Tutankhamun Was Probably the Victim of ‘Traffic Accident’

An alabaster stopper from his canopic chest

Approximately 101 years ago, the British archaeologist Howard Carter opened a pharaoh’s tomb, an event that continues to significantly impact Egyptology. The nearly untouched burial site of Pharaoh Tutankhamun provided extraordinary insights into the era of an otherwise less prominent figure in the New Kingdom. Many indications suggested that the young ruler was hastily interred, implying an unexpected death.

Indeed, Tutankhamun likely died in early 1323 BCE at the age of only 18 to 20 years. Older X-ray images purportedly revealed a skull injury, leading to speculation about a “Tutankhamun murder case.” However, in 2005, computed tomography (CT) scans revealed no fractures or wounds on the skull, largely eliminating head injuries as the cause of death.

Injuries

One of Tutankhamun's knees also showed injuries that he had probably sustained shortly before his death.
One of Tutankhamun’s knees also showed injuries that he had probably sustained shortly before his death. Image: Supreme Council of Antiquities.

The researchers, however, discovered something else: one to two previously unknown fractures in the left thigh and fractures of the right kneecap and right lower leg. The final findings suggest that Tutankhamun fell victim to an accident. Many Egyptologists speculate on a hunting accident.

Recently, the hypothesis gained significance that the young king might have died in a chariot accident. This is supported by the fact that Tutankhamun’s heart was removed before mummification, possibly due to severe damage in the accident, rendering it unusable for the journey to the afterlife, according to some experts.

Embalming resin within the fracture indicated that this was a fresh, compound fracture and must have occurred shortly before his death as there were no signs of bone healing.

No Signs of Healing

A South African team of medical professionals has now examined whether the available data aligns with such a “traffic accident” scenario. “The presence of Embalming resin within the fracture indicated that this was a fresh, compound fracture and must have occurred shortly before his death,” reported surgeons Sebastian van As (University of Cape Town) and Robin Brown (University of Limpopo) in the South African Journal of Surgery. There were no signs of bone healing.

A century ago, such complicated fractures would often have been a death sentence, especially in a time 3,300 years ago when questionable medical practices prevailed. The involvement of a chariot on Tutankhamun’s day of death is plausible because several disassembled chariots were found in the king’s tomb. Additionally, depictions of the young pharaoh in such a vehicle adorned the walls of the burial site.

Revealing Fractures

Regarding the fractures themselves, the researchers noted some peculiarities: “The type of fracture Tutankhamun suffered is extremely rare in children today,” said Brown. This complicated distal juxta-epiphyseal femur fracture (removed from the trunk and near the joint zone) typically indicates strong braking or acceleration maneuvers or impact events preceding the fracture.

“Such open fractures can also occur in falls from great heights, but the circumstances here suggest a chariot accident,” said Van As. “The injuries may well stem from Tutankhamun falling from his chariot. During the fall, the young pharaoh suffered multiple injuries, a complicated thigh fracture, and possibly a blunt trauma to the chest.” The consequences of this accident ultimately led to Tutankhamun’s death, according to the scientists.

Drink and Drive?

Due to the revolution that Tutankhamun’s father Amenhotep IV started, in which he changed his name to Akhenaten and made the sun god Aten the state god, the circumstances of this tragedy might never fully come to light. However, the successors disagreed, reversed everything, and sought to consign this part of their history to oblivion. In doing so, they erased Akhenaten, Tutankhamun, Smenkhkare, and Ay from the records and royal lists.

One aspect should not be entirely disregarded in the speculations about Tutankhamun’s death: the young ruler’s tomb was filled with alcohol. Archaeologists recovered a large number of vessels from the chamber that had once contained wine. While one should refrain from drawing hasty conclusions, it would not be the first fatal accident for a teenager who took the wheel with alcohol in their system.