King Tut Died In A Chariot Race, Then Spontaneously Combusted

By Ben Wolford on November 5, 2013 12:26 PM EST

The mystery of the boy pharaoh's death may have been solved.
The mystery of the boy pharaoh's death may have been solved.

King Tut's death more than 3,300 years ago has been a mystery since British archaeologists discovered his tomb in 1922. But high-tech research tells the unusually specific narrative of the boy pharaoh's stranger-than-fiction end.

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According to scientists, he died in a chariot crash. Then later, after he was mummified, he spontaneously combusted, The Independent reports.

How they arrived at that conclusion is an interesting story in itself, and it will premier in a documentary Sunday on the UK's Channel 4 called "Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy."

First, a little background on King Tut, for those who've forgotten why he's a big deal:

In his day, he was actually pretty unremarkable. He took over as Egypt's ruler when he was 9 years old, after his controversial father bowed out, probably under political pressure for trying to switch the empire from polytheism to monotheistic sun worship. Tutankhamun, with the help of adult advisers, switched Egypt back to the old religious ways. He married his half-sister and had no children. Then he died at 19 years old.

That was 1323 BCE. After that, not a peep about him for more than three millennia. Then, after World War I, Howard Carter and George Herbert went into the Valley of the Kings and found something incredibly rare: a perfectly preserved burial chamber. In it were few rooms full of Tut's toys, some treasure, hieroglyphic murals and a sarcophagus with a mummy inside.

The discovery drastically increased historians' understanding of ancient Egyptian culture. But the cause of King Tut's early death remained shrouded. Some scientists had speculated that a chariot-related accident seemed most likely, and some suspected King Tut might've been a decent soldier, skilled at archery. But until now there has never been a clear picture of exactly what happened.

Using forensic car-crash-simulation technology, scientists recreated what might've happened to King Tut. According to The Independent, the teenaged king was probably on his knees when a chariot smashed into his side, crushing his ribs, pelvis and heart. It would explain why King Tut was the only pharaoh buried without a heart.

"Despite all the attention Tut's mummy has received over the years, the full extent of its strange condition has largely been overlooked," said Chris Naunton, director of the Egypt Exploration Society, in a statement. He said he was reading Carter's original notes when he came across curious descriptions of the mummy's blemishes.

"The charring and possibility that a botched mummification led the body spontaneously combusting shortly after burial was entirely unexpected, something of a revelation in fact," he said.

But that scenerio now seems most likely (none of this research has been peer reviewed). Naunton contacted Robert Connolly at Liverpool University, who has the only disentombed piece of King Tut's flesh. Connolly and others examined it and confirmed it had been burned in a chemical reaction caused by the embalming oils after it was placed in the sarcophagus.

One other takeaway from Naunton's find: There could be more we don't know.

"Although the death mask and other treasures are very familiar," he says, "a staggering amount of the evidence has been overlooked. It's amazing how many questions have not even really been asked let alone answered."

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