The truth of Tutankhamun uncovered in new BBC documentary

Through extensive research and a ‘virtual autopsy’, details of the Boy King Tutankhamun’s life and death may have finally been revealed, says documentary presenter Dallas Campbell

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Since Howard Carter’s historic discovery of his tomb in 1922, Tutankhamun has become the most famous figure from Ancient Egyptian history – encapsulated by the iconic, golden death mask. But Tut’s life and death is shrouded in mystery. But the new documentary Tutankhamun: the Truth Uncovered (airing on BBC One on Sunday, 26 October at 9pm) hopes to finally reach a consensus over the Boy King’s demise.

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Among the claims are that Tut had a clubfoot, a protruding jaw, may have suffered from a bone-wasting disease – or even epilepsy – and most likely died from a break to his leg. He was also, as the documentary states, “a product of incest” as his parents were brother and sister.

History Revealed spoke to the presenter of the documentary, Dallas Campbell.

What did the research carried out for the documentary hope to achieve?

“We were looking at the history of some of the science of Tutankhamun, particularly about how he died, which has always been a great mystery. We very specifically were looking at DNA work done by Albert Zink (of the Institute for Mummies and Icemen), which conclusively proved beyond any doubt who his parents were. We’ve known for a few years that Akhenaten was Tut’s father and by looking at the mitochondrial DNA, we categorically proved who his mother was.

“The documentary took a holistic approach. Hutan Asrafian, a medical doctor who takes a particular interest in historical cold cases like this, drew some conclusions from a medical background, telling us more about Tut’s physical state.”

What did you find out?

“We constructed a CGI image of Tut based on 2,000 CT scans, which is the first time this has ever been done. You might think he was a great warrior – a young man killed in his prime. But he suffered from a host of medical conditions as a result from the fact that his parents were brother and sister. He was the product of incest.

“We were also looking at the cause of his death. There’s been so much speculation, but I think there is now a consensus, which is a break to his left leg. It is the only break we know that happened before he died, and a fracture like that – in a time before antibiotics – would probably have been fatal. Hutan had a very interesting theory to what caused that break. Obviously, it’s a 3,000-year-old mummy so we can never know for sure, but Hutan’s theory is pretty convincing. I’m not going to give anything away – you’ll have to watch the show.

“What’s fascinating for me is when Howard Carter discovered the tomb, there were no X-Rays, CT scans or genetic testing available, so what you’ve got is this wonderful story of science, with Tutankhamun as a backdrop. Science now is a preservation tool. It’s not just about uncovering but preserving history for future generations. I think that’s an important point to make.”

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What part of the research did you most enjoy?

“I got to see this amazing cache of mummies. I was lucky enough to meet Akhenaten, Tutankhamun’s father. I met his mother, his grannie, the lot! The sad thing is that Tut’s mummy is in awful condition. It was mummified badly to start with – people think he was buried in a hurry. The tomb itself is small and not like a royal tomb, so he may have been buried in someone else’s tomb. And when Carter found Tut’s mummy, they had to chisel it out and it got very badly damaged.

“But the interesting thing I found – here’s a little exclusive – I was looking at the CT scan of the break above the left knee and I said, “Oh God, his left knee cap is missing”. That’s not unusual as lots of bits of him are missing. But then I found his kneecap – he was holding it in his left hand. His left hand is gripping his own knee cap, isn’t that weird? God knows how.”

What was the biggest challenge making the documentary?

“We don’t really address it in the documentary unfortunately, but for me, it was the politics. Part of the difficulty of trying to understand Tut’s story is getting access to the mummy, and working in Egypt can be difficult, particularly in terms of antiquities. We were very lucky as we had access to the thousands of CT scans, which is very rare. Usually, only a few scans are released at a time but we had the whole lot. This allowed us to create this fully fleshed out image of Tutankhamun.”

So you weren’t afraid of the curse?

“It’s nonsense from a scientific point of view, but it’s part of the story. But there is no curse, I can tell you that categorically. Well, I say that but human beings are naturally superstitious animals so if anything happens to me, it’ll get put down to the curse!”

Have you always been interested in Ancient Egypt?

“I’m not a historian but from being a kid, I studied Ancient Egypt at school. It’s the mummies! I grew up near Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the local museum, the Hancock Museum, had a mummy in it. And I watched a lot of Scooby Doo, which always involved mummies. There’s quite a lot of mummy action in this documentary.

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“Tutankhamun is arguably the most famous historical character, particularly the gold death mask – the mask you put on a pharaoh when they died and the face they wore when they went into the afterlife. The idea of burying the pharaoh with all his gold – a symbolic metal as it doesn’t tarnish – means the burial is all about the search for immortality. When you stand in front of that mask in the Cairo Museum, you realise that Tutankhamun, who wasn’t a very influential figure in his lifetime, is the one pharaoh who is now immortal.”

Tutankhamun: the Truth Uncovered is on BBC One this Sunday, 26 October, at 9pm.