Sunday, September 9, 2012

Tutankhamen and his tomb

Tutankhamen, Joyce Tyldesley

In 1978, my parents took us to see "The Treasures of Tutankhamun" exhibit in Seattle. It was overwhelming and exhilarating, pushing through the crowds of people all intent on the cases filled with artifacts more than 3000 years old. I must have learned about Egypt in school, but I think that's when ancient Egypt came alive for me, not just with the golden artifacts but also with the simpler ones, like a gameboard set with its pieces, or a chair whose back showed the king sitting with his queen. Several years later a friend introduced me to Elizabeth Peters' series featuring the Victorian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody Emerson, who in the course of 19 books has excavated up and down the length of Egypt with her husband and extended family. I've learned a lot from these books, as well as the non-fiction the author has written under her own name, Barbara Mertz (Temples, Tombs and Heiroglyphs). I've been lucky enough to see three other exhibits of artifacts, including "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs," which stopped in Houston on its recent American tour.

I came across Tutankhamen (the author's preferred spelling) recently at the library. I was not familiar with the author, Dr Joyce Tyldesley, but I've since learned that she is on the faculty at the JNH Centre for Biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester, and that she has written extensively on ancient Egypt. Based on this book, I'll definitely be looking for more of her work.

In Tutankhamen, Dr Tyldesley takes the reader from the death of the King around 1327 BCE and his burial in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes (Luxor) through the search for his tomb in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Its eventual discovery in 1922 was a world-wide media event, creating a fascination with "King Tut" that continues today, a phenomenon Dr Tyldesley also explores. In addition, she explains how Howard Carter and his team of experts painstakingly emptied the tomb, inventorying its thousands of artifacts and doing the necessary conservation work to preserve them as they were moved for the first time in millenia. Later sections discuss the recovery of the King's body and the autopsies performed on it, as well as the contradictory conclusions that different experts have drawn from them. In the end, so many questions about this pharaoh remain unanswered, including the identity of his parents. Later kings altered the historical record, removing Tutankhamen and his predecessor/possible father Akhenaten from the list of pharaohs. Robbers and early archaeologists, intent only on treasure, stole and destroyed objects that might have provided vital information on the period.

I found this book informative, interesting, and very readable. Dr Tyldesley is clearly writing for the non-expert, taking care to explain and to give context, but she doesn't overwhelm with detail or condescend. I found the chapter on "Family," where she explores the different theories of Tutankhamen's parentage and place within the family, a little confusing, simply because of the number of individuals. I wish I had discovered the "Who Was Who in Ancient Egypt" section at the back of the book sooner. Dr Tyldesley doesn't hesitate to point out the mistakes made by earlier Egyptologists, or to mention points on which she herself disagrees with colleagues, but she is even-handed and fair, even pointing out extenuating circumstances. She has fun with the various "curses" that have been ascribed to Tutankhamen, and with popular culture's fascination with him, with ancient Egypt in general and mummies in particular, over the years. My favorite: a suggestion that "an extension to the London Underground, which passed through Tooting and Camden Town, should be named "Tootancamden." I will also take to heart her suggestion that "As a general rule of thumb, any book that refers to the king as 'Tut,' . . . and any book that includes the word 'truth' on its cover, is best avoided."


  1. Piles of world history books have been collecting around here, and you make me want to get started. Crocodile on the Sandbank is about my level at present. Fun, but still . . .

  2. The exhibit is in Seattle again, I'm planning on seeing it, hopefully soon, especially as your post has made me even more eager about it.

  3. Fay, the author mentions Elizabeth Peters, noting that in her books Amelia was present in the Valley of the Kings for much of the exploration & excavations covered in this one.

    Katherine, I saw that it was currently in Seattle. Here in Houston at least, the exhibit didn't have as much from Tutankhamun as the advertising suggested - no iconic golden burial mask - but I still enjoyed it.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!