Tutankhamun – Pharaoh, Icon, Enigma: Lost for Three Thousand Years, Misunderstood for a Century

by Prof. Joyce Tyldesley.
Headline, 2022
ISBN 978-1-472-28984-1
Hardback, £22.

Do we need another book on Tutankhamun? The author herself has already published two Tutankhamun-focused works – the 2012 Tutankhamen’s Curse (reviewed in AE 71) in particular already covers much of the same ground. The answer in this case is ‘yes’! Joyce Tyldesley is a talented storyteller, writing for a wide general audience, weaving the strands of research past and present into a compelling narrative for beginner and enthusiast alike.

This time she places Tutankhamun himself at the centre of the story: “My Tutankhamun is a traditional pharaoh born in difficult times, who sets out to restore order to a neglected land. He rules Egypt for 10 peaceful years and is well on the way to achieving his ambitions when death intervenes.” This is a pharaoh destined for greatness, but whose time was cut short by an “ill-advised expedition”.

She divides the book into two parts, telling two separate stories: the life, death and burial of Tutankhamun; and the events leading to his rediscovery and reinvention in modern times. Each section is a straightforward chronological narrative split into chapters with titles such as ‘The Prince’s Tale’, covering his early life at Amarna, and ‘The Undertaker’s Tale’ to describe his mummification and burial. She also includes chapters on Ankhesenpaaten, and the ancient looting of the tomb.

The second section of the book deals with the discovery of KV62 and the aftermath, and while most of this has been covered many times before, there are still some snippets of the story which readers may not have come across, such as the soldier who falsely claimed to have guarded the tomb for seven years and declared himself the ‘Last Survivor’ of the excavation team. Tyldesley also highlights the contribution of the many local Egyptians who carried out so much of the excavation work.

There remains much controversy about the various investigations carried out on the body of Tutankhamun. This is made clear as the author revisits the 1968 and 2005 surveys, pointing out discrepancies between these findings and the results of the later DNA investigation – which she consigns to a separate epilogue “due to its contentious nature”. Nicholas Reeves’ theory that Nefertiti is buried in a hidden room in KV62 “seems a step too far”, and she also takes issue with misleading television documentaries that fail to provide the full picture.

Questioning the assumption that Tutankhamun was an insignificant pharaoh, Tyldesley declares that at the time of his death, the king was “the most influential man in the Bronze Age Mediterranean world” and she points out how his discovery has since generated much-needed income for Egypt and inspired many to study Egyptology – including the author herself. But while Tutankhamun is a modern-day icon, ensuring his name will live on forever, Tyldesley leaves us to ponder on whether the king would have wished to be stripped of his bandages and his grave goods, and put on display in his tomb.

With so many Tutankhamun-themed books published this year, the decision to opt for a stylised design with no image of Tutankhamun on the cover is perhaps a brave one, although there are a small number of colour photographs at the centre of the book, and a useful section of references.

Review by Sarah Griffiths