Tomb raiders

From King Tutankhamen’s tomb to the Rosetta Stone, Egyptology enters the 21st century and proves to be something worth further studies

Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion, by Andrew Robinson, Thames & Hudson, RRP£19.95, 272 pages

A History of Ancient Egypt: From the First Farmers to the Great Pyramid, by John Romer, Allen Lane, RRP£25, 512 pages

Tutankhamen’s Curse: The Developing History of an Egyptian King, by Joyce Tyldesley, Profile, RRP£18.99, 336 pages

As the world-weary preacher in Ecclesiastes tells us, “Of making many books there is no end”, and there are times when this rings true. Books on ancient Egypt are no exception to this rule, and a new title seems to appear every month. But there are some titles that give the lie to the old cynic of the Bible. In each of these three new books Egyptology is in good hands, and so is the reader. The subject has great popular appeal, and because of this professionals in other branches of archaeology sometimes distrust it. Here are three reasons for them to feel that this is something worth studying.

Anyone with an interest in ancient Egypt will know that the subject began with Napoleon’s invasion of the country in 1798. This led to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in the following year. A major figure in the story is Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832), the restless Frenchman who deciphered the Rosetta’s hieroglyphs and went on to be the first professor of Egyptology. This may be all that most people know about him but his true history is more complex – and more fascinating – than this. The standard biography of Champollion, by Hermine Hartleben, first published in 1906, borders on hagiography. Here is the standard picture of the penniless scholar who, by genius and inspiration, took on the French establishment and overcame the darkness which had veiled the hieroglyphs for the better part of two millennia. Hartleben’s book shows the father of Egyptology as the good cowboy, whose constant energy brought a new discipline into a world where the knowledge of ancient history had previously had only Greece, Rome and the Bible to draw on.

Scientist and popular writer Andrew Robinson’s Cracking the Egyptian Code reminds us that there is much more to the father of Egyptology than this. Champollion’s decipherment of the Rosetta Stone in 1822 certainly features here, and rightly, because it remains one of the greatest of intellectual feats. But this is only one achievement, and Robinson has a feast in store for us. Champollion is painted here as a leftwing revolutionary, whose espousal of republicanism earned him enemies in a country that had lost the equivalent of a world war and was split apart by grudges and mistrust. Few people helped him in his self-appointed task. Many of Champollion’s contemporaries in Paris would have preferred an Englishman to be the decipherer of hieroglyphs rather than this upstart from the provinces, and one of them wrote to London to warn that his brash countryman was simply not to be trusted.

Champollion’s main rival was the English polymath Thomas Young (also the subject of a biography by Robinson). By 1815 Young, who had made breakthroughs in any number of branches of science, was ahead of the field in his understanding of the Egyptian script. It is tempting to ask how much of Young’s work was known to the Frenchman. Robinson suspects that this was more than Champollion later acknowledged. An Egyptologist will always have a soft spot for Champollion but in his defence it should be said that any acknowledgment by him of Young would have been twisted by Champollion’s enemies and used to discredit him. He did not have the luxury of gentlemanly modesty to hide behind, not even after Young was safely dead. He was on his own, and involved in a bitter fight with the academics who were ranged against him.

One episode that has passed into the literature is Champollion’s visit to London during the 1820s, where he is supposed to have gazed for the first time on the Rosetta Stone. Robinson pours water on this. According to him, the visit did not happen, and the father of Egyptology never saw the monument which had brought about his fame.

Champollion was also a poet, pamphleteer and a tireless correspondent. He was interested in the education of the poor, and was concerned that trashy novels were corrupting people’s minds. He could be a bitter satirist, and carried on a running feud with the Catholic Church. He triumphed but overwork killed him at the age of 41. All of this is brought out by Robinson with verve, elegance and perception.

The Rosetta Stone

His decipherment of the hieroglyphs started a new discipline: Egyptology is now taught and studied in more than 40 countries. The ancient Egyptian language turns out to have the longest recorded history of any tongue, more than Greek, Sanskrit or Chinese. The content of more than 30 dynasties has been slowly reconstructed by scholars, in as much as it can be, since much of the evidence is patchy.

However, the story stretches further into the past. Egyptian prehistory was neglected by scholars, who were busy working on the 30-odd recorded dynasties. When the Englishman Flinders Petrie, the founder of archaeology in Egypt, started finding strange burials at one of his sites he assumed that these were foreigners who had wandered into Egypt at some point after the building of the pyramids. It was a while before he realised that he was looking at the ancestors of ancient Egyptians who had died in the 5th millennium BC, 2,000 years or more before the pyramids existed. This gave Petrie a problem: how do we start to date things when there is no written history? He solved this by analysing small variations in pottery design and decoration, arranging and rearranging slips of paper over the floor of his village lodgings. This was at the beginning of the 1890s. Petrie called this method sequence dating. It is now called seriation, and is one of the great steps forward in archaeology. Egypt now had its prehistory.

A remarkable thing about Egypt is the early appearance of a unified state. Mesopotamia was for much of its history a series of squabbling cities, with sporadic and short-lived attempts at combining a few of them. The same is true of the glory that was Greece, and also of early Italy. Egypt, however, had a pharaoh from before 3000BC, and that was to be the case for the rest of its existence, with occasional lapses into chaos. This is a remarkable feat of abstraction and consensus, and it is essentially unique. What processes lay behind this?

John Romer’s A History of Ancient Egypt is a new attempt to answer this question. At some point before 10,000BC the Nile seems to have occupied much of the north-east quadrant of Africa but, as desiccation set in, it began to shrink to something resembling its modern course. This would have caused bands of hunters and other scavengers to converge on the narrowing water supply. We can glimpse very little of what happened but the later language contains several terms for inhabitants of Egypt which may originally have been distinct and at loggerheads. Egyptologists are becoming increasingly curious about words and grammatical elements within Egyptian that resemble features of later Indo-European. This is something that is yet to be explained, since Egyptian and Indo-European are normally thought to be unrelated, but it does not seem to be an illusion. Yet somehow out of this mixture of peoples came the first unified state.

According to Romer, the process was violent. Bodies from sites such as Hierakonpolis in southern Egypt show people who had been done to death in a variety of ways, none of them pleasant. However, they had been buried with care, presumably by their kinfolk. Scenes of executed prisoners become increasingly common on rock faces and ceramics.

Romer’s book is the first of an ambitious two-part history. The field is enormous, covering material culture, rock art, pottery design and flint carving as well as fragmentary inscriptions. His style is his own, and it goes with the iconoclastic nature of much of his treatment. Some of his ideas will struggle to find acceptance but others lodge in the mind. His sentences lurch from Gladstonian oratory to the downright colloquial, in a way that is more suited to television or conversation than the printed page. But he has a painter’s eye, and many of his physical descriptions are superb, as when he tells us that “Egypt’s most ancient history, then, can only be reconstructed like a necklace, as separate beads of amber, a series of separate and sometimes vivid little moments, set upon a string of time.” This reviewer studied some Egyptian prehistory when he was an undergraduate but the subject has moved on beyond recognition. John Romer’s latest study is part of this moving on, and it is a book to be read and thought about.

Egyptian prehistory remains obscure to most of us, but the tomb of Tutankhamen is the best known discovery in Egyptology, probably in all archaeology. This happened in 1922 and the literature on it is enormous. Now the prolific writer Joyce Tyldesley, known above all for her studies of women in ancient Egypt, has turned her storytelling abilities to this topic, and the result is entertaining and highly readable. There are many books devoted to the objects found inside the tomb, and Tyldesley mostly avoids this side of things. Instead she concentrates on the history of the discovery and the tensions it generated. Egypt in 1923 had recovered some of its independence from the British, and the rival claims of British excavators and the new native government were bound to clash. There was also unease arising from US involvement in the conservation of the thousands of delicate objects that needed treatment.

Then there is the body of the young king himself. An autopsy was done on Tutankhamen in 1925 but it was rushed and lacked many of the techniques that are available today. Important evidence may well have been lost forever. We still do not know how the young king died. Conspiracy theorists tend towards murder as the explanation but Tyldesley more sensibly suggests an accident, perhaps while hunting. Did the king have a spinal deformity, and is this the explanation for the 130 walking sticks found among his treasures? DNA analysis has recently been tried, and other royal mummies compared. To many of us, DNA is seen as the instant solution to any number of problems but, in reality, it often comes as the dust-jacket wrapping a volume of bad science. We are scarcely the wiser even now: we think Tutankhamen’s father was Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh who reformed his country’s religion, but we do not know who his mother was. We think from the flowers buried in the tomb that the king’s funeral took place in March or April but we still cannot pinpoint the year in which he died, because our chronology is not good enough.

Tyldesley clearly enjoyed writing the chapter on the various myths that grew up around Tutankhamen and his tomb. Howard Carter, the discoverer, gave exclusive publication rights of the tomb and its contents to The Times. This made sense archaeologically, since space in the tomb was almost non-existent, but it was a disaster diplomatically. Journalists from other papers with nothing to do started to embroider the story of the Curse of the Pharaohs. There was no evidence for this but it did sell newspapers, and it continues to do so to this day. Radiation from walls and the presence of bat droppings feature in speculation about the deaths of Egyptologists, even when they survived to the age of 90. According to some, venomous spores were deliberately left behind by the ancient tombmakers to await 20th-century excavators. A myth that Tyldesley does not examine is the number of people who claim to have been present at the opening of the burial chamber in Tutankhamen’s surprisingly small tomb. This number clearly needs to be estimated, and compared with the number of seats in the Albert Hall. Perhaps this can be the subject of another book, especially one written with the humour and enthusiasm that Joyce Tyldesley has brought to her latest offering.

John Ray is professor of Egyptology at Cambridge University

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