As the guy at National Geographic responsible for keeping track of a bunch of scientists, I never know who or what I'll engage with each day. It could be dinosaurs for breakfast, poisonous frogs for lunch, and Inca gold for dinner. I'll post the highlights here as I encounter them. If you have questions or comments about archeology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, or any Society-funded projects, this is the place to post. I'll check things out and invite experts to weigh in on postings from time to time.

January 2008

Posted Jan 14,2008

King_tut_profileblog Pharaoh Tutankhamun's skull defines his general appearance. Its anyone's guess what his skin color was. This particular model (right) was prepared from a CT-scan-based "cast" of his skull (left) without knowing its identity. Reconstruction by Michael Anderson. Photos in composite © 2007 Michael Anderson and Mark Thiessen © 2007 National Geographic Society.

I’ll never forget attending opening night of the King Tut exhibit in Los Angeles in June 2005. As I approached the exhibit entrance with Elisabeth Daynes, the French sculptor who created a likeness of King Tut for the cover of National Geographic magazine, we passed a patch of animated demonstrators whose placards read “King Tut’s Back and He’s Still Black.” A few steps further I was informed by other National Geographic staff attending the event that Dayne’s sculpture, which she had traveled from Paris to see on display, was out of the show.

I was disappointed, but not surprised. Every time the magazine’s art department attempted to depict ancient Egyptians, we received letters complaining about their appearance. This was despite every effort of talented artists and hard-working researchers to be accurate and fair. For the King Tut reconstruction we went to the extreme of commissioning a second model by a team that was not informed of the identity of the skull cast we provided. Their results confirmed that the cover image was as reasonable as forensic reconstructions of individuals can be. One can quibble about the shape of Tut’s nose and ears, and the color of his eyes and skin, but hard bone determined his general appearance. Judging from the demonstrators outside the exhibit in Los Angeles, we were once again unable to please everyone.

The reasons for this dissatisfaction are complex. Confusing notions about ‘race’ and a concern that scholars ignore Africa’s contribution to civilization seem to be at the heart of it. There is still some debate about the skin color of ancient Egyptians, but most experts agree that, from Alexandria in the north to the Sudanese border, ancient Egyptians would have looked much as they do today.

Our story about ancient Egypt’s 25th dynasty in the February issue of National Geographic provides an opportunity to look again at questions about the appearance of ancient Egyptians and whether Egypt’s, ergo Africa’s, contribution to civilization has been ignored. If you’d like to comment on our story or this topic, here’s the place.

Before you respond on the skin color issue, I recommend that you review how scientists currently view race at http://www.understandingrace.org.

Posted by Chris Sloan | Comments (62)
Filed Under: anthropology
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