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Tut, Tut: New View of King Tutankhamun Sparks Debate

A new "virtual autopsy" of Egypt's King Tutankhamun paints an unflattering picture of the boy-king — sparking complaints that he's being slandered.

A new "virtual autopsy" of Egypt's King Tutankhamun portrays him as a broad-hipped, big-breasted, weak-boned pharaoh who died in his teens due to congenital problems brought on by incest — but that depiction has some Egyptian archaeologists complaining that the boy-king is being slandered 3,300 years after his death.

The revised view of King Tut, including a virtual reconstruction of his face and body, is the centerpiece of a TV documentary that aired Sunday on the Smithsonian Channel in the United States. Viewers can find the next scheduled broadcast at the Smithsonian Channel's website.

The U.S. version of the show is titled "King Tut's Final Mystery," but the British version aired last weekend on the BBC with the title "Tutankhamun: The Truth Uncovered."

It's that version that set off the critics in Egypt. They took issue with claims that King Tut suffered from genetic disorders because he was the progeny of a line of incestuous royal marriages. They also complained about the unflattering body reconstruction, which shows Tut with protruding buck teeth and a gnarled clubfoot.

"The scientific team is looking for fame, as their results are only speculation without any archaeological or historical evidence," Al-Ahram Weekly quoted Cairo University archaeologist Ahmed Said as saying.

Threads of evidence

Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon and medical researcher at Imperial College London who was involved in the making of the new documentary, said the show actually knits together multiple threads of forensic and historical evidence — including an analysis of thousands of CT scan images of King Tut's mummy.

"We've been able to contextualize his death," Ashrafian told NBC News.

Ashrafian's contribution to the show includes an effort to match up depictions of Tutankhamun and his 18th Dynasty ancestors with currently known medical conditions. In a study published in the journal Epilepsy and Behavior, Ashrafian noted that some ancient depictions show Tut with enlarged breasts and broad, "feminized" hips. What's more, Tut's father (Akhenaten), grandfather (Amenhotep III) and presumed great-grandfather (Tuthmosis IV) are portrayed with similar traits.

"There was probably an element of hormonal dysfunction to this," Ashrafian said.

Egyptian inscriptions also suggest that Tuthmosis IV and Akhenaten experienced powerful religious visions associated with the sun. Akhenaten went so far as to create a monotheistic religion based on worship of the sun god Aten. When Tutankhamun became pharaoh at the age of 10, he stuck with the Aten cult — but soon reverted to Egypt's previous religious tradition.

Based on the historical accounts, Ashrafian proposed that Tut and his forebears suffered from congenital gynecomastia (which would explain the breasts and the hips) as well as temporal lobe epilepsy (which would explain the visions).

Epilepsy has been associated with increased risk of bone fractures, and Tut also could have had a congenital bone condition such as Kohler disease. That would explain why Tut's mummy showed evidence of a badly broken leg and malformed toes — and why more than 100 walking sticks were found in his tomb.

In the documentary, Ashrafian and other experts suggest that the 18th Dynasty pharaohs could have passed down rare genetic disorders from one generation to the next because of the ancient Egyptian practice of having royal siblings marry each other. That practice kept the dynastic line "pure," but it also increased the risk of passing on congenital defects.

Dissenting opinions

Through the years, plenty of theories about King Tut's death have been advanced. Ashrafian said he came across many of them in his research. "I noticed quite clearly there are 101 different causes," he told NBC News.

In 2010, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association said Tutankhamun suffered from "multiple disorders." The study took advantage of DNA testing — as well as CT scans conducted by a team headed by Zahi Hawass, who was then Egypt's top archaeologist.

That study concluded that King Tut's death was due to the leg fracture, which was probably suffered during a fall. Researchers also found traces of DNA from a malaria-carrying parasite in Tut's remains. Malaria probably aggravated the young pharaoh's medical condition and contributed to his death, the researchers said.

The documentary is largely consistent with that scenario, but in the Al-Ahram Weekly report, Egyptian archaeologists took issue with the show's claims that Tut had a big-breasted, wide-hipped feminine look. The 2010 study found no evidence of that.

Image: Pharaoh Akhenaten
A stela at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo shows Pharaoh Akhenaten, his queen and their children worshipping the sun god Aten. Akhenaten, who was Tutankhamun's father, is shown with enlarged breasts and wide hips. That depiction that has led some researchers to suggest he had a genetically related hormonal dysfunction, while others say it was merely the artistic style of that era.Paul Schemm / AP file

Cairo University's Said and Hawass explained that the feminized depictions of Egyptian pharaohs were part of an artistic style that was motivated by the religious beliefs of that era, and didn't necessarily reflect their true physical appearance.

They also took issue with the documentary's detailed diagnosis of congenital defects, based on incomplete knowledge about Tutankhamun's ancestors. During the show, Italian archaeologist Albert Zink says that Tut's father and mother were brother and sister, but Egyptologist Ahmed Saleh told Al-Ahram that such a claim has not yet been proven.

There's little question that King Tut was not a healthy pharaoh — on that point, "King Tut's Final Mystery" is on firm ground. But Hawass complained that the virtual reconstruction of Tut's body was scientifically unfounded.

"We know that this man had 130 walking sticks and that he used to shoot arrows while he was sitting," he told Al-Ahram, "but this does not mean he had a clubfoot."

"King Tut's Final Mystery" premiered Sunday on the Smithsonian Channel. Check local listings for air dates.