Science reveals the true face of Tutankhamun
His burial mask has become the defining image of Ancient Egypt, but now researchers have created an unflattering portrait of the boy pharaoh. Did we really need to have this picture?
‘Can you see anything?’ asked an anxious Lord Carnarvon as the archaeologist Howard Carter peered by the light of a candle into the tomb of King Tutankhamun. ‘Yes, wonderful things!’ he replied breathlessly, as he surveyed the treasures all around him.
It was a simple exchange of words in 1922, yet one that opened possibly the most fascinating archaeological find of all time. For years, Carter had been searching in the Valley of the Kings, ancient Egypt’s royal burial ground, and had been close to giving up. Then, on November 4th, he stumbled across a stairway that led to a walled-up doorway.
Caskets, flowers, shrines, chests, statues, chairs and chariots, all glinting with gold, were uncovered, sparking ‘Tut mania' all over the world. Tutankhamun’s magnificent burial mask, a splendid image of royal power, has since become one of the defining icons of the ancient world.
But today, a very different image of the king has emerged. Using 2,000 computer scans of his remains, a team has recreated an image of how the boy pharaoh would have looked when he ruled over Egypt in the 14th century BC, before dying aged 19.
It is not a flattering picture. The virtual autopsy provides an image of a weak king with bad teeth and disfigured by club foot. The findings suggest the king would not have been able to walk without support; more than 130 walking canes were found in his tomb.
A genetic analysis of Tutankhamun’s family carried out alongside the research supports evidence that his parents were brother and sister, which possibly led to his physical impairments, and possibly his untimely death.
For years, Tutankhamun’s death has been shrouded in mystery. The most popular theories, based on his fractured skeleton, assume he was murdered, or died in a hunting accident or during a chariot race. But the reality, as this research shows, was far less dramatic.
This research is important because it shows how popular imagination can obscure historic truth. So enthralling is the story of the discovery of the tomb, the treasure and the ‘curse’ that the facts have become hidden. This research provides a more detailed picture of the man behind the hype, and more generally of health and royalty in Ancient Egypt. It also casts light on the timeless way in which rulers throughout history have manipulated their image.
But others are less impressed by the findings. ‘Hands off the boy king!’ one critic implores, describing the research as a ‘morbid freak show’. Tutankhamun was an unimportant ruler compared to other figures from the period. It is the discovery of his tomb and the incredible relics hidden within it that are important, not an insulting reimagining of his looks.
- Are the new findings important?
- ‘From a young age the magic of the Pharaoh, and the story of its discovery, begins to wear thin.’ Do you agree?
- Imagine you had a time machine and could travel back to Ancient Egypt. Make a list of five questions you would ask the Ancient Egyptians or five activities you would like to do there.
- For almost 30 centuries Egypt was the foremost nation in the Mediterranean world with a distinctive and sophisticated culture. Choose an aspect of Ancient Egyptian life and write a short presentation on it.
Some People Say...
“Tutankhamun does not deserve this 21st-century desecration.’Jonathan Jones”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Who cares — all this happened ages ago!
- But ancient civilisations have contributed to the development of modern society. Ancient Egypt is particularly fascinating because we have a wealth of information from the period, due to the way the Ancient Egyptians buried their dead in preparation for the afterlife. We know what they wore and ate and how their medical skills, beliefs and mathematical prowess inspired other great civilisations.
- Tell me more about the curse.
- Shortly after the discovery of the burial chamber, Lord Carnarvon was bitten on the cheek by a mosquito and died in a delirious fever, sparking the enduring myth of the ‘curse of the pharaoh’. It’s a good story, but as many others, including Carter, survived for decades, it seems more than a little unlikely.
- Tut mania
- The discovery of the tomb kicked off an Egypt craze in the 1920s and 30s which had a huge impact on design, fashion, jewellery and culture in the western world.
- The revelations are made by experts in the BBC One documentary ‘Tutankhamun: The Truth Uncovered’, which will air next Sunday.
- Club foot
- Club foot is a congenital deformity of the foot and ankle.
- Physical impairments
- Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten – the ‘heretic king’ – and Akhenaten’s sister. Incest was common among ancient Egyptian royalty and they did not know about the health implications for any offspring. Children whose biological parents have a close genetic relationship have an increased risk of congenital disorders, death and disability.
- Lord Carnarvon died some four months after the tomb was discovered. Among the claims about the curse are that his pet bird was eaten by a snake, his dog died back in England at almost the exact moment he died in Egypt, and a radiologist and a member of Carter’s excavation team also died. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, declared it to be ‘curse’ of the mummy.