King Tut: Egyptian Pharaoh's Burial May Have Been Rush Job

Ancient microbes on walls yield clues.

ByABC News
June 9, 2011, 4:14 PM

June 10, 2011 — -- King Tut, silent in Egypt's Valley of the Kings for 3,000 years, may still have secrets to reveal. Researchers, examining what remains of ancient microbes on the walls of the young pharaoh's tomb, surmise that he may have been buried in a hurry, so quickly that the walls had not even dried when the tomb was closed.

Tutankhamen is believed to have died in his late teens. We may never know why -- perhaps he had a head injury, or malaria, or an infection from a broken leg. His tomb is somewhat less elaborate than those of other pharaohs from the same era. He's immortal in our minds largely because his tomb was one of the few that had not been raided repeatedly before the English archaeologist Howard Carter found it in 1922.

"There are some marvellous objects here," Carter reported. The king's sarcophagus. His elaborate death mask and throne, all covered in gold. Jewelry, statues, great urns. And the spectacular hieroglyphs on the walls.

But why were there brown blotches all over everything? They are everywhere -- on paint, on plaster, on silver. Just look at the pictures. Tut's tomb was infested with something that Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities could not identify.

Last year the council (this was before the uprising against the Mubarak government in January) worried that tourists might inadvertently be damaging the artifacts. Human beings breathe, perspire and use light to see -- things that, over time, disturb the desert-dry darkness of the tomb. Were microbes growing on the walls because we, the living, were loving Tutankhamen to death?

The Egyptians called the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, which called Ralph Mitchell, a microbiologist at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. After a year's research, they are now able to lay the original concern to rest.

"As far as we can tell, the organisms are no longer alive," said Mitchell in a telephone interview with ABC News. "That doesn't mean the tomb is sterile. But the organisms that caused the spots are not new."

Howard Carter, said Mitchell, was a good scientist. When he entered the tomb 90 years ago, he catalogued and photographed everything. He has been accused over the years of mishandling Tutankhamen's mummy, but he was nothing if not thorough. He noted the brown spots and photographed them back in 1922.

"They have not grown since then," said Mitchell.

But that, as they say in many a mystery story, is where the plot thickens. After DNA sequence analysis, modern researchers still cannot say what the ancient microbes were, other than that they may have been some sort of fungi. And beyond that, why was Tut's tomb -- just this one among the many from ancient Egypt that are less well preserved -- so blighted?

"The guessing, and it's only a guess," said Mitchell, "is that he died suddenly, and was buried quickly, before the plaster even had a chance to dry. The people finishing the tomb would have exhaled, lost flecks of dry skin -- there would have been enough organic matter in the tomb that microbes grew on the walls."

"It is known that Tutankhamen died at a young age (about 19) and evidently unexpectedly," said Jeanne Marie Teutonico of the Getty Conservation Institute, in an email to ABC News. " It is theorized that a private tomb was, therefore, rather hurriedly adapted for his interment."

The mystery of Tutankhamen says something about the legend of the pharaohs, whose tombs were usually planned well before they died as places from which they could make the transition to the next life. Most of the tombs were plundered in the centuries since ancient Egypt commanded the world stage; modern researchers have had to piece together how the ancient kings lived and died.

Researchers say they can only surmise how Tutankhamen was different. Perhaps he was rushed to the underworld, the paint not even dry before his tomb was sealed for the ages.