Ancient Egyptian intrigues

The Murder of Tutankhamen - Nefertiti
April 9, 1999

These two books deal with the period of the later 18th Dynasty of Egypt's New Kingdom (c. 1550-1075BC) and specifically with the so-called Amarna Period. Amarna is a unique archaeological site, offering a rare opportunity for Egyptologists to examine a well-preserved pharaonic city, and a unique opportunity to examine one that was occupied for only a short time - essentially the reign of Akhenaten and the early part of that of Tutankhamen. It is not, however, for its archaeological value that the site is best known to the public at large, but rather as the find spot of the famous limestone bust of Nefertiti, now in the Berlin Museum, and as the home of Akhenaten, founder of monotheism.

Most popular works on Amarna focus on Akhenaten and his worship of the sun-disc known as the Aten, on his peculiar physique and on the strange, exaggerated art style that his craftsmen employed. Nefertiti tends to feature as a figure behind her husband, portrayed more as an objet d'art than as an influential historical figure.

Joyce Tyldesley's book seeks to redress this imbalance in the popular literature on Amarna by providing a well-researched study of Nefertiti, and her place in the Egyptian court. It begins by introducing the "imperial family" and providing a background to its place in the history of New Kingdom. One of the book's great strengths is the feeling it gives of life at the court of Akhenaten, with newly created officials loyal to the ruler who had promoted them. Akhenaten appears as a man who understood how to gain loyalty from his followers and so promoted them above the elite of the old regime, most of whom must have remained at Thebes (modern Luxor, the traditional religious capital where his father had held court).

We are then introduced to the complexities of the royal family. Tyldesley dismisses the theory that Nefertiti was, in fact, one of the foreign princesses of the harem of Amenhotep III, and that she was re-named Nefertiti ("the beautiful one has come"). Instead, she places the queen as a member of the Egyptian nobility. It is known that Tey, wife of the "overseer of the King's [Amenhotep III's] horses" Ay, held the title "Nurse of the Great King's wife Nefertiti". Tyldesley explains that this probably meant "wet nurse", an important position in the court, and one that would have given her a special bond with Nefertiti. But who was her natural mother? Tey never claims to be "Royal Mother of the King's Great Wife", so we must assume that she was not Nefertiti's mother, but nor do we know of anyone else claiming this title.

It seems likely, however, that Tey and Ay were the parents of Mutnodjmet who is described as Nefertiti's "sister", but thanks to the imprecise use of that term in the 18th Dynasty, it is likely that she was in fact a half-sister, step-sister or even foster-sister. Nefertiti's parentage, then, remains enigmatic.

Throughout the discussion of Nefertiti's background, as throughout the book, Tyldesley provides the reader with a series of notes and references. These lift the book above the ordinary popular account so that the reader is clear as to how any particular line of argument has been arrived at.

The question of a co-regency between Akhenaten and Nefertiti is examined, but Tyldesley concludes that the queen was "an influential but relatively conventional consort". This influential woman is shown in scenes of celebration during the king's 12th regnal year when tribute from vassal states was presented at Amarna. Within a couple of years, however, life at court was devastated by a series of deaths, perhaps part of a plague raging through the Near East. First to die was one of Nefertiti's six daughters, Meketaten, who is buried in the royal tomb. Other members of the royal family died, most important among them Kiya, an important secondary royal wife, probably the mother of Tutankhamen and the enigmatic Smenkhare.

Nefertiti also disappears from the scene at around this time. Perhaps she too died in the plague. While the royal tomb has scenes showing the mourning for Meketaten, however, there is none for Nefertiti. Tyldesley argues that this would have been unthinkable for such an important figure, suggesting instead that Nefertiti might have lived on as an elderly matriarch, her earlier prominence overtaken by that of her eldest daughter Ankhesenaten, now married to Tutankhamen, heir to the throne. The old theory that Nefertiti was disgraced and so left Amarna is dismissed, as is the theory that Nefertiti and Smenkhare were the same person and that she became a co-regent with Akhenaten. Rather, Tyldesley believes, on the basis of sculptural evidence, that the queen grew old gracefully, if in the shadow of Ankhesenaten and Tutankhamen.

It is clear that most of the evidence focuses on the king, and we are dependent on representations of Nefertiti beside him, and inference about her likely role in relation to his at any given time. The ruler is paramount, his consort does not have a separate historical existence, and it is to Tyldesley's credit that she is able to present a discussion in such a lucid and interesting way.

It is Tutankhamen, successor of Akhenaten and Smenkhare, who is the subject of Bob Brier's book, The Murder of Tutankhamen . This is a very different book from that of Tyldesley. The written style is often poor and frequently intrusive. Like Nefertiti , the chapters have notes to references, but unlike Tyldesley's citations, most of these are to books or secondary sources, rather than to papers and primary works. The notes have not been well assembled or checked. Thus we find the distinguished American Egyptologist William C. Hayes cited as "Williman C. Hayes" and an Egyptological publisher is re-located from Warminster to Westminster. Similarly, a book title given in the text can become a different title when cited in the notes, and one ancient text appears as "Plague Prayers" on page 181 but as "Palace Prayers" in the notes. This is not what one might expect from one whom the dust jacket describes as "one of the world's most authoritative and respected Egyptologists". Both books are illustrated, and both would have benefited from longer illustration captions. In the case of Brier's book, however, there are some extremely poor photographs.

Brier's plot is by no means new. It is centred on the idea that Ay, who not only served Amenhotep III and Akhenaten but also Tutankhamen, murdered the young king to gain the throne for himself. There is no firm evidence for this, as Tyldesley points out. There is evidence from the skull of Tutankhamen to suggest that he may have suffered a blow to the head, and that he may not have died instantly from it. This, however, is a far cry from saying that Ay was responsible for his murder.

Throughout the text there are statements that seem sweeping, or which one feels obliged to check. We learn, for example, that physicians did not practise dentistry, and yet that very practice is recorded in papyri and in archaeological evidence.

Brier, along with his colleague Ronald S. Wade, is probably the only person in modern times to have embalmed a corpse using ancient techniques, and he is clearly most at home in discussing mummification and palaeopathology. Even here, however, little evidence is given, and virtually none of it is new. Given the chance to examine the mummification of the two foetuses from Tutankhamen's tomb, Brier does not touch them: "I just looked." In fairness, this is because of the damage caused by previous anatomists, but given that Brier specialises in the study of mummification and human remains and is aware of the correct procedures, one might have expected a fuller examination. In my opinion, this book would have been better presented as a short paper summarising the results of Brier's examination of the Tutankhamen X-rays, and the examination of the foetuses from the tomb. The murder plot, while not completely unfeasible, is speculation at best, and accounts for not much more than a quarter of the book's length.

Paul T. Nicholson is lecturer in archaeology, University of Cardiff.

The Murder of Tutankhamen

Author - Bob Brier
ISBN - 0 297 84130 0
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 264

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