Tutankhamen’s grave, in the Valley of the Kings, nearly went undiscovered. The Egyptologist who held the sole concession to excavate there for twelve years declared he had found a dusty tomb that was Tut’s final resting place and that it had long ago been emptied of artifacts and mummy. But when Lord Carnarvon and his hired archaeologist, Howard Carter, succeeded in grabbing the concession, they sifted the clues of those who worked the site before them and homed in on a likely spot.
Joyce Tyldesley writes a detailed adventure story of the hunt for King Tut’s remains and the painstaking process of recovering them in Tutankhamen: The Search for an Egyptian King. Your brain will get a rigorous workout keeping track of all the permutations of Nefertiti, Amenhotep, Tutankhamen, Tutankhaten, Tutankhamun, Hatshepsut, Ankesenamen and the rest of the royal band but your sense of story will be satisfied.
It’s a good story—even if many of the specifics remain elusive and a general disregard for fastidious archaeology was widespread at the time. The time is the turn of the last century when Britannia ruled and the expeditionary hobbies of the wealthy led to digging up deserts and plundering the ancient heritage of less prosperous lands. Egypt, with its tourist-friendly pyramids and legends of pharoah gold, was fertile pickings but the Tutankhamen discovery was blessed with a patron and an archaeologist who went to extraordinary lengths to protect their finds.
And they were blessed with the richest trove and most intact royal burial chamber to be unearthed in the often-plundered valley. Tut’s chambers were buried by flash floods that dumped sand and debris over tomb entrances and filled the long passages to reach them. Even so, the tomb had been breached several times before it was buried under the sands. Yet, when Carter and Carnarvon cautiously poked a torch into a small opening and saw the gold glinting in the gloom, they knew they had hit the jackpot.
The discovery and the recovery of the artifacts and the human remains of a king who reigned for ten years and died at about age eighteen continues to fascinate historians, archaeologists and the public. There was so much in the chambers that the information about Egyptian civilization yielded up by textiles, paintings, carving, sculpture, jewelry, gold, funerary objects and every scintilla of matter taken from the tomb is still being revealed. How did Tut die? Was he murdered? Who were his parents? Did he have children? Why are objects with the names of other kings included in his grave swag? Why were some of the earlier names on gold bands and caskets obliterated and Tut’s cartouche substituted? Were the children’s clothes found in the tomb those of the eight-year-old boy king? What would the world of the pharaohs have been like had he lived longer? Are some of the items left among the ceremonial offerings sentimental? Who mourned Tut? Was there really a Mummy’s Curse–or just an excess of bat guano?
The sheer beauty of the golden death mask and the carved and etched caskets and ornaments in the grave capture the imagination. Tutankhamen has that necessary ingredient for any lasting celebrity—extraordinary good looks. The images we have, in museums and exhibitions, make us stop and look again. The book about how those images came to see the light is an absorbing tale that sorts the obvious fictions from the facts we know—and leaves interesting questions unanswered to be excavated by advances in science tomorrow.
Tutankhamen: The Search for an Egyptian King Joyce Tyldesley | Basic Books 2012