Combustible History

This story is a bit of a stretch for medicine, but I can’t resist, what with Halloween having just passed and this carrying some pretty cool ancient curse potential. It’s sort of connected. Kind of. Whatever.  New research from the director of the Egypt Exploration Society, Chris Nauton, that will be appearing in a British documentary called “Tutankhamun: The Mystery of the Burnt Mummy,” suggests that after his burial, the young King Tut’s remains caught fire and burned. That’s right. The mummy spontaneously combusted inside his sarcophagus.

The iconic sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun (Source:

According to Nauton’s findings, Tut’s embalming and burial were hasty and poorly done. As a result, some unexpected chemical interaction between the various compounds the Egyptians used in their embalming process (such as resins, beeswax, oils, and salts) caused the mummy to ignite after being buried.  Nauton was put on the trail of this remarkable find when he noticed that Howard Carter, one of the two Egyptologists credited with Tut’s rediscovery, had said the boy king’s body looked burnt in his notes from the original find. After having some samples of Tut’s flesh examined, it was found that Carter had been right and that Tut had in fact burned inside of his sarcophagus. Nauton’s research doesn’t stop there though.

This is hardly the first oddity to emerge from the case of Tutankhamun. Since his discovery, the cause of his death has perplexed and no doubt frustrated Egyptologists to no end, not to mention the perpetual mystery of his missing heart. Nauton’s findings suggest that the young king may have been struck by a chariot, given the unique injuries he sustained to his rib cage and pelvis. Consulting with car crash investigators, Nauton and his team have suggested that Tut was hit by a chariot while on his knees, which would have both caused his extensive injuries and probably destroyed many of his internal organs. That internal damage would then also explain why his heart was missing from the remains.

King Tut’s tomb (Source:

King Tut stories are always cool. Beyond whatever inherent mystery the past holds, Tut has become a cultural icon of the twentieth century. It was out of his initial discovery and the mysterious deaths of his discoverers that the “mummy’s curse” first entered the public imagination, and I still remember seeing countless museum exhibits, magazine covers, and TV specials about his life and death when I was growing up. Tut has embodied everything that we as a culture find fascinating about Egypt and our past in general for decades now. This new finding may have the potential to put some of those much beloved questions to rest finally, but they also bring new ones to light, adding new dimensions of depth to the mystery that has surrounded the young king and has captivated our collective imagination. Why was he hit with a chariot? Why was he kneeling when it happened? Why was he buried hastily and what chemical mishap led to his apparent spontaneous combustion? Are there other exploding mummies out there? If so, I definitely need to consider a career change. That sounds awesome.

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