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.

Reading Update

These last few weeks haven’t been good for me in the reading department. I don’t think I’m in a reading slump, but something isn’t clicking for me right now. Which means I haven’t had a book review on this blog for a while. Instead of sucking it up and finishing the book I’m reading, I thought I would give you guys a snapshot of where I am in the reading world right now.

I read the last two books in Robin LaFever’s His Fair Assassin trilogy a few weeks ago but never reviewed them. They were great, but I waited too long after I finished the books to sit down and write a review, and I realized that I couldn’t really remember what I wanted to say about them. Writing book reviews is something that I love doing half the time, and can’t bring myself to do the other half of the time. Right now, I’m stuck in the unproductive half of the cycle.

I’m signed up for the Fairytale Retelling Reading Challenge, so I picked up Winterspell by Claire LeGrand. My sister read it a few months ago and recommended it highly. The first 100 pages were awful, but my sister promised that the book got better, and it did. The world building is done really well and I like the premise of a Nutcracker retelling a lot, but the main character annoys me–a lot. I don’t want to give up on this book–especially when I DNF-ed Splintered recently–but this means that I haven’t used my free time to read, so after close to two weeks of reading Winterspell, I’m still only halfway through.

cover winterspell

In school, we started reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I’m enjoying it, though we haven’t gotten to the trial yet, which is reportedly when the plot gets really good. I love the characters and am excited to see what happens–this is one of the only books we read this year for school that I don’t have any idea what happens in the plot (as opposed to something like Oedipus or Romeo and Juliet, whose plots are well known).

cover to kill a mockingbird

For my Nonfiction Reading Challenge, I started reading The Discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen by Howard Carter and A.C. Mace. It is the volume that the two Egyptologists wrote right after they discovered in famous boy king’s tomb. When I was in elementary school, I was flat out obsessed with ancient Egypt, and I still have all the books I bought on the subject during that time. When I was younger, I basically just looked at the pictures–though I did read a lot of material about the subject and watched a lot of Discovery Channel programs (back when that channel was still reputable). Now, I’m trying to get back to the subject, and I thought that this book would be a good place to start. (When school started actually taking up time, my obsession was put on a back burner.)

cover king tut

I’m on spring break this week, so I’m really planning to get a lot of reading done. First off, I have to finish Winterspell. Tomorrow’s Top Ten Tuesday will lay out the books I’m going to choose from to read next. Hopefully I’m not actually in a reading slump, and the next book I read will be enjoyable and remind me why I love reading.

Book Review: The Harlot by the Side of the Road (Forbidden Tales of the Bible) by Jonathan Kirsch

This book was not what I expected–it was 100 times more insightful and complex than I expected.

4.5/5 stars

Genre: nonfiction, biblical analysis

cover the harlot by the side of the road

 Sex. Violence. Scandal. These are words we rarely associate with the sacred text of the Bible. Yet in this brilliant book, Jonathan Kirsch recounts shocking tales that have been suppressed by religious authorities throughout history. Kirsch places each story within the political and social context of its time, delves into the latest biblical scholarship to explain why each one was originally censored, and shows how these ancient narratives hold valuable lessons for all of us.

Obviously, this is not the type of book I usually read. A nonfiction analysis of the bible’s darkest corners is not in my usual YA vein. My grandfather recommended the book to me, and though I didn’t really know what I was getting into–I am so glad that I read this book.

I’m an atheist, so I came into this book with certain preconceptions. A few years ago, I spent a lot of time on Reddit’s r/atheism page, and I expected this book to have the same superior, mocking quality (though with more footnotes).

This book was refreshingly un-obnoxious. The author is a religious man who found himself unsure of how to read the darker side of biblical stories to his young son. The book explores seven biblical stories. First, Kirsch retells each story with the flair of a modern author (direct quotes from the bible are included throughout each story). Then, Kirsch dedicates a chapter to exploring the historical connotations of the story, the secret meanings that scholars have read into the story, and other parts of the bible that tie in to provide further understanding. The analysis is frank and complex. It does not seek to apologize for or explain away the brutality of the stories, nor does it condemn the bible or the people who follow it for containing such stories.

This book fascinated me. I know the rough outlines of the bible, but this book opened up entire new worlds of understanding. The historical context Kirsch offers about the biblical authors and the way the stories have been dealt with by scholars throughout the centuries was amazing. The writing during the story chapters is gorgeous. The writing during the analytically chapters is clean, scholarly, but not without personality. It was fun to read without being rude to believers or insensitive to the horrors of the stories.

But it was the last chapter that made this book for me. Up until the last chapter, “God’s Novel Has Suspense,” Kirsch had not offered a theme, a message. He had calmly reported the horrific stories, analyzed them and the way they have been dealt with throughout history, and left it at that. No judgement, which was refreshing (AKA not obnoxiously atheistic or preachy), but I needed Kirsch to tell me how he could write this book and still be religious.

The last chapter did this. I don’t want to spoil the message, but it was powerful. It impressed me with its humanity and its applicability. It basically did the impossible for me: explained how you can read, understand, and study these select moments in the bible and come out of it with a positive spin on religion.

I was impressed, to say the least.

I would put a trigger alert out there for rape, mass murder, mob violence…

Beyond that, I would recommend this book to…everyone. If you are religious, this book will explore your faith and teach you things you never knew about your holy book, without mocking you for believing it. It will challenge your faith, of course, but it will also help you return to it when it is over. If you are atheistic or not Judaio-Christian-Islamic, this book will give you insight into the bible that you would probably never get anywhere else. Historically, it is an incredible commentary on censorship throughout the ages.

This book was well done. I don’t know what else to say. It really needs to be read, because the message of tolerance and understanding that runs through it would definitely make the world a safer place if more people knew it.