Book Review: The Shadow King
By Jo Marchant
Da Capo Press, 2013
Of the great pharaoh Infer II, who ruled for nearly fifty years through drought and warfare, you will have heard nothing. Mentuhotep II, who united Upper and Lower Egypt and ruled the new Twin Lands for over half a century with justice and mercy, will be unknown to you. Vicious Sensusret III, in the path of whose armies and navies the entire known world trembled, is less than a name. Even the greatest pharaoh who ever lived, the magnificent warrior and judge whose throne name was Amenhotep III has but one slender claim to your attention: you know his grandson’s name.
Ah, but you’ve heard of that grandson. Everybody has. He came to the throne at age nine and ruled for only about nine years, during which he moved the capital city, altered the state religion, and restored diplomatic relations with his neighboring kingdoms. He may have died before he could become the titan some of his predecessors were, but even so, he was no placeholder king. Yet we know him today for none of these things. We know him because his gravesite was lucky: a desert flash-flood swept some scree in front of its entrance, hiding it from thieves. And so it was largely undisturbed when it was finally opened, by scholars not plunderers, in 1922.
He’s Tutankhamun, of course, and his face – or rather, the gorgeous gold mask that adorned his mummy, has become one of the most recognizable images in the world, virtually the symbol for all of ancient Egypt.
That phenomenon – the remarkable post-burial career of this obscure 18th Dynasty boy-ruler – is the subject of Jo Marchant’s new book Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy. Marchant is a much-published science journalist; the first thing her research on the subject must have told her was that hundreds of people have assayed that subject before her, starting with Howard Carter who actually opened Tutankhamun’s tomb and winding all the way forward to the present day, ranging from the serious to the silly. Each of those books has presented a slightly different version Tutankhamun himself, as Marchant aptly points out:
Over the years, we have been presented with a range of different stories about this frail mummy. There’s Tut the murder victim. The inbred cripple. The sickly youth who succumbed to malaria. The active king who died at war, or in a chariot accident. The hunter who was mauled by a hippo. Not to mention the black-magic artist who laid a deadly trap for those who would invade his tomb more than three thousand years later.
The Shadow King makes almost no attempt to pin down anything so simplistic as a definitive Tutankhamun, especially since the brilliant immediacy of that golden mask tends to make people forget the staggering length of time between his era and the present day. Marchant relates the often torturous convolutions sheer time can work on mortal remains:
For example, the mummy identified by Gaston Maspero as Thutmose I (who ruled at the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty) seemed to be just twenty-two–far too young for a king who had supposedly campaigned vigorously in Nubia and Asia. This mummy didn’t have any inscription on the bandages themselves, and though its face resembled the mummies of Thutmose II and III, is arms were by its sides rather than folded across its chest– not what you would expect from a king. [University of Michigan orthodontic specialist James] Harris concluded that this man wasn’t Thutmose I at all, but another member of his family.
The mummy thought to be Seti II, of the Nineteenth Dynasty, didn’t look anything like the other heavy-jawed pharaohs of his family line. But he did bear a striking resemblance to kings of the Eighteenth Dynasty, and was most similar to Thutmose II and III. The throne names of Seti II and Thutmose I look similar in the hieratic script used by the priests to label the bodies, suggesting that perhaps this mummy is really the missing Thutmose I.
Thanks to the relatively pristine condition of Tutankhamun’s tomb, no such fundamental doubts attend his remains, although the remains themselves pose several questions, which Marchant ticks off, culminating with the biggest one of all:
…strangest of all, Tutankhamun has no heart. Some of the other details could perhaps be put down to differences between embalming schools, but a missing heart is a fundamental omission. Whereas the Egyptian embalmers tended to discard the brain, they saw the heart as the center of a person’s intellect and personality. Other organs were removed and mummified separately, but the heart was deliberately left in the body. Its owner was going to need it at the weighing-of-the-heart ceremony, held to determine whether the person was worthy of eternal life.
Although even this isn’t unprecedented:
Mummies are sometimes found without their hearts, and in these cases, perhaps the embalmers messed up and pulled it out by accident. After all, you can find mummies in pretty much any condition – with missing body parts, or extra body parts (not necessarily human), one unfortunate man was even found wrapped up facing the ground, with his mask on the back of his head. But the ancient priests generally took more care with royalty.
None of those previous Tutankhamun books has the sheer crackle of The Shadow King; when it comes to popular science writing, Marchant knows her business. She takes her readers through the excavation, the science, the publicity campaigns, the whirlwind museum tours that have dazzled the world, and even the political unrest that’s thrown so much of present-day Egypt into turmoil. The story takes plenty of tragic turns, but Marchant saves what may be the most tragic note for last:
With everything that the mummy has been through in just ninety years, I find it hard to see how it will survive many more decades or centuries, let alone millennia. We’re living in a privileged time window during which it is possible to meet our shadow king. For Tutankhamun, this bizarre and eventful afterlife is a mere flash of existence between two types of oblivion, past and future: three thousand years erased from human memory, and the eternal end of physical destruction.
If this grim assessment is true, all those thousands of museum-goers who’ve lined up to gaze on that golden, imperturbable mask were even more fortunate than they knew.