Tut, tut

I couldn’t help taking interest in recent news that Egypt’s famous King Tutankhamun — the boy king behind the solid gold death mask discovered by Howard Carter in 1922 — had a really bad time of it both before and after his death.

Paleopathologists who studied the remains of his mummified body have known for some time that he had suffered a variety of physical traumas, leading to a similar variety of theories regarding the manner of his death.

A new study sides with one theory that has been around for a while — that Tut may actually have gone to war, leading his troops in the vanguard of the charioteers. In the process, he appears to have fallen from his chariot, which would have been easy enough to do, given that they had no safety belts, were typically pulled by multiple horses, and moved at quite a clip. Falling onto hard ground at high speed would be bad enough, but medical examiners judged that the extent and pattern of the trauma suggests that he was then run over by another chariot (don’t forget the horses) that couldn’t stop in time.

A royal propaganda painting depicting King Tutankhamun leading his troops into battle. That analysis is in sharp contrast to a DNA-based study published in National Geographic in 2010, which suggested that Tut was a frail and malaria-ridden boy who needed a cane to walk and could never have ridden in a chariot — at least not for very long.

Whatever the cause of death, Tut had more problems ahead. Carter noted long ago that Tut’s mummy wrappings appear to have been charred, but no one knew quite what to make of it. The recent analysis, based on an idea replicated in the lab, suggests that a botched embalming job involving strong chemical compounds and flammable linen wrappings may have spontaneously combusted, leaving the deceased king with more than a hot foot, or, as the Daily Mail put it, “mummi-fried.”

By then, of course, the boy king was long past knowing what was happening to his body, despite the many ministrations of priests muttering incantations from the Book of the Dead and carrying out an elaborate “opening of the mouth” ceremony to ensure his safe passage into the world of the gods.

One more reminder that however death comes, some preparations need to be made beforehand …

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