Sunday, November 11, 2007

More Than Just a Pretty Face From History

Published: November 11, 2007

The first public showing of the face of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamun, last week, exposed more than cracked, leathery skin and his buckteeth. (Gene Tierney’s overbite was much more fetching.) Archaeologists also detected a new feature, the hint of a Tut smile, transfiguring a regal mummy from antiquity into a human being with emotions perhaps like those of people today. The first reaction of Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s head of antiquities, was unscientific. The face, he said, “has magic; it has mystery; it has beauty.”
The search for identifiable affinities, if only a smile, with people long ago may account for our fascination with mummies and hominid skulls. History is full of dynasties and armies, documents and artifacts, but lacks, especially in deep time, the flesh and sinew of shared humanity. There is some felt need to put a face on the past.
Even ancient Egypt, which left arguably the most expressive remains of an early civilization, has frustrated scholars. Its temples and tombs are decorated with sculpture, portraits and other paintings. But the art is more or less idealized. Though the faces may bear some likeness to the person in life, the stylized renderings speak to posterity, conveying the divinity and serenity of immortal kings and queens.
Some representations lead to contradictory impressions. A famous bust of the powerful queen Nefertiti shows a beautiful swanlike neck and high cheek bones. In others, she appears haggard. Even Nefertiti must have had bad days.
Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist at the University of Chicago, said that when you had the body of a person and could also look into the face, then some of the personality may emerge. This, she said, “goes beyond representational art and really conceptualizes history.”
Tut’s unwrapped remains, previously seen by only a small number of people, will now be on display to the public, in a climate-controlled glass case in his tomb. A few other mummified royal faces are also well preserved. Matthew Adams, an Egyptologist at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University, said the character of Seti I, the pharaoh from the 13th century B.C. who was father of Ramses II, seemed written in his noble visage. “People have been influenced by that face in their interpretation of Seti as having been a good, wise king,” he said. “We are really projecting our own esthetic on him.”
In the United States, where history is more recent, the past is more reliably evoked through portraits and photography. See Washington’s set jaw and think of resolute leadership, not to mention those ill-fitting dentures. Look upon Lincoln’s craggy, brooding face and realize something of the burden he bore in a country divided. They are reminders of how much of remote antiquity is unrecoverable.
An enigmatic smile may be as close as people today will ever get to knowing the boy pharaoh who reigned 3,300 years ago and died at 19. The bare bones of the hominid Lucy are expressionless. Cleopatra, who charmed the powerful, remains a mystery; coins that show her large, unattractive nose call into question her reputation for beauty.
And who would not give their last drachma for a look at Helen of Troy, whose face launched a thousand ships?

Fausto Intilla

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