Summary: Ninety years after Howard Carter and his team uncovered the opulent grave of Tutankhamen, Joyce Tyldesley explores the story of the world’s best-known pharaoh, looking beyond the myths that surround him. She reveals what we know about his short life and examines the reasons why Tutankhamen became a cultural icon.
As part of our reader book club, BBC History Magazine gave people the chance to read Tutankhamen’s Curse: The Developing History of an Egyptian King and put their questions to the book’s author, Joyce Tyldesley, honorary research fellow at the University of Liverpool Here’s what they had to say…
Why did the sinister side of Tutankhamen’s legend (his murder, the curse) take such a hold on the public’s imagination?
Gillian Jack, Edinburgh
Joyce says: I think that development of the Tutankhamen myth, with all its sinister aspects, has a great deal to do with the time that the tomb was discovered. In 1922 the world had been devastated by a major war followed by an influenza pandemic. There was naturally an interest in the occult, and it seemed almost inconceivable that a young man could simply die: surely there had to be a reason? Once these theories had taken root, they became associated with conspiracy theories, and grew and grew, fed by the media attention that as at all times focused on the tomb, its contents and its excavators.
Approximately how many Pharaoh’s tombs do you think remain undiscovered and why is this? Is it purely a matter of the difficulty of locating them or are there economic and political factors that prevent more speedy and extensive discoveries?
Zelda Culley, Wiltshire
Joyce says: Most of the New Kingdom pharaohs – the kings who were buried in the Valley of the Kings – either have a known tomb or a known mummy. But there are other kings who have not been discovered, such as some later kings whom we know were buried in the temples of northern Egypt. And we still have a number of fairly prominent queens missing, too. I think it is possible that we may find some of the missing queens in or near the Valley of the Kings; maybe in a shared tomb similar to that used for the sons of Ramesses II. It is less likely that we will find the kings who were buried in the north, as northern sites are prone to damp and this affects the archaeology badly.
Our approach to discovering tombs is in many ways different to the approach of Egyptologists a century ago. Modern Egyptologists are starting to question the ethics of simply seeking out, opening and destroying graves. Rather than focusing on death, we are interested in discovering the life of the ancient Egyptians, and excavations at dwelling sites, temples and fortresses are providing us with much needed, and previously overlooked, information.
If the Ancient Egyptians knew about the flash flooding of the Valley of the Kings, why did they insist in burying their kings there?
Josée Bélanger, Québec
Joyce says: Flooding does not occur on a regular basis so, while it was a definite hazard, it was not a serious enough threat to stop the early 18th Dynasty kings from picking the Valley for their burials. Apart from the flooding, the Valley suited their purpose well: it was remote (therefore less likely to attract robbers), it was relatively close to the great state temple of Amen, and the Theban mountain formed a natural peak or pyramid above the tombs. Once the Valley had become established as the royal cemetery, subsequent kings wished to be buried near their revered ancestors, and so they were prepared to overlook the risk of flooding.
Knowing how Ancient Egyptians were pious and went through so much trouble to bury their dead and prepare them for the afterlife how can they have in all consciousness rob the tombs?
Josée Bélanger, Québec
Joyce says: The ancient Egyptians were people of differing education and experiences, just as we are today. It would be a big mistake to imagine that they all had the same understanding of, and respect for, their own society and its official religion. There were those who were pious and those who were not: those who were law abiding and those who were not. Those who robbed the elite graves either did not understand the theology underpinning the funerary traditions, or were too poor or too greedy to care. We find the same situation in the modern world, where churches and graveyards, supposedly sacred spaces, are frequently robbed or vandalised.
Lacau states that Carter has “afforded a fine example of method and patience” yet later his methods are questioned. Do you believe any of the early Egyptian “excavators” get near to modern requirements to any extent and who do you admire most?
Ian Wiseman, Portugal
Joyce says: Excavation is very much an evolving science: today excavators recognise this by leaving patches of archaeological sites unexcavated, for the investigators of the future. None of the earlier 20th century excavators came close to our modern standards – they did not have the training, and they did not have access to the tools and methodologies that we use today, but Carter was far better than many, if not all, of his contemporaries, so we have to be grateful that it was he who discovered Tutankhamen and not someone else. Because of this, because of his recognition that he needed to assemble the best excavation team available, and because of his determination not to be hurried in his work, I admire Howard Carter.
Next month we’ll be looking at The Arch Conjuror of England: John Dee by Glyn Parry.
It’s not too late to join the BBC History Magazine reader book club – find out more at www.historyextra.com/reader