Review of Treasured: How Tutankhamun Shaped a Century by Christina Riggs
Treasured: How Tutankhamun Shaped a Century
by Christina Riggs
To say that I windmill-slammed the request button on NetGalley for this book is an understatement. Treasured: How Tutankhamun Shaped a Century promised something very tantalizing: a look into a cultural phenomenon that took the world by storm a hundred years ago. Christina Riggs does not exaggerate when she talks about the “Tut-mania” that swept the world over and over throughout the twentieth century, literally inspiring so many people like her to become Egyptologists. Though it had no such enduring impact on me, I remember the requisite ancient Egypt unit in elementary school, the making of a papier-mâché mummy entombed in a shoebox sarcophagus painted like Tutankhamun’s famous funerary mask. So when I saw Public Affairs offering eARCs, yeah, it touched something deep within my psyche. “Let’s dive into this,” I thought, “and see what more I can learn.”
Riggs weaves her own personal backstory throughout the book as she examines the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the subsequent analyses of his tomb and body, and the way the objects of his tomb became an important part of Egypt’s export of its culture on tour for political and economic benefits. Much to my satisfaction, Riggs explicitly calls out the colonialist and imperialist forces that shaped everything about Tutankhamun’s treatment, from his discovery up to the present day. That was my main concern going in—that the book would be a little shallow and not engage with the colonial elephant in the room—and Riggs allayed it immediately.
These are the science history books I truly appreciate: the ones that grapple with the darkness at the root of Western science’s often harmful history. We like to hold up science as a neutral process, but that is true only in the most abstract sense of the scientific method. The truth is that for the vast majority of the history of science, the scientists, the people involved, have often resorted to callous, careless, cruel experiments and methodology to get answers. In the case of Tutankhamun, the subject is millennia dead—but I don’t really see that making much of a difference. At the end of the day, this is the story of British archaeologists digging up the dead bodies of an ancient culture because they wanted to and had the power to make it happen. It’s gross.
Riggs highlights this while also, quite appropriately I think, stressing that her discipline of Egyptology is not all mummies all the time. Indeed, while Tutankhamun might have been an inciting incident in her childhood that nudged her on this path, she recounts that it was a long time into her studies before she came face-to-face with an actual mummy. This is a good reminder that it is possible to study history in a less invasive way.
So the chapters (which come later in the book) that focus on the physical examinations of Tutankhamun and the two fetal mummies found in his tomb were difficult but necessary to read. What of the earlier and later chapters, focusing on the tomb’s discovery and then Tutankhamun’s legacy for modern Egypt?
The discovery chapters are fun to read because Riggs is helpful at unravelling the sensationalism and mythology that has built up over the years. She digs into the personalities of Howard Carter and Lord Carnavon, talking about Carter’s early life, his career in Egypt, and how he wasn’t quite the dashing archaeologist that his hometown back in England might like to portray him as being. It’s worth remembering, Riggs tells us, that archaeology in the early twentieth century was still very much crystallizing as a science, and many people saw it as much as a business opportunity as a scientific one. Again, the blatant, wholesale extraction of objects from Egyptian tombs to Britain, the United States, and other destinations feels so wrong—but as Riggs pointed out, it was seen as perfectly normal back then, a kind of salvage right built into the contracts between those digging and the fledgling antiquities ministry in Egypt.
The legacy chapters, similarly, point to a complicated history of political tension between newly independent Egypt, its former colonizer, and the rest of the world. Tutankhamun at times becomes an olive branch and a rallying cry. He is Egypt; Egypt is him. (I really liked Riggs talking a little smack, carefully but ever so critically, of Zahi Hawass—if you have ever watched an ancient Egypt special on Discovery Channel, you know this guy. I don’t know much about him and have no skin in this game, but his absolute ubiquity as the go-to expert for all these shows made me skeptical, and it seems with good reason.) The detail that Riggs goes into helps us understand the monumental scale of undertaking an international tour of these artifacts.
In a similar way, I appreciated how much time Riggs spends discussing the photography and archiving of photographs of Tutankhamun’s tomb and artifacts. She lingers on this to a point where some people might be critical of it, but I think it’s important. So much of what we see as young people is visual—is not Tutankhamun’s mask one of the most recognizable visual icons in our culture today? That is so because of the decades of photography that happened, from the discovery of the tomb all the way through its tours. Riggs explains how this was achieved with the technology of the time, as well as how two very determined women mounted an effort to catalogue and preserve the original negatives in a way that would prove useful for future generations. Science is not just the dramatic discovery: it is also the decades of hard work that follow by people, often who do not have fancy degrees, who spend their days organizing, administrating, and believing in the importance of what they do.
Treasured is an intense, lively, and interesting read about this young king, the discovery of his tomb, and the sensation he sparked off a hundred years ago. It was satisfying, critical in the way I wanted but also inspiring. Would read more from Christina Riggs, and very well might.