconstruction of how the pharaoh's face might have appeared.

Subsequently, the Cranfield Forensic Institute performed an accurate virtual autopsy, using all the available elements already collected in previous investigations. As a medical examiner would do under the orders of a prosecutor, the institute's experts examined every centimeter of the corpse, discovering numerous lesions concentrated on only one side of the body, in the pelvis and ribs region.

The results of the examination were passed on to another group of specialists, who investigate a very different field from Egyptology: they study injuries and trauma caused by wagon collisions. The analogies between Tutankhamun's clinical picture and the consequences of an impact with a mass thrown at high speed were surprising: the pharaoh was hit by something.

The prosecution could therefore support the theory of murder: someone killed the pharaoh by running him over with a chariot. The defense would have valid arguments for manslaughter and could convince the jury that he fell from the wagon he was accidentally run over by the one following him. Scholars seem to lean towards this thesis, given that they state that the pharaoh was hit while he was kneeling and probably trying to get up.

The mummy of Tutankhamun. The body appears to have been burned.
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The mummy of Tutankhamun. The body appears to have been burned.

The study explains another mystery that has remained unsolved until now, namely the fact that Tutankhamun's is the only existing mummy of a pharaoh which is missing the heart. Most likely, the organ was irreparably damaged by the accident. Probably the accident must have cracked and broken the ruler's ribs, eventually crushing his heart.

Despite the 6,000 artifacts found in his tomb, we know very little about Tutankhamun. It now becomes reasonable to think that he did not die in complicated palace conspiracies or enemy plots, which at his age must have mattered very little to him. Perhaps, on that day in 1323 BC, he simply took the chariot and went for a race against his friends' chariots, as still happens today on Saturday evenings, unfortunately, with a tragic consequence.

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DrWatson's profile picture

I remember watching a documentary many years ago about it. Essentially, the resins used underwent a chemical reaction over time, generating heat. Consequently, the temperature inside the sarcophagus gradually increase. The situation was worsened by the body being enclosed within three sarcophagi, coupled with the absence of air circulation. The lack of oxygen probably prevented the fire.

18 Mar 2024
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