Thanks to the wealth of buried treasures that Howard Carter discovered in Egypt's Valley of the Kings in 1922, the name Tutankhamun has survived 3,300 years of history. But less is known about the king's lineage, and why he died so young. The question of what or who killed him has confounded archaeologists since Carter's time, but now, with DNA and CGI technology, it's possible to analyze and reconstruct Tut's mummy in a virtual autopsy to find the answer.
On Nov. 2, Smithsonian Channel presents "King Tut's Final Mystery," based on research published by Dr. Hutan Ashrafian and new mitochondrial DNA analysis, yet unpublished. "This new research gave conclusive results about the identity of Tut's mother, and the finding of incest; both of which had been heavily criticized when the initial paper was released," says Anne Laking, executive producer of the special, which airs at 8 p.m.
"Most of the science we knew already; however there were some surprises. The recreation of the king, based on the virtual autopsy images, was a real eye-opener to us. The recreation of Tut's real appearance was really surprising to us, and brought home the reality of the 'boy behind the mask'," Laking continues. "The idea that the king was disabled, and the reveal of who his mother was and the fact that the mitochondrial DNA gave a definitive finding that Tut's parents were brother and sister, was also important to us."
The additional discovery that "all the apparent fractures were post-mortem artifacts was a big finding. Many of the current theories about the death of King Tut—chariot accident, hippo death, murder — rely on a pattern of injuries and fractures as their proof. However, the CT scans, seen in the virtual autopsy, show that the apparent fractures have straight edges, showing that they were made by a sharp instrument, rather than as a result of accident or trauma," she points out.
"We know that Howard Carter, and a colleague of his, [Dr. Douglas] Derry, who carried out an autopsy on the mummified remains, had to break the body in several places to remove it from the sarcophagus, where it was stuck with resin. There is, in fact, only one fracture, which occurred actually around the time of death, and that is the knee fracture. To find a single fracture lends support to the epilepsy theory, as unusual fractures are common among people with untreated epilepsy."
Hutan Ashrafian investigates King Tut's tomb in the Smithsonian Channel special 'King Tut's Final Mystery.'
Laking concedes that some experts challenge these conclusions. "This is Egyptology—of course there is disagreement with the findings! Some people disagree with Dr. Ashrafian's diagnosis of epilepsy. They regard the unusual representations of Tut and his ancestors as an artistic style. Some people still believe that Tut was murdered, although not by a blow to the head, since that is now clearly disproved by the lack of pre-mortem trauma to the skull. There will always be other mysteries to be solved about Tut. But in terms of the genetic findings, the combination of the original DNA results with the new mitochondrial DNA findings is very compelling and conclusive. The scientists who carried out the research are unusually definitive in their conclusions."
In any case, the interest in Tut is not likely to diminish. "The discovery of his tomb, which created such a powerful worldwide sensation in 1922, has left its legacy with all of us …Tutankhamun is a romantic figure—a young boy who ruled over one of the greatest empires of the world and died as a teenager. The sheer wealth of the artifacts found in his tomb have made him a very real and human figure to us; and one that I think will always be part of our fascination with the ancient past," observes Laking, noting that ongoing DNA research into Egyptian mysteries will continue to fuel that fascination.
She hopes viewers "feel they have come to know this iconic pharaoh a little better, as a real person, a person with frailties and difficulties, who died tragically young. I also hope they will gain a real insight into some of the latest scientific techniques and how these amazing technologies can reach across thousands of years to solve mysteries of the past and bring it vividly to life for us today."
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