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King Tut Exhibit Prompts Debate on His Skin Color

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King Tut Exhibit Prompts Debate on His Skin Color

Arts & Life

King Tut Exhibit Prompts Debate on His Skin Color

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And let's look next at African history. The King Tut exhibition has drawn millions of visitors to museums across the country since it opened a couple of years ago. But some African-American scholars believe the exhibition makes King Tut look too white. That debate led the museum in Philadelphia, where the show is on display, to sponsor a conference on the subject.

From member station WHYY, Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: Tutankhamun 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 Philadelphia.

Unidentified Man: We're saying that they need to make the correction. Do we all agree with that?

Unidentified Group: Yes.

ROSE: 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, that Egypt is not a part of Africa.

Professor MOLEFI ASANTE (Department of African-American Studies, Temple University): We asked the students as they were coming out of the museum, you've seen the exhibition of King Tutankhamun, where is he from? You would discover that people can see the exhibition of King Tutankhamun and come out and not know that they have seen Africa.

ROSE: So I'm standing here a few steps from the gift shop at the Franklin Institute, and I'm looking at a forensic reconstruction of Tut's head and shoulders. And it's really remarkably life-like until you get right up close it. And on the side of the glass case there is a disclaimer, and it says this: The features of his 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.

Professor NINA JABLONSKI (Anthropology, Penn State University; Author, "Skin: A Natural History"): Our best guess is that he was neither lily white nor ebony black, that he was probably somewhere in between.

ROSE: Nina Jablonski is the author of "Skin: A Natural History." She teaches anthropology at Penn State University. She also serves as an adviser to the team from the National Geographic Society that produced the forensic reconstruction of King Tut that's currently on display. Jablonski points out that it's only a working hypothesis. Scientists have not been able to retrieve much DNA evidence from Tut or other mummies, but they do have a good idea of who lived in Egypt 3,000 years ago, and she says they probably looked a lot like Egyptians today.

Prof. JABLONSKI: Modern Egyptians are a very heterogeneous group. Some of them have very Arabic features. Others have very African features. This is because the Nile River was a tremendous byway for the movement of people in the past and in the present.

ROSE: Jablonski says Tut's skin probably looked like a mixture of those people, only lighter because the boy king would have spent most of his time inside protected from the sun. The speakers at the Franklin Institute rejected that hypothesis. In fact, they seemed to enjoy making fun of it.

Mr. MAULANA KARENGA (Founder, Kwanzaa): Okay, now let's look what this really is about. This will shock you. See if you recognize the person on the right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROSE: Activist Maulana Karenga, who's best known as founder of Kwanzaa, got a big laugh by comparing the reconstructed image of King Tut with the picture of a young Barbara Streisand. 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 director of International Health at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.

Dr. CHARLES FINCH (Director, International Health at Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta): Whenever our ancient writers, Hebrew or Greek, make any reference to the ancient Egyptians' color, it's always black. There was no discussion. There was no debate. It only became a debate in the last 200 years.

ROSE: For example, Greek historian Herodotus wrote on the 5th century B.C.E. that the Egyptians were, quote, "dark-skinned and wooly 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.

Prof. JABLONSKI: When we looked at the representation of the Egyptian royalty on the walls of tombs, we see a range of sort of moderate tan-colored skin. This probably is a fairly close approximation of what skin color these people actually had.

ROSE: 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.

Prof. JABLONSKI: That one or more of them would say, oh, this is what I want to do when I grow up.

ROSE: Until then, we'll have to make due with the current educated guess.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

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