Bob Brier’s Tutankhamun and the Tomb That Changed the World

A Senior Research Fellow at Long Island University in Brookville, New York, Bob Brier over his decades-long career has become not only a respected Egyptologist, but a leading champion in bringing his science to the general public.  Dr. Brier, in fact, was the first person in 2,000 years to mummify a human cadaver as they did in ancient Egypt, earning him the nickname “Mr. Mummy.”  His analyses of famous mummies – Vladimir Lenin, Eva Peron, Marquise Tai of China, the Medici family of Renaissance Italy, Ramses the Great, and, of course, Tutankhamun — have only added to this legendary status.  His love for all things Egypt shines especially bright throughout his magisterial Great Courses: Ancient Egypt, a video presentation containing 48 lectures covering most anything anyone might want to learn about Egyptology.

It makes sense then that Brier has penned the one book that those wishing entry into this fascinating subject should devour, Tutankhamun and the Tomb That Changed the World.  We’re a century beyond Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s famous discovery, one that’s sparked “Egyptomania” and “Tutmania” which have birthed both blessings and curses depending how one chooses to approach them.  Tutankhamun’s discovery brought blessings in that Carter exercised meticulous precision when selecting his team who painstakingly photographed, recorded, and conserved Tutankhamun’s treasures as had never been done before with any dig.  There were blunders, obviously, for example Douglas Derry’s wretched handling of Tutankhamun’s remains when analyzing them, taking no care for preservation, even bisecting the corpse at the midpoint!  The curse relates to how people have chosen to exploit all things Egypt much in the way Western colonizers – Napoleon, the British Empire – have through large portions of history.  We’ve seen merchandising schemes involving Tut perfume or Pharaoh-themed snacks, various film images that promote insulting cultural images or that do nothing but distort historical fact, creating deeply ingrained false beliefs that forestall learning about what possibly occurred and what methodology could best promote learning more still.

Indeed, the mega-exhibit that happened during the 1970s spawned such a huge frenzy that comedian Steve Martin wrote and performed a song, “King Tut,” which premiered on Saturday Night Live, April 22, 1978.  Martin prefixed his moment with the following statement: “One of the great art exhibits ever to tour the United States was the ‘Treasures of Tutankhamun,’ or ‘King Tut.’  But I think it’s a national disgrace the way we have commercialized it with trinkets and toys, t-shirts, and posters.”  You can watch the video here:  Brier points out that we tend to remember Martin belting out that Tutankhamun was “Born in Arizona” and “Moved to Babylonia,” but we forget the most telling line: “He gave his life for tourism.”  Recently, a group from Reed College, Reedies Against Racism (RAR) took umbrage with what they saw as Martin’s racist imagery and cultural appropriation.  His visual presentation and certain lines within the song haven’t aged well, and perhaps a comedian attempting this today hopefully might take a different approach.  To the best of my knowledge, Martin hasn’t commented on this flurry, and I fervently wish that should he do so he won’t follow in the footsteps of the arrogant and misinformed J.K. Rowling.

Brier brings forth the blessings, however, dividing his book into three sections: “History of the Tomb,” “Tutankhamun Revealed,” and “Tutankhamun’s Legacy.”  The first part features the history of Egyptology, and Brier introduces readers to a colorfully adventurous cast.   We meet Flinders Petrie, the father of Egyptology and Howard Carter’s instructor.  Then comes Theodore Davis, discoverer of Tuya and Yuya, Tutankhamun’s great grandparents.  Brier draws us into it all, deftly outlining how Napoleon’s savants inspired massive efforts.  Particularly interesting to me is Akhenaton — Tutankhamun’s father and the instigator of a grand heresy.  Also present is Hatshepsut, the woman pharaoh.  Brier continues pulling us along through early days, right up to Carter and Carnarvon’s big moment, and then through both men’s fates.

The second section serves as an introduction to what scientists have learned about Tutankhamun through advances in X-ray and scanning technologies.  Carter lamented that although he’d uncovered Tutankhamun, he never really got to know him.  “In the end, Tutankhamun eluded me,” he famously complained.  Now Egyptologists are making huge strides into the boy-king, his physiognomy, his parentage and possible lineage, and what pathologies he might have suffered.  Here Brier also shares what has been learned about the objects from Tutankhamun’s tomb, about Egyptian religion, daily life, and how pharaohs wished the world to perceive them.  Brier himself even admits to how new revelations have discredited his own theory surrounding Tutankhamun’s having been murdered.  No, sorry Bob.  Not likely.

The third section I’ve discussed partly above, noting the blessings and curses of Tutmania.  Brier credits Tutankhamun for playing a part in liberating Egypt from colonial powers, showing how debates regarding the ownership of artifacts have inspired Egyptians to take control of what’s theirs.  Brier dubs Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s efforts the “best dig ever,” because procedures they followed established practices with Egyptology that had never existed before.  Were these men perfect?  Not even remotely.  But they at least motivated later tomb divers to take better care when excavating and collecting.  Remember: photograph, record, and preserve.

Brier loves Egyptology, and he wants you to love it too.  Tutankhamun and the Tomb That Changed the World is his love letter to his lifelong obsession and his invitation to readers who might feel interested enough to join the fun.  Even if you don’t come out of it loving Egyptology and Tutankhamun, you’ll deeply appreciate the history, methodologies, and controversies therein.  Brier could very well be the Carl Sagan or Neil DeGrasse Tyson of Egyptology.  Read and decide for yourselves.