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King Tut Exhibit Prompts Debate on His Skin Color

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.

"We asked the students as they were coming out of the museum, you've seen the exhibition of King Tut, 'Where is he from?'" Asante said. "You would discover that people can see the exhibition of Tutankhamen, and come out and not know that they have seen 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."

"Our best guess is that he was neither lily white nor ebony black. He was probably somewhere in between," said Nina Jablonski, author of Skin: A Natural History.

Jablonski teaches anthropology at Penn State University. She also served as an advisor 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.

"Modern Egyptians are a very heterogeneous group," Jablonski said. "Some of them have very Arabic features. Others of them have very African or so-called Nubian features. This is because the Nile River itself was a tremendous byway for movement of people in the past and present."

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.

"Okay, now let's look what this really is about. This is shocking. See if you recognize the person on the right," said activist Maulana Karenga, who remain best known as the founder of Kwanzaa. He got a big laugh by comparing the reconstructed image of King Tut with a picture of a young Barbara Streisand.

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.

That could let the students, Jablonski says, "make a better stab at this in 20 or 25 years' time."

Until then, we'll have to make do with an educated guess.

Joel Rose reports for member station WHYY

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Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.