932: The Shadow King by Jo Marchant

by Gerard


932.014092: Marchant, Jo. The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press, 2013. 245 pp. ISBN 978-0-306-82133-2.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 900: History and Geography
  • 930: History of the ancient world
  • 932: History of Egypt to 640
  • 932.01: Early history to 332  B.C.
  • 932.014: Period of New Kingdom, 1570-1075 B.C.
  • +092: Biography

1,300 years before the birth of Christ, one man ruled over a desert kingdom. But he wasn’t really a man. Taking the throne at age nine, Tutankhamun ended the worship of the god Aten in favor of the god Amun (hence the name) as well as directed the continuation of building projects at Karnak and Thebes. Because he was a child, most of the day-to-day decisions were handled by his powerful advisers. Ten years into his reign, he died from an unknown cause. As was customary, his body was treated with great respect, mummified, and laid to rest in a secret temple in the Valley of the Kings. And then he was forgotten. Forgotten, that is, until 1922, when Howard Carter unsealed his tomb and reintroduced him to the world. Jo Marchant’s The Shadow King is an exploration of both the life and afterlife of the legendary Egyptian leader.

One of my favorite bits of Tut lore is comes early in the book and is about Carter’s reaction upon first entering the tomb in 1922. After making his way past the pile of desert debris, his lone candle flickering in a space untouched by man for 3,200 years, a voice called back to him from the entrance. It was his employer, Lord Carnarvon, asking, “Can you see anything?” To which Carter replied, “Yes, it is wonderful.”  From the discovery of King Tut’s tomb (now labeled KV62), Marchant follows every winding path of discovery, every TV special and charming popular scientist, to get a bigger picture of how society and history have viewed this boy king from a forgotten era. From preliminary examinations in dusty backrooms to high-tech scans to find genetic relations, disease markers, and life events, her journalistic adventures takes her around the world to get to the bottom of the legend. (Don’t worry, there’s still a good chronology of the supposed curse of the tomb raiders). She details each discovery as the image of Tut progresses from rich pharaoh to inbred weakling to war hero and beyond.

The weird thing is that each discovery not only tells us something about the pharaoh, but also reveals something about the discoverer as well. The ever-ostentatious Zahi Hawass, who plays a central part in almost every new discovery these days, is portrayed as a knowledgeable but self-promoting Egyptologist whose apparent certainty about his declarations on Tut lore seems to invite instant controversy from the scientific world. Overall, this book was very interesting and had a lot of cool science. The nature of the work being done to investigate King Tut’s life and death is on the cutting edge and therefore suspect to a great deal of doubt. But that’s what they said about fingerprints in the late 1800s. I hope that one day we get to the point where we can definitively reconstruct the lives of the pharaohs. But for now, the journey is where the excitement is. This is a great book for budding Egyptologists and forensic science fans. Yes, it is wonderful.