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."

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