Tutankhamen’s Curse: The Developing History of an Egyptian King
Profile Books 336pp £18.99
Joyce Tyldesley is a professional Egyptologist inching here towards the terrain of popular culture, delirious rumour and wild superstition. The ‘Tutmania’ that followed the 1922 discovery of the intact lost tomb in the Valley of the Kings and the repeat of the frenzy when the tomb contents toured to the British Museum in 1972 has ensured that many readers will be familiar with the story. Six weeks after the formal opening of the tomb the patron of the excavation, the frail Earl of Carnarvon, was bitten by a mosquito, suffered blood poisoning and pneumonia and then died in Cairo. Carnarvon’s death unleashed a thousand rumours of a curse, stories which remain enormously popular in the tabloid press and through the whispering halls of the Internet. The curse of the mummy drove the bad-tempered excavator Howard Carter to distraction and clearly still annoys the profession.
This fascinating book explores some of these myths and rumours, but is offered as the firm corrective of a scientist. By page four Tyldesley announces she does not believe in curses and, while sketching out some of the allegedly fateful stories attached to those connected with the excavation, she is keen to disprove the various theories that attach to tomb curses. Mosquitoes, poisons, or the occult action of lost Hermetic wisdom are all weighed in the balance and found wanting.
Only 50 pages are actually devoted to curse narratives. The rest of the book is an absorbing, authoritative and highly readable account of the most up-to-date research on the various Egyptological puzzles presented by the body of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen. It is clear that this was a hurried burial, with lots of funerary materials borrowed from other tombs, the cartouches hastily rewritten. The tomb is cramped, unimpressive and unfinished. For all the funerary artefacts the textual haul was deeply disappointing. Tutankhamen’s parentage and his relationship to the heretical religious beliefs of his immediate predecessors remain open questions.
The most startling details concern the fate of the poor king’s body once the intricate array of coffins had finally been opened in 1925. Scientists in the 1920s were far more interested in the stuff in the tomb than the body itself. Tutankhamen was decapitated and dismembered in the process of being chiselled out of the inner coffin, the head prised away with hot knives. The corpse was stuffed back in the coffin when it was resealed. The eager scientists even managed to lose the mummified penis for 60 years, which was assumed lost and only rediscovered in 2006. The temptation to unwrap, and in unwrapping to destroy, the mummy has only very recently been superseded by 3D imaging techniques.
This is an informative book, but it won’t for a minute dispel popular beliefs in the mummy curse. Rumours actively thrive on attempts to debunk them, particularly when so many claim access to rival systems of knowledge ‘hidden’ from the disenchanting gaze of science. We have to understand the allure of those beliefs and their historical roots to grasp the enduring power of such magical thinking.
Roger Luckhurst’s The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy will be published by Oxford University Press in October 2012.
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