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Tomb KV 55:
Who's Your Daddy?

(Or a Modest Proposal for Definitely Solving One of the Most Perplexing Questions in History in a Manner of Which No Reasonable Person Can Dispute)

And with illustrations and excerpts courteously used from
Daily Life in Ancient Egypt - A Most Merry and Illustrated History


Akhenaten and Friend

Akhenaten and Friend


The Worst Excavation in History

In 1907, Theodore Davis, an American lawyer with a passion for Egyptology, and Edward Ayrton, a professional archaeologist from England, discovered a tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. The Valley of the Kings, of course, is the burial place of the pharaohs starting in the 18th dynasty and continuing until the 20th.

Keeping with the accepted numbering system used by the Egyptian Antiquities Service, the tomb was designated as King's Valley Tomb 55 or simply KV 55. Despite the ample funding (Theodore was rich) and Edward's professional expertise (he had worked with the Father of Modern Archaeology, William Flinders Petrie), the two men conducted one of the worst excavations in the history of archaeology.

Of course, the tomb itself wasn't in the best shape. It had been thoroughly robbed and ransacked in antiquity. What was left was nearly destroyed by the flash floods that hit the Valley every decade or so. So when Theodore and Edward arrived, there were only a few artifacts left.

But what had remained was of major historical importance. There was a partition of a gilded wooden shrine - that is, a side of a wooden box that once enclosed a sarcophagus. The partition showed the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, who was born around 1350 BC, and Queen Tiye, worshiping the disk of the sun. The hieroglyphic inscriptions stated that the shrine had indeed belonged to Queen Tiye.

But despite the unique significance of the discovery, between taking photographs, making drawings, and getting everything packed off to the Cairo Museum, Theodore and Edward reduced the shrine to a couple of strips of gold foil.

If destroying one of the most important artifacts in Egyptian history wasn't enough, Theodore and Edward strove to greater heights. Lying on the floor was a badly damaged coffin containing a mummy. The mummy was in extremely fragile condition, and sure enough, when the archaeologists began to rummage around, it crumbled to dust leaving behind only the bones.

Akhenaten and Friend

They were left with the bones.

Hoping to salvage something from their bungling, Theodore and and Edward found a physician who was visiting the valley. From the shape and breadth of the pelvis, he decided the skeleton was a woman. Drawing the obvious conclusion, Theodore and Edward figured they had found the (former) mummy of Queen Tiye, and this was her tomb.

So patting themselves on the backs for a job well done, they published their findings in a book with a typical Edwardian jaw-cracking title, Theodore M. Davis' Excavations: Biban El Moluk, The Tomb of Queen Tiyi, The Discovery of the Tomb by Theodore M. Davis, Sketch of the Life of Queen Tiyi by Gaston Maspero, Note on the Estimate of the Age Attained by the Person Whose Skeleton Was Found in the Tomb by G. Elliot Smith, M.A., M.D., FRS., Professor Of Anatomy In The Egyptian Government School Of Medicine, Cairo, The Excavations Of 1907 By Edward Ayrton, Catalogue of the Objects Discovered by Geoege Daressy, Illustrations in Colour by E. Harold Jones.


Egypt's Oddball Pharaoh

Akhenaten Instructing

Akhenaten instructed the artists.

OK. Theodore and Edward thought they had found the tomb of Queen Tiye. But just who was Tiye - and who was Akhenaten?

Tiye was the queen of the great pharaoh, Amenhotep III. Amenhotep III was one of Egypt's longer ruling pharaoh's. He was king for 37 years and he ruled at a time of prosperity and when Egypt was forging new international alliances.

Akhenaten was their son. If you're one of the few people who has seen the movie (or even less likely, read the book), The Egyptian by Finnish writer Mika Watari, then you'll know something about this family of Egyptian rulers.

Now Queen Tiye was not just any queen. She was Amenhotep's "Great Royal Wife". That is she was THE Queen. But we also know she was not of royal ancestry. Her father, Yuya, and her mother, Thuya, were dignitaries of the court, yes. Yuya had titles like the "Master of the Horse" and the "God's Father" whatever the heck that means. Thuya was one of the court ladies. So if not of the nobility, they were pretty important.

There have been some television shows about Akhenaten. Mostly they have been on what at one time were education networks which now prefer broadcasting what are really two hour long commercials interspersed with segments about ancient aliens, lost civilizations that never existed, and Bigfoot. Sometimes they've even had made up stuff which somehow was courageously mislabeled a documentary.

But happily there have also been quite a few books - those non-electronic devices with white flappy things in the middle - about Akhenaten, too. The time of his reign - about 1350 to 1333 BC - is called the Amarna Era.

The Amarna Era was marked by change. Art in particular took on a new look, particularly in how the pharaoh and his family were pictured. Before Akhenaten's time the royal families were shown as monumental blocky people of terrifying majesty. But Akhenaten let the artists show him to be pot-bellied, flabby-breasted, skinny-legged, and lantern-jawed. The artists themselves say Akhenaten instructed them in the new style - probably just to let everyone know it wasn't their fault. As like as not, they pictured their king standing before the disk of the sun, called in Ancient Egyptian, the Aten.

You might think from reading about Akhenaten that his worship of the sun - the Aten - was a radical innovation in Egyptian religion. Actually Aten worship itself was based on one of the oldest gods in Egypt. That was Ra (or Re). Ra was a sun deity and was believed to sail his boat across the sky each day. Of course, the sun didn't look like a boat but a disk - which is what aten (written in hieroglyphics as ) actually means. So the mention of the Aten, even as a god, was commonplace in Egyptian religion.

But it was what Akhenaten did after he became Pharaoh that was odd. Now usually the pharaoh's did lots of things. They sat on their thrones and hunted lions in the desert. They met visiting ambassadors from foreign countries and sent and recieved gifts from other kings. They played the ancient board game senet, and some caused problems for the Israelites. And they were buried in lavish tombs filled with gold.

Akhenaten, though, didn't want to do anything except worship the Aten. Or almost the only thing. We know when he became king or before, Akhenaten married a lady named Nefertiti, the lady with the big hat you see in the Berlin Museum. We also know the couple had their first child - one of six daughters - in the first year of their reign. The kids were evidently doted on shamelessly, riding with their folks in chariots, tossing gifts to the kings followers, and generally hanging around the palace. But most of the time, Akhenaten - and Nefertiti and their daughters - worshipped Aten.


The Lady with the Big Hat

Of course, Aten wasn't the only god in Egypt. There were lots of gods. But the people tended to have their own favorites and worship the "local" god of their town. If you were from Bubastis (near modern Zagazig, about 50 mile northeast of modern Cairo), you liked Bastet, who was a cat headed goddess. For Citizens of Memphis (modern Mit Rahina, about 15 miles south of Cairo), your favorite god was Ptah, the god of artists and craftsmen. People - particularly the ladies - from Abydos liked Isis (who even today has some adherents). Of course, if you were from Thebes - modern Luxor and 300 miles to the south of Cairo - you rooted for Amun.

However, the pharaohs didn't try to force their favorites on the rest of the country. Tolerance of other beliefs was the rule in the ancient world. Certainly, the pharaohs never said their god was the only god.

Weeeeeeelllllll, as the Captain of the Pinafore said, "Hardly ever." There was one glaring exception.

Yep, that was Akehenaten.


Akhenaten in Charge

Akhenaten Taking his Aten

Akhenaten took his Aten and went home

One thing to remember is that if Akhenaten seems strange to us now, he was even stranger to the Egyptians. In fact, he was so strange that Amenhotep III and Tiye never really intended for him to be king. Instead they kept him out of sight. They bestowed titles and honors, and commissioned pictures and statues of their other kids, but you never even hear about Akhenaten until, hey, presto!, he shows up as king. That, of course, was after Amenhotep died.

Akhenaten and Family

Akhenaten and Family

Why Akhenaten was kept sundered is a subject of speculation. He may have been a difficult child - a "handful". That would have made it difficult to have him appear with his parents, particularly when the dignity of the pharaoh had to be preserved.

Or he may have just looked different. Some Egyptologists have seen his statues and pictures with the skinny legs, long face, and big gut as an indication that he suffered from some congenital disorder, maybe Frölich's Syndrome, which is not likely, or perhaps Marfan's Disease, a disease of the connective tissue. Maybe he was simply acromegalic, having a fairly common pituitary hormone imbalance. All of these disorders could lead to features similar to what we see in Akhenaten's pictures.

On the other hand, some Egyptologists think the pictures and statues were deliberately distorted for religious reasons. If that's true, then it may have been that even as a kid Akhenaten's developing religious beliefs were getting out of hand.

Like we said, religious tolerance was the rule in Ancient Egypt. But Akhenaten brought something new to the divine table by preaching exclusivity - or as the less courteous would call it, intolerance. As far as he was concerned, his god was the only god, and that was that.

Having your pharaoh believe in one god was not necessarily a revolutionary doctrine nor something that would lead to intolerance. Thinking in terms of one god wasn't that odd, even in Ancient Egypt. And it made a lot of sense, although on the surface it seems strange.

One aspect of Egyptian religion that is not familiar to Joe and Josephine Blow on the street is its syncretism. This is, the Egyptians combined various - often disparate - beliefs into a unified whole.

We do have syncretism of a sort in modern religions. That is, we mix things like egg hunts, yule logs, and mistletoe with the modern religious celebrations. But in Egypt the syncretism showed up as a tendency for the Egyptians to create new gods. And by making new gods they began pushing toward monotheism.

Ha? (To quote Shakespeare.) How is that possible?

Well, consider the gods Ptah (from Memphis), Seker (also from Memphis), and Osiris (from Abydos). At some point, someone decided that there was actually a combination of these gods called (what else?) Ptah-Seker-Osiris who even has a statue in the British Museum. And of course there was the more familiar combination of Ra and Amun to form Amun-Ra (or Amun-Re). So here we started out with four old Gods and now end up with six.

But you can look at the process from a different light. Yes, we started out with five gods, Ptah, Seker, Osiris, Ra, and Amun. But rather than having six, you can say we really only have two: Ptah-Seker-Osiris and Amun-Ra. Keep this process up and eventually you whittle the pantheon down to only one god.

Now combining the gods didn't mean that the temples of the individual gods were shut down. The worship continued as in the past. You just built new temples to the combined gods.

How do you rationalize having more and more temples to more and more gods and yet claim there is only one? Simply. You just say that all the many gods are "manifestations" of the one god. In fact, even before Akhenaten's time there are Egyptian religious writings which speak of the "one god" and the "only god". This confused early Egyptologists and Jean François Champollion - usually credited as being the decipherer of hieroglyphics - said Egyptian religion was monotheism disguised by a symbolic polytheism. Others said - which is more less just stating the obvious - that the polytheistic religion simultaneously made more gods and yet combined them and no one really thought anything was wrong with it.

It seems that Akhenaten, though, was the first person to go that last extra step to believing only in one god. But for some reason, rather than adopt what was a tolerant philosophy - that all gods were simply forms of his own - Akhenaten saw the others as separate, competing, and even false gods.

Akhenaten's doctrine was not something that would bring Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Men (and Women). If you think your new manager messed things up when he came in and started changing the way your company did things for the last ten years, think what it would be like if he was changing the way things had been done for the last two thousand years!

So why, then, did Tiye allow her oddball son to become king and get her officials to give him their support? Amenhotep III had other wives who certainly had sons. They could have become much more conventional pharaohs.

Well, there's no mystery about that. Tiye had been Amenhotep's official queen, the "Great Royal Wife". But if the son of one of the "lesser" wives became pharaoh, then Tiye would have been pushed down in the palace hierarchy. That she was not going to permit.

There's even the possibility that Tiye saw that having an idealistic starry eyed son being a pharaoh who did nothing but worshiping Aten would be to her advantage. In fact, Tiye may have been thinking of taking One Giant Leap to become the number one most powerful person in the country. With a little help from a man named Ay, who would became Akhenaten's prime minister and handle the day to day work, she could have become a lady pharaoh like the great Hatshepsut.

A complication with such a plan was that when Akhenaten became pharaoh he was living in Thebes with the rest of his family. This was Amun's territory and the priests of Amun were not just powerful but - which amounts to the same thing - rich.

And yet the first thing Akhenaten did when he became king was to build a huge temple to Aten in Thebes and right smack dab next to the temple of Amun. If not actually intended to provoke the worshipers of Amun, the message was clear. Akhenaten was pharaoh, Aten was his God, and he could put up a temple wherever he liked. If you or the other Amun worshipers didn't like it, well, that was just tough tiddy.

Now erecting a temple to Aten in Thebes was like building a Lutheran church next to the Sistine Chapel. The majority of people of Thebes were loyal to Amun, and it's a sure bet that Akhenaten's popularity ratings hit an all-time. So the next move very well may have been machinated by Tiye to defuse the increasing religious tensions.

What we know for sure is that four years after he became king, Akhenaten took his Aten and went home. Of course, that meant a new home - about halfway between Luxor and modern Cairo. There was no town in the vicinity and so Akhenaten built a new city totally from scratch. Akhenaten called it "The Horizon of Aten", Akhetaten, . Now since Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and the kids were all away from Thebes, things began to simmer down.

At least for a little while. Then about year 9 of his reign and five years after the founding of Akhetaten, Akhenaten suddenly took charge and banned the old religions.

What the hey happened?

The best guess is that Queen Tiye had finally grown too old to keep a firm restraining hand on her increasingly fanatical offspring. Then when she did die around year 12, Akhenaten was finally free to do what he wanted and could begin a full blown persecution of the old gods in general and of Amun in particular.

Horemheb - The Beefcake Pharaoh

Beefcake Pharaoh

Akhenaten's ban on the old religions was not just a proclamation issued as he sat on his at Akhetaten while the rest of the country ignored him. It was an active persecution where he shut down the old temples. He even sent teams of workmen throughout the country who began to hack out the names of other gods on the monuments. He even erased the plural word "gods" and the name of Amun was particularly an anathema. He had the workmen go into the tomb of his dad and replace the name of Amenhotep with the alternative "throne name", Neb-maat-Ra. There was no longer to be any of this your-god-is-my-god business either and many-gods-are-one god stuff, either. You had to worship Aten, and that was that.

How successful was Akhenaten's new religion and his attempt to stamp out all gods except Aten? Not very. True his daughters and maybe even Nefertiti were sincere believers, but it seems the court hangers-on - including his prime minister Ay, and the General Horemheb (played in the movie by beefcake actor, Victor Mature) - were just buttering up the boss while anticipating stepping into his shoes. Archaeologists have even found proof that belief in the old gods, including Amun, continued among the workers and laborers at Akhetaten.

Amun at Akhetaten

Amun was also worshipped in Akhetaten.


The End of the (Amarna) Era

Akhenaten was pharaoh for about 17 years. Some cite his relatively early death due to the proposed health problems since without modern treatment people with something like Marfan's disease or acromegaly would rarely live into their old age. Still, in Ancient Egypt people died in their thirties all the time. Sometimes pharaohs would also be bumped off - even by their own families - and in light of later events we can't rule this out for Akhenaten. But whatever the cause, Akhenaten was certainly buried in his large and unique tomb at Akhetaten.

Egypt was a mess. The traditional religious institutions were in disarray, and the temples had fallen into disuse. If you believe the diplomatic correspondence, contact between Egypt and the countries in Syria had fallen off almost to nil (one ruler complained his letters had not been answered for twenty years). And with Akhenaten and his officials sequestered in Akhetaten and surrounded by syncophants and Queen Tiye dead, even the country's central government may have broken down.

Temples in Disuse

The temples had fallen into disuse.

So who took over after Akhenaten? Well, we're not quite sure. The original thinking was that Akhenaten had picked a young man named Smenkhara (usually spelled Smenkhare) as his successor. The two men may have even ruled together for a while. Akhenaten's picking a co-regent suggests he saw problems with a transfer of power, and perhaps was in failing health. So he decided to give his successor some on-the-job training. Why he chose Smenkhare is anyone's guess, but the younger man may have been his son by a "secondary" wife - that is, not Nefertiti.

Nefertiti may have been dead by this time. She is not mentioned after year 14, and it has raised not a few eyebrows that Smenkhare adopted Nefertiti's titles. That, plus some highly companionable drawings have suggested the two men may have been in what we call (wink, wink) a relationship.

Another possibility is that Smenkhare was in fact Nefertiti. Now although this might seem to be a fringe theory, the possibility that Akhenaten appointed his wife as co-pharaoh and that when he died she took the reins (no pun intended), albeit briefly, is not by any means a crazy idea. If Nefertiti was a strong-minded woman - and there are inscriptions and carvings of her worshiping Aten by herself - she very well may have convinced her husband to make the kingship a family and co-ed business. It's also telling that Nefertiti disappeared in year 14. So she would have been Smenkhare for about three years - which is within the length of time often assigned to Smenkhare's reign - before she was, well, let's just say before she was replaced.

Some support for this latter theory is the way in which Smenkhare wrote his (or her) throne name, Ankh-khepru-ra, . But archaeologists have found a feminine version of the name, Ankh-at-khepru-ra , , the sign for -t, () , indicates feminine gender in ancient Egyptian).

Why would Smenkhare use a feminine form for a name at one time and a masculine form at another? Well, it could mean he (if he was a man) was in our hypothetical "relationship" with Akhenaten and it was he who was taking on the feminine role. Or it could mean Smenkhare was Nefertiti and so used a feminine throne name.

But the biggest argument against Smenkhare being Nefertiti is that there are inscriptions that Smenkhare married Meritaten, Akehenaten's and Nefertiti's #1 daughter. That seems a pretty firm indication that Smenkhare was a (male) pharaoh. So how do you sort everything out?

An obvious solution - adopted by a number of Egyptologists - is that Nefertiti served as co-pharaoh with her husband and she used the throne name Ankh-kheperu-re sometimes with the feminine -t added. Then she may have ruled a little after Akhenaten died to be succeeded by the young Smenkhare who used the same throne name (not unlikely as the pharaohs did sometimes recycle throne names). Smenkhare then was king for probably a year or less.

Then what happened to Nefertiti if she only ruled three years? Well, there is an interesting bit of correspondence found in the Hittite city of Hattushah. Their king, Shubbiluliuma (try saying that fast six times), received a note from a queen of Egypt that her husband had died. Would King Shubbiluliuma, please send her one of his sons to be king of Egypt? Express please.

Now this queen could have been Nefertiti. We also know that the Hittite prince died on the way to Egypt - probably murdered by Ay and Horemheb. That means, of course, that they discovered Nefertit's plot, possibly as she was writing some more letters. If so that was the end of Pharaoh Nefertiti.

Nefertiti and Ay

The End of Pharaoh Nefertiti

We finally reach some area of certainty when we come to the next king. This was the famous Tutankhamun, . Originally born as TutankATEN , the Aten part was quickly switched to Amen. Tut married Akhenaten's third daughter, Ankhesenpaaton - who also recieved a name change to Ankhesenamun - and she became queen.

You sometimes read that Tut - a "boy" king - was an inconsequential ruler who did little while he was on the throne. But that's not really true. It was he - according to inscriptions - who issued the proclamation restoring the worship of the old gods. Of course, Tut issued the proclamations although it was probably Ay, Akhenaten's old prime minister, who wrote them up.

Tut's Proclamation

Tut issued the proclamations.

Under Tut the old temples were soon up and running again, and the Egyptians were once more worshiping the gods they wanted to, not those that the pharaoh told them to. Finally everyone cleared out of Akhetaten and moved back to Thebes.

In later years, Akhenaten was written off - literally. His name was erased from the list of pharaoh's, and his temples were torn down and the stone used in other buildings. His name was carved out from monuments.

After Tut died - about age eighteen - Ay became pharaoh. Ay must have been at least in his sixties and he ruled only about three years. Then General Horemheb became pharaoh and so closed out the 18th dynasty.

Horemheb started counting his own pharaohship from the end of the reign of Amenhotep III. The names of Tutankhamun, Ay, and Akhenaten do not appear in the king's lists that Seti I (the dad of Ramesses the Great) carved in a temple in Abydos. But at least both Tutankhamun and Ay were buried in the Valley of the Kings and Horemheb left them in peace. The tomb that had originally been meant for Ay was probably the one where Tutankhamun was buried and vice versa.

Tut's Tomb

Tut's Tomb

So what happened to Akhenaten? Well, Akhenaten's tomb at Amarna was robbed in antiquity, and his mummy just disappeared.

Or did it?

Which brings us back to KV 55.


KV 55: Who's Your Daddy?

The identification of the bones in KV 55 lasted scarcely longer than the mummy itself. The first examination of the bones was, as we said, made at the tomb by a visiting physician. He said that they were the bones of a lady and so everyone assumed Theodore and Edward had found Queen Tiye.

Then came a surprise. Later the same year, Grafton Elliot Smith, a medical doctor and anatomist at the Cairo Medical School, decided to look at the bones more thoroughly. Expecting to be examining the bones of a middle age to elderly woman, he found instead he was looking at the skeleton of a man, and a young man at that.

Elliot gave an account of his examination that's pretty detailed even by modern forensic standards. He listed which of the various bones had fused and which had not - that is the degree of the epiphyseal unions. The bones fuse at different ages and by the late twenties, the bones that are going to fuse have pretty much fused. Because on the skeleton from KV55 some bones had fused and some had not - plus the fact the third upper right molar had not erupted - Elliot said the young man had been at most in his mid-twenties when he died, possibly younger.

Elliot was also struck by the unusual shape of the skull which was unusually elongated. He showed the skull to a pathologist, A. R. Feurgeson. Dr. Feurgeson told him the individual suffered from hydrocephalus - rudely called "water on the brain".

Eliott's conclusion then was they had not found Queen Tiye at all. But who, in fact, had they found?

Well, it was a man in a coffin who had the names hacked out. There was evidence of a congenital disorder that could have affected his thinking and possibly been physically debilitating. And he died at an early age.

So it looks like - and most people then believed - they had found the bones of Akhenaten himself!

But there was just one wee bit of a problem.

From the inscriptions at Akhetaten, it's clear that Akhenaten ruled as pharaoh for about 17 years. So according to Elliot's finding, Akhenaten was his mid-twenties and so must have been 8 to 10 years old when he became king. Presumably Nefertiti was about the same age.

Now the problem with this idea is Akhenaten and Nefertiti had their first daughter, Meritaten, in their first year as king and queen. An unusual feat for a couple of nine-year olds.

But if Akhenaten was older when he became king - mid-teens or later - then he would have been in his early to mid-thirties when he died. With the timing of his kids, this is a more realistic scenario, and most Egyptologists put his age when he died at about thirty-five.

So it all boils down to what was the age at death of the bones in KV 55. If it was in the mid-thirties, we probably have Akhenaten. If not it was someone else from Akhenaten's family, probably Smenkhare.

KV55 Skull

The Bones of KV 55
Or ...?

Three years after he first examined the bones, though, Elliot waffled a bit. In an short essay in Theodore's publication, he said that he had earlier estimated the age to be in the mid-twenties and he stood by that estimate. But he did concede the mummy could be "several" years older at time of death.

Elliot's reassessment, though, is a bit too convenient. By that time everyone agreed the bones were of a man and it would have been quite the archaeological coup to have found the body of Akhenaten. So we suspect Theodore may have indulged in a bit of gentle arm-twisting to get Elliot to put some wiggle room in his earlier opinion.

So things stood until 1931. Then Dr. Douglas Derry, like Elliot a professor of anatomy at Cairo, looked at the bones again. He, too, found the bones to be those of a young man - but a very young man - no more than 23 years. There was also no sign of any abnormalities or disorders. The lad simply had what is called a dolichocephalic skull - that is, a bit longer than average and from The Hound of the Baskervilles we know it was also the head shape of Sherlock Holmes.

Clearly the bones were too young to be Akhenaten as it would have put him at age seven when he had his first daughter. Dr. Derry did, though, compare the skull with that of King Tut. Based on the similarities, Dr. Derry guessed the two young men were brothers. These findings were a good argument that the bones from KV 55 were indeed the shadowy Smenkhare and both he and Tut were the sons of Akhenaten.

Others, though, were not convinced the ages of bones could be so accurately determined. Or perhaps Akhenaten suffered form some disorder that delayed the fusion of the bones. Cyril Aldred, one of the leading Egyptologists of the mid-20th century thought the bones were of Akhenaten.

But then in 1963, an anatomist from Liverpool University, R. G. Harrison, took another look at the bones. His study was highly detailed and wasn't published until 1966. Dr. Harrison also had serological tests run and concluded that whoever had owned the bones was the full brother of King Tut. The age at time of death was definitely young, 18 - 23 years. Given the care of Harrison's examination, quite a few people - even some who originally thought the bones were Akhenaten (including Cyril) - now believed there was no doubt (direct quote) the bones were Smenkhare.

So things seem clear, right?

Weeeellllllll, not quite.

In 1998, Fawzia Hussein and James E. Harris (the latter being a well-known specialist in X-raying pharaohs) looked at the bones again. Earlier in 1991, they had published a paper where based on the shape of the skull they had labeled the skull as Smenkhare. But now and based on the teeth and skull bones, they concluded the age at death was about 30 - 35. If this was the case, then it was a very good bet we had Akhenaten all along.

Fawzia's and James's conclusions created a stir - and controversy. And also how could some of the best anatomists conclude for 50 years the bones were from a man who died in his twenties - and probably his early tewenties - and yet now we're hearing he's a man not far from middle age? A somewhat red flag was that Fawzia and James didn't write their finding up in an actual paper. And if their conclusions were so firm, why not? Usually if you have good data, you publish it with much fanfare.

So in 2000, Joyce Filer, a physical anthropologist at the British Museum, examined "Akhenaten's" bones once more. Her findings were similar to Dr. Harrison's. Key bones were not fused, and again she pointed out the third molar had not erupted. Bones that are known to fuse in the mid-teens were indeed fused, and those that do not fuse by the mid-twenties were not fused. So once more the data tells us we have a young man no older than his early twenties and maybe a few years younger. Again, not likely, we conclude, for the bones to be Akhenaten.

The end? Not at all. In the year 2010, DNA analysis was run on a number of mummies in the Cairo Museum and the Valley of the Kings. These included the bones found in KV55, a female mummy found in the Tomb of Amenhotep II, and King Tut. The conclusions were that the KV 55 and the mysterious lady bones were the father and mother of King Tut. So we've found Tut's daddy?

Well, by now you know Egyptologists never agree, and indeed, some people have pointed that the DNA sequencing of Tutankhamun can't have been the son of the bones from KV 55. The individual allenes don't match up.

And besides, we really don't know who's Tut's dad was in the first place. There is one inscription that Egyptologoists cite to prove Tut was the son of Akhenaten. The inscription - that was once lost but the pieces were later rediscovered - says and we quote:

The King's son of -- body, his beloved, Tut...

And on the other part of the inscription, we read, confirms that the king in question was Akhenaten since it refers to Akhesenpaaton, who was Tut's wife and also his sister. This reads as:

The King's daughter of -- body, his (-t), the greatly praised of the Lord of the Two Lands, A...

With such clear cut evidence, how can anyone doubt?

Although in Ancient Egyptian, the word "son" or "daughter", like in other languages, was not always used literally, the reference to "[his] body" is the way the Ancient Egyptians used to indicate actual parentage. And despite the gaps in the inscription - called lacunae by the professionals - Egyptologists accept the inscription as pretty conclusive evidence that 1) Tut was the son of a king and 2) the king was Akhenaten. So if the KV55 skeleton is on the older side - say mid- or even early thirties - it's Akhenaten and so we have Tut's daddy.

But how did the authors of the JAMA article come to the older age? Well, they said that there was an arthritic condition in the KV 55 bones that is unlikely to have occurred in a young man in his twenties. So the mummy is not just in his thirties but could have been in his forties! In fact, other indicators are typical of people in their sixties! But all in all they thought the individual had died between the ages of 35 to 45 years. So it's Akhenaten once again, and soon news reports abounded on how high technology had - quote - "proven" - unquote - that Akhenaten was the pappy of Tutankhamun.

So by golly, we have Akhenaten at last! Tut, by the way, they said, appeared to have died of malaria and had a clubfoot.

As you may expect by now, the new "These-Bones-Gonna-Rise-As-Akhenaten" conclusion produced rebuttals from a number of experts. Tut - who died at about age 18 - was too old, they said, to succumb to malaria but possibly he did have sickle cell anemia. Nor did he have a clubfoot. And some DNA specialists thought the whole exercise had been a waste of time. DNA, they said, deteriorates too rapidly for the analysis to mean anything. And given how many people had handled the mummies, contamination was a virtual certainty.

But more to the point just where is all that "evidence" - the actual data - that the KV55 skeleton had died at the older age - at least 35 but maybe 45 or even 60? All that was given in the article was a footnote blithely stating they although other studies had found the bones to be a man in his early twenties, their study showed it was much older. So there.

Of course, these rebuttals produced rebuttals of the rebuttals. The reason it looked like Tut didn't have a clubfoot, we read, was the photographs that were published weren't the ones that showed he did. The DNA analysis was very much valid, and the fact that none of the female mummies tested had contaminating Y-chromosomes argued against contamination (in the early days, the handling of the mummies had been almost exclusively by men). Using computer tomography scans, they said, are more reliable in determining age than the earlier methods based on bone fusion.

The superiority of computer tomography - that is 3D pictures of the bones - compared to in-person examination is an issue on which some physical anthropologists may well disagree. They will also point out that the information in the JAMA article doesn't even begin to address the multiple indicators of the younger age. Forensic opinions of age, they say, must be determined by the totality of the evidence not cherry picking what you want to give you a preconceived answer that will sound good on television or in press releases. After all, young people can have bone degeneration and arthritis too, and when a person dies in their late teens or early twenties, the fact that some of the bones are fused and others are not make the age of death easy to pinpoint. In particular the third molar not being erupted means the individual was in their late teens and early twenties at most.

Akhenaten? To quote Big Jake, "Not hardly!"

The fact that you can get so many different answers from the experts looking at the same data will be no surprise to anyone who knows that in 2004, the National Academy of Sciences issued a blistering blast against forensic science. Oh sure, the tests might generate reams of numbers and spreadsheets full of data. But the actual conclusions relied too much on the opinion of the "experts" for which there was no way to assess the reliability of their claims. So even the opinions of world renown forensic scientists have to be taken with a pound or two of salt.


A Modest CooperToons Proposal

Akhenaten's Age

We need to reduce the uncertainty.

All right. How the heck do we actually arrive at a definitive answer of who was found in KV55?

Clearly we need to reduce the uncertainty of the estimations - both errors in precision and the accuracy. And we need to remove the human opinion factor. On the other hand, we have to use methods that require human opinion. So what the hey do we do?

Well, CooperToons has a modest proposal which, although it may seem a bit strange - we are talking about Akhenaten, after all - it actually is based on one of the fundamental TRUTHS of nature. In fact, a truth that was proven by the founder of computer science, Alan Turing. This is the famous central limit theorem. And who's going to argue with Alan?

The central limit theorem - as everyone knows - simply means that if you have data that's so messy you can't draw conclusions, you can just run more tests and take the averages. Eventually with enough tests - called "replicates" by the cognoscenti - you can whittle down the uncertainty as much as you like.

So now we can begin, no?

First we need a way to quantitatively calibrate what are in essence opinions and judgement calls of the forensic specialists. That may seem impossible but in fact is pretty easy, at least in principle. Best of all, we'll use real forensic data to see what we're up against.

OK, we've called in three specialists in estimating age from bones. We'll call them Thomas, Richard, and Henriette. Then we ask them to provide estimates of the ages of 22 skeletons that we know the ages when they died. The scientists can use whatever methods they want. And we will use 3D computer scans of the bones. That will placate those who say this method is the best, but also protects the bones from being passed around and sent across the country. Also using computer scans makes it easier to call in more scientists if need be. And everyone do their work in their offices.

Remember, we know the ages of each skeleton, but Thomas, Richard, and Henriette don't.

So they send us their "estimates". And here's what we've got:

Skeleton ID #True Age
Thomas Richard Henriette
    Lower Limit Upper Limit Lower Limit Upper Limit Lower Limit Upper Limit
1 59 69 80 66 75 64 75
2 87 67 80 67 75 61 70
3 78 68 80 67 80 64 75
4 92 71 80 70 80 71 80
5 19.5 32 37 30 35 35 40
6 36 28 34 44 49 65 70
7 73 53 58 52 61 63 75
8 36 49 56 49 58 60 70
9 39 65 75 65 75 60 66
10 47 52 61 41 50 56 61
11 49 67 75 65 75 58 62
12 52 45 50 50 55 65 75
13 61 65 75 65 75 60 70
14 17 Not Available Not Available 20 26 24 29
15 40 45 50 53 62 59 70
16 79 64 75 64 75 64 75
17 55 62 70 55 60 65 70
18 73 55 61 40 80 64 75
19 70 44 52 47 52 64 75
20 26 32 37 24 25 35 41
21 52 66 75 53 75 67 75
22 32.5 64 51 34 40 66 75

Called "round-robins", these types of tests admittedly put the experts on the spot. We can see exactly how close they can get to the real ages and how much they agree with each other. So you don't see these tests a whole lot, but you can find them if you dig through the various technical journals.

Now, to avoid people saying we are being critical of individuals, we want to point out that Thomas, Richard, and Henriette are not the actual names. And note that the ranges seem - at least to us - pretty large, certainly larger than the ranges tossed off by Talking Heads on the television documentaries when archaeologists dig up bones.

What do we do with this stuff? Well, in this intensely visual age, one of the first things is to plot the data out. Do that and we find that at least at first glance the data doesn't seem very useful.

Bleah. This looks pretty bad. How can anyone do anythng with a graph like this?

But this is just the raw data. You never work with raw data. You have to start massaging it.

Since we're using the central limit theorem, our first massage is to take the average of the upper and lower limits given by each of the scientists. So for Skeleton #1, we see that Thomas's average is 74 years old, Richard's average is 70, and Henriette's is also 70.

Then we average the averages. This gives us the best estimate for the ages - at least with this data. So for Skeleton #1.

Best Estimate = (74 + 70 + 70)/3 = 71 years old

Now what we do is determine the presicion of this estimate. That is how well the experts agree. So we take the average of the difference between the best estimate and the individual ages:

Average Uncertainty = (3 + 1 + 1)/3 = 1.7 years

Which really isn't too bad.

But the accuracy is something else. The experts tell us a skeleton is 71 years old when actually the ages were 59. So they're off by 12 years. More than we want.

When we look at all the data, our fears seem to be confirmed. When you plot the averages for all the skeletons, we get a graph like:

Or if we can ignore the actual raw data and just plot the averages:

So if we get an estimate from the the experts that average to, say, 50 years old, then the true values range all the way from 35 to 65! That's a 30 year uncertainty. Worse and worse!

The cause of this problem is that the way the ages "flatten out" as the experts say. The estimate ages don't change much. So you can't really get a good estimate for the real age.

Should we just give up?

Well, not just yet.

Remember we're most interested in distinguishing ages from the early 20's to the mid-thirties. So why bother with skeletons above 40? Why not restrict ourselves to that range? Then our graph becomes:

Now this is something we can work with. The data is linear as you can see if you draw a line through the points.

But there's still a problems as we see when we make a table of the best estimates of the ages and the real ages along with the actual error. The values still look pretty rotten:

Estimated Age Actual Age Error
25 17 8
35 20 15
31 26 5
55 33 22
48 36 12
57 36 21
68 39 29
57 40 17

Good grief! This is terrible. The average error is 16 years! The worst error is almost 30 years!

Now do we give up?

No. We'll ask for a little help from Alfred.


Alfred to the Rescue

Alfred Lucas that is.

Alfred Lucas was one of the most famous of the 20th century Egyptologists. He was actually a chemist and was a specialist in Egyptian materials. He was also an expert in conservation of antiquities and helped Howard Carter during the excavation of Tutankhamen's tomb. Less well known is that he was one of the founders of - and wrote textbook for - the field of forensic chemistry.

And it is a trick from Alfred's field - chemistry that we will use. In fact, we'll use not only Alfred's field to illustrate our solution, but his speciality. Alfred was an analytical chemist. That is he specialized in finding what and how much of a chemical was in a sample.

Now suppose a chemist has a sample of waste water containing some metal. Say it's iron. To learn how much iron is in the sample you send to some one like Alfred. Now in Alfred's day to analyze iron, you went through all sorts of complicated ways to fish the iron out and weigh it. That was (and is) a pain.

Today, though, analyst, would more than likely dissolve the sample in water and spray the solution into a flame. Then he would measure the amount of light that the iron produces.

Now to determine the actual concentration of your sample, the analyst would make his own water solutions of iron at different concentrations. Then he'd compare how much light came from the flame for each solution. If his solution that had 20 parts per million iron gave off the same amount of light as yours, he'd say you had 20 ppm iron in your sample as well.

The problem, though, is your sample is in wastewater. So it has all sorts of other junk in it like - well, we say it has some soap .

But the soap does something to water. It changes the surface tension and so the drops that you spray into the flame won't be the same size as if the water was pure. The different sized droplets can throw the analysis off and the analyst might tell your sample has 10 ppm iron, not 20 ppm.

Now if for some reason you know that 10 ppm is too low a value, you can go gripe to the analyst. You'll try to convince him he needs to change his method. That may not be easy because he'll have graphs showing that if he puts 10 ppm iron in the flame, it says there's 10 ppm. In fact he'll show you the calibration curve which prove his case.

And shows you the actual numbers

10 8
15 15

See, he says. The numbers from the flame are the same as that what he made up. With a bit of error of course.

So what you do, then, is take some of your wastewater and precipitate the iron chemically - there are ways to knock the iron level down to virtually nothing. Then you use the wastewater - with all the junk - to make your own own solutions of iron. You then give these samples to the analyst and let him run his tests.

Of course, you don't tell him you're testing his analysis. But when you get the numbers you smile in satisfaction. The junk in the wastewster is giving us bogus numbers.

And you now triumphantly show him your numbers.

22 10
24 15

... proving his analysis gives you numbers that are to low.

But do you really want to ask him or her to take weeks or months to create a new method that no one else will use and even you won't need it once your project is over? Certainly there must be a better way.

Instead what you do is to take your numbers and you run what is called a linear least squares fit of the data. Least squares fits are parts of various spreadsheets and there's even places on-line which will do this for you very nicely, thank you. (See the references below or just click here to open the page in a new window).

And the least squares fit of the data above tells us the best straight line is:

Calculated "Real Values" = 0.96 X "Measured" Values (from Analysis) - 9.4

Now plug the measured values from the analysis into this equation and you get "corrected" values.

Corrected Values
22 10 12
24 15 14
3220 21
3325 22
4030 31

So you see that the numbers from the equation now agree with the actual numbers. The errors are now quite acceptable:

Corrected Values
22 10 12 2
24 15 14 -1
3220 21 1
3325 26 1
4030 30 0

So you just send samples in for analysis like before. But when you get the values back, you just plug them into the equations. Now you have the values correct to an an average error of about 1 ppm. You get the right numbers, the analysts doesn't have to develop a new method, and everyone is happy.


Back to the Bones

OK. So does how this help us determine the age of the skeleton in KV55

Well, we do exactly the same thing. We send the bones to the forensic scientists and let them make their best estimates of the upper and lower limits. We then average the limits and take the averages of the scientists. Well and good.

But now we run the least squares fit of the real ages (which we know) and the estimated ages (from the anthropologists). And with the data above we get the equation:

Calculated "Real Age" = 0.548 X "Estimated" Age (Averages) + 4.97

And now we can make a new table:

Actual Age Calculated
"Actual Age"
25 17 19
35 20 24
32 26 23
55 32 35
48 36 31
57 36 36
68 39 42
56 40 36

All right. Suppose the three anthropologists give the following ranges for the KV 55 skeleton.

Anthropologist Low Age High Age Average
Thomas 28 48 38
Richard 32 48 40
Henriette30 44 32

This makes the average as:

Estimated Age = (38 + 40 + 32)/3 = 36.7 years

Now if this was accurate for the ages we'd say it was Akhenaten. But remember, we have to plug this estimate into the equation:

Calculated "Real Age" = 0.548 X 36.7 + 4.97
= 25 years

This is a very problematic age. Why? Well, it's all very well and good to give the best estimate of the age as 25 years. But we need to know the error or the uncertainty of the estimate. It is said - correctly - that the error is as important as the estimate.

Why? Well, suppose the error of our estimate is +7 years - that is our value is 7 years too low. Then the true age would be 32 years old. So the skeleton in KV 55 would Akhenaten (having a kid at age 15 is certainly doable). But if the error is -7 years - our estmate is 7 years too old - then the correct age was 18 years - and it's Smenkhare.

So obviously we need to find what the error actually is. And if it's too large, we have to reduce it.

To tackle both issues we will make yet another column with the differences between the linear fit and the actual age of the skeletons. That is, we calculate the error - not the error the estimated and actual values - but of the actual values from the straight line.

Actual Age Calculated
"Actual Age"
24.75 17 18.53 -1.53
34.83 19.5 24.06 -4.56
32.33 26 22.69 3.31
55 32.5 35.10 -2.60
48.33 36 31.45 4.55
57 36 36.20 -0.20
67.67 39 42.04 -3.04
56.5 40 35.93 4.07

Well, note that the range of the errors - actually statisticians prefer the world residuals - covers values from -4.6 to +4.1. That's nearly 9 years error. With this much error, it's likely that we still can't conclude if the KV 55 mummy is Akhenaten or Smenkhare even using the corrected value.

But before we finally throw our hands up in the air, let's make a graph of the errors against the estimated ages.

This is what some scientists call a shotgun pattern. But believe it or not this is what you want when you plot the errors against the numbers. If not sending data analysts and statisticians into peals of rapture, such a graph at least gives them hope.

Note how the errors - sorry, that's residuals - are not only distributed around zero, but the low and high values are randomly spread throughout the range. Such residuals are said to be identically and independently distributed - iid for the cognoscenti - around zero.

Why does this data make the data crunchers happy? Well, it means that the correction we're making with the linear fit is valid and reproducible - that is, it is systematic error. So it doesn't matter if the raw data - the estimates from the forensic scientists - is off. They can continue to give us ages that are too large in ignorant bliss. Then we can correct their errors in a reliable and reproducible manner.

But best of all, if the residuals are iid - identically and independently distributed around zero - then we have a procedure for reducing the error as much as we want - in principle, at least.

How so?

With the independently and identically distributed data we can start to calculate how many more scientists we need to consult to whittle the uncertainly down. That is we calculate the sample size needed to reduce the error to a useful amount.

To do this we don't work with the range, but with what's called the standard deviation. You get this number by multiplying each error by itself, then add them up, and divide by the number of points (which is 8), although some people prefer the number of data points minus 1 (so you can use 7 if you want). Then take the square root and that's the standard deviation.

In the now distant precomuter age, calculating standard deviations was a pain. But now it's a standard function in spreadsheets and calculators. And yes, you can even calculate standard deviations online as well (a convenient webpage is here). The errors of our eight skeletons above has a standard deviation of 3.5 years.

Why is the standard deviation better than the range? Well, it allows us to calculate the standard error of the average. This is the standard deviation divided by the square root of the number of data points.

Standard Error = 3.5 / √n

Now we won't go into details, but if you multiply the standard error by (more or less) a certain number called the t-Value (which we won't belabor how to calculate) you end up with the 95 % Confidence Limit of the ages of the skeletons. That is, the range where the true age of your skeleton will fall 95 % of the time.

An important point is that in the formula for the standard error - and hence the 95 % confidence limit - the number of data points is in the denominator. So the confidence interval gets smaller as you have more data points.

Now remember that the number of data points is determined not just by the number of skeletons but also by the number of scientists making the estimate. So the the more scientists we call in for an estimate, the lower the uncertainty.

What we want to know is the uncertainties of the actual ages from our equation. But the uncertainties of the actual age - which we get as the "corrected" age from the least squares fit - depends on a number of factors: the uncertainty of the slope, the uncertainty of the intercept, and the fact that the least squares fit was from an average of the three anthropologists looking at eight skeletons. And of course, each anthropologist may have a different uncertainly when they estimate age.

This is an interesting - but complex - problem. And the simplest way to handle complex problems in our computer age is with a computer. Specifically we'll use the same technique that some computer scientists at Columbia University used to show that Joe DiMaggio was not expected to have the longest hitting streak in baseball history. Called resampling statistics, it requires nothing more than the built in formulas in various spreadsheets - including those you can download for nothing.

Without going into details - which would bore people even more than we have already - we can calculate the 95 % confidence range for the uncertainty of the KV 55 skeleton There's a bit of a difference in the confidence range depending on the actual age of the skeleton but not enough to worry about. (You can see part of the spreadsheet for our calculations in a separate window - this is an image, not the actual sheet which is too large to upload - if you click here.)

What the graph means is we can whittle down the uncertainty of an unknown skeleton to useful levels - below ± 2% - with about 10 anthropologists and eight skeletons of known age. If we call in 20 anthropologists, we can determine the true age to within a little above 1.5%. And if you call in 30, the uncertainty drops to about 1%.

Perhaps a better way to look at the uncertainties is to plot the estimated ages - from the anthropologists - versus the actual age - or rather the "corrected" age. And we include the upper and lower 95 % confidence limits. And we do this for having three experts render judgement:

And thirty experts:

In other words, we should be able to tell if the KV 55 skeleton is Smenkhare or Akhenaten with out much trouble - as long as we can afford the consulting fees.

So then the case really will be closed.

Well, won't it?


And in Conclusion ....?

So will all this brouhaha really, really work?

As in all cases of data analysis we did make some assumptions. Mostly we have to assume - as all number crunchers do - that the sample we have now is representative of the data we hope to get. That is, we hope that the combined scatter of the data of Thomas, Richard, and Harriet is a good approximation of the scatter we would get if we sampled every physical anthropologists in the world.

So in the end we should remember the story Vance Randolph told about the old farmer who had digestive problems. He was driving his family out of the house and his wife insisted he go to the doctor.

The doctor asked the farmer if he could demonstrate the problem. Well, that pretty much cleared the doctor's office of all other patients.

When the doctor recovered, he said, "Here's what I want you to do. Go back home and eat a dozen radishes, a big bowl of chili mixed with two chopped onions, and drink a pint of beer. Eat that with each meal and before you go to bed eat a quarter pound of Limburger cheese."

"Doc," the patient asked, "do you think all that will actually work?"

"Well," the doctor said. "I don't know if it will actually work. But it might help some."




"Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun's Family", Zahi Hawass, Yehia Z. Gad, Somaia Ismail, Rabab Khairat, Dina Fathalla, Naglaa Hasan, Amal Ahmed, Hisham Elleithy, Markus Ball, Fawzi Gaballah, Sally Wasef, Mohamed Fateen, Hany Amer, Paul Gostner, Ashraf Selim, Albert Zink, Carsten M. Pusch. Journal of the American Medical Society, Vol. 303, No. 7,pp. 638 - 647, 2010, Kindly put online for free by JAMA at The only information about the age of the KV55 skeleton is a footnote stating, "The mummy in KV55 was previously thought to be in his 20s when he died. However, our new computed tomography investigation revealed that he lived to be much older." Naturally, the claim of the older age produced some rebuttals cited below which are also not easily available to the armchair scholar although they can be purchased. However, the article, though, does cite an appendix to the article but the links to the Appendix didn't lead to any discussion on the age of the skeleton. Why such an important - in fact crucial point - was dealt with in such a perfunctory matter is a subject for speculation. Again there is an Official CooperToons Opinion on the matter, which as many Official CooperToons Opinions, are not deemed prudent with which to burden the reader.

"King Tutankhamun's Family and Demise", Eline D. Lorenzen; Eske Willerslev, James Gamble, Irwin Braverman, Christian Timmann, Yehia Z. Gad, Ashraf Selim, Carsten M. Pusch Journal of the American Medical Society, Vol. 303, No. 24, pp. 2471 - 2475 (2010). Rebuttals of the JAMA article and rebuttals of the rebuttals. There is some comment on how "inaccurate" some methods are - particularly if the methods disagree with the ones you use.

Theodore M. Davis' Excavations: Biban El Moluk, The Tomb of Queen Tiyi, The Discovery of the Tomb by Theodore M. Davis, Sketch of the Life of Queen Tiyi by Gaston Maspero, Note on the Estimate of the Age Attained by the Person Whose Skeleton Was Found in the Tomb by G. Elliot Smith, M.A., M.D., FRS., Professor Of Anatomy In The Egyptian Government School Of Medicine, Cairo, The Excavations Of 1907 By Edward Ayrton, Catalogue of the Objects Discovered by Geoege Daressy, Illustrations in Colour by E. Harold Jones, Constable and Company, 1910

"Anatomy of a Mummy", Joyce M. Filer. Archaeology March/April 2002, pp. 26-29. Joyce was a curator in the Egyptian Department at the British Museum. Specifics are given why the age of the mummy is early twenties at most.

"KV55 mummy not Akhenaten says ASU bioarchaeologist", Archeology News. A disagreement with the JAMA article.

Ancient DNA: Curse of the Pharaoh's DNA", Jo Marchant, Nature, Vol. 472, pp. 404-406 (2011). A good article on the problems of DNA sequencing in mummies.

Demography and Roman Society, Tim G. Parkin, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Reports the mano-a-mano tests of the anthropologists with the different skeletons. Not too cheap a book to buy but available in some libraries.

This book also has some round robin tests. For instance, there was one time an anthropologist was once asked to estimate the age of five skeletons where the ages at death were known. The ages ranged from 23 go 75 years, and the skeletons were complete and in good shape.

Well, in some cases, the agreement wasn't too bad. For three individuals who died at ages 23, 54, and 75 years, the anthropologist estimated the ages at 26, 53, and 72. Not bad - an average error of only 2 years, and a maximum error of 3 years.

The trouble though was with the two other skeletons. They had died at age 45 and 72, and the estimated ages were 69 and 52. In other words, one estimate was too old by 24 years and the other too young by 20 years! So the average error for all five skeletons was 10 years, and statisticians will tell you the odds are 33 % that if you examined any skeleton then you'd miss the age by more than 16 years.

To rub a little more salt into the expert wounds, there were also tests of how well different anthropologists agreed when estimating age of the same skeletons. So it was courteously requested that two anthropologists look at 18 skeletons that were dug up from a Roman cemetery.

Well, the average disagreement between the experts was 20 - count 'em - 20 years. Some of the disagreement was far worse. One of the anthropologists said one set of bones came from an infant about one and a half years old. The other thought the same individual was an adult fully thirty years of age! From another grave, one anthropologists said the skeleton was a young woman who died at age 20; the other estimated the lady was 67 years old - nearly half a century disagreement!

Now lest these comments seem too critical, it is indeed true that these skeletons were not in the best shape and some must have been fragmentary. After all, being buried for 2000 years in Europe is a bit rougher on those inhumated in Egypt. And to be fair, we should mentionthat in at least one case, - the mummy of Tutankhamun - all experts agree that he died when he was around 18 plus or minus a couple of years. But still we shouldn't be too surprised that Egyptologists disagree by 10 - 15 years when they look at other mummies. But it would be nice if we could come up with better ways to determine how old someone is when they die.

"DNA Shows that KV55 Mummy Probably Not Akhenaten", News from the Valley of the Kings, Kate Phizackerley, A very good analysis of the DNA evidence which received favorable comment from a retired professor of genetics. The conclusions are dependent on that the parents of two mummified fetuses found in the tomb of Tutankhamun, which are the still-born daughters of Tutankamun and Ankhesenamun. They almost certainly were, and if so, the KV55 was not the father of Tut.

"XYZ", Z, Y, Z, ABCD Vol. M, No. O (PQRS). A number of articles were consulted on various means of estimating age from skeletons. Some were research articles examining older, often highly specific indicators, and others were looking at new indicators, often equally specific. Most articles did not summarized their results with clearly shown "Predicted vs. Actual" graphs - which (in a CooperToons rant) should be required for any publication - and what will surprise many readers - who are used to hearing the "within a few years" estimates of the Talking Heads - is how large the uncertainty in the methods are.

"Estimation of sex and age of virtual skeletons - a feasibility study", European Radiology, Vol. 19(2), pp. 419-429, 2009. We have 22 skeletons of known ages evaluated by three forensic specialists. this is the "real" data from the graph above.

One difficulty with many of the methods for estimating time of death is that they are based on the appearance as judged by a specialists. Now often the human eye is one of the best tools for noting subtle difference but there is always the danger of the human brain seeing what it wants to see. So the ultimate goal would be to develop laboratory methods where bones are subjected to specific tests where the properties of the bones - not their appearance - are measured and are unique to a particular age. There is work going on in this field. But you would still have to test the methods with multiple labs, multiple analysts, and multiple bones - not to mention making sure you dug up bones from all over the world whose age you knew.

Non-Linear Least Squares Fitting, A nice easy website to use to fit data to many types of equations and with a nice simple text-out put with the option to plot the data for you. Error ranges are given for the coefficients (apparently the root-mean-squared error - ergo, standard deviation). The selection for a linear fit it is at the bottom of the rather lengthy list of equations.