King Tut - 'one sick kid'

2010-02-18 08:02

Chicago - It turns out Egypt's beloved boy-king wasn't so golden after all.

But will research showing King Tut was actually a hobbled, weak teen with a cleft palate and club foot kill enthusiasm for a mummy that has fascinated the world for nearly a century?

Not likely, historians say, even though the revelations hardly fit the popular culture depiction of a robust, exotically handsome young pharaoh.

"This is one sick kid," Egyptologist Emily Teeter, assistant curator at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, said after learning of the research.

It shows that, based on DNA tests and CT scans, Tut had a genetic bone disease and malaria, which combined with a severe broken leg could have been what killed him about 3 300 years ago at age 19.

The results appear in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association. They further dispel the more romantic and popular theories about what did him in, like being murdered by a sneaky palace foe.

The findings stem from the most rigorous research yet on a mummy that has fascinated the world ever since his largely intact, treasure-filled tomb was found nearly 90 years ago.

But historians say the new evidence will likely only intensify public interest in King Tutankhamun because it brings the boy ruler down to Earth.

More human

"It makes him all the more human and all the more fascinating," said Dr Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan.

The more realistic picture, fleshed out by testing Tut's mummy and those of his family, has its own mystique. Beneath the golden splendour in which they lived, ancient Egypt's royals were as vulnerable as the lowliest peasant: Three other mummies besides Tut's showed repeated malaria infections.

Moreover, their tradition of incestuous marriages only worsened their maladies.

The new research led by Egypt's top archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, bolstered previous theories that Tut's father was likely the Pharaoh Akhenaten. It also brought a new discovery: Tut's mother was Akhenaten's sister.

That would explain some of Tut's ailments, including the bone disease that runs in families and is more likely to be passed down if two first-degree relatives marry and have children.

In ancient Egypt, it wasn't really considered incest. Pharaohs were thought of as deities, so it makes sense that the only prospective mates who'd pass muster would be other deities, Markel said.

Now experts are trying to identify the mummy that DNA pinpointed as Tut's mother, as well as another confirmed as his wife, Hawass told reporters in Cairo on Wednesday. 

More mystery

The DNA project is also seeking a more illustrious figure, Queen Nefertiti, the wife of Akhenaten who was fabled for her beauty but whose mummy has never been identified.

"It will make more mystery about him, it will make more magic about him," Hawass said of the new discoveries.

Tut has long been big business. A 1970s Tut exhibit drew millions of visitors to US museums, and a popular revival including artefacts from his tomb and others' has been travelling around the United States for the past several years and is currently at San Francisco's DeYoung Museum.

Egypt's economy depends a great deal on tourism, which brings in around $10bn a year in revenues.

The King Tut exhibit at Cairo's Egyptian Museum is one of the crown jewels of the country's ancient past and features a stunning array of treasures including Tut's most iconic relic - the golden funeral mask.

Another tourist destination is Tut's tomb tucked in the Valley of the Kings amid Luxor's desert hills. In 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered it and the trove of fabulous gold and precious stones inside, propelling the once-forgotten pharaoh into global stardom.

Hundreds of tourists come daily to the tomb to see Tut's mummy, which has been on display there since 2007.

Though historically Tut was a minor king, the grander image "is embedded in our psyche" and the new revelations won't change that, said James Phillips, a curator at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History.

"Reality is reality, but it's not going to change his place in the folk heroism of popular culture," Phillips said. "The way he was found, what was found in his grave - even though he was a minor king, it has excited the imagination of people since 1922."

Even if the research dents the myth, it won't change the most tangible part of Tut's image - all the intact relics that were found in his tomb.

"He's far more famous for what he owned and what he wore than what he actually did," Markel said.