Normally, the skin color of a young man who died nearly 3,330 years ago wouldn’t be a hot political topic, but we live in strange, quarrelsome times.
The boy-king of Egypt, Tutankhamun, is back in the United States after nearly three decades. It took an act of parliament in Egypt to authorize his trip.
But this time, the upcoming King Tut exhibit, which is scheduled to open at the Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art on Dec. 15 and run through April 23, has traveled around the U.S. trailed by a cloud of controversy over whether the young pharaoh was white or black.
There were street protests on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles over this issue when the show, “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” opened there June 16.
“King Tut’s back, and he’s still black!” the protesters chanted. The NAACP has also protested a National Geographic magazine cover, based on a CAT scan of the young pharaoh’s skeletal remains, that showed Tut as having a coppery-brown complexion similar to that of North Africans today.
The exhibit in Fort Lauderdale will take visitors through the artifacts, and deposit them at last in a large gallery where the CAT scans will be on display, along with three reconstructions of Tut’s face, done in black, white and copper-brown. Visitors can make up their own minds as to which representation they prefer, said museum Director Irvin Lippman.
“We are encouraging this conversation,” Lippman said. “It doesn’t need to be a protest either way. I think it is an interesting conversation to have.”
But Babacar M’Bow, who is the international program and exhibit coordinator for the Broward County Library, is setting up a series of lectures hosting speakers who are convinced that Tut was, indeed, black.
The series culminates on Feb. 15 with a panel of black scholars, including Martin Bernal, author of the Afro-centrist book Black Athena. The title of the symposium is “Egypt: Africa’s Eldest Daughter.”
For instance, the shape of Tut’s skull is “dolichocephalic,” literally “jar-headed.” It is longer and more attenuated, not round and bulbous. His jaw is “prognathous,” i.e. jutting. Portraits of his father, Akhenaten, in the Egyptian museum in Berlin show him with a very prominent jaw and thick, sensuous lips. Dr. Anthony Falsetti, a forensic anthropologist in charge of the C.A. Pound Human Identification Laboratory at the University of Florida in Gainesville, says such signs are what anthropologists look for in skeletons to determine race.
“Skull shapes are the biggest indicators of ancestry, whether the owner was Caucasoid, Negroid or Mongoloid, from Europe, Africa or Asia. Prognathism is one sign of African origin. So is dolichocephalism.
“Was he black? He may have been. Was he black by our standards? Probably not. He was North African and would probably have looked like the other people in the area today. The way to determine this would be to exhaustively examine many, many skeletons from 3,500 years ago and that is impossible. Africa is a big continent, and there are many, many shades of skin color in the people there.
“I think the ‘Tut-was-black’ people are trying to assign a modern cultural relevance to a set of very old human remains. While it is true that all of humankind arose out of Africa, according to the fossil record, it is wrong to say that all culture therefore springs from Africa. Culture develops depending on the specific place where people live over a long period of time.”