Rob Hardy on books


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Before the Opening of the Tomb, and After



Rob Hardy


It has been ninety years since the tomb of Tutankhamen was discovered by Howard Carter. Before that time, Egyptologists had known almost nothing about the king, even ignorant about whether he had died young or had lived a long while as king. There was a huge influx of data about the king once the contents of the tomb had been brought out and examined, and the media sensation which started at the opening of the tomb has continued to this day, with Tut a rock star of museum and touring exhibitions. Tutankhamen may have started many Egyptologists on their careers. Joyce Tyldesley is one of these, but she admits, in _Tutankhamen: The Search for an Egyptian King_ (Basic Books), that part of the "Curse of Tutankhamen" (she debunks that there was ever really such a thing) is that the enormous popular appeal of Tutankhamen makes people forget other aspects of the centuries of Ancient Egypt including kings who were far more powerful and reigned longer. He is so popular, for instance, that he has a nickname, Tut, and a catch phrase, "The Boy King." Tutankhamen's celebrity status has also meant that he is a less attractive figure for research by established Egyptologists; Tyldesley says that the Egyptologist who expresses an interest in Tutankhamen does the equivalent of confessing a preference for soap operas over Shakespeare, and may be accused of taking up the subject because its of popularity in order to make money from it.  




Tyldesley, however, has here produced a satisfying and entertaining summary of what we can know about Tutankhamen and how we got to know it. There are important gaps; scholars are still arguing, for instance, about the king's parentage, even after recent DNA tests that have not exactly cleared everything up. The facts from evidence about the king's life and reign form the first part of the book. The second part considers what has happened to Tutankhamen and his lore after his discovery in 1922. Tutankhamen came to the throne when he was eight years old, so necessarily his advisors would have guided him. They restored the orthodox worship of many gods on whom his father had turned his back. How he died will remain mysterious; it is not thought that he was murdered, but there was damage to his chest and leg. Perhaps he died of an accident while he was out on a royal ostrich or hippopotamus hunt. There is an appealing portrait of Howard Carter here. He had little formal education, but at age seventeen, he left Norfolk, England, to work as a draughtsman among the archeologists in Egypt. He was hooked up with George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, and became his employee and friend. Carter had dug around the Valley of Kings with meager results, but a last minute gamble resulted in Tutankhamen's grave being found. It was to be his great success and the success meant the end of his career as an active explorer in Egypt; he was to spend the rest of his time there documenting his finds, although he never finished publishing them, even though he lived until 1939. He did not die early due to any curse. Carnarvon did die early, curse or not, but Tyldesley summons the statistics to show that those "violating" the tomb were no more likely to face an accelerated death than anyone else. The idea of a cursed tomb was a new one, and the concept of a vindictive, reawakened mummy was foreign to the Egyptians themselves. Carter mentioned "the ridiculous stories which have been invented about the dangers lurking in ambush, as it were, in the Tomb, to destroy the intruder." Contrary to the legends, there were no curses inscribed over the thresholds of the tomb. The author gives us Tyldesley's Law: "Any theory about the behaviour, beliefs and abilities of the ancient Egyptians, no matter how unlikely, will be accepted as truth by someone."  




Tyldesley admits that without some spectacular new discovery to transform our ideas about his life, "... anyone who claims to be able to write a 'warts and all' biography of Tutankhamen is being either economical with the truth, or na´ve, or, perhaps, works in television." She has, however, after giving as many facts as are available, provided a useful tentative ten-page biography here. In describing the folly attached to interpretations of Tutankhamen, and in careful accounts of the role of the media in the sensational finds, Tyldesley acknowledges that the modern response to Tutankhamen is just as essential in understanding him as any tentative biography might be. She has produced an entertaining and accessibly-written account of the mysterious life and society of Tutankhamen with as many facts as can be enrolled in the telling, and her accounts of our insistence of wrapping it all up in superstition just make a reader wonder how modern we really have come to be. 




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