Rebuilding the Face of King Tut We look into the science behind a newly released reconstruction of the boy pharaoh's face.
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Rebuilding the Face of King Tut

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Rebuilding the Face of King Tut

Rebuilding the Face of King Tut

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FRANK STASIO, host:

That perpetual crowd-pleasing pharaoh King Tut is back, and he's wearing a new face, one painstakingly reconstructed from hundreds of digital X-rays of his skull. National Geographic Society spearheaded new research into the face of ancient Egypt. And to talk more about that, the science and artistry behind this new iconic image, we turn now to Chris Sloan, art director for the National Geographic magazine--joins us by phone from his office in Washington.

Chris, welcome.

Mr. CHRIS SLOAN (Art Director, National Geographic): Thank you very much.

STASIO: Tell us about this process. How did it work?

Mr. SLOAN: Well, when King Tut was scanned using a high-resolution scanner back in January, we realized we had an opportunity that hadn't been presented before because the new technology being applied allowed us to view King Tut three-dimensionally.

STASIO: And so you're able to do this now giving a much clearer picture of what you think he looked like?

Mr. SLOAN: Yeah. We've never been able to look at King Tut's skull in this way before. And once you have the CT data, you're able to bring into physical reality, out of virtual reality, into physical reality and, through a reconstruction process, actually make a three-dimensional likeness.

STASIO: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Frank Stasio sitting in for Neal Conan. My guest is Chris Sloan of National Geographic Society. We're talking about reconstructing King Tut.

And were you surprised at the picture you got?

Mr. SLOAN: Well, actually, if you look at King Tut's skull, you get the impression immediately that this was a person that was possibly a very gentle person. He didn't have strong features. He was actually very gracile as opposed to robust in appearance. So this guy would not have been a hockey player.

STASIO: He did--it was a very soft face. And of course I was struck by the eyeliner, but I guess that was popular back then. You added some of that, sort of the makeup features and that kind of thing.

Mr. SLOAN: Yes. You know, pharaohs would have worn eye makeup like this...

STASIO: Yeah.

Mr. SLOAN: And we thought that in order to make this guy clearly Egyptian, we would put that on.

STASIO: Yeah.

Mr. SLOAN: But when we started the process, we actually involved two teams. We had one team that was aware that the skull that we gave them was King Tut. The other team did not know. One team was a French team, and the other team was Yale Peabody Museum. And the folks that got the skull but did not know that it was King Tut, before they studied it in detail, assumed it was a woman.

STASIO: Oh.

Mr. SLOAN: And it was only when a physical anthropologist studied it very closely that it definitely came in on the male side. And of course from there the reconstruction proceeded.

STASIO: You know, it sounds like you have the beginnings of a new game show, too. "Whose Skull Is It?" We could...

Mr. SLOAN: Yeah.

STASIO: ...do this. One of the more striking figures about this skull is the sort of bulbous quality. It's a strange-looking skull.

Mr. SLOAN: It is a strange-looking skull. But we were--actually one of the surprises of this whole thing was to hear from the scientists who studied the skull that that shape actually falls within the range of normal human variation. So a lot of us were thinking that perhaps Egyptians in Tut's time were bandaging their skulls like some other cultures of the past and even present do, but it turns out that that's not necessarily the case. And what underscored this for me was that when I was in Paris working with the French team, I went out for a coffee. And as I was walking along the streets, I was walking behind a guy who happened to have a shaved head. And I'll tell you, there was King Tut's head right in front of me. So I became a believer.

STASIO: Now you're seeing King Tut wherever you go, though.

Mr. SLOAN: Yes.

STASIO: That's part--how different were the faces from among the different groups?

Mr. SLOAN: Well, there's--in general, they look very similar. There are some differences in the size of the ears, the length of the nose, and the Egyptian reconstruction is more angular than the other two. But in general, they're all in the same ballpark. We were actually very pleased that our blind study confirmed that the French team had been on the right track in their study as well.

STASIO: Does this face dispel any rumors, raise more questions?

Mr. SLOAN: Well, the whole study, including the CT scan which analyzed the question about how Tut died, certainly raises more questions because we still don't really know the answer to that question. There are some interesting possibilities raised by the scientists who did that forensics study. But we might have to wait for a whole new round of study in the future with new technology before we know the answer to that question for sure.

STASIO: Now finally, how much of this is all gee-whiz 'cause we really love Tut, and how much of this is broken ground in science and technology?

Mr. SLOAN: Well, this actually a beautiful blend of art and science. We set out knowing that we wanted a sculpture that would capture this sort of regal nature of King Tut, but also capture the fact that he was a 19-year-old kid.

STASIO: Yeah.

Mr. SLOAN: And I don't know how many of your readers have--or your listeners saw Tut on TV this morning or in the newspapers, but if they want to see more, it'll be in the June issue of National Geographic, and it'll be on TV this Sunday night in a show called "King Tut's Final Secret."

STASIO: Thank you very much. Chris Sloan, art director for the National Geographic magazine, joined us from his office in Washington, DC.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Frank Stasio. Join Neal Conan when the show broadcasts live from Las Vegas tomorrow.

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