Immortal fame set in a golden afterlife

The Boy behind the Mask

November 30, 2007

King Tut is back in town. He, or rather some of the objects from his tomb, last visited London in 1972, the 50th anniversary of the discovery by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon. Tutankhamun succeeded in pulling in more than 1.5 million visitors on that occasion and will no doubt do equally well this time, even at the admission price of £20 that is being charged by the building formerly known as the Millennium Dome.

There will be many programmes and publications to coincide with the visit of the teenage pharaoh, and Charlotte Booth has come up with a timely contribution in The Boy behind the Mask: Meeting the Real Tutankhamun. The problem in writing about Tutankhamun is that all we know of him, apart from a few sketchy inscriptions, is the contents of his tomb. These are justifiably world famous, and many of them are masterpieces of design or decoration, but they can only hint at the life that lay behind them. The author admits this, and she makes skilful use of the suggestions that the objects in the tomb convey.

Expressions such as "probably" and "may have" appear throughout the book, but Booth knows how to keep the spotlight on the central figure, rather in the way that Cicero kept the spotlight on Verres in his detailed prosecution before the Roman senate.

The Boy behind the Mask is particularly good on a range of subjects. The campaigns in Asia and Nubia that featured in Tutankhamun's reign are given their due, probably for the first time in a popular work. The type of wine known as shedeh, traces of which appear in some of the jars in the tomb, is shown to be a heat-treated beverage, perhaps similar to modern Madeira. The evidence from the embalmers' cache found outside the tomb is described in detail, and the point is well made that the forensic evidence that can be gained from this find is far from being exhausted. There is also a sensitive treatment of the astronomical instrument belonging to one of Tutankhamun's ancestors, which the young pharaoh claims personally to have repaired. Tutankhamun may have been more of an intellectual than we suspected.

Much of the evidence cited to prove that the young king was murdered is shown to be damage inflicted on the body at the time of its unwrapping after 1923. On the other hand, the book skates over the question of whether the King suffered from curvature of the spine. There were a large number of walking sticks found in the tomb. In theory, Tutankhamun could have been a collector of such items, but there are contemporary representations of a young prince or king leaning on a staff. Perhaps Tutankhamun was partially disabled, and this may have played a part in his early death.

There is also a good discussion of the shadowy brother or half-brother of Tutankhamun who is known as Smenkhkare. Several objects from this king's burial found their way into Tutankhamun's tomb, including the miniature coffin that has been used as the leading poster for the London expedition. The irony is that the face currently being used to advertise Tutankhamun to the millions is probably not his at all.

There are a number of minor errors in the book, which may simply be the result of a hasty deadline. An academic proof-reader would have been able to spot these, and it is a pity, as well as a disservice to a lively author, that this stage seems to have been bypassed. There are also repetitions, for example in the descriptions of the decree that reinstated Egypt's traditional religion after the heretical reforms of Tutankhamun's predecessor, Akhenaten. The question of whether Tutankhamun and his young queen produced living children is floated tantalisingly, then apparently dismissed. It is also hard to discover whether the author thinks that Ay, Tutankhamun's successor, ordered the murder of the Hittite prince or not. Here, too, the editors could have contributed more.

This said, The Boy behind the Mask remains a readable and wide-ranging book - and one that will surely help to introduce a new generation to the fascination of King Tut.

John Ray is professor of Egyptology at Cambridge University. His book The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt is due to be published in January by Profile Books.

The Boy behind the Mask: Meeting the Real Tutankhamun

Author - Charlotte Booth
Publisher - Oneworld Publications
Pages - 192
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 9781851685448

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