Tutankhamun, Howard Carter and artificial cranial deformation

Yesterday (09/05/12) Google celebrated the birthday of Howard Carter, possibly one of the most loved Egyptologists to the general population. The discovery of Tutankhamun is certainly one of the most famous events in Egyptology, therefore making him one of the most popular Pharaohs. But is Tutankhamun as significant as he is famous?

This all depends on whether you’re particularly interested in the wares of an Ancient Egyptian tomb (above) or the pathology of a Mummy. The discovery was made so famous partly because of the timing when Egyptomania was still rife in Europe and the West, and it was the first tomb discovered in pristine condition. The obsession the West had with Ancient Egypt since Napoleon’s expedition (1798-1801) caused great problems which are still influencing the workings of archaeology in Egypt today. Most tombs were looted at some point between their sealing of the door and their discovery in the modern day… this is one reason why Tut’s tomb is special. It’s an  important example for us to begin to study to understand what Egyptians considered important to take into the Afterlife with them.

In the grand scheme of Egyptian history, Tut didn’t reign for long. However, we now know that his father was the “heretic” King Akhenaten (below) who changed the religion of Egypt to monotheism in the form of the Aten (the sun disc) and moved the religious capital city to a newly built settlement half way up the Nile. It isn’t clear whether it was Tut who returned the religious capital back to Thebes (modern day Luxor) or another, but we do know that by the time he was on the throne he was based in Luxor.

We’ve all heard the theory that he was murdered and there is still a question mark over this. However, it is known he wasn’t the healthiest of Pharaoh’s. A second, more likely, theory is that he fell from his chariot. Either way, I really enjoy the mystery surrounding the pathology of his family line:

This is a scan of Tut (left) and the remains of a body found in tomb 55 in Valley of the Kings (KV55) thought to be part of the family lineage related to Akhenaten. Considering these elongated skull shapes in his possible children and his own peculiar physical depiction both in sculpture and in painted form, the debate lives on between artificial deformation or pathological illness.

All members of Akhenaten’s close family were drawn as having oddly shaped skulls, prominent facial features and large hips with pendulous stomachs. Three-dimensional statues depict wide and flat skulls with prominent facial features. This was the first time when Egyptian artwork images were not idealized imitations of the Pharaoh and his family. Instead, we can interpret the scenes of the 18th Dynasty as a real depiction of their appearance. An alternative view is that the Pharaoh’s image was generalised to his family to justify their affinity and right to the crown.

If this appearance was caused by disease, studying the mummies which have been identified as being from the 18th Dynasty may be particularly revealing, especially since they are mostly related which is where the discovery of Tut is also important. Another argument has focused on the skull in particular and suggested deliberate cranial deformation. Even though the Royal family was not ever drawn with deformation materials such as banding or wooden boards on their heads, it is still a popular debate. However, Clark et al (2007) state that materials for the deformation only need to be in use for up to a year. In fact, the only thing ever shown on the heads of the adults were crowns, and the children were always hat-less which is perhaps the only typical thing of Ancient Egyptian art in this era.

Artificial deformation was practiced widely but sporadically in the rest of the ancient Near East as far back as the Neolithic. Aside from Akhenaten and his family, the only known example from Egypt of clear adjustment of the skull was from a Coptic cemetery 1800 years after the existence of Akhenaten (below).

Since its discovery in 1924, the skull was quickly but wrongly linked to Akhenaten’s court and his new capital at Amarna. This tenuous link was soon retracted, but it does illustrate how desperate people were to find an explanation and further evidence of Akhenaten’s strange appearance. The strange shape of the skull has been attributed to bandages around the head to elongate the skull. The placement of the bandages has left impressions in the contour of the surface in more than one location. If this body was native to Egypt then this would count as direct evidence of artificial deformation of the skull being practiced in this area at this time. Unfortunately, the body has been linked to the Caucasus where this cultural phenomenon was frequently practiced. Nevertheless, the recent CT scans of Tutankhamun’s mummy have shown the real shape of his skull. Here is a digital reconstruction:

The same interpretation could be made with Tutankhamun’s skull due to the exaggerated post-bregma dip, although the curvature is not to the same extent as the Coptic cemetery skull. On the other hand, it could just be an exaggerated natural post-bregma dip which is commonly seen in individuals of black biological affinity. Whichever reason, there is no doubt that the occiput is overhanging more than would be expected. Braverman brought together a number of images from the 18th Dynasty family, including Tutankhamun’s great-great-great-grandfather, Thutmosis III (below) who exhibits the same condition but without any visible bandage impressions. If permission was given by the Egyptian government to be able to look directly at their skulls to see the sutures, past research theory could be applied. Cranial deformation can influence the number of wormian bones in the sutures, although unfortunately does not seem to affect the presence of them outright.

Unless Akhenaten’s Mummy is found the real explanation for these cranial deformations cannot be drawn to a satisfactory conclusion. There are too many pathological conditions to discuss which have been used to Akhenaten’s strange image, but a few which may be more likely than others are Marfan’s Syndrome (a particular favourite of many Egyptologists), craniosynostosis, and hydrocephalus.

So actually, the world is right to place so much emphasis on the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, but not for all the right reasons. Howard Carter spent the rest of his life cataloging the items within Tut’s tomb and was at times accused of stealing artifacts. It’s a shame the implications of Egyptomania are still hindering Egyptology and destroyed so many Mummies and their possessions, but it did do a lot for public awareness post-Carter.


I survived the first journey!

I set out really early yesterday just incase I got lost or the traffic was awful, leaving myself 1hr 45 minutes until my shift started from leaving my front door. I noticed 2 things:

1) most of the journey time is taken going from Dalston to Angel because of the sheer number of traffic lights.

2) I am the only cyclist in London stopping at traffic lights.

I know that’s a well known characteristic of London cyclists but I’m just not prepared to risk my life, even in a clear junction, just to not have to stop. Going along Essex Road there’s a t-junction with traffic lights where one road is joining Essex Road. Cyclists will normally just keep going along the road if no cars are joining from the minor road. Today, the normal traffic lights are down and replaced with temporary ones and traffic coming from the other direction are forced onto our side of the road.

3 cyclists still continued through a red light inches away from oncoming traffic who won’t have seen them because of the angle they were driving at around the road works.

They may have felt confident in their cycling, but you don’t know if a driver was about to take the corner wider then the rest and hit you head on. None of them were wearing helmets either.

Besides that, the rest of the ride was a good route thanks to the wonderful people of twitter and their advice. I rode straight on at Angel making my way on to Russell Square, past the British Museum, down Shaftsbury Avenue briefly before turning off towards Seven Dials down to Trafalgar Sq.

It’s a pleasant experience riding up the Mall. It brings back a bit of love for London and certainly a change of scenery seeing monuments and places you miss going by tube. The whole journey from door to desk (with an outfit change) was 1hr 20 which means I don’t even need to leave the house earlier than usual! I like the idea of doing this everyday, but we’ll we how that changes as this month progresses… after 3 hours answering phone calls I was flagging and was very glad when dinner time came round and I could eat at the staff canteen. Yesterday was an odd day as I’m not normally entitled to eat there, so a cycle commute followed by a 4 hour shift and another cycle home/onto my other job may be a strain. But I’ll learn and adapt.