John Noble Wilford: Review of Joyce Tyldesley's "Tutankhamen: The Search for an Egyptian King"

Roundup: Media's Take

John Noble Wilford, a former senior science correspondent for The Times, writes about archaeology.

Since the discovery of his richly furnished tomb in 1922, Tutankhamen has ascended to an afterlife no pharaoh in ancient Egypt’s 3,000-year civilization could have imagined. His reign was brief, circa 1336-1327 B.C. Historians had previously known so little about him that they were not sure if he had died young or come to the throne as an old man. But the sight of his golden death mask provoked a media frenzy, and the wild conjecture has continued down to our time of high-tech studies of the Tut mummy.

Today, Tut the boy king — about 18 at death — is the superstar of museum and touring exhibitions, one of antiquity’s celebrities, sharing a firmament with the likes of Nefertiti and the ever lusty Cleopatra. Indeed, he is so much a celebrity that Joyce Tyldesley, an Egyptologist at the University of Manchester who wrote a biography of Cleopatra four years ago, says that for some aloof colleagues, confessing an interest in Tutankhamen is “the equivalent to confessing a preference for television soaps over Shakespeare.” Nonetheless, she evidently believes the moment right for a book rethinking the Tutankhamen craze and assessing new biological and archaeological evidence for perspective on his place in Egyptian history. In “Tutankhamen: The Search for an Egyptian King,” Tyldesley has written a crisp, well-researched account of emerging insights into both the life and times of the young king and the modern response, nonsense and all, to his resurrection, as it were, in the modern world.

One part is an archaeologist’s sympathetic review of the luck, hard work and frustration associated with the tomb discovery by Howard Carter, the British excavator bankrolled by a lord, the Earl of Carnarvon. On one “last gamble” in the Valley of the Kings, workers clearing rubble near a known tomb uncovered steps down to another and, as Carter wrote, “made a discovery that far exceeded our wildest dreams.” Tyldesley retells the familiar story with spirit, and with closer attention than usual to each revealing step, including the mistakes, setbacks and dealings with the press....

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