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Secrets of the Pharaohs: Tut's Family Curse February 13, 2001
by Mark Rose

First aired February 13, 2001

Part 2 | Part 3


Gold mask of the 18th Dynasty pharaoh Tut. Was he the victim of a genetic curse? (Courtesy PBS)

Are inbreeding and disease the explanations for the bizarre depictions of Akhenaten--showing him with an elongated head, broad hips, pot-belly, and spindly limbs--and the demise of Egypt's 18th Dynasty (1550-1307 B.C.)? Tut's Family Curse uses a number of lines of evidence--archaeology, bioanthropology, and DNA analysis--to examine this and other questions.

After an obligatory opening shot of the Giza Pyramids, Tut's Family Curse turns to its real subject, the 18th Dynasty, particularly Akhenaten and Tutankhamun. Carter's discovery of the finding of Tut's tomb is re-enacted and the video then takes us to the Cairo Museum where Nasry Iskander and Brigham Young University microbiologist Scott R. Woodward and archaeologist C. Wilfred Griggs are examining the royal mummies. As the mummies are shifted from old display cases to new ones, Woodward judiciously snips off a tissue sample here or there for analysis.

Testing of Tut's DNA, however, was not permitted when this show was being made and a recent agreement to do so was abruptly terminated. Without access to Tut, who is in his coffin back in the Valley of the Kings, the researchers track down two mummified fetuses that Carter found in a box in Tut's tomb. The fetuses--both female, one about five months, the other seven months--had been placed in miniature coffins. The video devotes some time to this search, which is equal parts comical and depressing. There is, astonishingly, no record of the fetuses in the Cairo Museum, though in the conservation lab Woodward and Griggs find their mini-coffins. Eventually they locate the mummies at the Cairo Medical School, where they are under the care of anatomy professor Fawzi Gaballah. The mummies have deteriorated over the years since Carter found and photographed them but no bone pathologies are evident (how thorough this examination was is not clear from the video) and samples are taken for DNA analysis.

The extraction and amplification of the DNA--the processes are shown in lab shots filmed at BYU--can take months or more the video informs us. While that's going on, the video takes up the other line of evidence. (Re-creations of Howard Carter at work, Tutankhamun eating grapes, etc., serve as somewhat campy interludes between segments featuring current research, usually shot in the Cairo Museum or at Brigham Young University, with a few location shots in the Valley of the Kings, where the pharaohs were buried, and at el-Amarna, Akhenaten's capital city.)


Why depictions of Akhenaten are so bizarre has long been debated. Some opt for a biological explanation, a congenital disease known as Marfan's syndrome is often suggested. In the video, Egyptologist Joann Fletcher cautions against a genetic explanation and Nicholas Reeves, of the Amarna Royal Tombs Project, makes the point that viewed from below the exagerrated features are less bizarre, though very striking. For him, the depictions are an artistic way of portraying Akhenaten's power and separation from his subjects. James E. Harris of the University of Michigan, however, notes that the skull of Amenhotep III, father of Akhenaten, was both very large for the pharaoh's body size and that his chin is rather pointy. Both of these characteristics are accentuated in portrayals of his son, Akhenaten.

Left, microbiologist Scott R. Woodward examines a mummy in the Cairo Museum. (Courtesy PBS)

The sequences about the identity of the skeleton found in Valley of the Kings Tomb 55 are particularly effective. There is no doubt that the ancient Egyptians who defaced the coffin in the tomb--ripping out the cartouches and breaking the face--thought the remains were Akhenaten's. Nicholas Reeves, filmed in the tomb, presents the archaeological evidence for it being Akhenaten: the epithets that appear on the coffin (not defaced like the cartouches) are those used by Akhenaten and two of the four clay bricks found in the tomb bear his prenomen. The archaeology, Reeves concludes, points squarely at Akhenaten. Reeves, it should be noted, believes that Smenkhare, who briefly reigned between Akhenaten and Tut, was none other than Nefertiti ruling after Akhenaten's death. Little is known about Smenkhare and others have suggested he might have been a brother of Tut or even of Akhenaten. Harris says that the skull from Tomb 55 is morphologically almost identical to Tut's, indicating a "first-order" relation between the two individuals, father-son or brother-brother. The Tomb 55 individual was either Tut's father (most scholars accept that Akhenaten was Tut's father) or Tut's brother, the elusive Smenkhare.

There's always been a problem with equating the skeleton and Akhenaten, however, and it has to do with the age of the deceased. Akhenaten was about 35 years old when he died, but earlier examinations of the Tomb 55 remains have suggested they are of a younger man. Here, bioanthropologist Joyce Filer is called in to examine the skeleton, now in the Cairo Museum. Filer's study is well shown. She first looks at the pelvis, confirming that it is a male, and skull, noting no evidence for Marfan's syndrome or other pathology. Filer then turns to the question of age, examining the teeth first. The third molars (wisdom teeth) she notes are recently erupted and show little wear: score one for early twenties. Visual inspection of the fusion of the distal femur suggests 20-25. X-ray images of the pelvis and long bones, again to assess fusion of the bones, points to early to mid-twenties (for example, she places the state of fusion of the proximal humerus between 18 and 25). Interestingly, in his forthcoming book Akhenaten: Egypt's False Prophet, Reeves disucsses another study of this same skeleton, conducted by Harris and Fawzia Hussein. According to Reeves, they concluded the remains were of a man in his mid-thirties (dentition) or in excess of 35 years (X-ray assessment of fusion, especially of long bones). These results, presented at a conference in 1988 but never published, are spot on for Akhenaten.

On the basis of Filer's examination, it seems that the occupant of Tomb 55 is not Akhenaten. There will undoubtedly be more debate on this point, but the video moves forward with an identification of the individual as Smenkhare. Neither Tut's skull nor that from Tomb 55 reveals evidence of Marfan's syndrome. No mention is made in the video of whether or not sampling of the bones or teeth from the Tomb 55 skeleton for DNA analysis was permitted. Presumably not.

Meanwhile, the results of the DNA analysis have come back! While the smaller fetus yielded only a partial sequence, the mitochondrial (mtDNA) sequence of the larger fetus, a female aged eight to nine months, was recovered. Transmitted through the maternal line, it should be identical to that Ankhesenamun (Ankhesenpaaten), if she was indeed their mother, and to that of her mother, Nefertiti. (And no, this doesn't mean anybody is going to clone Nefertiti!). As Tut had no other recorded wife, this seems likely. No sign of Marfan's syndrome. Furthermore, according to Woodward, the mtDNA shows that although the 18th Dynasty was marked by brother-sister marriage initially, there was a break in the maternal line introducing new genetic material. The inbreeding bogie (Tut's family curse), he concludes, was just that. It apparently cannot be blamed for Akhenaten's freaky appearance, Tut's dying early, or the stillbirth of the two fetuses buried with him. So much for the "curse."

Secrets of the Pharaohs is enjoyable and informative. It is also successful in pulling together a complex set of issues and evidence, but is it the final word on who is who at the end of the 18th Dynasty? Probably not. How old was the gentleman in Tomb 55? Beyond that question, perhaps one day DNA analysis of Tut (and the man in Tomb 55?) will be permitted. Until then, the debate will continue.

Mark Rose is Managing Editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

Secrets of the Pharaohs is a three-part series. Part 2: Lost City of the Pyramids aired February 20. Part 3: Unwrapping the Mummy aired February 27. To purchase ($49.98 for the series, $19.98 for individual videos), call 1-800-336-1917. The companion book, Private Lives of the Pharaohs, can be ordered at the same number for $25.00. At you can find more information about the series, a timeline, maps, and links to Egyptology sites.

See also our reviews of Lost City of the Pyramids and Unwrapping the Mummy.

© 2001 by the Archaeological Institute of America