Science Questions

What happened to Tutankhamun's heart?

Tue, 19th Apr 2016

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Question

Sarah Turnbull asked:

Hello Naked Scientists,

 

I have an archaeology question. I was watching a documentary about Tutankhamun. Recent forensic examinations show that he was mummified without his heart. Scientists hypothesise that he was killed by being run over by a chariot and his heart was too damaged to be mummified and put back in his body.

 

So my question is, what did Egyptians believe would happen to someone in the afterlife who did not have a heart?

Answer

Kat Arney put this question to Cambridge Archaeologist Margarita Gleba...TUTANKHAMUN

Margarita - Well, ancient Egyptians obviously believed in the possibility of attaining life after death and all the preparations that went into getting the body mummified and put into specific kinds of tomb, and surrounded by various kinds of materials and imagery that would perpetuate their life in all eternity. The mummification process took about 70 days, so you wouldn’t be burying your mummy immediately.  The body was prepared and cleaned and immersed in specific kinds of substances, such as natron, so that it would prevent the putrefaction.  And because the aim of mummification was to transform the body for its new existence, rather than to maintain it as it has been in life, internal parts of the body could be removed without really endangering the person’s chances of survival in the afterlife and, depending on the organ, they would have been treated differently.

Kat - So it didn’t actually matter that this guy didn’t have a heart?

Margarita - Well it actually did because the heart had a special kind of significance.  It was usually left in place because it was considered the centre of intelligence because the heart was used in what is known as “the weighing of the heart ceremony” and if you were not a very nice person in life, then you would not have been let into the afterlife.

Kat - So this guy’s kind of in trouble then. Would he not get in the afterlife?

Margarita - Well.  So the study that Sarah is referring to came out a couple of years ago and that was done by Chris Norton who concluded, after studying scans of the mummy of Tutankhamun, that he was killed by a chariot crash. Now, a further investigation a year later, actually concluded that it’s quite unlikely that that would have happened because scans of most of the bones indicated that all of the fractures of the bones occurred after Tutankhamun’s death. And…

Chris - Was that just careless undertaking?

Kat - Smacking him around a bit…He’s dead it doesn’t matter!

Margarita - Well, we don’t know but that might actually come in the theory that we’re coming to.

Chris - How would they know these bones are broken after death and not during the death process?

Margarita - You can tell usually by the different accumulations of calcification on the fractures of the bones.  And so the latest theory is that actually he did not die in a chariot crash.  In fact, he probably didn't walk very well without aid so he would not have been riding a chariot. The latest theory, the reason why he may have not had a heart is because he is represented in death as Osiris. And Osiris was dismantled and his heart buried and, therefore, he would not have needed it in death so…

Kat - They mystery is solved.

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