left A famous face: Tutankhamun’s gold mask. From The Story of Tutankhamun.

A century of Tutankhamun

Nigel Fletcher-Jones reviews some of the recent books exploring what we know about Tutankhamun and the discovery of his tomb 100 years on.


In the Valley of the Kings, on Saturday 4 November 1922, Howard Carter wrote diagonally across his diary page, ‘Men found first step’.

Carter had a reasonable hope that this first step would lead down to the tomb of an obscure king of the 18th Dynasty (c.1550-1069 BC) who had been born with the name Tutankhaten (marking him as a member of the family of the ‘heretic’ pharaoh Akhenaten) and who, when he ascended the throne of Egypt, changed his name to Tutankhamun (‘the living image of Amun’) and restored the worship of the great god Amun-Re, who had been the particular target of Akhenaten. Nonetheless, due to his association with Akhenaten, even this changed name was systematically erased by later kings from monuments and objects across Egypt – with variable degrees of success, as it turned out – in an attempt to remove all mention of Tutankhamun and his immediate family entirely from history.

Elizabeth Taylor (who famously portrayed another ancient celebrity, Cleopatra) and her then-husband John Warner look at the statue of Selket at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, in 1976. From Treasured. IMAGE: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

What Carter and his Egyptian team found at the bottom of the stairs and along a short corridor stunned the world, of course – especially those countries barely beginning to recover from the dreadful losses of the First World War. Within Egypt itself, the magnificence of the treasures of the young king and the distinctly colonial quirks of the primary figures associated with the excavation also served as rallying points for the post-war independence movement. However, the 1920s were not the last time that Tutankhamun would be resurrected in the 20th century in the cause of politics.

Despite the adulation that initially came Carter’s way, one thing disappointed him greatly. Nowhere among the magnificent objects he found were there any historical documents that might shed further light on the pharaoh’s life.

One hundred years later, we certainly know more about Tutankhamun – not least through archaeology, detailed examination of the artefacts, and the use of cutting-edge technology. Yet key questions relating to his life remain unresolved. We do not know with certainty who his parents were. We can only guess at what exactly happened to the succession after the death of Akhenaten. We cannot even say much with any certainty – even after a century of disrespectful examination of his decayed mortal remains – about the constitution of Tutankhamun or, indeed, the manner in which he died.

left A famous face: Tutankhamun’s gold mask. From The Story of Tutankhamun.
A famous face: Tutankhamun’s gold mask. From The Story of Tutankhamun. IMAGE: Roland Unger/CC BY-SA 3.0

The minimal indisputable factual information about the life of Tutankhamun is, in fact, open to the maximal number of plausible interpretations.

This preamble is therefore necessary simply because the authors of some of the books produced this year to mark the centenary of the discovery differ widely in their presentation and interpretation of Tutankhamun’s life and times.

The Story of Tutankhamun: An Intimate Life of the Boy Who Became King

Garry J Shaw
Yale University Press, hardback, £16.99
ISBN 978-0300267433

Garry Shaw’s The Story of Tutankhamun: an intimate life of the boy who became king is the most immediately accessible of these books and could be read easily by anyone in their mid-teens upwards. Using the most up-to-date archaeological and art historical evidence, Shaw presents his preferred version of Tutankhamun’s life robustly and well, with a view to presenting Tutankhamun as a living, breathing human being rather than a demi-god – while freely admitting that other interpretations exist and directing the reader to the endnotes for these in order to maintain the flow of the text (the endnotes are essential reading). The book requires little previous knowledge of ancient Egypt, if any, and is highly recommended as an introduction to Tutankhamun’s world.

Tutankhamun and the Tomb that Changed the World

Bob Brier
Oxford University Press, hardback, £21.99
ISBN 978-0197635056

As might be expected of Bob Brier, author of our next book and a foremost expert in mummy studies, a large part of Tutankhamun and the Tomb that Changed the World concerns what can be gleaned from the mortal remains of the king – burned and partially dissolved by unguents used in the burial rites and brutally treated more than once in pursuit of wonderful things within the wrappings.

After some explanatory historical material, the book moves swiftly into a higher gear with an excellent sketch of Howard Carter’s life and archaeological development in Egypt after he arrived in Alexandria as a 17-year-old boy in October 1891, having been previously trained by his father as an artist.

Brier’s portrait of Carter is ultimately hard to argue with. His meticulous character ultimately made him unquestionably the right person to excavate Tutankhamun’s tomb with its 5,000 or so fragile artefacts, but his irascible nature coupled with being an undeniable product of the British Empire made him the wrong person to deal with the politics of the time. It was this shared sense of colonial entitled ownership that seems to have led Carter and Lord Carnarvon, his patron, to individually ‘acquire’ objects from the tomb for their personal collections.

Brier’s history of the medical examination of Tutankhamun’s mummy is excellent and a cautionary tale concerning the information that can be gleaned from the ancient dead. By modern standards, Tutankhamun’s unwrapped mummified corpse – already substantially decayed – was treated appallingly, in something of the spirit of the ‘scientific’ mummy unwrappings of the 19th century. Hot knives were applied to various parts in order to extract artefacts and the body was decapitated and disarticulated.

Various non-invasive techniques have also been applied over the years – X-rays, CT scans, and DNA testing, for example – but, as Brier concludes, the state of the young man’s body and the high probability of sample contamination do not lead to much confidence concerning Tutankhamun’s life, death, or parentage.

Tutankhamun: Pharaoh, Icon, Enigma

Joyce Tyldesley
Headline, hardback, £20
ISBN 978-1472289841

Tutankhamun: pharaoh, icon, enigma is an equally interesting contribution from another veteran writer about ancient Egypt, Joyce Tyldesley. Early on, the author, after indicating that there is much that we do not currently know about Tutankhamun and his path to the throne, bravely asserts that she will loosely wield Occam’s razor in the direction of the data. The result is another spirited and interesting account that sifts through the surviving evidence and seeks to combat the widely held belief that Tutankhamun was an insignificant king or, indeed, should be considered a ‘boy-king’ – in the context of a time when the average age at death was around 40.

For Tyldesley, the weight of evidence suggests that Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten and Nefertiti – rather than other possible parents or a secondary consort – though he does not appear in the official art of the period (which, she explains, in the context of the time, male children of the king did not).

Unlike others here, the author makes the case that Nefertiti did not rule Egypt as a female king after the death of Akhenaten, preferring to see a direct progression from Akhenaten to Tutankhamun through the shadowy figure of Smenkhare, who might have been a brother or half-brother of Tutankhamun (unless he was his father!). Other Egyptologists would disagree with her on both points.

The book is at its best when Tyldesley uses her expertise to explain the symbolism that underlies some of the artefacts in the tomb. Carter – again as very much a product of his time – tended to interpret some objects, such as the small golden shrine covered in images of interactions between Tutankhamun and his (sister or half-sister) wife Ankhesenamun, in simplistic, domestic terms, whereas they may hold far greater symbolic meaning.

Tyldesley ends with a short but very readable account of the discovery and excavation of the tomb, comments on the hidden Egyptian and female figures associated with the excavation, and examines the politicisation of Tutankhamun in the hands of the Egyptian independence movement.

Tutankhamun, King of Egypt: His Life and Afterlife

Aidan Dodson
The American University in Cairo Press, hardback, £29.95
ISBN 978-1649031617

Just how thin the evidential ice is beneath some of the historical narratives presented in these books is revealed in detail by Aidan Dodson in his Tutankhamun, King of Egypt: his life and afterlife.

Aimed at the dedicated Egyptophile, but useful to professionals, the book requires a level of knowledge of ancient Egyptian history and archaeology for which none of the above books will completely prepare the general reader.

Dodson clearly lays out the theories regarding the end of the Amarna period in this comprehensive and beautifully illustrated volume. Ultimately, he favours the view that Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten, though the matter is far from decided given the hideously complex family tree of the 18th Dynasty and its pattern of first-cousin unions that make such things as DNA analysis as a diagnostic tool close to worthless. He also believes that the evidence supports the view that Nefertiti did indeed rule as a king, possibly jointly with Tutankhamun when he was a small child.

It is not possible to do justice to this excellent book in this review, but the content is ideal for anyone with a pre-existing interest in Egyptology who wants to delve deeper into the historical detail of Tutankhamun’s origins, reign, and, to a lesser extent, his ‘afterlife’ (in the sense of the evidence that was accumulated concerning the existence of the king prior to 1922 and the explosion of interest in him during the 1920s).

The Complete Tutankhamun: 100 Years of Discovery

Nicholas Reeves
Thames & Hudson, hardback, £40
ISBN 978-0500052167

The first edition (1990) of our next book, Nicholas Reeves’ The Complete Tutankhamun, is one of a handful of reference works that sits permanently on my desk. This new, revamped edition is magnificent and will certainly take its place.

Although written in a non-technical style, the book represents the closest thing available to a comprehensive archaeological report, including details of the search for and discovery of the tomb, the tomb structure itself, and the artefacts found – divided into relevant categories (‘pharaonic regalia’, ‘chariots’, ‘thrones, chairs, stools’, etc) and illustrated in full colour throughout.

In recent years, Reeves – after studying very fine-grained optical scans of the tomb walls – has caused a stir among Egyptologists by suggesting that Tutankhamun’s tomb may be only a part of a larger tomb that belonged to the female king Nefertiti. It is not very far into the book before this idea – together with his view that the famous funerary mask was made for King Nefertiti and modified for Tutankhamun – appears in the text and then periodically thereafter. (No one disputes that many of the objects in the tomb had previous owners.)

While everyone involved in the study of ancient Egypt secretly hopes that Nefertiti’s tomb lies beyond the known structure of the young king (her son?), high-tech geophysical surveys do not, as yet, support the idea.

That caveat aside, this superb book represents an astonishing amount of organisation and work, for which both the author and the publisher should be congratulated.

Tutankhamun’s Trumpet: The Story of Ancient Egypt in 100 Objects

Toby Wilkinson
Picador, hardback, £25
ISBN 978-1529045871

Following in the footsteps of Neil MacGregor’s highly successful A History of the World in 100 Objects, Toby Wilkinson’s Tutankhamun’s Trumpet: the story of ancient Egypt in 100 objects uses objects from the tomb to illuminate the history of this ancient state.

This book breaks down into ten broad themes (‘geography’, ‘history’, ‘monarchy’, ‘humanity’, ‘piety’, etc), each explored through ten objects from the tomb to produce ‘a kaleidoscopic reflection of the culture that produced them.’

Tutankhamun’s Trumpet is a well-written introduction to the material culture of ancient Egypt and how it can elucidate less immediately tangible aspects of ancient Egyptian life. The author’s discussion of the paradox between the innate conservatism of the ancient Egyptians in areas such as religion and the monarchy versus the rapidity with which they adopted, and often improved upon, technology borrowed from their north-eastern neighbours is particularly interesting.

For the most part, using objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb as illustrations of this point works well (writing, chariots, scimitars, etc), but elsewhere the connections made seem somewhat forced into the desired schema. A benefit of this, however, is the illustrative use of lesser-known objects from the tomb.

Treasured: How Tutankhamun Shaped a Century

Christina Riggs
Atlantic Books, paperback, £12.99
ISBN 978-1838950538

Christina Riggs’ Treasured: how Tutankhamun shaped a century (published in hardback last year, and now reappearing in a paperback edition) is both exceptionally well-written and highly recommended to readers who want to understand more about the politics underlying the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and the ways in which the king’s presence and name have been used for campaigning of various kinds to the present day.

This important book is partly composed of autobiographical musings about the author’s development as an Egyptologist and the questions this has raised for her about the underlying historical biases in her subject. These are musings with a distinct message.

More firmly than the other authors here – who are principally concerned with ancient history – Riggs places Carter, Carnarvon, and their various predecessors in the colonial, imperial, and patriarchal context of their time. (As was noted above, Carter and Carnarvon remained painfully tone-deaf with regard to the post-war Egyptian independence movement, for example.)

Riggs often makes her points with regard to Tutankhamun by reference to the numerous people who are hidden from our view of the excavation: we know the names of the Egyptian foremen, but we know nothing at all about the 75-275 men, women, boys, and girls from the nearby villages who did the work at various times.

In a similar vein, Riggs reveals the role of other women in the excavation, including Almina, Lady Carnarvon, who continued to support Carter after her husband’s death – despite having no obvious interest at all in ancient Egypt – and Minnie Burton and Essie Newberry from the excavation team. The tale presented here of the work done by Penelope Fox at the Griffith Institute (Oxford) and Nora Scott at the Metropolitan Museum (New York) in bringing order to Carter’s excavation archive and Harry Burton’s vast collection of glass negatives and prints is of particular interest.

North wall of the burial chamber, showing: Ay performing the opening of the mouth ceremony on mummified Tutankhamun (on the right); a newly reborn Tutankhamun being greeted by Nut, goddess of night (in the centre); and Tutankhamun (followed by his ka) embracing Osiris, god of the underworld. From The Complete Tutankhamun. IMAGE: © Theban Necropolis Preservation initiative / Factum Foundation for the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Egypt

Tutankhamun became more famous posthumously than he was in his lifetime and he was indirectly responsible, as the author points out, for the rise of ‘celebrity archaeologists, UNESCO’s World Heritage scheme, [and] blockbuster exhibitions.’

Much use was made of the treasures from the tomb in order to gain financial support for the moving of Abu Simbel, Philae, and other temples when they were threatened by the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. As we know, of course, Tutankhamun’s treasures also travelled to a significant number of countries subsequently in order to generate funds for various causes, though they will now finally come permanently to rest when the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza opens its doors.

Riggs fully illuminates the case against Carter concerning the objects from the tomb that found their way into his possession, and which weighed heavily on the conscience of his niece who inherited them. Other questionable objects have simply appeared over time in some of the world’s museums, where they remain mostly incognito.

The author also sensitively explores the ramifications of the desecration and display of mummies – perhaps most poignantly demonstrated by the case of the young king who, instead of finding eternal life in his tomb and beyond, became a disarticulated sideshow scarcely basking in the now distant glow of gold.

Suffice it to say that, of all the books that are reviewed here, it is the ‘must-read.’

It remains to be seen whether the centenary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb will lead to a major resurgence in public interest in ancient Egypt, but it is to be hoped that, in any case, high-quality books such as these will help to inspire a new generation of historians and archaeologists to make new discoveries concerning this most fascinating of ancient cultures.