Monday, February 16, 2015


1923 – Howard Carter unseals the burial chamber of Pharaoh Tutankhamun.

Tutankhamun (1341 BC – 1323 BC) was an Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th dynasty (ruled 1333 BC – 1324 BC in the conventional chronology), during the period of Egyptian history known as the New Kingdom. His original name, Tutankhaten, means "Living Image of Aten", while Tutankhamun means "Living Image of Amun".

Often the name Tutankhamun was written Amen-tut-ankh, due to scribal custom which most often placed the divine name at the beginning of the phrase in order to honor the divine being. He is possibly also the Nibhurrereya of the Amarna letters. He was likely the 18th dynasty king 'Rathotis' who, according to Manetho, an ancient historian, had reigned for nine years — a figure which conforms with Flavius Josephus's version of Manetho's Epitome.

The 1922 discovery by Howard Carter of Tutankhamun's intact tomb received worldwide press coverage and sparked a renewed public interest in ancient Egypt, for which Tutankhamun's burial mask remains the popular face.

Tutankhamun seems to have faded from public consciousness in Ancient Egypt within a short time after his death, and he remained virtually unknown until the early twentieth century. His tomb was robbed at least twice in antiquity, but based on the items taken (including perishable oils and perfumes) and the evidence of restoration of the tomb after the intrusions, it seems clear that these robberies took place within several months at most of the initial burial. Eventually the location of the tomb was lost because it had come to be buried by stone chips from subsequent tombs, either dumped there or washed there by floods. In the years that followed, some huts for workers were built over the tomb entrance, clearly not knowing what lay beneath. When at the end of the twentieth dynasty the Valley of the Kings burials were systematically dismantled, the burial of Tutankhamun was overlooked, presumably because knowledge of it had been lost and his name may have been forgotten.

For many years, rumors of a "Curse of the Pharaohs" (probably fueled by newspapers seeking sales at the time of the discovery) persisted, emphasizing the early death of some of those who had first entered the tomb. However, a recent study of journals and death records indicates no statistical difference between the age of death of those who entered the tomb and those on the expedition who did not. Indeed, most lived past seventy.

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A few years ago the De Young Museum in San Francisco had a Tutankhamen Exhibit. My nephew Sheridan and his wife Sylvie saw it when they were here five years ago last July. They weren't so impressed. It wasn't a very large show. I saw the same exhibit at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia five years ago last May when I was East for the Point to Point horse race in Wilmington, Delaware. On my free Monday I had planned to go into NYC to see the Venetian show at the Met, but since it was closed on Mondays, I went to the King Tut show instead. (It turned out I was able to see the Venice & Islam Exhibit at the Doges' Palace in Venice a few months later. It couldn't have worked out better!)

I was glad to see the Tutankhamen show in Philadelphia; but it wasn't as extensive as two previous ones I had seen. The first was at the Franklin Institute in the mid 1960's when the impressive throne-like chair was featured. The second was at the old DeYoung Museum here in San Francisco thirty-three years ago. It was a far more extensive exhibit. It featured the glorious golden mask, frequently shown as the cover shot on countless books.

Amr Nabil/Associated Press
People crowd around the golden mask of King Tutankhamun at the Egyptian museum in Cairo earlier this month.

I had gone to that show twice before with incredibly bothersome crowds, before Chanticleer (then in its first year) was asked to sing at a cocktail party for then new mayor Dianne Feinstein in a tent outside the DeYoung. We sang in horrible acoustics with a single hand held mic. It was totally useless...BUT as an unanticipated consequence, the twelve of us --in white tie and tails-- had the splendid opportunity to walk through the exhibit entirely by ourselves (of course with the standard number of security guards keeping watch over the priceless objects).

I was then able to figure out why the golden mask was so deep. It wasn't like a Venetian Carnevale mask as I had thought; that is, the mask was not directly on top of Tutankhamen's face. Instead, the mummy's head was at the very back of the headdress -- at least over a foot away. I had never gotten close enough to see that when I had gone to the exhibit with the crush of crowds. With that in mind, I may bypass this time around, since it is rather expensive, and I've already seen it in Philadelphia.

Published: February 16, 2010 New York Times

King Tutankhamun, the boy pharaoh, was frail, crippled and suffered “multiple disorders” when he died at age 19 in about 1324 B.C., but scientists have now determined the most likely agents of death: a severe bout of malaria combined with a degenerative bone condition.

Scientists have now determined that the boy pharaoh most likely died of a severe bout of malaria combined with a degenerative bone condition.

The researchers said that to their knowledge “this is the oldest genetic proof of malaria in precisely dated mummies.” Several other mummies in the study also showed DNA evidence for the presence of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum, perhaps not surprising in a place like the Nile Valley.

The application of advanced radiological and genetic techniques to royal Egyptian mummies marks a new step in the ever deepening reach of historical inquiry through science.

The study, reported Tuesday, turned up no evidence of foul play, as had been suspected by some historians and popular writers familiar with palace intrigues in ancient Egypt. Previous examinations of the Tut mummy had revealed a recent leg fracture, possibly from a fall. This might have contributed to a life-threatening condition in an immune system already weakened by malaria and other disorders, the researchers said.

In addition, genetic “fingerprinting” of the 11 mummies in the study established family connections over five generations of Tut’s lineage. The identities were previously certain for only three of the mummies. Now, scientists said the tests identified the ones of Tut’s father, mother and grandmother and other probable relatives.

The two-year investigation, completed last October, is described in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The research was directed by Zahi Hawass, an Egyptologist who heads the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo, and included medical scientists and anthropologists from Egypt, Germany and Italy. Carsten M. Pusch of the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Tübingen, in Germany, was the report’s corresponding author.

In an accompanying editorial in the journal, Dr. Howard Markel of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the study, praised the thoroughness of the new research “based on unfettered access to the actual mummies.”

Recalling the myriad postmortem claims that have surrounded the young king, Dr. Markel suggested that now “the legion of Tutankhamun admirers might be well advised to reconsider several existing theories.”

A two-part program, “King Tut Unwrapped,” will be shown on the Discovery Channel on Sunday and Monday. Dr. Hawass and others will discuss the new findings.

Though not one of the great rulers of ancient Egypt, King Tut is easily the best known in public lore. He was the son and successor of Akhenaten, the controversial reform pharaoh who ruled from about 1351 to 1334 B.C.

The British archaeologist Howard Carter’s discovery in 1922 of Tut’s opulent tomb in the Valley of the Kings was a sensation. The young king’s visage and premature death in the ninth year of his reign inspired fanciful speculation, and the golden and bejeweled artifacts from his tomb still dazzle crowds at touring museum exhibitions.

One overall impression from the new research is that the royal family’s power and wealth did not spare them from ill health and physical impairment. Several mummies revealed instances of cleft palate, clubfeet, flat feet and bone degeneration. Four of the 11 mummies, including Tut’s, contained genetic traces of malaria tropica, the most severe form of the infection.

The researchers said that several other pathologies were diagnosed in the Tut mummy, including a bone disorder known as Kohler disease II, which alone would not have caused death. But he was also afflicted with avascular bone necrosis, a condition in which diminished blood supply to the bone leads to serious weakening or destruction of tissue. The finding led to the team’s conclusion that it and malaria were the most probable causes of death.

The effects of this bone disease, notably the “definitely altered structure” of the left foot, probably explained the presence of walking canes in the Tut tomb, the researchers said.

Speculation had also centered on the fact that Tutankhamun left no heirs and the stylized reliefs and other sculptures of him and family members showed them having a somewhat feminized or androgynous appearance. This suggested certain inherited syndromes, including gynecomastia, which is the excessive development of breasts in men, usually the result of a hormonal imbalance.

The breasts of Akhenaten and Tutankhamun were not preserved. But Tut’s penis, no longer attached to the body, “is well developed,” the researchers reported.
“Most of the disease diagnoses,” the scientists concluded, “are hypotheses derived by observing and interpreting artifacts and not by evaluating the mummified remains of royal individuals apart from these artifacts.”

Dr. Markel, the medical historian, commented that use of 21st century radiological and genetic techniques in studies of human history raised ethical questions that need to be addressed.

Writing in the journal, he asked: “What will the rules be for exhuming bodies to solve vexing pathological puzzles? Are major historical figures entitled to the same privacy rules that private citizens enjoy even after death? Most pragmatically, what is actually gained from such studies? Will they change current thinking about and prevent threatening diseases such as influenza? Will they change the understanding of the past, such as the Jefferson study’s powerful elucidation of intimacy during the era of slavery and the Tutankhamun study’s window on the conduct of the royal family of Egypt?”


My facebook friend Damian Lin from Taipei Taiwan planned last year's mid-winter holiday months before and arrived in Cairo on the second Saturday of the political unrest. Of course he had hoped to visit the pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, and the Egyptian Museum with the Tutankhamun exhibit. Instead I think he spent two days at the airport before leaving for Jordan. At least he was able to visit Petra.


Today is also my niece Morgan's birthday. I wish her well, and a great new year! Her birthday is usually around Chinese New Year and in fact she was born in Taiwan, when my brother Sherry was in the U.S. Information Service.

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