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Tut's New Old Face and His New TV Show "TutWatch"
May 13, 2005
by Mark Rose

Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities releases images of the young pharaoh's face, and we review the upcoming National Geographic documentary: "King Tut's final Secrets"


On Tuesday, May 10, reconstructions of Tut's head and face, based on the recent CT scanning of the young pharaoh, were released to the media. The story was covered widely--a clever bit of marketing given the upcoming Tut special to be aired on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, May 15 (9 p.m. ET/PT). Producing the face was an interesting project (see below) and seeing it on all the news websites this week filled in a blank on the "King Tut's final Secrets" video I just watched (see review below) in which the reconstructed face of Tut was pixilated to prevent its being leaked early (apparently there's an embargo on using the new face in print media for 90 days, until after the June National Geographic issue featuring Tut has come out).

The face...

There's no point in listing all of the sites which carried the Tut face story, there are just too many of them and they generally all have the same information: reconstructions were done by Egyptian, French, and American teams; the first two knew that the subject was Tut, the third team did not and served as a "control." The three reconstructions are supposed to be generally similar, with the French and American ones closer to each other, while the Egyptians apparently gave their Tut "a more prominent nose and a stronger jaw and chin" according to one account. The quote of the day is Zahi Hawass, secretary general of SCA, "The shape of the face and skull are remarkably similar to a famous image of Tutankhamun as a child where he was shown as the sun god at dawn rising from a lotus blossom."

Two of the better press accounts are on the BBC website, which shows both the French and American faces along with the Tut lotus head, and the ABC News website, which has some additional background. There are some problems in the press coverage, for example the Independent gets it wrong when it says that this is the "use for the first time of CT scans on an Egyptian mummy." It is also unclear who was on each of the teams. The Guardian says that much of the French reconstruction was done by Jean-Noel Vignal, a forensic specialist, with the final execution being done by Elisabeth Daynes, an anthropological sculptor. In the documentary, however, only Daynes appears. Similarly, the Guardian says New York University anthropologist Susan Antón led the American team, but the program doesn't mention her, showing only Michael Anderson of Yale's Peabody Museum.

[image]This recent reprint of Howard Carter's volume documenting his difficulties with authorities features Tut arising from a lotus blossom, a sculpture said to resemble closely the new reconstructions of his face. [LARGER IMAGE]

There's certainly nothing startling or new learned from this project, but it is interesting as a test of the abilities of forensic artists to do this sort of thing. From that perspective, it might have been more effective had none of the three teams been told the identity of the subject.

As usual with these reconstructions, there will be those who point out that the resulting face looks like their uncle Fred or some celebrity. There's the reconstruction of the Paleoindan known as Kennewick Man, which brings to mind a Star Trek character to some. Many years ago, when ARCHAEOLOGY had its own television show, I was struck by the similarity between a reconstructed Neandertal visage and our host, the actor John Rhys Davies. Sure enough, somebody has already sent me a link comparing the new Tut with...well, maybe better look for yourself.

The show...

Aside from some specific objections, "King Tut's final Secrets" is actually pretty good and is certainly worth watching. The most immediate problem is that it covers several subjects all at once, using a back and forth technique--three minutes in Tut's tomb, three minutes on the facial reconstruction, two minutes on the curse, then back to the tomb. Each time you are left hanging, and after a couple hours I was tired of it. I mention this at the beginning of this review because it makes better sense to ignore that (annoying) structure and take the subjects one at a time (but many of the paragraph breaks below indicate the mini-sections in the video). In a nutshell, the video covers:

  • The scanning of Tut, from tomb to final images
  • The supposed curse, was there a biological reality behind it?
  • Why did Tut die? Murder, chariot accident, battle, or what?
  • Reconstructing Tut's appearance based on the scans

How do these strands hold up individually? Let's see...

Scanning Tut. The show opens with background and past ideas of what did in Tut, then turns to the opening of Tut's sarcophagus this past March and his removal from the single coffin within (the workers' faces have great expressions of concern as they lift Tut out). Apparently they are working under a three-hour limit to get Tut out, scanned, and back. Why there's a limit isn't stated. Possibly it's related to the debate about the value of scanning him, sending him to Cairo, etc., but that's not discussed here--see Scanning Tut or Murder! Well, maybe not....

When Hawass pulls back the covering to reveal the mummy, there's a surprise--a note left by Howard Carter! At this point, the film looks back at Carter and does so in an unflattering way. The narrator is disparaging in tone when he reads his lines: Carter "has no idea he has found the tomb of a king" (this is untrue) and "it takes Carter weeks to explore the full extent of the tomb and to find another room packed with gold beyond" (it's a good thing Carter didn't rush things). Carter's examination of the mummy is prefaced with "Carter knows there are valuable artifacts wrapped in the linen wrappings." Besmirching Carter is a bit low--he can't really defend himself these days. That said, the examination of the mummy--by anatomist Dr. Douglas Derry under Carter's supervision--was brutal. In a solidified pool of resin, the pharaoh's body was extracted piecemeal. But this is no secret, so the narrator saying the condition of the body is "shocking" is a bit disingenuous.

Meanwhile, back in Cairo, a portable CT scanner has arrived courtesy its manufacturer, Siemens. It's portable in the sense that it rides around in a tractor-trailer. At the Egyptian Museum, a series of "crash-test mummies" are scanned, giving the Egyptian operators some familiarity with the machine and an opportunity to see how well it does with mummified people. When, after following other subjects, the video returns to the CT operation, we learn that there are "less than three hours to come up with some answers."

Okay, Tut's out and in the CT scanner, all systems go! Maybe not. Wanting to minimize how much Tut is handled, Hawass has had Tut loaded into the scanner still on his sand bed where Carter left him in 1926. Problem is, the sand is reflecting the scanner's beam. Tut's reloaded without sand and gets through the scanner. But wait! Did you ever get through an important piece of work only to have your computer crash? What if you just scanned King Tut, only to have a message on the monitor tell you: fatal error, restart. That's what happened in the Valley of the Kings. Turns out the CT scanner's air conditioner checked out and the heat was too much for the computer. With one hour left, a $10 fan comes to the rescue! On rebooting, the files turn out to be okay. Tut has been digitized. This is a neat sequence--you can feel the tension mount and sympathize with what the Egyptian techies must be going through. Of course, the narrator weighs in melodramatically once everything is okay: "The story of King Tut is about to change radically." Right.

The next scanning sequence takes us to Germany, where unnamed (yet heroic) Siemens' techies are processing the raw files their Egyptian colleagues recorded. This is one of my favorite parts of the video. The images are great and surprising and the comments by the workers--in low voices and, fortunately, speaking in English--convey the enthusiasm of discovery. There's an unexpected circular hole in the base of the skull, an impacted upper molar (no sign of an abcess), the cut ribs and absence of the sternum...all on screen. And Tut has the bean-shaped skull--notable in paintings and sculptures of his predecessor Akhenaten, his wife Queen Nefertiti, and their several daughters. Turns out it's just with norms for skull shape, so likely an inherited trait rather than disease or artistic license. There's also a black line, several inches long, on the back of the skull. Not noticed in the 1968 X rays, is it a fracture? From here on, the images are handed over to the Egyptian and international consultants trying to determine Tut's cause of death.

The curse. As the opening salvo on the curse, the narrator states, in rather modern language, that Lord Carnarvon's death was marked by the failure of Cairo's "entire electric power grid" (= there was a blackout in Cairo). Fortunately, the possibility of a real curse is quickly dismissed and the focus shifts solely on Carnarvon and the possibility that he died not from an infected mosquito bite but from toxic mold or such that he picked up in the tomb. An epidemiologist is put on the case and heads to Highclere Castle, for a visit with the current Lord Carnarvon. Discussion focuses on the original Carnarvon's health (Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves says he was "a walking wreck"). Then it's off to Abu Sir, 30 miles south of Cairo, to check a sealed tomb. The plan is to see if there's anything nasty or fatal within. A grotesque bit of computer animation shows a mold spore flying up Carnarvon's nostril (the left, I believe). The tomb, obligingly, has mold growing in it. Then--on the move again--we're in Manchester to see if mummies have spores. Score! Two types of potentially toxic mold are found on a mummy. (Rosalie David, the respected head of the University of Manchester's mummy project appears to one side in this sequence, but she doesn't have a speaking role and is not identified).

The pursuit of the curse (already Cairo-Highclere-Abu Sir-Manchester) continues with a jump to Saqqara, 15 miles south of Cairo! This part of the video--the point of which is to extract a sample of gases from within a sealed tomb in quest of bad things--has problems. First, there is the tomb's date. In the review copy of the video, the date is garbled. We are told the tomb predates Tut, who ascended the throne around 1333 B.C. (to use the chronology of the official National Geographic press kit). That means the tomb should be more than 3,333 years old. Yet we are told that it is 20 centuries old and the goal is to get "a 2,000-year-old air sample." So, there's some internal inconsistency about the date of this tomb. This tomb, by the way, looks like it is one recently found by the French (featured in our "Field Note," p. 72 in the September/October 2004 issue), but there's no mention of them.

In the final section about the curse, the whole possibility of a tomb-related biological basis for Carnarvon's demise collapses like a bad soufflé or the Yankees bullpen in the seventh inning. Tut's tomb was not airtight, something apparently clear from Carter's account. That's one problem with this theory. Another is that Carter and Carnarvon "snuck into" the tomb three months before the official opening (like you or I would not do this--three months is a long time to wait for bureaucrats to assemble for an official opening of anything!). A bio-curse would have had an acute and sudden onset, however, and three months would have done in Carnarvon had that been the cause. Of course, this fact was know from the get-go, so the bio-curse part of the video, though interesting, was a dead end from the start.

Cause of death. Some of the most interesting material presented here is in the form of old film clips, apparently from a production made when Tut was x rayed back in 1968. This accompanies discussion of the possible blood clot at the base of Tut's skull, miscellaneous bone chips in the skull, broken ribs, missing sternum, etc., that make up the catalog of the pharaoh's skeletal imperfections. (There's an oversimplified mention of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Aten worship here, along actors portraying Tut being ambushed and whacked by a courtier, older and in a leopard-skin outfit, probably meant to be Ay.) All this damage may be ancient, may be from Derry's examination, or may be just an "artifact" of the x-raying process nearly 40 years ago.

The next how-he-died installment enumerates the possibilities: war, accident, or murder. This is delivered with overcooked rhetorical flourishes: "After more than eight decades of mystery, we're on the verge of a solution" and was Tut the victim of a "palace plot by a power hungry rival?" Hold onto your seats! Well, maybe that's not necessary.

In Cairo, the Egyptian and international specialists take a look at the images. Tut, they determine, was five and one-half feet tall. That seems to be a sub-brilliant conclusion (I could have achieved that result with a tape measure), but then they consider cause of death and it gets interesting. There's no evidence for a blood clot at the base of the skull, that's apparently embalming resin. And the possible fracture line noted by the Siemens' techies is said to be simply an unfused suture between two parts of the cranial vault (I want to go back and have a second look at that).

Here's the rundown:
  • the ribs were cut post-mortem, whether by embalmers or Derry is unknown
  • the impacted wisdom tooth had caused no abcess or infection
  • the head shape is within norms
  • the circular hole at the base of the skull was made by the embalmers
  • there might have been a right ankle fracture
  • there was a fracture of the left distal femur (thigh bone)

The focus is on the left leg, just at and above the knee. The patella, or knee cap, is missing. There's a fracture, and its edges are coated with embalming compounds, so it was pre-embalming and presumably before death. That is all straightforward, but beyond this the video could have been clearer. The narrator tells us that the "bone [was] broken all the way through." But the visual accompanying this text is seems to show the division between the shaft (diaphysis) and end (epiphysis) of the bone. The leg bone consists of this shaft and upper (proximal) and lower (distal) ends that eventually fuse. In the lower end of the bone that takes place around age 20, which matches Tut's estimated age at death. I'm not, in any way, saying there's not a fracture here, just that it could have been shown more clearly for the benefit of viewers. What's the fracture in the images and what's the normal state of the bone? The video does a better job of pointing out a spot where bone re-growth began after the fracture, indicating Tut lived for at least a few days after breaking his leg. But there are loose ends, for example, what became of Tut's missing left kneecap is left open.

One interesting aspect of this discovery and the unified interpretation presented in the video--cast as a "turning point" and "major breakthrough"--is that it doesn't quite match the disparate viewpoints expressed earlier on (see Scanning Tut or Murder! Well, maybe not...). Here, however, the broken leg is the culprit and a chariot accident is seen as the likely cause. A less likely scenario, according to the video, is a battle wound. This possibility is based on depictions of Tut fighting Nubians to the south and Hittites to the east (why they are said to be to the east instead of north, where they were to be found, goes unexplained). Whether these depictions are of real events or are just propaganda is not considered. The video seems happy to end with a broken leg, possibly from a chariot wreck, that led to a fatal infection.

Doing the face. One goal of the scanning project is to re-create Tut's appearance, and the first look at this is of Paris-based sculptor Elisabeth Daynes at work. She is well respected, and her previous reconstructions include a Neandertal child. Later we get a look at Yale's Michael Anderson as he works, independently, on a new Tut face (pixilated in the video to keep me from realizing that Tut looks like Tut and telling anyone about it before it's made public).

Eventually, toward the end of the video, we have the results, along with big language: "Until now we could only imagine what he looked like" and "Now, see a face we have never truly seen before." Let me first say the facial reconstructions are neat, and let me follow that up by saying these claims are a bit silly. We have a pretty good idea of what Tut looked like, plus or minus artistic conventions of the time that are probably no more or less than the uncertainty involved in this type of reconstruction. We have seen Tut before, both in paintings and sculpture and his own, albeit mummified, face. The great intrigue here is whether or not the forensic reconstructions will match the ancient depictions. They do in a general way, and that's nice, but the hyperbole is unnecessary and cheapens the real value of this part of the investigation. This could have been stronger if the French team was also working on a blind basis, not knowing that the subject was Tut. As it is, when we see Daynes at work, her studio is littered with posters of Tut and the like. Inexplicably, the third reconstruction, by an Egyptian team, is completely absent from the video.

What's it add up to? This is a very good film by the standard of archaeological documentaries aired today. The scanning of Tut, from tomb to final images, is done well. The images of Tut produced by the scans alone make this worth watching. The supposed curse and search for a biological reality behind it, intriguing on its own, is a red herring here. The broken leg as cause of death could have been argued more clearly. It seems to be a possibility, but given the presentation made here I am not convinced it is the only conceivable explanation for Tut's death. And the facial reconstruction? Interesting but ultimately a curiosity rather than a breakthrough.

There are some errors, noted above, and some petty annoyances. Here they are for the record: overblown language (the scans are going to "reveal the truth"), computer graphics that aren't quite up to snuff (a sequence shows the three nested coffins flying out of Tut's sarcophagus, but the faces appear distorted), and hokey live-action scenes. Some of the last are repeated frequently (Tut gets hit on the back of the head fix or six times and falls out of his chariot nearly as often).

Overall, however, I would give "King Tut's final Secrets" 4.5 out of 5 mummies. Watch it.

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  • For more on Tutankhamun and the exhibition, see TutWatch.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America