On February 16, 1923, English archaeologist Howard Carter began to explore the tomb of King Tutankhamun, better known as King Tut, who ruled ancient Egypt from 1333 to 1324 B.C. Often referred to as the “Boy Pharaoh,” he is thought to have taken the throne around the age of nine or 10 and to have died around the age of 19. World-wide press coverage surrounded Carter’s archaeological exploration, and soon enough “King Tut” was a household name. Songs about him debuted in the 1920s. President Herbert Hoover touted his dog King Tut in campaign photos. And then out came the movies, inspired by the tomb’s tales.
But, 90 years later, why is he still a topic of conversation? What is the current appeal of the long-ago king?
"King Tut has long fascinated people around the world,” says Howard Markel (’82, U-M ’86), director of U-M’s Center for the History of Medicine. “He was literally a boy when he became the Pharaoh of Egypt. There have been countless tales of intrigue about his reign and, of course, for all of us fans of Saturday Night Live, there was Steve Martin's 1978 smash hit song, ‘King Tut.’”
President Herbert Hoover poses with his pet dog, King Tut. Photo: © Getty Images
One major conversation point has been the mystery surrounding the boy king’s death. Did he have a genetic condition? Was he murdered? Poisoned? Or did he fall off a chariot and get kicked in the head, as a 1968 radiograph suggested?
Between 2007 and 2009, a research team medically examined 11 royal mummies believed to be from King Tut's immediate lineage and five mummies from an earlier time period. The goal: to determine the genetic linkages between them and their causes of death. In February 2010, they released a study concluding that King Tut’s death was likely caused by a sudden leg fracture, complicated by a malarial infection.
To accompany the study’s release in the Journal of the American Medical Association, editor Catherine DeAngelis asked Markel to write an editorial. He did so, titling it, “King Tutankhamun, Modern Medical Science, and the Expanding Boundaries of Historical Inquiry.” In it, Markel raises ethical questions surrounding this type of retrospective analysis on the dead—noting that researchers must “avoid opening a historical Pandora's box.”
In other words: Sure, it’s a fun fact to know why someone like King Tut died, but it doesn’t change the history. So why are researchers doing it?
“As a historian, I find it problematic. It’s a social and cultural taboo; we aren’t supposed to disturb the dead. In King Tut’s time, Egyptians believed you would destroy the chances of their afterlife by entering their tomb. A curse would be placed upon whoever disturbed the dead,” says Markel.
“So the question becomes: Are major historical figures entitled to the same privacy that private citizens have?”
Markel is quick to point out that some types of retrospective analysis can be used for good. Notably, researchers extracted DNA samples from victims of the influenza pandemic of 1918 in order to understand the strains and how they could threaten society today. Researchers compared the 1918 samplings to flu mutations in 2005 and 2009, for example. “This type of research is useful and applicable today—I’d say it passes the ethical ‘test.’”
After his editorial was published, Markel received calls by many major news outlets. The story was covered on the front page of the New York Times, and he appeared on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” and “All Things Considered.” The name “King Tut” clearly draws a crowd, but it’s those ethical questions that got people talking too.
“For me, the most fascinating aspect of King Tut is this conversation that comes along with his tomb’s discovery,” Markel says. “You really have to think about the ethical guidelines here—what are the rules when it comes to analyzing the dead?
“It changes aspects about our knowledge of a particular historical figure, but we have to be very, very careful not to dig up whatever interests us.”