Book Review: The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen by Howard Carter and AC Mace

Wow, this book brought back memories. I was obsessed with ancient Egypt as a kid and it was really great to get back into that world, even if I was just getting my toes wet.

4/5 stars

cover king tut

Description (written by me)

This book was written by Howard Carter, the famous Egyptologist, after the earth-shattering discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen. Written a year after the initial discovery, the book gives the reader a taste of the history of the infamous boy king, introduces them to the necropolis that is the Valley of the Kings, and takes them through the laborious process of preserving, cataloging, and protecting a discovery of this magnitude.

My review

This book was startlingly readable. That sounds horrible to say, but I was expecting a dry, boring account–and luckily I was wrong. This book balances being comprehensive, complete, and reader-friendly, and was a perfect pick for my Nonfiction Reading Challenge.

The thing that struck me most about this book was the sense of voice. Howard Carter’s writing style gives the reader a feeling of personal connection to the excavation and to the Egyptologist. By the end of the book, I had a clear sense of this man: a serious, patient, and slightly arrogant archaeologist who above all respects and treasures ancient Egyptian culture. At times, Carter’s voice became sarcastic–and when describing the cloud of press and paparazzi that surrounded the site, positively sassy. On the whole, however, Carter is a respectable and admirable man who has and undeniable passion for what he does and a clear sense of just how blessed his team was. Without such a strong narrator, I don’t think I could have finished this book.

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the view of the shrine from the antechamber, guarded by two statues

One note on the writing style: while it was enjoyable and easy reading most of the time, it was written by an Englishman in the 1930s, and some of the sentence structure and diction took some getting used to. For example, he uses “manifest” as an adjective to mean “clearly, or obvious”–which is not grammatically wrong, but does strike a modern reader off-balance. He also has a love-hate relationship with commas, sometimes using a ridiculous number in one sentence, and other times neglecting to use them when they were definitely called for.

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Objects were removed from the underground tomb on stretchers, brought into the light where desperate press waited with cameras

The Discovery of the Tomb is also wonderfully informative, covering a range of topics to give the reader a complete understanding of the discovery. All throughout, I found myself surprised and smiling at tidbits of information. For instance, they turned a nearby and empty tomb into a darkroom for the photographer, and used another tomb, farther away at the edge of the Valley, to store items once they had been removed from the tomb but before they were shipped back to museums.

Carter wrote this book (technically the first volume of a larger publication, republished in the 1970s as the book I read) before he had even opened the shrine that held Tutankhamen’s mummy. The book was to serve as a preliminary account of the discovery, presumably to satiate the masses who craved to learn and see the wonders of King Tut’s tomb. Carter knew the audience he was writing for and took the opportunity to educate his readers not just on the discovery.

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a view of the Antechamber showing a pile of broken chariots and two of the three animal couches

The first chapter teaches the reader about the information known about King Tut and the historical climate of his reign. The second and third chapters discuss the home of the tomb, the Valley of the Kings, both in ancient times and modern day, with a distinct focus on tomb robbing. The special attention Carter paid to looters fascinated me, as it was a subject I hadn’t learned much about before. The fourth chapter sets the scene by giving information about Carter’s archaeological career and the seasons leading up to the discovery; indeed, it is not until the fifth chapter that the tomb is actually discovered. While this might strike some readers as tiresome, I found it to be interesting and comprehensive.

local workmen were enlisted for the excavation and removal of the discovered objects
local workmen were enlisted for the excavation and removal of the discovered objects

Carter’s sense of excitement and awe is strong through the rest of the chapters as he describes the discovery of the tomb. He gives the reader a powerful understanding of what was in the tomb and what it felt like to uncover it, as well as the historical implications of each piece. He spends at least one more chapter describing the tedious and impeccable process of removing each object from the Antechamber (the iconic room the discovery is known for, and the only room excavated during the duration of this book). As I had never studied restoration or preservation of artifacts, this chapter was undeniably fascinating.

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a view from the Antechamber of one of the animal couches and the items piled around it

Another chapter, short but full of emotion, is devoted to the trouble of dealing with the constant stream of journalists, dignitaries, colleagues, and desperate tourists who flocked to the excavation site. It was probably one of my favorites to read. I had never considered the politics of such a dig, or the magnitude of the attention news agencies paid Tut’s tomb.

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press and tourists waited from a wall above the entrance of the tomb, hoping to see objects as they were removed

I have to admit that chapter 7, A Survey of the Antechamber, which recounted over 100 items found in the cluttered room, got a little boring. Or, if not boring, repetitive. Parts of the book reads like a long acknowledgements, but I would not say that this is a bad thing, and it did make me respect the narrator more for the lengths he goes to include everyone who took part in the work.

The 105 photographs included are wonderful. The text links to them well, with some of them interspersed in the actual text, while most of them are included in an appendix at the back. Having a visual reference for all of the objects being described definitely helped me follow what Carter was saying and appreciate the beauty of the artifacts discovered.

All in all, this was a pleasant, informative read and I’m glad I decided to pick it up.

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