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Tutankhamun: The Truth Uncovered

I must confess when I read the blurb on the BBC for their new Tutankhamun programme, Tutankhamun: The Truth Uncovered, I was not entirely impressed. It talks about “new scientific research” and how “presenter Dallas Campbell […] carries out unique experiments to get to the truth.” and then proceeds to talk about stuff that sounds like a re-hash of the 2010 Hawass et al paper ( JAMA. 2010;303(7):638-647). So I was sceptical going in about the likelihood of it being anything new. Interestingly, Zahi Hawass is not mentioned once during the programme, but some of the other authors of that paper (Ashraf Selim and Albert Zink, if I remember correctly) are extensively interviewed. So my overall impression is that this is a second go at making a layperson-accessible documentary based on the 2010 paper, with the intention of distancing itself from Hawass who has now fallen from grace.

The programme started with a bit of scene setting – about how Tutankhamun was discovered. This included a bit about how Tutankhamun’s death must’ve been unexpected, drawing on the small size of the tomb and the mould on the decoration of the tomb as evidence.

The meat of the programme had three main threads: what his physical condition was in life, how he died, who he was related to. The physical condition section was mostly concerned with the clubfoot that the 2010 paper identified, and with the deterioration of some of the toe joints on that foot (which indicate a degenerative bone disease called Köhler disease). Although they used a virtual autopsy table to display the CT scan data, I still thought it was difficult for the untrained eye (i.e. mine) to pick out the features Selim was showing us. I’d’ve appreciated some diagrams of “this is what it normally looks like” and “this is the disease state” or something of that sort. They also had done a CGI reconstruction of Tutankhamun based on this skeletal data – which was well into uncanny valley territory!

When discussing his cause of death Campbell discussed a couple of previous theories – one debunked ages ago (blow to back of head), although you wouldn’t know it from the programme. The other was the idea that Tutankhamun was thrown from a chariot, which seems hard to believe if he did have a clubfoot and a painful foot disease as chariots require good balance and strength to drive. In this section of the programme they also talked about which of the bits of damage to Tutankhamun’s mummy were potential injuries at the time of death. I was a bit disappointed that Selim just dismissed in a sentence or two pretty much all the damage as modern damage caused by Howard Carter. I know from a talk given by Chris Naunton that there’s a least one anatomist out there who thinks the damage to the ribcage must be at least soon post-mortem if not pre- or peri-mortem due to the nature of the fractures. I guess that might be a case of simplifying the story for television, but it feels a bit cavalier. However, he did identify a fracture to the femur above the right knee as occurring pre-mummification and late enough in life that it hadn’t healed (as you can see resin along the fracture). The theory is that an accident capable of causing this fracture would be traumatic enough to be the cause of death.

There weren’t any surprises in the genetic data, it was all straight from the Hawass et al paper. They show that Tutankhamun was the son of KV55 and “the younger lady”, who were full blood siblings and the children of Amenhotep III and Tiye. I felt the genetic data was very poorly presented. I’m not convinced that someone who didn’t already have a basic idea how the genetic testing worked would understand it after this – maybe it’s expecting too much to have a decent explanation in the time they had but it’d’ve been nice if I’d had a sense that they’d tried. I was also disappointed in their handling of the discussion of who Tutankhamun’s father was. The DNA evidence shows that his father is the skeleton referred to as KV55. There are at least two theories as to the identity of this skeleton – Smenkhare or Akhenaten – and no conclusive evidence one way or the other. So it was a real shame to hear the programme state that KV55 is Akhenaten as if it were fact. That is definitely one of the plausible hypotheses, but it’s certainly not proven and perhaps never will be. At best a misleading simplification, at worst intellectually dishonest.

The three threads were tied up with a theory proposed by a medic whose name I’ve sadly forgotten. He had three lines of evidence for his theory: the four Pharaohs up to and including Tutankhamun died at ever younger ages; the art style of the Amarna period; the visions recorded by Tutmosis IV and Akhenaten on stelae. He put these together to suggest that Tutankhamun’s death was caused by a particularly bad fall caused by temporal lobe epilepsy. I didn’t buy it from the way it was presented. My main stumbling blocks are firstly that I don’t see why the Amarna art style needs to be considered as a literal representation of the way Akhenaten looked. And I thought the Hawass paper had ruled out some of the representation being literal (due to various skulls not being deformed as represented) – but I can’t remember for sure. The other stumbling block was that he was thinking about the idea of Pharaohs recording visions from the gods on public proclamations from a very modern context – i.e. thinking it must be something pathological rather than appropriate to its culture. Maybe he’s right, but I wasn’t convinced.

I’ve been pretty negative so far – this programme pushed several of my buttons about how to present science and/or controversial ideas in general, and as I said at the beginning of this post I went into it cynical. However, there were some good things about it. For instance, Campbell is always an engaging presenter. And there were some very well done CGI reconstructions of buildings, particularly in Amarna that, as J said while we were watching, were worth watching the programme for. They didn’t quite look real, but I think they were the best I’ve seen in a programme. And Campbell got the walking between the (non-existent) pillars looking around at the splendour thing just right.

Other TV watched last week:

Episode 1 of Science Britannica – Brian Cox looking at the history of science in Britain.

Episode 1 of Sacred Rivers – Simon Reeve travelling along three rivers that have been or are regarded as sacred.

Episode 3 of A History of Art in Three Colours – James Fox looking at the history of art through the lens of three different colours, gold, white and blue.

Episode 2 of Oh! You Pretty Things – series about the relationship between pop music and fashion in Britain from the 1960s onwards.

Episode 1 of The Wonder of Animals – Chris Packham exploring what about particular groups of animals makes them so fit for their environments and lifestyles.