Tag Archives: ancient

Cheddar Man and Nefertiti tell a tale of two different historical reconstructions

Reconstructions of Cheddar Man and the Younger Lady

Diversity is a hot topic in all arenas, and that includes the world of forensic anthropology. This week, we’ve had two big revelations hit the anthropological news cycle, and while one finding cements what I’ve thought of as a truth long deferred, the other is a head-scratch.

1. Cheddar Man is revealed to be dark-skinned

In what can only be described as a shock to many who assumed England’s ancient peoples were fair-skinned and engaged in racial politics, the oldest complete skeleton in British history, Cheddar Man (named as such because of it being found in Cheddar Gorge), is actually a dark-skinned man with curly dark hair and blue eyes.

This is what scientists originally thought Cheddar Man looked like:

An early bust of Cheddar Man, which depicted him as white.
An early bust of Cheddar Man, which depicted him as white.

And this is what he actually looked like:

An updated reconstruction of Cheddar Man, which features dark skin, blue eyes, and dark hair.
An updated reconstruction of Cheddar Man, which features dark skin, blue eyes, and dark hair. (Channel 4)

According to The Guardian, advanced DNA analysis has revealed that Cheddar Man and his ilk weren’t the light-skinned people science believed them to be. Instead, their skin was “dark to black,” which lends even more weight to the scientific fact that all people originated from Africa; Cheddar Man lived in England shortly after humans migrated to Britain from continental Europe at the end of the last ice age, and white Britons today are the ancestors of this group of migrants.

Cheddar Man’s skin color reveals that the genes for lighter skin “became widespread at a much in European populations far later than originally thought – and that skin colour was not always a proxy for geographic origin in the way it is often seen to be today,” wrote The Guardian’s Hannah Devlin.

I find this fascinating, not just because of the whole “everyone comes from Africa” thing, but because of how this discovery should change the way we view race and skin color. What should happen is that everyone–especially those with racially prejudicial ideas–take a good look at themselves and realize how meaningless skin color actually is. If tons of white Britons are descendants of this black man, how does this put anyone on a different pedestal from anyone else?

Cheddar Man’s skin revelations should also change the way we see history. Sites like Medieval POC exist to close the gaps in the West’s thought process about how race was conceptualized in the 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19th centuries. But, because of today’s current dialogue about race in history–a dialogue that is laced with stereotypes, racism, and traces of the same pseudo-science that made the Atlantic Slave Trade possible–it can seem hard to open people’s minds up to the fact that darker-skinned people not only lived in what are now white European spaces, but they thrived and, in many cases, accepted by the masses. Race as a construct did enter European society at some point, but our modern thoughts about race are relatively new in relation to the evolution of human society–and they’re erroneous.

As reported in The Guardian:

Tom Booth, an archaeologist at the Natural History Museum who worked on the project, said: “It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions, that really are not applicable to the past at all.”

Yoan Diekmann, a computational biologist at University College London and another member of the project’s team, agreed, saying the connection often drawn between Britishness and whiteness was “not an immutable truth. It has always changed and will change.”

What would be cool is if Cheddar Man changes how modern media depicts ancient Europeans and ancient people in general; will this allow for more diverse casting and more in depth storylines, or will Hollywood and British cinema ignore these findings? I hope they don’t, because how cool would it be to see Idris Elba as an ancient European in a period film?

2. Is this Nefertiti the actual Nefertiti?

Another reconstruction making waves is Nefertiti. The Nefertiti we know is the famous bust discovered in 1912, sculpted by the official royal sculptor Thutmose, whose style was decided naturalistic despite him being a part of the highly stylistic and androgynous Amarna Period of Egyptian art. As you can see in the photo below, Nefertiti’s look is defined by a graceful long neck, full lips, a straight, thin nose, and deep tan skin.

Bust of Nefertiti
Bust of Nefertiti (Public Domain/Wikipedia)
Front view of the Nefertiti bust
Front view of the Nefertiti bust (Giovanni/Wikipedia CC BY 2.0)

This isn’t the only Nefertiti sculpture Thutmose created; a granite statue of Nefertiti showcases the same facial features as the more popular bust.

Granite statue of the head of Queen Nefertiti, from the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose. On display at the Ägyptisches Museum.
Granite statue of the head of Queen Nefertiti, from the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose. On display at the Ägyptisches Museum. (Keith Schengili-Roberts/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

So, when this new bust was revealed on Today, people naturally scratched their heads in disbelief. This new bust, which was created after scientists compared historical images of Nefertiti with the facial characteristics of the mummy rumored to be Nefertiti nicknamed “The Younger Lady.” But as you can see below, this bust looks nothing like what Thutmose sculpted eons ago.

A bust depicting a forensic reconstruction of the Younger Lady, now believed to be Nefertiti.
A bust depicting a forensic reconstruction of the Younger Lady, now believed to be Nefertiti. (The Travel Channel/Twitter)

Not every expert is on board with declaring the Younger Lady is actually Nefertiti. Raymond Johnson, director of the Epigraphic Survey project and Research Associate and Associate Professor at the University of Chicago in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department, told WGN9 he disbelieves the claim and went into detail as to why the Younger Lady doesn’t line up with what Egyptologists know about Nefertiti’s life. He states a lot in his interview, which I suggest your read in full, but here are the main points.

The Younger Lady, who was buried alongside other familial mummies in Amenhotep’s royal tomb, is actually the daughter of Amenhotep and Queen Tiye, and is also the mother of Tutankhamun. This connection was revealed through leading Egyptologist Zahi Hawass’ DNA testing of the mummies found in the tomb, including the Younger Lady. According to Johnson, there is “no text” where Nefertiti was identified as a royal daughter. “If she had been a daughter of Amenhotep III and Tiye, it would have been clearly stated in her inscriptions, and there are hundreds of text that survive mentioning Nefertiti with no mention of her parents.”

• All of the sculptures of Nefertiti from the Amarna Period show the same facial characteristics–“a straight nose, heavy-lidded eyes, long graceful neck, and a strong square jaw.” As Johnson states, “The forensically reconstructed face with its narrow skull, deep-set eyes, and triangular jaw is beautiful but in no way resembles the portraits that survive of Nefertiti. That said, they could be relatives.” Johnson believes they could be cousins instead.

• As “the gateway out of the African continent,” Egypt has always had a racially diverse citizenry, and Amenhotep III had many wives who were both Egyptian and foreign, including Caucasian women. But, said Johnson, Nefertiti’s skintone would still be darker than how it’s presented in the recreation. “A brown skin color would have probably been more true to the individual represented, and to her times.”

So with all of this said, what do I think about this bust? I think that, while being expertly rendered, it doesn’t match up to what Thutmose sculpted, and he was actually there during her life. If anyone should know what she looked like, it should be him. Granted, there could be some artistic liberties; some of the characteristics of the Amarna Period include highly feminine features and royalty were usually depicted as youthful, regardless of their age. But Thutmose is notable in that he sculpted the middle aged and elderly as well as the young. He even sculpted an older Nefertiti, depicting the changes her body underwent from birthing children. To be fair, this could have been stylistic as well, to showcase fertility, but if that’s the case, why create the other sculptures, which look true to life?

Another caveat is that perhaps for royalty, Thutmose combined both reality and fantasy. Despite the realism present, there are still stylistic elements that can be found in the Nefertiti bust. The symmetry of the face, for one, could be read as a calculated artistic choice. The huge eyebrows, which might have been painted on the real Nefertiti (since ancient Eygptians filled in and exaggerated their real eyebrows with makeup) add to the symmetry and perfection of the sculpture. It could be that the bust we know and love is just an old-school version of FaceTune. That’s a theory that could be truer than we think, since sarcophogi, such as the sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun is also artistically stylized and doesn’t reflect all of what’s shown in the reconstructions of Tutankhamun, as pictured below.

I personally don’t want to believe everything from Thutmose’s workshop was a lie, though. Nefertiti’s beauty was heralded in her time as much as it is now, which leads me to believe there’s more truth to the iconic bust than fakery. If Thutmose captured beauty, then I’m sure she was actually beautiful in real life. The Younger Lady doesn’t look bad, though. I will say from looking at one of the reconstructions of King Tut that the Younger Lady is most definitely his mother. They have the same overbite, jaw structure, and eye socket structure.

Comparison between the reconstructions of the Younger Lady and Tutankhamun.
Comparison between the reconstructions of the Younger Lady and Tutankhamun.

To address the skin color issue: Ancient Egyptians’ skintones were clearly documented by artists contemporary to the times. Artists of the Coptic Period engaged in realism when painting subjects such as the subjects depicted in the Fayum mummy portraits, which showcased men and women with dark hair and tan skin.

Portrait of a man from the Fayum province, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Portrait of a man from the Fayum province, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Portrait of a woman from the Fayum province with a ringlet hairstyle, an orange chiton with black bands and rod-shaped earrings. Royal Museum of Scotland. (Public Domain)
Portrait of a woman from the Fayum province with a ringlet hairstyle, an orange chiton with black bands and rod-shaped earrings. Royal Museum of Scotland. (Public Domain)
Portrait of a man with sword belt from the Fayum province with British Museum. Public Domain
Portrait of a man with sword belt from the Fayum province with British Museum. (Public Domain)

There are also other reconstructions of ancient Egyptians. Here’s another reconstruction of Tutankhamun published in National Geographic in 2005–this one is a little more favorable to him in the looks department and more closely matches some of the sculptures made of him during his life. In this reconstruction, his skin tone is definitely a dark tan.

Forensic reconstruction of Tutankhamun.
Forensic reconstruction of Tutankhamun. (Photo credit: Supreme Council of Antiquities, Egypt, and National Geographic Society, 2005)

Here’s another reconstruction, this time of a woman nicknamed “Meritamun.” The reconstruction includes information gathered from modern day Egyptians, which you can assume includes skintone.

Reconstruction of ancient Egyptian woman nicknamed "Meritamun."
Reconstruction of ancient Egyptian woman nicknamed “Meritamun.” ( Jennifer Mann/Paul Burston/University of Melbourne)

Based on the other reconstructions and mummy portraits, as well as a Google search of images of modern-day Egyptians, it seems like what’s throwing people off is the undertone used for the Younger Lady’s skintone reconstruction. Yes, there were olive-toned Egyptians; with a port empire like Egypt, leading to a cross-cultural mix, there had to have been a myriad of skintones among Egyptians. But the Younger Lady’s undertone is probably a smidge too pink, which lends the eye to read it as “European” or, like how some called it online, “white.” Meanwhile, the other reconstructions, statues, and paintings from ancient Egypt show people with yellow and neutral undertones. While the Younger Lady does have a touch of yellow in her undertone, the pink is affecting how the yellow would affect the overall skintone.

But I actually hesitate to call this reconstruction of the Younger Lady “white.” Again, there were a myriad of skintones in ancient Egypt, and while I have some issues with how much pink there is in the Younger Lady’s undertone, it’s still worth understanding that a woman this color wouldn’t necessarily be out of place in ancient Egypt. She might look “white,” but it doesn’t mean she’d be out of place. If it turns out her skintone was actually this color, undertones and all, her skin also wouldn’t make her any less African.

What do you think about these reconstructions? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

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What the New Study on Ancient Egypt Says About Media Representation

Science and the fight for representation in the media has intertwined in a brand new study coming from Germany. The study focuses specifically on ancient Egypt. What the scientists have to say about their findings could give Hollywood food for thought, if they decide to dissect the scientists’ results.

What the DNA discovery actually is

As CNN reports, researchers from Germany’s University of Tuebingen and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena have finally been able to do what scientists invested in studying Egypt have been trying to do for years–learn more about the genetic history of ancient Egyptians, a people who have been fought over by the Western World. That fight has played out in our modern media, with white actors playing the parts of historical ancient Egyptian characters, most notably the sheer number of actresses who have played Cleopatra.

The scientists used 151 mummies from Abusir el-Meleq, Middle Egypt. “The samples recovered from Middle Egypt span around 1,300 years of ancient Egyptian history from the New Kingdom to the Roman Period,” states the study, which was published in Nature Communications. The scientists found that ancient Egyptians from that area were more closely related to “Neolithic Anatolian and European populations.” Modern Egyptians, however, have more of a a genetic relationship with sub-Saharan Africans.

The reason behind the genetic surprise isn’t much of a surprise when you take into account the historical context the ancient folks of Abusir el-Meleq lived in. According to the study, Abusir el-Meleq was inhabited from around 3250BCE to about 700CE and was an attractive burial site because of its active cult to the god of the dead, Osiris. The site was part of a wider region during the third century BCE, a region that included the northern part of the Harakleopolites province and the Fayum and Memphite provinces, the latter two of which Abusir el-Meleq had close relations with. The Fayum province saw a huge influx in its population, more than likely from Greek immigration. During the Roman Period, many Roman veterans, described by the study as being people who weren’t “initially at least…Egyptian but people from disparate cultural backgrounds,” settled in the Fayum province after their time with the Roman army was done. After settling, they became a part of the local society and intermarried among the locals. Immigrants also influenced culture in Abusir el-Meleq, where coffins featuring Greek, Latin, and Hebrew names and Greek art remain.

However, the rate of intermarriage in the Fayum and surrounding areas was localized because of the high population of Greek and Roman immigrants. Intermarraige also seemed to serve political and social gains, since Roman citizenship was at stake and while Egyptians were granted citizenship under Roman rule, no doubt one could gain more rights of a Roman citizen if they married up, as it were.

“Our genetic time transect suggests genetic continuity between the Pre-Ptolemaic, Ptolemaic and Roman populations of Abusir el-Meleq, indicating that foreign rule impacted the town’s population only to a very limited degree at a genetic level. It is possible that the genetic impact of Greek and Roman immigration was more pronounced in the north-western Delta and the Fayum, where most Greek and Roman settlement concentrated, or among the higher classes of Egyptian society,” states the study. “Under Ptolemaic and Roman rule, ethnic descent was crucial to belonging to an elite group and afforded a privileged position in society. Especially in the Roman Period there may have been significant legal and social incentives to marry within one’s ethnic group, as individuals with Roman citizenship had to marry other Roman citizens to pass on their citizenship. Such policies are likely to have affected the intermarriage of Romans and non-Romans to a degree.”

The amount of sub-Saharan ancestry in modern Egyptians possibly comes from greater trade between the two regions. That trade also includes transporting slaves.

“Possible causal factors include increased mobility down the Nile and increased long-distance commerce between sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt,” states the study. “Trans-Saharan slave trade may have been particularly important as it moved between 6 and 7 million sub-Saharan slaves to Northern Africa over a span of some 1,250 years, reaching its high point in the nineteenth century.”

Despite the genetic breakthrough of tracing the genetic lineage of Abusir el-Meleq, the scientists stress that this one study probably (and more than likely isn’t) indicative of the lineage of the entirety of ancient Egypt.

“It is possible that populations in the south of Egypt were more closely related to those of Nubia and had a higher sub-Saharan genetic component, in which case the argument for an influx of sub-Saharan ancestries after the Roman Period might only be partially valid and have to be nuanced,” the study states. “Throughout Pharonic history that was intense interaction between Egypt and Nubia, ranging from trade to conquest and colonialism, and there is compelling evidence for ethnic complexity within households with Egyptian men marrying Nubian women and vice versa.”

In closing, the scientists stress that more studies need to be made of the ancient peoples of southern Egypt and Sudan in order to give a much more complete (or near-complete) picture of the vastness of the Egyptian genetic story.

Portrait of a woman from the Fayum province with a ringlet hairstyle, an orange chiton with black bands and rod-shaped earrings. Royal Museum of Scotland. (Public Domain)

How this affects the always-raging argument about how to portray ancient Egyptians in film and television? Does that mean Gods of Egypt is actually accurate??

Reading the original CNN article on this post, I knew there would be people, scholars who believe in the “Egypt-is-Anglo-Saxon” model in particular, who would take this study to mean that they are right and everyone who believes in a much more POC model of Egypt are wrong. While the study shows that there are European ties to ancient Egypt, some of these ties are what we’ve already learned from the history books–indeed, the Romans and the Greeks did come to Egypt due to its geological location as well as for political reasons (i.e. the Ptolemaic Dynasty–a Greek ruling family with origins in Macedonia–and the Roman Period), and Cleopatra herself, as the last Ptolemaic ruler, is of Egyptian and Greek-Macedonian background.

What is semi-new is the direct connection to Anatolia, otherwise known as Asia Minor or the Near East. Today, much of Anatolia is known as Turkey. While it’s always made sense that ancient Egyptians would share genetic connections to the Middle East simply because of Egypt’s geological location to many of the countries in the Middle East, the direct connection to Turkey has never been known.

In regard to this new knowledge, what does that mean for Hollywood when it comes to casting actors for films about ancient Egypt? Regarding this information about the citizens of Abusir el-Meleq, it would still be incorrect for a director to lazily cast characters since, going by old and new genetic information, ancient Egyptians were never “white” in the Western sense. For example, Gods of Egypt, which included actors hailing from Denmark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Australia (Brenton Thwaites), Scotland (Gerard Butler), and France (Elodie Yung, who is of French and Cambodian descent), is still historically incorrect and, just on a base level, visually upsetting. Even Chadwick Boseman, who is part of the African Diaspora, more than likely doesn’t share any strong genetic ties to Egypt. Most of the actors who would at least, visually, present a better vision of ancient Egypt were actors or crew who either had bit parts or went uncredited–Josh Farah, Wassim Hawat, Julian Maroun, Ishak Issa, and Rhavin Banda, to be specific. Of course, having these guys might not make the film any more or less accurate either, since this casting would be based solely on skin color and not on historical accuracy.

Hollywood actors who would have been perfectly suited for these roles would have been actors who are of Egyptian or Turkish background, such as Numan Acar (Homeland, of German and Turkish heritage), Deniz Akdeniz (I, Frankenstein, Once Upon a Time), Osman Soykut, also known as Ozman Sirgood (The Hot Chick, Alias, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, of Eastern European and Turkish heritage), Rami Malek (Mr. Robot, Night at the Museum series, of Egyptian heritage), Amr Waked (Lucy, Egyptian heritage), Khaled Nabawy (Kingdom of Heaven, Egyptian heritage), Sammy Sheik (American Sniper, Egyptian heritage), Ahmed Ahmed (Iron Man, Egyptian heritage), Kal Naga (Tyrant, Egyptian heritage) and plenty of other undiscovered Turkish and Egyptian actors in America looking to make their mark in Hollywood, as well as established Turkish and Egyptian actors who are looking to break into the American market. Ditto this list for a more accurate portrayal of biblical characters in Exodus: Gods and Kings.

However, that’s also not to say that the European ancestry of some ancient Egyptians shouldn’t be expressed in films. This needs to be done with care, since too often, the casting practice for Hollywood is, as we’ve seen with Gods of Egypt, to whitewash with abandon. Some of the actors I mentioned are biracial, which goes right into the picture that the study itself painted about the ancient Egyptians of Abusir el-Meleq. Overall, casting history should be done with care, not with Hollywood stereotyping and tropes.

Portrait of a man with sword belt from the Fayum province with British Museum. (Public Domain)

The Takeaways

If there’s been any production that made an effort to be at least visually appealing in regards to showcasing ancient Egypt is Spike’s TUT, which starred Avan Jogia and a mostly brown and black cast in an attempt to show how ancient Egypt and neighboring regimes in Sudan actually interacted with each other. Sure, it’s not historically accurate, but as far as Hollywood standards go, this was a knock out of the park. If Hollywood went in this direction more often, there might be less gripes from audience members.

In short, the new study doesn’t go against what folks who are vying for better represented Egyptian-themed movies have been preaching. If anything, it clarifies things even more. It showcases that there is not only a need to show ancient Egyptians as they actually looked, but there is also a need to remember that ancient Egyptians, just like us, existed in a multiracial, multicultural world, that included intermarriage and biracial/multiethnic offspring. It would be great if the people behind the films we loved showed an interest and curiosity in creating a film that not only had a great story, but also paid respect to the people whose stories they are telling.

Portrait of a man from the Fayum province, Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Public Domain)