Image: Photo of a wall in Tutankhamen's tomb
 Robert Jensen | J. Paul Getty Trust
Photo of a wall in Tutankhamen's tomb.
updated 6/10/2011 12:12:37 PM ET 2011-06-10T16:12:37

Mysterious brown spots covering the surfaces of King Tut's tomb have long puzzled scientists trying to identify them. Now a new study reveals ancient Egyptian microbes left these blemishes.

The spots offer insight not only into the boy king's death, but also into the haste of his burial, according to researcher Ralph Mitchell, an expert in cultural heritage microbiology at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

When the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities asked the Getty Conservation Institute to investigate whether the spots signaled the tomb's deterioration, they turned to Mitchell. Combining classical microbiology with DNA analysis, he studied the mysterious dark spots that have seeped into the tomb's paint and plaster.

Meanwhile, chemists at the Getty Conservation Institute identified the spots as containing melanins, which are the characteristic byproducts of fungal, and sometimes bacterial, chemical reactions of metabolism. No living organisms have yet been matched to the spots, and the identity of the microbe remains a mystery.

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"Our results indicate that the microbes that caused the spots are dead," study researcher Archana Vasnathakumar, a postdoctoral fellow in Mitchell's lab, said in a statement.

Photographs taken when the tomb was first opened in 1922 show that the spots have remained unchanged over the past 89 years. This evidence not only suggests that the microbes are not growing but that they may hold clues to King Tut's death. [10 Weird Ways We Deal With the Dead]

The young Egyptian pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty died in his late teens from yet unknown circumstances, although various theories propose that he died from a head injury, an infected broken leg, malaria, sickle-cell anemia or a combination of illnesses.

The spots' presence points to the possibility that he received an unusually rushed burial.

"King Tutankhamen died young, and we think that the tomb was prepared in a hurry," Mitchell said. "We're guessing that the painted wall was not dry when the tomb was sealed."

The moisture from the paint, combined with the food and incense traditionally buried with the mummy, would have provided the perfect environment for microbial growth until the tomb eventually dried out, according to Mitchell.

Since the spots appear to be caused by ancient microbes that are unique to the site, the conservators aren't likely to remove the spots anytime soon.

"This is part of the whole mystique of the tomb," Mitchell said.

Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescienceand on Facebook.

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Video: DNA tests show King Tut as frail pharaoh

  1. Closed captioning of: DNA tests show King Tut as frail pharaoh

    >>> say both claims are exaggerated.

    >>> 21st-century technology may have finally answered a question scientists have wondered about for years, what actually killed king tut . nbc's richard engel is in london. richard, good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning, amy. after an exhaustive study of his remains, scientists in egypt have painted a very different picture of how king tut lived and died, and they may have forever changed how the boy king will be remembered. he's perhaps the most famous of ancient egypt 's pharaohs, tutankhamun, king tut . it's fascinated the world since his tomb was discovered in 1922 , but the reality was starkly different. a new, two-year international study released today showed the 19-year-old pharaoh was sickly and nearly crippled with a clubbed foot and weak bones. only now through dna, radiological testing and mummy fingerprinting do scientists believe they know what killed the god king 3,334 years ago.

    >> we actually can say for the first time that we revealed the mystery of the family of the golden boy , king tut .

    >> reporter: for decades, it's been speculated king tut may have been murdered in a power struggle , but scientists say tut actually died from his multiple illnesses and that the pharaoh most likely was sent to his glorious tomb by a degenerative bone disease , complicated by a severe case of malaria. a boy in pain much of his life but prepared for eternity in perfection. it appears a broken leg ultimately killed the already very sick king. he couldn't recover from the injury. scientists also believe king tut 's parents were most likely brother and sister. amy?

    >> very interesting. richard engel , thank you.

    >>> well, today it is back

Photos: King Tut

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  1. Unguent vessel

    This carving is one of the treasures that was featured in "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," one of the exhibits that was brought to the United States. Carved of calcite, this unguent or cosmetic vessel has details of sheet gold, colored pigment and colored ivory. On its lid is a recumbent lion with the cartouche of the king inscribed near its shoulder. Perhaps a symbol of Tutankhamun, he is atop the vessel, while four of the traditional enemies of Egypt are trapped at the base, represented only by their heads. Two columns are applied to the vessel, and each is surmounted by an image of the god Bes. These architectural features also serve as frames for the two scenes depicting fighting animals in a band around the central section of the jar. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The Gilded Coffin of Tjuya

    The Gilded Coffin of Tjuya, almost entirely covered with reddish gold. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Bust of the boy king

    This calcite bust of the king depicts Tutankhamun wearing the nemes headdress. Red and black paint are used to highlight features of the face as well as the two protective vulture and cobra deities projecting from his forehead. The recessed base below the shoulders indicates that the bust served as a stopper for one of the four cylindrical hollows of the canopic chest in which the mummified organs of the king were stored in separate coffinettes. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Statuette Upper Egypt

    This statuette of the king wearing the tall crown of Upper Egypt consists of wood covered in gesso and then gilded. It is among 35 ritual figures of the king and deities that were placed in sealed wooden shrines in the tomb. The color combination of the gold of the figure and the black of the base suggests both rebirth and regeneration. The crook he holds in his left hand and the flail he grasps in his right are symbols of his kingship. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Statuette Lower Egypt

    Almost identical to the gilded figure depicting the king of Upper Egypt is this golden statuette portraying Tutankhamun wearing the crown of Lower Egypt. He holds the symbols of his office, the crook and the flail, and both are composed of gilded bronze, as are the sandals he wears. The figure stands on a black base, and it was originally covered in linen and placed within a wooden shrine. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Small statue shrine

    Howard Carter discovered this small golden chest in the shape of an ancient shrine in the Antechamber of the tomb; it is made of wood covered in sheet gold, and the base was plated in sliver. A wooden stand with a gold-plated back support stood inside, but the statuette it originally supported no longer exists; carved footprints for it are still visible on the base. Scenes on the insides and outsides of its walls, back, and the doors depict the king and queen in a variety of activities, some of which may be associated with festivals, sexuality and coronation. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Prestigious dagger

    So important was this dagger to Tutankhamun that it was placed upon his mummy among the wrappings. The blade is highly polished gold with simple and elegantly engraved details. The hilt, also of gold, has alternating bands of granulated gold and cloisonne of red and blue glass. The pommel surmounting the handle has a circlet of two falcons with outstretched wings, while its top is decorated with a floral motif, in the center of which are two cartouches with the names of the king. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Pectoral with scene of God

    This elaborate necklace was fashioned of gold, with inlays of electrum, silver, semi-precious stones and colored glass. Scenes depicting the king in the company of gods appear in delicate cloisonne openwork on the front pectoral and the counterweight at the back. The detailed links of the straps linking the two consist of double cartouches encircling the names of the king, alternating with royal titles, deities and amuletic messages in hieroglyphs. The front plaque is architectonic, taking the shape of a shrine, and the king appears before Ptah on the right and Sekhmet on the left; the surface on the back is solid gold and has fine engraved details. The scene on the counterweight is simpler, with the king seated before the goddess Maat. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Mirror case

    This wooden case for a mirror, formed in the shape of an ankh, the Egyptian word for "life," is covered in gold and inlaid with semi-precious stones and colored glass. The jeweled inlay displays the hieroglyphs spelling out the King's throne name, and the lotus blossom below associates it with rebirth. The loop of the top part of the ankh encloses the name as a cartouche normally would, thus serving two purposes. The ankh itself has another function as it also is one of the words the ancient Egyptians used for "mirror." (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A simpler likeness

    Carved of wood and then covered in gesso and painted, this bust of Tutankhamun portrays the young king much more as a youthful figure than a divine being. Although wearing a royal crown with a cobra deity projecting at his brow, he has on a simple linen shirt through which the upper part of his rib cage shows. He has a pleasant smile, and his earlobes are pierced, a custom for both males and females during this period. The excavators suggested that the enigmatic statue may have served as a mannequin of sorts on which garments of the king could be draped or his jewelry displayed. It may also be possible that it had another function, since busts not unlike this are known to have been used during both earlier and later times in certain religious rituals. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Luxurious fan

    One of several ostrich feather fans, this example of wood overlaid in gold was found in the burial chamber of the tomb. Its long handle terminates in a papyrus umbel upon which is a lunette that has a depiction of the ostrich hunt (ostensibly for the feathers for the fan) on one side and the return with the prize on the other. A similar fan appears in the scene of the hunt. Pharaoh stands in the chariot, poised to shoot the ostriches with an arrow from his bow, while an ankh, the hieroglyph for the word "life," that has been anthropomorphized with arms and legs, follows behind providing shade for the king. This imagery appears to signify the divinity of the king. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Colorful pectoral

    The inlaid pectoral spelling out the name of the king is made of gold and multi-colored semiprecious stones. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Golden face mask

    The golden diadem, inlaid with colored glass and semi-precious stones, was still around the head of Tutankhamun when Howard Carter opened the royal coffin more than 3,200 years after the young king died. The two protective deities, represented by the vulture and the cobra, originally projecting from the front had been removed and placed near the thighs of the mummy to allow the golden face mask to be put into place. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Golden coffin

    Tutankhamun possessed four miniature coffins fashioned of gold and inlaid with colored glass and semi-precious stones, and each stood in a separate compartment in an alabaster chest. The band of inscription running down the front names Imseti, one of the sons of Horus, and the goddess Isis, who would protect the deceased and the particular mummified organ within, in this case the liver. The cartouche encircling the king's name on the interior was reworked and originally had the name of one of Tutankhamun's relatives. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Falcon collar

    Found on the mummy of Tutankhamun, this golden collar in the shape of a falcon with outstretched wings was one of several items of amuletic jewelry placed around the neck of the king. Fashioned of sheet gold, it has been cut into the form of the god Horus, a deity identified with the kingship and the solar religion. Details of the feathering on its body appear in carefully engraved details. A gold wire attached to the two wings encloses the circlet, and a counterweight is suspended from a loop at the back. (Andreas F. Voegelin) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. The golden boy is back

    Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, points out a replica of King Tutankhamun's remains to Salah Montaser, member of the Egyptian delegation, during a preview of "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" exhibit in New York. (Brendan McDermid / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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