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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.
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