Tutankhamun – road traffic incident or what?

DID YOU KNOW that Forensisis is Latin for forum and in ancient Rome the forum was where many matters, including law and justice, were discussed.  Pathos and logia are ancient Greek for suffering and study of respectively.  The definition of forensic pathology is, therefore, the study of bodies for both medical and legal purposes.


Naturally, one of the tasks of a forensic pathologist is to discover the cause of death of a deceased and to decide whether foul play was involved.  With Tutankhamun such a study proved somewhat confusing over the years.

In a Channel Four television programme, Tutankhamun Exhumed, x-rays in 1968 of Tut’s skull suggested that he had been killed by a blow to the back of the head – evidenced by a hole in his occipital (back of lower head).  Murder most foul?  Of course.  End of story …… or was it?


                                                              Back of Tut’s head

Well, maybe not.  Fortunately the whole of the skeleton, although damaged (by Howard Carter when he removed it in 1922) was mostly intact, and a CT scan by Dr Zahi Hawass, in March 2005, showed that the hole in the skull was not the cause of death. It has since been established that inside the hole there are traces of embalming fluid and so it was most likely part of the original mummification process, ca 1323 BC.

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Howard Carter examining Tut in 1922               Dr Zahi Hawass (left) and CT scan in 2005

Hawass found evidence of a fracture in the lower femur (thigh bone) just above the knee. The bone had been completely broken and unhealed, with a fragment of torn skin evident. This may have been the result of a blow to the leg in battle, perhaps (or careless cooking incident). This, in turn, may have caused an infection (possibly gangrene) and death. More recent DNA analysis (2010) has identified malaria in Tut’s system. End of story …… or was it?


                                                               Tut’s leg bones

Now we know Tut was a warrior because we have ancient paintings of him in action (below). So, was the above leg break anything to do with a sword wound in a battle that he may have been involved in?  Maybe.

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The warrior Tut

But a further investigation of his skeletal remains in 2012 indicate a more calamitous possibility.  Firstly, a re-review of his 1968 X-rays show that he had several left and right ribs missing, no sternum (front bone of rib-cage), missing left side of pelvis, and no heart (see virtual autopsy pic below).  The heart was usually removed but buried with the body in a separate cask.  The fact that there was no heart in a cask may imply that it was so badly damaged that it was discarded, along with the ribs and left pelvis.  Such damage must have been the result of a very serious incident, although there were no injuries to the skull.  This information was revealed in another Channel Four documentary,  Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy, presented by Dr Chris Naunton in 2013.  It concluded that Tut may have fallen from his chariot and was ‘run-over’ by another chariot  –  in battle?

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Virtual autopsy pic           Chariot causing damage consistent with tut’s injuries                                                   (pics from TV prog)

A pressure test was carried out to show that if a chariot wheel hit the rib bones at the speed of 26 mph, the break and bone fragments would be serious enough to cause critical damage to organs behind ribs.  It could also account for the break to the femur (just above the knee).  The wheel would have missed the head, hence no injuries to the skull.

Perhaps it wasn’t a battle but just a road traffic accident – I’m sure they had bad chariot drivers in those days ……


Stop that chariot right there!



A more recent TV programme on the BBC of Tut suggested that he was in no fit state to drive a chariot due to a deformity in his foot which may have been a genetic disorder which he ‘inherited’ due to incest in the family (his mum and dad may have been brother and sister – keep the power in the family). A computer ‘virtual autopsy’ of the mummy revealed a possible club foot and also that he may have suffered from a severe form of epilepsy which could have caused the fall that resulted in his death – perhaps. The clubfoot would certainly account for all the walking sticks found in his tomb. The programme, however, did not address the issue of his missing pelvic and rib bones or the images of him firing a bow ans arrow form his chariot (poetic licence maybe)..

Tut with clubfoot


Next week: Back to submarines – but this time U-boats ….. U-671 and U-413 and the sinking of HMS Warwick



Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

My colleague, Professor Waldorf Winklebatt, was stopped by the police around 2 a.m. the other night and was asked where he was going at that time of night. Waldorf replied, “I am on my way to a lecture about alcohol abuse, smoking and the effects of staying out late on the human body.” 

The officer then asked, “Really? And who is giving that lecture at this time of night?” 

Waldorf replied, “That would be my wife.”

Art Smth

John Pendlebury (in Crete)

SO, WHO WAS John Devitt Stringfellow Pendlebury? He  was a bit of a character. He was born in 1904 and started off life – well, from the age of two – with only one eye, having lost the other in an accident, the cause of which was never established for sure. He was quite an athlete, gaining an athletic blue at Pembroke College, Cambridge in 1926/7. He completed for selection in the 1924 Olympics, the setting for the film, Chariots of Fire. He was also an academic, gaining a  Second and a First for Parts I and II respectively of the Classics Tripos at Pembroke.

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John Devitt Stringfellow Pendlebury

He went to school at Winchester College and, whilst on a school trip to Mycenae (in Greece – you remember) in 1923, he became interested in archaeology. After leaving university in 1923, he worked at the British School at Athens studying Egyptian artefacts found in Greece ( he couldn’t make up his mind whether to study Egyptian or Greek archaeology so he combined them both!). At the school, he met Hilda White, his wife-to-be (she was 13 years his senior).

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Pendlebury in 1928

He first visited Knossos (Crete – keep up) in 1928 and his initial reaction was that Arthur Evans’ restorations had spoiled the place (you’ll have to back several blogs for that). After that he went, with Hilda, on his first excavation at an ancient Macedonian site at Salonica under Walter Heurtley (Alexander the Great was Macedonian, but you knew that). Pendlebury married Hilda shortly afterwards.

Evans had been impressed with what he had heard of Pendlebury and, in 1929, offered him the curatorship of Knossos on the retirement (forced due to illness) of the then present curator, Duncan MacKenzie. The job began in Spring 1930 but the place was in a bit of a mess when he took over – buildings in disrepair, animals grazing amongst the ruins and the site littered with rubbish from visiting dignitaries (it wasn’t open to the public yet). Pendlebury put in a great deal of work reorganising the place as well as refurbishing the Taverna (accommodation building not a bar) where Hilda and he resided. The Taverna is next to Villa Ariadne where Evans lived. The curator still lives at the Taverna today but it’s also now used for students.


The Taverna – student quarters (Sarah studying hard, I think she’s reading ‘How to make raki’!)

Later in 1930, Pendlebury was offered directorship of the Tel el-Armana excavations in Egypt. This he could not turn down and was able to carry out this task along with the curatorship at Knossos (climate differences meant excavating in Egypt in winter and Knossos in spring). He continued at Armana until 1936 (click here for great video of him at Armana).

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Pendlebury in Armana wearing ancient Egyptian necklace

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‘Discussions’ at Armana (Pendlebury 2nd from left)

Back in Knossos (1932) he had the arduous task of recording some 2000 sherds with the help of Hilda and two other ‘up-and-coming’ female archaeologists, Edith Eccles and Mercy Money-Coutts. In 1933, he produced his Knossos guide book, A Handbook to the Palace of Minos at Knossos, and was now seeing Evans’ reasons for the restorations – he put in the preface of his guide book, “Without restoration the Palace would be a meaningless heap of ruins, the more so because the gypsum stone, of which most of the paving slabs as well as the column-bases and door-jambs are made, melts like sugar under the action of rain, and would eventually disappear completely.”  So that’s the answer to the critics who are still anti-Evans-restorations. But we won’t go there. Anyway, he continued as curator at Knossos until 1934 but spent some time travelling the island as a freelance archaeologist researching for his very comprehensive book on the whole (then known) archaeology of Crete published in 1939. Then came the war. 

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with finds from Armana                                                Pendlebury pretending to be a local worker at Armana  

Pendlebury returned to England to convince the authorities that Crete was a strategic position and had to be defended. He offered his services to return to the island to prepare for a German invasion. In May 1940, he was sent back supposedly as British vice-consul at Heraklion (then still known as Candia) but the title was just a cover and – as with Lawrence of Arabia – he was a spy! He began planning and liaising with the local Cretan clan chiefs ready for the anticipated invasion which duly came on 20th May 1941.

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Pendlebury in Cretan costume                          In Crete in 1939    

Patrick Leigh Fermor, was also ‘stationed’ in Crete (he was the leader of the kidnapping of the German general, Heinrich Kreipe, from the island – see ‘next week’) and he said of Pendlebury, “I was enormously impressed by that splendid figure, with a rifle slung like a Cretan mountaineer’s, a cartridge belt round his middle, and armed with a leather-covered swordstick.” Pendlebury was based in Heraklion and if ever he left his office for a short time, he would leave his false eye on his desk to let people know he wouldn’t be long!

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In the streets of Stavrochori, Crete

The Germans parachutists took a bit of a hammering on the first day of the invasion. They were somewhat surprised at the Cretan and British (and New Zealand and Australian) defence. On the second day, 21st May, Stukas were bombing the island and parachutists still coming in. Pendlebury had left Heraklion, then got out of his car and approached an area where German parachutists were coming in. He was then wounded in the chest, whether by a parachutist or Stuka machine gun fire is not known. He was taken by German parachutists to the house of his friend, George Droussoulaki (who was fighting elsewhere and was killed later that day). George’s wife, Aristea, reported that Pendlebury had his wounds attended to by a German doctor and, in the evening, was attended again by a German doctor and given an injection. He was told by the doctor he would be collected the next day and taken to a hospital. The next day a different group of German soldiers appeared and dragged him out of the house, propped him up  against the wall and shot him.

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German parachutists in Crete

Why he was shot is not clear. It may have been that the Germans knew who he was and decided this the best cause of action. Or they thought he was spy being British but dressed as a local Cretan (well, I suppose he was). Or they were just especially evil. He was initially buried where he had been killed but because it became a shrine to the Cretan Resistance it was moved by the Germans to the Rethymnon road where they could keep an eye on it. He was later  reburied in the British war cemetery at Souda Bay (on the west of the island). One wonders what he may have achieved had he survived and (a) continued as a Resistance leader during the war and (b) as an archaeologist after the conflict. A great loss of a great man.

Pendlebury first Burial Site                    Souda Bay War Cemetary_0048

Memorial, 1947, Hilda left of cross                        Final rest: British war cemetery, Souda Bay

The only book I know that has been written about JP is Imogen Grundon’s A Rash Adventurer: A Life of John Pendlebury, Libri, 2007.  It’s a good read.


The Germans lost around 3700 elite parachutists (plus some 1600 wounded) in the first four days of the invasion of Crete. That was more German soldiers killed than in the whole war up to that date. They never attempted another parachute invasion of anywhere again.

Next week: Let’s stay in Crete but back to films – Ill Met by Moonlight: ‘Hollywood’ fact or fiction? – okay, a British, not a Hollywood, film, but let’s not nitpick – the tale of the kidnapping of General Kreipe from Crete in 1944.

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

My dear friend Randolph Bollinger-Smythe died last week of a heart attack whilst excavating in the Himalayas. He was 89.

He lived by the dictum that moderate drinkers live longer – and it damn well served them right!

In fact, many thought the demon drink would get him first. Whisky and water became his all-day daily diet. I gave him a bit of a hard time about it and he agreed to cut his drink by half –“I’ll leave out the water, old boy”

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