Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Psychological Autopsy for Death Investigation

A Really Cold Case

In 2001, the Discovery Channel hired two professionals to conduct a criminal investigation into the death of Tutankhamen, or King Tut.   Their reasoning was that if recent technology in the field of forensic science can tell us that the boy king was murdered, shouldn't we change the historical accounts to acknowledge him as a victim?  Greg Cooper and Mike King, both experienced law enforcement officers, claim that discoveries made with forensic techniques reveal the real story.  They worked with Anthony Geffens Atlantic Productions to bring their discoveries to television.

Mask of King Tutankhamen
Mask of King Tutankhamen

Tut was born in Egypt around 1334 BC, the son of a controversial pharaoh who had angered the priesthood.  Around age 9, Tut became king but died eight years later at a surprisingly young age, given Egypts high standard of living.  He was interred in what for royalty seemed to his discoverers a makeshift, undersized, and unfinished tomb.  It held a treasure trove of riches, to be sure, but it also puzzled Egyptologists.  They thought perhaps his death had been sudden and unexpected.  He might have gotten ill or had an accident, but he might also have been murdered.

Howard Carter found the tomb in 1922.   The boy king's remains were removed and autopsied.  Forty years later, they were X-rayed.  At that time, anatomist R. G. Harrison suspected from skull irregularities that the king had died slowly from a blow to the back of the head.  He suggested that possibly someone had struck him while he slept on his side.  Recent re-examination of those X-rays, according to Time, indicates it was more likely a backward fall of some kind that had snapped the brain forward.

Then commenced a psychological autopsy, undertaken by Egyptologist Bob Brier: In short, what was Tut's risk potential for being the victim of violence?   Who might have had a motive, the means, and the opportunity to do him harm?  Brier identified two primary suspects: Tut's wife, Ankhesenamen, and his advisor, Aywho upon Tut's death became the new pharaoh.  Ultimately, Brier suspected that Ay had hired a killer, dispatched the king, and then pressured the young queen to marry him.

King and Cooper added two more possible suspects: Tuts chief treasurer, Maya, and his military commander, Horemheb.   For psychological reasons, they eliminated them both.  Horemheb seemed unduly loyal (at least from the distant perspective of centuries) and did not take the throne when he could have.  Maya, too, had no motive that anyone could unearth and nothing to gain from killing the king.  Ankhesenamen, who apparently had given birth to two stillborn children (buried with Tut), might have been looking for a better stud, but killing the king wasnt in her best interest.  Cooper and King thought they were a loving couple, based on paintings inside the tomb.

That left Ay, for the same reasons that Brier had stated: political ambition.

However, unlike matching DNA markers in controlled conditions, this "evidence" is rather ambiguous.   Scientific analysis tells us only that Tut may have suffered skull or brain damage.  He liked to hunt, so couldn't he have fallen from his horse?  Suffering from a hematomawhich itself is not certaindoes not prove he was murdered.

Yet Cooper and King believe they found more clues that, considered together, go pretty far to establish the death as a homicide.   For example, the burial appeared to have been done in haste, using unusual unguents (maybe as a cover-up).  There is a note dated around this time from an anonymous Egyptian queen trying to avoid a marriage to a "servant," and they link this to Ay and Tut's wife. A ring bearing her name along with Ays indicates that they did marry, and because she disappeared from the records directly after the marriage to Ay, it's not a long shot to think she was killed.  There's more, but in each instance, the "clue" is highly interpretable, and historians consider a reliance on tomb paintings and jewelry to decide state of mind to be naļve.

The case for murder, then, has been made on an accumulation of possibilities and likelihoods.   It seems that science and psychology can only go so far.  Sometimes in the excitement of a mystery (and the pressure of a documentary), the desire to work a puzzle can push someone to over-interpret.  Tuts case is interesting, even suggestive of violence, but not solved.

While psychological autopsies can provide interesting perspectives, they work better with comprehensive files.   Even these days, those can still be difficult to obtain, as one team found out with our countrys worst school shooting to date.

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