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.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.