Joel Rose, NPR, August 28, 2007
The King Tut exhibition has drawn millions of visitors to museums across the country since it opened two years ago. But some African-American scholars believe the exhibition makes King Tut look too white. The debate over Tut’s race led the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, where the show is on display, to sponsor a conference on the subject.
The show, Tutankhamen and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs has drawn a steady stream of protesters since it opened in Los Angeles. But nowhere have they been as persistent or vocal as in Philadelphia.
More than 500 people showed up to hear scholars discuss Tut’s race at the Franklin Institute. The auditorium couldn’t hold them all, so the museum had to set up big-screen TVs in the lobby. The three speakers said the exhibition on display upstairs gives the false impression that King Tut was white.
And worse, says Temple University professor Molefi Asante, it implies that Egypt is not a part of Africa.
A forensic reconstruction of Tut’s head and shoulders at the Franklin Institute exhibit is remarkably lifelike, until you get right up close to it. On the side of the glass case, there is a disclaimer that reads, “The features of [Tutankhamen’s] face are based on scientific data. But the exact color of his skin and the size and shape of many facial details cannot be determined with full certainty.”
The panelists believe the Egyptians of Tut’s time had, for the most part, very dark skin, like people from sub-Saharan Africa. Charles Finch is the director of International Health at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.
“Whenever ancient writers, Hebrew or Greek, make any reference to ancient Egyptians’ color, it’s always black,” Finch said. “There was no issue back then. There was no discussion. There was no debate. It only became a debate in the last 200 years.”
For example, Greek historian Herodotus wrote in the fifth century BC that the Egyptians were “dark-skinned and woolly-haired.”
But as anthropologist Nina Jablonski points out, it’s hard to say exactly what ancient historians meant when they described the skin they saw as “dark.” And she says much of the archeological evidence points to a different conclusion.
“When we look at the representation of the Egyptian royalty on the walls of tombs, we see a range of sort of moderate, tan-colored skin on the royalty,” Jablonski said. “This probably is a fairly close approximation of what skin color these people actually had.”
Jablonski speaks with the patience of someone who has answered this question many times before, and expects to keep answering it until more definitive evidence comes along. That’s why she hopes the King Tut exhibition will inspire students to become interested in reconstructing the past.