Tutankhamun’s Trumpet: the story of ancient Egypt in 100 objects

Review by Aidan Dodson

The title of this book is perhaps rather misleading. Although a hundred objects from the tomb of Tutankhamun (among which are counted two scenes from the walls of its burial chamber) are indeed listed, mentioned, and illustrated, they are arguably not the vehicle for structuring the narrative that one might have expected. Instead, the publication comprises an overview of various aspects of ancient Egyptian civilisation, with periodic references to objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb. One rather feels that the title and inclusion of the objects (and a Tutankhamun-focused introduction) are decisions intended to capitalise on interest in the tomb resulting from this year’s centenary of the discovery, as opposed to a real attempt to indicate what the tomb’s treasures themselves tell us about ancient Egypt.

That said, the book is a generally workmanlike overview of the ancient land of the Nile, beginning with a chapter on Geography, and then passing on to History, Supremacy (military matters), Bounty (food), Monarchy, Domesticity, Humanity (childbirth and medical matters), Piety, Mortality, and Legacy. The ‘History’ chapter, however, gives much attention to pre- and proto-history (the author’s personal specialism), but only a couple of pages to Tutankhamun’s own era, and nothing at all on later times.

All chapters include a small number of endnotes, although generally giving sources of quotations, rather than guides to further reading on matters of debate, which are rather glossed over in the narrative. On the other hand, there is an informative section that provides a set of useful short essays on sources for each chapter, supported by a 13-page bibliography.

Illustrations comprise a block of colour photographs of Tutankhamun objects featured in the book (including two sections of the wall of the tomb’s burial chamber), and monochrome ones dotted throughout the text. The latter all come from original images taken during the excavation of the tomb by the great archaeological photographer Harry Burton; colorized versions of two of his shots also appear among the colour plates. Slightly oddly, there are no cross-references to the images in the list of the ‘100 objects’ that appears towards the end of the book.

Professor Wilkinson’s book represents a useful introduction to the fundamentals of ancient Egypt for a newcomer, but its attempt to fulfil its own title is not particularly successful, and occasionally means that the author has had to foreswear the use of images that would perhaps have been more useful in illustrating some of the points he makes. The book therefore does not quite live up to its potential, neither delivering what is implied by its title, nor providing the fully rounded account of ancient Egypt that its core text could easily have been turned into.

Tutankhamun’s Trumpet: the story of ancient Egypt in 100 objects 
Toby Wilkinson 
Picador, £25 
ISBN 978-1529045871