Tutankhamen: A mummy story for grown-ups

When Howard Carter opened the tomb of the boy pharaoh Tutankhamen in 1922 he found a series of chambers piled high with “wonderful things.” For nerds of a certain age, this is a story we’ve heard many times before. King Tut was a part of our lives from childhood. On the list of “Dead Things Small Children Get Really Excited About”, he ranks just below dinosaurs and just above Pompeii. By the time we reached junior high, we had explored the Valley of the Kings through diagrams in National Geographic, catalogued Tut’s treasures in the pages of glossy DK picture books, and watched innumerable actors recreate Carter’s day of discovery on TV documentaries.

Given all that you already know about the Tutankhamen story, why should you bother reading Joyce Tyldesley’s new book Tutankhamen: The Search for an Egyptian King? Because Tyldesley asks (and answers) questions those old familiar sources seldom bothered with. Her book takes a popular kid’s history and fleshes it out with grown-up levels of depth and context. For instance: Why exactly was King Tut buried with all those grave goods to begin with?

The answer isn’t as simple as you might suspect. The golden couches, ornate game boards, food, and flowers are all usually presented as things Tutankhamen thought he’d need in the afterlife. But that doesn’t match up with what we know about ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, Tyldesley writes. Kings were supposed to spend their afterlives away from the tomb—reborn as a star, or merged with the god Osiris. It was non-royal elite who, at one point, thought they would need to deck out their tombs to be eternal vacation homes. By Tut’s time, though, even they were granted access to Osiris’ kingdom. Technically, there was no religious reason to bury anyone with as much stuff as Tut had, let alone a king. Howard Carter’s “wonderful things” were probably a function of cultural tradition, rather than religious necessity. It was about wealth and appearances, an effort to keep up with the Joneses which spiraled so out of control that real treasures were eventually replaced by representations of treasure. More important, Tyldesley says, there’s no reason to suspect that an older king would have been buried with more grave goods than Tutankhamen got.

That’s just one of the many places where Tyldesley takes the worn-out Tut legend and makes it surprising again.

Through her book, you’ll learn how the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb played an important role in the transition to Egyptian self-governance, and why Howard Carter should be recognized as a key figure in the process of changing archaeology from a looter’s hobby into a sound science. You’ll go inside Imperial England’s mummy fad, and delve into the best theories we now have about the cause of Tutankhamen’s death. (Hint: He probably wasn’t murdered.) And you’ll read the mysterious letters that Tut’s widow sent to a Hittite king—a correspondence that doesn’t show up in the Egyptian record. We only know about it from Hittite court documents.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book deal with the background of Tutankhamen’s family—a lineage that was difficult to make sense of and is still not fully understood.

All of this is fascinating. Tyldesley, a British Egyptologist, does a very good job of providing academic depth in an easy-to-read writing style. I plowed through Tutankhamen during a long weekend getaway. (Bonus: I can tell you from experience that the stories in this book make for great conversation starters around the campfire.)

But a book like this is also important, because it teaches a lesson that applies to a wide-reaching range of topics. Science doesn’t just stop. There’s not really a point where everybody dusts their hands together and goes, “Welp, guess we’ve learned everything there is to know about that!” It has almost been a century since Howard Carter slipped a candle into Tutankhamen’s tomb, and there are still things about that king, his reign, and his death that we don’t understand. We are still stumbling across new questions that Carter wouldn’t have even thought to ask.

Tutankhamen may have been a topic you devoured as a child. But you don't have to put it away now that you’ve become an adult. The body of knowledge keeps changing. There is always something new to learn. They key is to look for writers like Tyldesley who can help you take a favorite topic and transition from a child’s understanding to that of a grown up.

Tutankhamen: The Search for an Egyptian King by Joyce Tyldesley.

Image: Mural 2, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from merceblanco's photostream


    1. Either is an acceptable transliteration, though ‘-amun’ is more conventional, and ‘-amon’ is more consistent with how the name root is transliterated elsewhere. Egyptians didn’t use the Roman alphabet, there isn’t a single consistent system of transliteration, and there’s no reason other than silly formalism to impose one now.

      1. It is not simply a question of transliteration. The Egyptian script itself frequently ignored and omitted vowels. Often the correct vowelling of a word (it was a semitic language) is not actually known anyway.

        1. It should be noted that Berber, Egyptian (including Coptic), Hausa, Somali, and many other related languages within the wider area of Northern Africa and the Middle East do not belong to the specific Semitic group, but are related the larger Afroasiatic language family of which the Semitic languages are also a subgroup. Yay wikipedia?

          1. Yes. I did not check it, I was not absolutely sure. But I think the fundamental point about grammatical structure and vowelling holds. Sent from my BlackBerry® smartphone on O2

    2. Spell it the right way: feather, bed on water, bread, chick, bread, ankh, crook, UML input connector, plant. And if you don’t put it in a cartouche, may Sobek attempt to give you oral.

    3. That’s actually addressed in the book. There are many correct ways to spell Tut’s name because, like several other ancient languages in that part of the world, the Egyptians didn’t include vowels in written language. We know what the general sound was, but we don’t actually know what vowels were supposed to be in the name. 

  1. Maggie –

    Wondering if you’ve read one of my favorite history books ever –

    Tutankhamun – life and death of a Pharaoh by Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt

    and if so, how Tyldesly’s book compares.

  2. The Ancient Egyptians were black, as  W.E.B. DuBois, Chancellor Williams, Cheikh Anta Diop, John G. Jackson, Ivan van Sertima, and Martin Bernal stated.

    1. DNA of both modern and ancient Egyptians would appear to support the UNESCO view that modern Egyptians are genetically much the same as the ancient population.

  3. just learned there’s a King Tut-like Viking ship burial, namely Oseberg! Only in this case the king was a queen. Fanciest Viking ship burial excavated so far.

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