Tutankhamun and the Tomb that Changed the World

by Bob Brier.
Oxford University Press, 2022
ISBN 978-0-1976-3505-6
Hardback, £21.99.

The present volume is a reminder of how writing (rather than just the theories) about Tutankhamun has in some ways changed quite markedly over time – and in some ways stayed the same. Brier’s book combines both well-worn accounts and presents a digestible overview of recent work on the contents of KV62, arguably the most famous archaeological site in history.

The first section – on the ‘History of the Tomb’ – covers generally well-known ground, including turf into which Brier has already planted the flags of his own theories. Notable here is that the book draws particularly on what is now known about the personalities involved – Howard Carter most of all. We are reminded that archaeology was, and is, highly politicised and motivated by individuals – far from a cool, dispassionate consideration of the past.

Secondly, recent scientific work, focused mainly on investigation of the king’s mummified body, but also on other objects from the tomb (including the worked sarcophagus, metal weaponry and chariots) is presented in a pacey and readable fashion. Much of this research has generally only been accessible in specialist publications. Brier is well-known as ‘Mr Mummy’, and indeed a reassessment of human remains from the tomb receives particular attention, but laudably the author acknowledges where new evidence or interpretation contradicts earlier statements of his own theories – would that every writer was so magnanimous. Woven throughout are some interesting nuggets that even Tutankhamun aficionados are likely to have missed.

Finally, the legacy of all this fascination with Tutankhamun is addressed by the last section of the book. This touches upon the colonial context of archaeology in Egypt and contemporary Egyptian perspectives – topics that would never have been acknowledged even a few years ago. Given his popularity as an author, this is significant – as most people simply do not read academic attempts at ‘decolonisation’. The book packs in debate surrounding the contested ‘facts’ of the king and his tomb, and suggests just how open to interpretation some of those ‘facts’ can be. Brier also revisits the contentious issue of whether or not Carter illegally took items from the tomb, citing a previously unknown letter that mentions items given to Sir Alan Gardiner. Carter’s culpability is left to the reader to decide.

Brier has a particular style, which is engaging and accessible. As such, the book can be read as something of an introduction to pharaonic Egypt, and some of the politics surrounding Egyptology that other Tutankhamun titles may lack.

Review by Campbell Price

You can read Bob Brier’s article on Tutankhamun as warrior here.