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

by Garry J. Shaw.
Yale University Press, 2022
ISBN 978-0-300-26743-3
Hardback, £16.99.

So much has been written about Tutankhamun and his tomb since its discovery that it is an achievement for any writer to find an original angle to illuminate their narrative. Garry Shaw attempts this, using the available evidence to tell the story in a fresh and credible way. To create a believable picture amid the controversies and gaps in the record, the author states: “I’ve studied the latest scholarship and prised out as much historical detail as possible from the limited surviving information… I explain my reasoning and potential alternatives in an end note.” In fact, the thirty-odd pages of end notes are as interesting to read as the main text.

The early years of the boy-king were turbulent. He probably had little contact with his birth parents but was very close to his wet-nurse, Maia. His education would have been like that of any other royal prince but set in a period of destruction as his father changed the religion of Egypt to the cult of the Aten. This would all change when his father died in the seventeenth year of his reign after a few years dominated by troubles at home and abroad, including serious outbreaks of plague, and the deaths of several members of his family. According to Shaw, an obscure family member, Smenkhkara, was co-regent with Akhenaten for a short time; then on his death Neferneferuaten became ruler. The identity of this pharaoh is presented as Nefertiti ruling as a male. According to Shaw, many items of grave goods were made for this ‘king’, including the golden mask which was later remodelled for Tutankhamun.

The boy became king at ten years old. From this time on, he, or perhaps his advisers began the move back to the old religion. His ritual importance and his coronation are described vividly, as is life with his wife Ankhesenamun, various celebrations and activities, and his diplomatic responsibilities.

Shaw suggests that the early death of Tutankhamun may have been due to an accident to his leg, which became infected, combined with repeated bouts of malaria. We are taken into the king’s afterlife as preparations were made for equipping his tomb and for his funeral. Once these arrangements were complete it might be expected that the king would then rest in eternal peace, but he was soon disturbed by tomb robberies, followed by the desecration of his monuments in following reigns.

The later part of the book looks at what happened in the early 20th century when the paths of Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter crossed. The story of the discovery of the tomb has been often told, but is here given a fresh outing. Further drama is presented by the outbreak of ‘Tutmania’ and the inevitable retelling of the media’s interest in the mummy’s curse.

Overall, this is a lively and readable book, which should encourage a continuing fascination with the young pharaoh.

Review by Hilary Forrest