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Face of a Pharaoh: King Tut

May 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: The ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamun has been a star of the modern world from the moment his tomb was discovered intact in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor in 1922. His treasures were exhibited in a renowned blockbuster museum exhibition in 1978. The boy King Tut himself became a cultural icon, spoofed by Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live.

STEVE MARTIN: I’d taken all my money and bought me a museum. King Tut …

JEFFREY BROWN: Who was King Tut, why did he die so young, and what did he look like? The questions continued to fascinate scholars, as well as the public. Archaeologists had little to go on beyond the mummy, his treasures and gold mask. Now modern technology has produced some intriguing new answers.

Using 1,700 images produced by CT scans, three independent teams from Egypt, France and the United States have produced, literally, a new picture of Tut, released yesterday in Cairo and chronicled by the National Geographic Society. Dr. Zawi Hawass heads Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities.

ZAWI HAWASS: We can see for the first time how the pharaohs looked like and that really is very interesting to everyone, actually to see the faces of the pharaohs like me and you. But the most important thing that this King Tutankhamun that has magic and mystery, that everyone all over the world wants to know how he died, how he looked like. And I can say that I’m very proud to announce to the world that now maybe we know how he died, and maybe what he looked like.

JEFFREY BROWN: A model created by the French scientists showed the 19-year-old king with an elongated skull, sloping nose, big lips and buck teeth. The French and Egyptian teams knew they were working on the famous King Tut; the Americans did not. They were charged with coming up with a biological profile, including the sex, age and race of the mummy. Susan Anton, an anthropologist at New York University, was part of the American team.

SUSAN ANTON: From that biological profile then, we went and tried to put soft tissue, muscle, skin on the specimen to kind of flesh it out and make it look like a person that you might see walking around on the street.

JEFFREY BROWN: Anton says the new research has changed what we know of King Tut.

SUSAN ANTON: I think it fleshes him out in a human-like way. It shows I think some his sort of less than perfect qualities. We have a tendency to think about that great golden mask where he is sort of beautiful and symmetrical and kind of perfectly lovely. And in this sense, he had it — he had a few imperfections. He had very, very big front teeth that stuck out a little bit. He had a jaw that was a little bit asymmetrical and perhaps a little receding. So while the likeness is similar to the golden mask, it is a little bit more human and potentially closer to what he actually looked like in life.

JEFFREY BROWN: The question of why Tut died so young has been especially intriguing. Decades ago, archaeologists found a hole in his skull, raising the question of whether he was murdered. The new studies show that was unlikely.

ZAWI HAWASS: That King Tut died at the age of 19. He was well-fed, he did not have any childhood diseases, but we found out that there is no evidence of a blow to the back of the head, or indication of foul play. But radiologists did confirm this week actually that there is a fracture on the left leg that caused infection, and this may be an accident that happened one day before his death.

JEFFREY BROWN: Whatever the cause of his death, the modern afterlife of Tut is expected to continue.

SUSAN ANTON: He was an important individual who died at, you know, a very young age. And you want to think about it, I suppose, as something that’s really rather dramatic. And, you know, was there a palace coup that killed him off as opposed to simply bad luck? And I think that’s the fascination. And then he had all of these wonderful things with him and there’s the stories about the curse of Tut and so on. So I think there is a big aura around him. He’s kind of an iconic figure. And he has this really wonderfully unique- looking skull, and really kind ever a remarkable individual biologically as well as culturally.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the new scientific studies come, not coincidentally, as a new round of “Tut mania” begins. The 3,000-year-old king is the cover boy of the new National Geographic, star of an upcoming TV special, and once again the subject of a blockbuster exhibition. This one begins next month at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.