“The Complete Tutankhamun: 100 Years of Discovery” by Nicholas Reeves; Thames & Hudson (464 pages, $50)
Ancient Egyptians made him a god.
Modern Egyptologists made him immortal.
When Tutankhamun came to the throne around 1330 B.C., he still counted his age in single digits. When he died, his body weakened by malaria, Tut was not quite 20. His death was so sudden he was buried in a borrowed tomb.
And then, eventually, forgotten.
“Thirty centuries and more would pass before Tutankhamun’s name was heard again in the Valley of the Kings, after an American digger’s chance discovery of a few scraps of burial equipment,” writes Nicholas Reeves in “The Complete Tutankhamun.”
In 1909, that find led explorer Theodore M. Davis — a retired businessman and amateur archaeologist — to a small underground chamber. He proudly announced he had found Tut’s tomb.
“Of course, he was wrong, as we now know and as (British archaeologist) Howard Carter immediately saw,” Reeves writes. “For him, the Davis finds were mere pointers to a burial yet to be found – a burial he was determined to uncover. From 1917 on, while colleagues loudly scoffed, Carter and his sponsor, Lord Carnarvon, cleared every likely location down to bedrock in search of this archaeological Holy Grail.”
Five years later, their quest was rewarded.
Born in London in 1874, Carter’s precocious talent as an artist won him his first job at 17, doing sketches for archaeologists on a dig in Egypt, then still a British protectorate. “Young Carter’s enthusiasm was real and intense,” Reeves writes. “He was a quick learner and his abilities were considerable.” By 1899, Carter had a government position in Egypt and supervised expeditions.
The young Englishman, though, was a hothead.
In 1905 when drunken French tourists began insulting the guards at a historic site, Carter threw the visitors out. Then, he refused to refund their money; the ensuing argument led to a fistfight. Outraged, the tourists complained to the British Consul-General. The official told Carter he would have to apologize.
Instead, Carter quit. He went into business for himself as “a gentleman dealer,” discovering — and sometimes selling — antiquities.
Economic security required a patron, however. Carter found one in George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon. The British noble was on vacation in San Francisco in 1903 when he saw a recently discovered Egyptian mummy on display at the city’s exclusive Bohemian Club.
Archaeology, the lord mused, might make an amusing hobby.
After two mostly disappointing years on his own — his main find was a mummified cat — Carnarvon decided to hire Carter. Even after, the work was slow going. Carter always insisted that Tutankhamun’s tomb was close at hand. However, by 1922 his patron had grown less convinced. Finally, he summoned Carter back to England to tell him he wouldn’t pay for another expedition.
Carter impulsively offered to pay for it himself.
“Impressed by Carter’s commitment, the fifth Earl relented,” Reeves writes. “The digging would continue and he, not Carter would again foot the bill. But it would be their last throw of the dice.”
The gamble paid off.
On Nov. 4, 1922, the team’s water boy, Hussein Abd el-Rassul, discovered what looked like the top of a staircase just under the desert sand. By the next day, the team had uncovered 16 steps leading to a plastered-over entrance covered in official, largely illegible seals. Was this Tut’s tomb at last?
Carter ordered the entrance temporarily reburied. He put his life’s quest on hold to wait a bit and cabled Carnarvon to return to Egypt. He waited eagerly for his sponsor’s return for more than two weeks. Once Carnarvon finally arrived, the dig resumed.
Slowly, one underground corridor, then another, were revealed. Both showed signs of ancient burglaries, with holes in the walls roughly replastered.
This didn’t overly worry Carter. Graverobbing was common even during the time of the Pharaohs and was swiftly punished. Usually, whatever damage the robbers did was quickly repaired, and the criminals were then publicly impaled.
The only real question was how far the thieves had gotten before they were caught.
Finally, the Englishmen arrived at another plastered-over doorway, also covered with seals — some bearing the hieroglyphs for Tutankhamun’s name. Carter knocked a small hole in the wall and thrust in a candle.
“At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker,” Carter wrote later, “But presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist.”
“Can you see anything?” Carnarvon called out.
“Yes,” Carter answered. “Wonderful things.”
They had found the tomb of the great Tut – untouched.
It would not remain that way for long. Work began immediately and proceeded with meticulous care. Diagrams were made to show precisely where the objects had been found; almost endless photographs were taken. Only then were more than 5,000 of the king’s treasures painstakingly removed.
Some were remarkably preserved, golden statues still shining brightly, jewels glittering in their settings. Naturally, even in a sealed chamber, some objects showed the ravages of time; clothing was crumbling into dust. The mummy’s wrappings were black with ancient rot.
The exhumation took a decade.
Right from the start, though, this engaged the public’s attention. In England, the ongoing story was covered exhaustively and exclusively by the Times. Entertainers responded with novelty songs like “Tutankhamun Shimmy” and “Old King Tut Was a Wise Old Nut.”
And when the real news wasn’t exciting enough, some reporters invented stories. When Carnarvon died in 1923 from an infected mosquito bite, gossip quickly proposed far more thrilling theories. After all, hadn’t the warning “Death shall come on swift wings to him that toucheth the tomb of Pharoah” been inscribed over the royal grave?
Still, this was yet another rumor. But it didn’t stop papers from writing about “the mummy’s curse.” Abandoning his character Sherlock Holmes’ cold logic, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle warned that supernatural “elementals” guarded the ancient king. Conspiracists began cataloging all the mysterious deaths associated with the expedition.
In fact, of the 22 people who had witnessed the opening of the sarcophagus, only two died within the decade. Carter died in 1939, at 64. Others lived well into their 80s. So much for the swift wings of death.
One of the last to go was Dr. D.E. Derry, who died in 1969 at 87. He had performed the autopsy, cutting open the rotting bandages to examine the dead ruler. What he found was the spindly body of a buck-toothed teenager, his spine twisted by scoliosis. The great and young king likely needed a cane to walk.
He had also failed to produce an heir. The mummified fetuses of his two children had been entombed with him.
Even if the pharoah had come to a sad and lonely end, his impressive possessions lived on. Glittering gold masks and alabaster statues. Jewelry that was out of this world — fashioned from meteorites. Ebony board games and silver trumpets. Wine, meat, and baskets of spices. All had been packed away to accompany him on his journey to the afterlife.
And he did achieve immortality – in a way. King Tut still lives on – in myth, museums, even an SNL skit, and, of course, secure in his place in history.