King Tut's New Face: Behind the Forensic Reconstruction

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
May 11, 2005
The world's most famous pharaoh has a brand-new look, thanks to forensic techniques that wouldn't be out of place on a CSI TV crime drama. (See a photo gallery of the reconstruction.)

Scientists have created the first ever bust of the ancient Egyptian King Tutankhamun based on 3-D CT scans of his 3,300-year-old mummy.

Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, led the effort, joined by forensic artists and physical anthropologists from Egypt, France, and the United States. Three independent teams created busts of Tut.

"In my opinion, the shape of the face and skull are remarkably similar to a famous image of Tutankhamun as a child, where he is shown as the sun god at dawn rising from a lotus blossom," Hawass said.

The study will be featured in the June issue of National Geographic magazine.

Police Techniques

Researchers CT-scanned Tutankhamun's mummy Egypt's Valley of the Kings in January, moving the remains to a nearby mobile CT scanner. Some 1,700 digital cross-sectional images captured the mummy from head to toe. (See "King Tut Mummy Scanned" and "King Tut Not Murdered Violently, CT Scans Show.")

The National Geographic Society then chose and sponsored a French team to use the scans to create the first and most lifelike likeness. (See photo.) First a CT-scan-based skull model was made for forensic anthropologist Jean-Noël Vignal of the Centre Technique de la Gendarmerie Nationale.

Vignal typically works with police to reconstruct victims of violent crime. He identified the skull as that of a male, 18 to 20 years old, with Caucasoid features. "Caucasoid" describes a major group of peoples of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and India.

The scan data allowed Vignal and colleagues to determine the basic measurements and features of Tut's face. Vignal positioned and shaped the king's mouth and receding chin. Nasal openings in Tut's skull indicated a specific size range for his nose. The team was even able to infer the thickness of the skin that covered the living pharaoh's face.

Vignal created a rough plastic skull, which was then passed along to a leading forensic sculptor, Paris-based Elisabeth Daynès. She applied an artistic touch and created a lifelike clay face meant to depict Tut on the day of his death.

"The bony skull is a very strong indicator of what the outer face is going to look like," said forensic artist Michael Anderson of Yale's Peabody Museum, who did a second bust of the king. "In fact, after you look at so many skulls over a long time period, you can begin to almost picture the face."

In addition to Vignal's scientific survey, Daynès referred to two wooden sculptures of Tutankhamun, which had been created during his lifetime. The combined sources allowed her to flesh out details such as eyebrow thickness, nose and lip shape, and the approximate shape of Tut's ears.

From the finished clay model, Daynès created a plaster mold with a silicone "skin." She then added a flesh color, based on an average shade for modern Egyptians. Glass eyes, hair, and even historically accurate makeup completed the most lifelike portrayal ever of the long dead ruler.

Recreating an Unknown Pharaoh

To test the process's accuracy, National Geographic commissioned a second, U.S.-based group of experts to conduct a similar exercise. In this case, however, the experts weren't told the identity of their famous subject.

Working "blind," Susan Antón, an associate professor of anthropology at New York University, studied the CT scan data with Bradley Adams of New York City's Chief Medical Examiner's office.

At first glance Antón noted that the unusual-looking skull could have been that of a female—an observation also later made by Yale University's Anderson. Tut's skull exhibited several characteristics more commonly found on females: a cranium that is elongated toward the back, a receding chin, and an almost nonexistant browridge (the bony ridge under the eyebrows).

But with further analysis, Antón and her team determined that their subject was an 18- to 19-year-old-male most likely of North African origin.

Dental clues, particularly Tut's wisdom teeth, allowed her to deduce the age. The uncannily accurate geographical classification involved a bit of luck.

"There are different features in the cranium you can use to get an idea of the ancestral origin of an individual, features of the face and skull vault [the dome covering the top of the brain]," Antón said.

Using the CT scans and Antón's data, Yale's Anderson created and cast his own reconstruction of the mystery subject's head.

The plastic skull model provided to Anderson depicted a skull that was in better condition than the fossil skulls he typically studies. "With [an intact] nasal spine, which is typically broken off in a [fossil] skull, you can get very close to the shape of the nose," he said. "That is preserved in this mummified skull, so it was very useful."

Finally, Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities selected an Egyptian team to make a third recreation. Like the French team, and unlike the U.S. team, the Egyptians knew the identity of their famous subject.

The Egyptian team used the same CT scan data to construct a plastic skull model, and later overlaid it with clay features inspired in part by ancient portraits of Tut.

To the excitement of all involved, the researchers say, the three likenesses closely resembled one another and largely validated the scientific processes used in their construction.

"There are some [ancient] Egyptian renderings of Tut that I thought were fairly accurate," when compared to the reconstructions, Anderson said.

Tutankhamun's gold burial mask is an international icon, but we may never have more accurate portraits of the pharaoh than the new reconstructions.

Some aspects of the king's appearance, however, are destined to remain mysterious. The shape of the top of his nose and of his ears, as well as the color of his eyes and skin, cannot be determined by CT scan skull data. These features are likely to remain forever unknown.

The new Tut reconstruction will be part of the touring U.S. exhibit "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," opening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on June 16. It will also be featured in the June issue of National Geographic magazine and on the National Geographic Channel's King Tut's Final Secrets, airing Sunday at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

Free E-Mail News Updates
Sign up for our Inside National Geographic newsletter. Every two weeks we'll send you our top stories and pictures (see sample).


© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.