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The Shadow King: 11/07/13

cover art

The Shadow King by Jo Marchant takes an in depth look at the history of King Tutankhamen's mummy, especially after its discovery in 1923 by Howard Carter. It's also the story of that discovery and the huge cultural impact it (and other things of Egyptian antiquity) had on the 20th century.

In the year that Tutankhamen's tomb discovery was announced to the world, the boy king became a cultural icon. If social media had existed back then, he would have had fake Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook accounts. Instead, he got a song, "Old King Tut" (see video below).

King Tut as he's been dubbed is a study in paradoxes. A big part of why his tomb was discovered intact, is that his name was stricken from the record. He was the last of a line of controversial pharaohs at the the close of the 18th dynasty and a big part of immortality is having your name out there (it's the same reason why wealthy people buy buildings). If your name isn't out there, and you don't have any major statuary, you're forgotten. If you're forgotten, you're not immortal.

But, his tomb and his body and his belongings were not destroyed. They were buried in an obscure little tomb and left to the ages. As Egyptology grew as a serious academic study in the late 19th century, the blanks in the time line were filled in with greater and greater detail. It became clear to the archeologists of Howard Carter's generation that there had to be someone to fill in the time that Tutankhamen reigned.

Since Tutankhamen made it to the 20th century with little fanfare, his tomb was (for the most part) left untouched. Remarkably, the people who buried him, didn't remove his name from his stash. So here, crammed into a small space were untold historical riches. You can see why a young man whose reign ran from roughly age nine to age eighteen was suddenly a worldwide superstar (and continues to be).

But, here's where things get really interesting, and where Jo Marchant's book takes off from the other dozen or so books about the boy king. For someone suddenly so famous, his body has been horribly mistreated. He is literally in pieces (and for a humorous look at that, I highly recommend Elizabeth Peter's The Laughter of Dead Kings).

Much of the book then focuses on what happened after Howard Carter. There have been numerous theories about Tutankhamen's health, life and death. Marchant goes through all the different studies and their findings. It's a fascinating read and I think Tutankhamen will remain a person of interest for future generations.

Four stars

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