Ian Sample, science correspondent
Tuesday November 28, 2006
The world's most celebrated boy king, Tutankhamun, may have died after badly breaking a leg while playing sport.
A detailed scan of the mummy, which was uncovered in the Valley of Kings in 1922, has revealed the high-impact fracture as the most likely cause of death.
Speculation over the death of Tutankhamun has raged since the mummy was first inspected in 1925, three years after his tomb was excavated by Howard Carter and his patron Lord Carnarvon. The first x-ray scans conducted in 1968 found signs of damage to the skull, prompting suggestions that he had been killed by a blow to the head.
Researchers led by Ashraf Selim, a radiologist at Kasr Eleini Teaching Hospital at Cairo University, used a mobile CT scanner to build up a 3D image of the 3,300-year-old body from 1,900 separate images. The reconstruction showed him to be 5ft 11in tall and probably 19 years old when he died.
But precision scans of the king's left thigh revealed extensive details of a high-impact fracture above the left knee. The kneecap was badly twisted to the outside of the leg, and the wound was open to the outside world, where it was vulnerable to infection. What is believed to be the remnants of embalming fluid had deeply penetrated the fracture, suggesting the injury was sustained in the king's lifetime and not inflicted during the original excavation.
"In my view this is a deadly fracture. It is a major bone - the injury probably involved the rupture of a major blood vessel, and it is open to outside air, meaning it was likely to become infected. It's a common injury among horse riders and, without antibiotics or surgery, he may have been dead from blood infection within a few days," said Frank Ruhli, a paleoanthropologist on the project at the University of Zurich's Institute of Anatomy.
How the injury was sustained is still uncertain, but the type of fracture matches a common breakage suffered by jockeys and other horse riders. A member of the team, Eduard Egarter Vigl, chief conservator at Bolzano hospital in Italy, said: "We think it's possible it was a sporting accident."
The research was presented at a conference of the Radiology Society of North America in Chicago yesterday.