The big mystery the new Tut research did not solve – Amarna Art

Akhenaten and Family - limestoneThe King Tut results are in and right now everyone is going gaga over the fact that malaria appears to have played a role in the boy king’s death. While this is an interesting find, there is another discovery – King Tut looked fairly normal, or at least he did not have a significantly bizarre or feminine physique – which also carries major implications for Ancient Egyptian research.

First a bit of background.

During the reign of Akhenaten(who is probably Tut’s father)Egyptian art became, well, very weird.

The formal prose that the Egyptians had followed for thousands of years was thrown out the door. Figures were depicted with long cone shaped heads, spindly fingers and distorted bodies. Intimate scenes involving the ruler, such as Akhenaten kissing his daughter, were depicted for the first time.

This art style, referred to as Amarna Art, was prominent throughout Akhenatens reign and a few years afterwards. By the time of King Tut it had largely died out.

Why Egyptian art appears this way, for such a short period of time, is a mystery. About a decade ago Egyptologist Alwyn Burridge proposed that Akhenaten and other members of his family suffered from Marfan Syndrome – a condition that leads to an appearance similar to that shown in Amarna Art.

Burridge emphasizes that while this condition affects ones appearance, it has no impact on intelligence. Indeed Abraham Lincoln had Marfan Syndrome and is regarded as one of the most successful presidents in American history.

Another theory, published last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is that Akhenaten had a form of Antley-Bixler Syndrome or a combination of aromatase excess syndrome and sagittal craniosynostosis syndrome.

All of thesetheoriesoperate on the idea thatAmarna art is so unusual because Akhenaten and his family suffered from a medical condition that affected their physical appearance.

New findings dispute feminine physique

The problem is that researchers ruled out Marfan Syndrome in the new findings. They also say that the physical appearance of Tut andAkhenatenwasprobablynot unusual.

They say that the heads of Akhenaten and Tut display no sign that they were cone shaped, although Tuts great-grandfather, Yuya, displays some evidence of distortion. Akhenatens fragmented pelvis also displayed no signs of a physically altering condition.

Tutankhamun shortly after the discovery of KV62, photographed by Harry Burton. - Image copyright Griffith Institute

The researchers conclude that – Therefore, the particular artistic presentation of persons in the Amarna period is confirmed as a royally decreed style most probably related to the religious reforms of Akhenaten. It is unlikely that either Tutankhamun or Akhenaten actually displayed a significantly bizarre or feminine physique.

A royal decree?

So is it time to stop chasing medical explanations and believe that, for some unexplained reason, Akhenaten decided that he just wanted the people in Egyptian art to be drawn in a way never before seen?

I talked to Burridge over the phone yesterday. Given that the news has just broke, she needs some time to study the medical results before deciding how this affects her Marfan Syndrome theory. Its also possible that other medical researchers could challenge the results. Although media reports travel fast, it takes time for scientists and scholars to create a reasoned response to complicated research.

In some ways a royal decree based on his own whims doesnt seem so far-fetched for Akhenaten. Aside from the art there were other things he did that were pretty off base for a pharaoh. He focused Egyptian religion around the worship of the Aten, a sun-disc. In doing so he unleashed an iconoclasm that saw the names of other gods desecrated. Evidence for this has been found as far away at Tell el-Borg, a frontier fortress in the Sinai Desert.

He also decided to build an entirely new capital called Amarna, out in the desert. It was only in use for a short time and became a ghost town not long after his reign. Heritage Keys Malcolm Jack interviewed the sites excavator, Professor Barry Kemp, recently.

If the new research holds up, Egyptologists looking to answer the riddle of Amarna art are going to have to look into Akhenatens mind for the answers. This will be a process that, I daresay, will be a great deal more difficult then looking for a physical medical condition.