Today diagnostic imaging can be done with computed tomography, or CT, by which hundreds of x-rays in cross section are put together like slices of bread to create a three-dimensional virtual body. What more would a CT scan reveal of Tut than the x-ray? And could it answer two of the biggest questions still lingering about him—how did he die, and how old was he at the time of his death?
King Tut's demise was a big event, even by royal standards. He was the last of his family's line, and his funeral was the death rattle of a dynasty. But the particulars of his passing and its aftermath are unclear. "This period is like a play," Zahi Hawass explained in his busy Cairo office before the scan. "A part of this play is written. But the final scenes are not known."
These things we do know: Amenhotep III—Tut's father or grandfather, depending on how you read the evidence—was a powerful pharaoh who ruled for almost four decades at the height of the 18th dynasty's golden age. His son Amenhotep IV succeeded him and initiated one of the strangest periods in the history of ancient Egypt. The new pharaoh promoted the worship of the Aten, the sun disk, changed his name to Akhenaten, or "servant of the Aten," and moved the religious capital from the old city of Thebes to the new city of Akhetaten, known now as Amarna. He further shocked the country by attacking Amun, a major god, smashing his images and closing his temples. "It must have been a horrific time," said Ray Johnson, director of the University of Chicago's research center in Luxor, the site of ancient Thebes. "The family that had ruled for centuries was coming to an end, and then Akhenaten went a little wacky."
After Akhenaten's death, a mysterious ruler named Smenkhkare appeared briefly and exited with hardly a trace. And then a very young Tutankhaten took the throne—King Tut as he's widely known today. The boy king soon changed his name to Tutankhamun, "living image of Amun," and oversaw a restoration of the old ways. He reigned for about nine years—and then died unexpectedly.
A crisis of succession gripped the royal court. With power plays and intrigues surely seething around her, Tut's widow, Ankhesenamun, appears to have launched a coup of her own, sending desperate letters to the king of the Hittites in Anatolia. "My husband is dead," she wrote. "Send me your son and I will make him king." It was an unprecedented request, but understandable. "Her grandmother was Queen Tiye, one of the most powerful queens Egypt ever saw," Ray Johnson explained. "Her mother was Nefertiti. They ruled as living goddesses, so of course Ankhesenamun felt she had the same power. And she found out that she didn't."
A Hittite prince, Zannanza, was eventually sent south to marry her, but he was killed—by a hit squad, some speculate—as he entered Egyptian territory. An elder courtier named Aye, possibly Ankhesenamun's grandfather, then became pharaoh. Was he an honorable official who stepped into the top job in the sudden absence of an heir? Or did he callously plot Tut's death for his own advantage? Either way, he reigned for only three or four years. When he died, army commander Horemheb took control.