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.


2 thoughts on “Tutankhamun, Howard Carter and artificial cranial deformation

  1. klitzow says:

    I can’t help thinking that the skulls not only are deformed( intentionally, or not), but the total mass of the skull appears greater. It is straightforward to understand how the shape would be changed with artificial deformity, but it’s a bit more difficult to imagine what might have caused these skulls to be larger overall. I have seen pics of similar skulls from the ancient Mesopotamian/Sumerian region, and even MesoAmerican skulls, that do not appear to have the banding. They two seem to have larger, and even thicker skulls. One skull from a body(don’t think it was mummified) found in the Sumarian Royal grave in Ur, was described by the anthropologist who examined it as being “greatly capacious” The volume was about three times the size of non-deformed skulls. He speculated that with such large skulls,(there were a couple of deformed skulls found) the brains of these individuals would be larger as well….assuming they didn’t have hydrocephalus, or some kind of mass . He wondered if they had greater cognitive abilities. since they were clearly the rulers, found with incredible amounts of gold artificats, and up to 80 skeletons found in the outer chamber of the grave with huge amounts of ” treasure”..Anyway, I wonder if I should be using a different term than deformity to describe these skulls, which are quite different from most human’s skulls. At least until we know more about them.

  2. klitzow says:

    Oh, by the way, I really enjoyed reading your article/blog, or whatever the correct term is. I find the subject very interesting.

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