Book Review: “Discovering Tutankhamun – From Howard Carter to DNA” by Zahi Hawass

By Dylan Bickerstaffe, with Andrea Byrnes.  Published on Egyptological, Magazine Reviews, Edition 10, June 16th 2014

Zahi Hawass, Discovering Tutankhamun. From Howard Carter to DNA.
AUC Press 2013
264 pages



Discovering Tutankhamun. From Howard Carter to DNA

Discovering Tutankhamun. From Howard Carter to DNA

Acknowledgments, Foreword, Introduction, Chronology, 9 Chapters and 5 Appendices, Sources of Quotations, Bibliography, Index and the Imprint.

The Golden Age of Egypt:  Dynasty 18
Religion and Life After Death
Robbers in the Valley of the Kings
The Tomb and its Treasures
Tutankhamun’s Mummy
The Discovery of the Family of Tutankhamun
The Valley of the Kings and Finds after the Discovery of Tutankhamun
The Curse of Tutankhamun

Appendix 1- List of objects in KV62 based on a Handlist to Howard Carter’s Catalogue of Objects in Tutankhamun’s tomb
Appendix 2 – Objects of Tutankhamun in museums worldwide
Appendix 3 – Tutankhamun’s tours
Appendix 4 – Royal tombs of kings and queens still to be discovered
Appendix 5 – The request for the return of Nefertiti’s bust



It is now some while since Zahi Hawass was ousted from office as Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, following the fall of the Mubarak government in 2011; but his absolute ubiquity on TV programmes concerning ancient Egypt prior to that date (and the fact that these are repeated endlessly on various satellite/cable and terrestrial channels) means that there is little chance of any reader being unaware of his ebullient presence. That presence is now reduced to lectures about his former activities, and additions to the series of published books that bear his name – of which this is the latest.

According to my bathroom scales this soft-cover book, of approximately A4 size, weighs in at about a kilo. This is not, however, a heavy tome in the academic sense, and the weight is largely due to the heavy gloss of the pages, which support a liberal coating of colour photographs, supplied by Sandro Vannini and Viterbo; Hawass’s own archive; and the Harry Burton archive at the Griffith Institute.  Indeed, the photographs dominate the book, and generally occupy at least half of each page, meaning that there is less text than the size of the volume might imply.  There has clearly been an attempt to make this a sumptuous, luxury production, with stylish chapter openings, coloured section headers, and a strange type-face which employs elegant reverse ligatures on t’s and p’s. The editorial team have also clearly spent some time eradicating grammatical blunders and typographical errors, meaning that the text is generally fluid and accessible.

As anyone involved in Egyptology will know, the real curse of Tutankhamun is that he will not go away. TV producers and book publishers seem to believe that nothing will sell unless Tutankhamun is there rallying the masses to receive their dose of Ancient Egypt under the Boy King brand. The number of books on Tutankhamun is truly staggering – in reviewing Joyce Tyldesley’s Tutankhamun’s Curse for The Guardian in 2012, Toby Wilkinson found 115 titles in a local library listing. Few authors would venture beyond adding one more tome to the Tut mountain, but this is Zahi Hawass’s seventh! In his Introduction he states that he was initially reluctant to bring out yet another Tutankhamun-related book, but was persuaded to do so because there was “no book that included the new information about the king and also what has been found in the Valley of the Kings after Carter.”   He goes on to say that he is particularly pleased to be able to introduce “new people in the life of Tutankhamun.” This all seems a little sweeping, given that Joyce Tyldesley’s book covers much the same territory, albeit without the beautiful photographs available to Hawass.

The book receives an enhanced sense of credibility through the involvement of the Griffith Institute, whose Jaromir Malek contributes a Foreword which provides an overview of the contents, and something of a justification for its publication. The Griffith Institute also contribute Carter’s Handlist of Object’s from Tutankhamun’s tomb. Forming Appendix 1, this is one of the book’s most useful features, listing objects according to the numbers allocated by Carter, and divided up according to the specific tomb chamber in which they were found.

The book opens with an attempt to contextualise the place of Tutankhamun within the history of Egypt, but deals only very briefly the periods prior to the 18th Dynasty, presenting them over three pages that contain very little text and a lot of photographs.  The New Kingdom up to and including the reign of Tutankhamun accounts for the remaining 16 pages of the chapter, and it is noteworthy that the illustrations here include a small photograph of the mummy KV60A, labelled, ‘Mummy of Queen Hatshepsut’.  The presence of this picture is explained by the fact that Zahi Hawass counts the somewhat improbable identification of KV60A as the celebrated female pharaoh as one of his greatest discoveries. Some time is spent covering the history of the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty since this introduces the names that reappear throughout the rest of the book, including individuals who may have been part of Tutankhmun’s court, such as Maya, Ay, and Horemheb. Interestingly, some space is given over to Sennedjem whose tomb was found near Akhmim, and who is generally thought to have been the tutor of Tutankhamun. Perhaps, more than any other, this chapter emphasises how much is yet to be established as fact.  Words like “probably” and “possibly” and phrases like “some scholars think” and “it seems to me” all demonstrate that many aspects of the later 18th Dynasty remain to be pinned down.

The following chapter on religion and the afterlife does not provide a general background to Egyptian religion. Instead, it dives straight into the aspects of it that relate to the afterlife, starting with a one page examination of the ka, ba and akh before describing the process of mummification and the funeral.  It skips back in time, very briefly, to look at pyramids of the Old Kingdom, with a single paragraph dedicated to pyramids of the Middle Kingdom, before devoting the rest of the chapter to tombs in the Valley of the Kings, including short pieces on burial equipment and funerary texts.

The next chapter (III) is entitled Robbers in the Valley of the Kings, and after a short glimpse at the role of royal mortuary temples and the Valley of Kings – and the obligatory brief précis of the story of the conflict between Mayors Paser and Pewera over robberies in the reign of Ramesses IX – Hawass plunges straight into the history of excavations in the Kings Valley, commencing with work under Theodore Davis. There are errors here, including the attribution of the discovery of the tomb of Maiherpri to this era (it was found earlier under Victor Loret), but the overall implication of the sequence of topics under this chapter heading is – as can surely escape no-one – that the excavations by Western archaeologists amounted to little more than robbery! The narrative is then directed swiftly to Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter and their discovery of KV62.  Included here is a page discussing the tensions between Carter, the Egyptian press, the Antiquities Service and the Egyptian State. Although Carter is treated as generally in the wrong, Hawass finds himself empathising with him over the pressures experienced by an excavator when he makes a fabulous discovery. He illustrates his point through a comparison with the pressures he suffered when press excitement drew increased numbers of visitors to see the Golden Mummies in Bahariya Oasis.  The chapter concludes with a look at Carter’s activities following the clearance of the tomb, and the discovery, following Carter’s death, of a number of objects in his possession that had come from the tomb. These were eventually returned to Egypt, but as Hawass says, it seems incomprehensible that they should have been taken in the first place. In this respect he compares Carter unfavourably with George Reisner and his discovery of the tomb of Queen Hetepheres. The comparison is hardly valid. The tomb of Tutankhamun contained thousands of items, and Carter almost certainly passed some to his patron, and also to King Farouk’s father, Fuad; but Reisner could scarcely have distributed any of Hetepheres’ limited collection of items, all of which were found in an extremely delicate state. A further irony is that Hawass mentions that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts received the bust of the Old Kingdom vizier, Ankhaf as a reward for Reisner’s work, forgetting perhaps that this was one of the items he had earlier campaigned to have ‘returned’ to Egypt. In a similar vein, he cannot resist, as part of his crusade to have the bust of Nefertiti returned to Egypt, the urge to include his official letter on the matter as Appendix 5.

Hawass resumes his attempts to castigate the work of Westerners, and those from earlier eras, in the chapter on Tutankhamun’s mummy, in a side-bar entitled, ‘The Mystery of the Mummy’s Head’. He acknowledges that, whatever damage Carter inflicted on the body of the king, he left the head covered in a beaded headdress. The disappearance of this item, and other damage inflicted on the mummy subsequent to Carter, has been much discussed, and the inevitable conclusion reached that it was caused by opportunistic local plunderers taking advantage of reduced security levels during the Second World War. Hawass however, chooses rather to blame Professor Harrison (who conducted the 1968 x-rays) and his own predecessor, Zaki Iskander, for the damage. It is a great shame that even in with high-profile discoveries like Tutankhamun, facts can be so blatantly ignored in order to try and score points.

Chapter IV: The Tomb and its Treasures is the longest in the book, comprising over a quarter of the total pages.  The text, which describes the discovery of the tomb and the opening and clearance of the various chambers, is accompanied by a large number of colour photographs depicting a selection of the objects found within each. The discussion of the sequence of discovery is generally sound, but when talking about the clearance of the Entrance Corridor the text suddenly, with no preliminary comment or accompanying illustration, states: ‘Carter claimed to have found this wonderful head of Tutankhamun among the rubble of the stairwell, in the entrance corridor beside a pile of waterskins.’ Here he is talking about the famous wooden figure of the king’s head rising from a lotus. Clarity is not assisted by the conflation of ‘the stairwell’ and ‘the entrance corridor’, which were two different locations, but Hawass gives a generally balanced review of the conflicting claims which suggest that Carter was less than candid about the provenance of this item.* An image of the Lotus Head does actually appear elsewhere in the book, on page 8, as part of the title page for the Foreword. Some commentators might cynically claim that the pictures of the treasures from Tutankhamun’s tomb appear here simply as ‘padding’, and that there are much better sets of colour illustrations in, for instance, T. G. H. James’, Tutankhamun: The Eternal Splendour of the Boy Pharaoh, but any new set of images of the artefacts (particularly when presented in colour) may contain otherwise hard-to-access information, and is to be welcomed. However, the method of display frequently employed here – where items are cut out from their background and pasted partly against the plain page, and partly against a blue background, sometimes with images of items overlapping one another –  is disappointing, though the latter technique is often employed to show enlarged details of items that would otherwise be too small. Happily there are some illustrations, such as the tomb wall decorations (including those from Tutankhamun’s tomb) which are printed normally.

Chapter V, Tutankhamun’s Mummy, begins with a description of the original inspection of the mummy by Carter and Douglas Derry, and Carter’s solution for detaching the second and third coffins from each other, and the mummy from the inner coffin.  It goes on to describe the jewellery with which the mummy was adorned – the cue for another showcase of beautiful photographs.  The last pages of the chapter describe the X-rays that were taken of the mummy in 1968, the CT scan of the mummy in 2005 (which Hawass oversaw), and the conclusions that some have drawn from those examinations.  The final page covers “DNA and other modern tests.”  The DNA and other tests of 2008-9 were primarily carried out to investigate the family relationships between different mummies, but this page describes the ailments that the studies revealed.  Pulling together the various threads, Hawass speculates that Tutankhamun suffered an accident a few hours before his death, and that his injuries were fatal.

In the chapter, The Discovery of the Family of Tutankhamun, Hawass delves into the most controversial part of the examination of Tutankhamun’s past – the DNA tests that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).  Coincidentally, at about the time of writing, the four-part, Discovery Channel documentary by Hawass is being repeated on terrestrial TV, and both the television series and the book continue to promote the findings of the JAMA article even after considerable controversy and criticism of the methodology used and the findings themselves.  This chapter avoids all mention of the disputes, and promotes the study’s conclusion that the mummy found in tomb KV55 was Akhenaten, who was the father of Tutankhamun.  Both of these ideas had supporters prior to the DNA studies, but readers should be aware that they rely on a rather contrived interpretation of the DNA evidence, and cannot be accepted uncritically. Although the information is presented in a much more sober and circumspect manner than the rather ‘gung ho’ approach to research exhibited on the TV documentary, the book still betrays the rather ‘directed’ method adopted by the teams. Rather than randomise samples from both royal mummies and ‘control’ examples, and then look to see if apparent relationships existed between them, it is clear that they actively sought out mummies to fit certain roles:

‘With just a 0.01% chance for doubt, the team established that the mummy of Amenhotep III was the father of the KV55 mummy and that the KV55 mummy was the father of Tutankhamun. The tests were done to a standard that would have satisfied an FBI paternity test.

Now we had to determine who the KV55 mummy was. Many believe it to be Akhenaten, whose epithets can be found on a coffin found in that tomb, but others believed the mummy was Smenkhkare. Earlier forensic analyses had determined that the body was at most 25 years old. This was far too young for Akhenaten, who reigned for 17 years and who had two daughters before he was crowned.

Perhaps if we could determine who had given birth to the KV55 mummy, that would help…’

They then follow up the old suggestion that his mother, Queen Tiye, could be the Elder Lady mummy from KV35, and apparently achieve success. It is also made evident that mummies were subjected to much greater scrutiny if they did not exhibit the anticipated characteristics:

‘There was still the problem of age. A man of 25 years was much too young to be Akhenaten. We performed new CT scans, which revealed degeneration of the spine related to age and osteoarthritis in the knees and legs. This mummy was a much older man than previously thought, between the ages of 35 and 45. That meant almost certainly that this offspring of Amenhotep III and Tiye was Akhenaten. There remains a shadow of doubt, however, because so little is known about Smenkhkare, not even how old he was.’  Hawass, Discovering Tutankhamun, 167.

Even the hint of doubt suggested here has not survived the publicity machine, and now the ‘fact’ that the KV55 mummy is Akhenaten, and the ‘fact’ that Akhenaten was Tutankhamun’s father, are repeated in articles and on TV documentaries as though these had been established beyond doubt, rather than being doubtful supposition. The situation is neatly summarised by Joyce Tyldesley, in her book, Tutankhamen’s Curse:

‘Citing DNA evidence, the Egyptian team have identified KV55 as both the father of Tutankhamun and a son of Amenhotep III and Tiy; this would indicate that he is either Akhenaten, Akhenaten’s elder brother, Tuthmosis, or an otherwise unknown brother, who could, of course, be Smenkhkare. Their conclusion is that he is ‘most probably Akhenaten.’ This identification, which appears to contradict the evidence offered by the bones, has provoked widespread debate, and many would still identify KV55 as the relatively young Smenkhkare.’  Tyldesley, Tutankhamen’s Curse, 173.

Hawass goes on to describe work carried out on the two foetuses, and the use of DNA to search for Nefertiti’s remains.  The chapter concludes with a family tree which, again, is based on the disputed DNA analysis and represents only one possible version of Tutankhamun’s pedigree.  For a good summary of the arguments concerning the DNA analysis see Kate Phizackerley’s KV64 website:

The inclusion of other discoveries on the west bank in the chapter, The Valley of the Kings and Finds After the Discovery of Tutankhamun, may appear somewhat off-topic, but is actually one of the more interesting parts of the book because it provides unpublished photographs and information unavailable elsewhere.  The vast tomb KV5 is introduced, accompanied by an out-of-date plan of the tomb; the embalming Cache KV63 is described;  the Swiss discovery and excavation of the 22nd Dynasty tomb KV64 (described by Hawass as “illegal”) is given two pages.  The four pages given over to the tunnel in the tomb of Set I is classic Hawass – a first hand account of the unveiling of a mystery.  The other work described, rather more briefly is as follows:  The search for the tomb of Ramesses VIII; excavations in front of the tomb of Tutankhamun; excavation in the Valley of the Monkeys (also known as the West Valley); the rediscovery of KV53; the rediscovery of some missing pieces (here individually illustrated) from the colossal statue of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye displayed in the atrium of the Egyptian Museum; the excavation of the temple of Amenhotep III and the discovery of his cache of statues.  The chapter concludes with the theft of Tutankhamun statues from the Egyptian Museum during the revolution, one of which is still missing, and a pair of pages about protecting the Valley of the Kings.  There is also a quick mention of the possibility of installing a replica to protect the tomb of Tutankhamun against the ongoing deterioration caused by tourism.  This chapter could have been usefully expanded out into a separate book of its own, unburdened by the Tutankhamun material.

The inevitable chapter on the Curse of Tutankhamun is thankfully only given three pages, wherein, happily, Hawass dismisses the idea of a curse, saying that all the stories are either made up or have simple explanations, although he rather undermines this in the next chapter when he says that “It seems that the curse of Tutankhamun punished Gamal Mokhtar.”

The chapter on Tutmania is also mercifully short, discussing some of the impact that Tutankhamun made on the western world following the 1922 discovery, and the 1970s and 2005-06 travelling exhibitions.  He also talks about his own speeches and how people respond to them.  His Conclusion talks about work that will need to be carried out in the future, including more DNA testing, excavation, conservation and the provision of replica tombs. The appendixes are generally useful summaries of information (though see the comments above). There is a reasonable sized bibliography extending over 5 pages and, helpfully, an index.

Unfortunately this is a much too partisan account of events, and a much too shallow and unquestioning assessment of the evidence concerning the family of Tutankhamun, to be of any serious use to researchers. On the other hand, those in search of a good coffee table book, would be better off obtaining T. G. H. James’, Tutankhamun: The Eternal Splendour of the Boy Pharaoh (Tauris Parke 2000). Those interested in more detail and discussion about Tutankhamun and the scientific investigations into the king and his family might find a good option in Joyce Tyldesley’s well-balanced, Tutankhamun’s Curse:  the Developing History of an Egyptian King (Profile Books 2012).  Readers specifically interested in the analyses carried out on Tutankhamun and how these have been interpreted might consider investigating Jo Marchant’s book, The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy (Da Capo 2013), which focuses on all the tests and procedures carried out on the king, and the way in which television documentaries have smoothed out the bumps in his story.   For those interested in a comprehensive account of Tutankhamun and his tomb, the Nick Reeves book, The Complete Tutankhamun, published by Thames and Hudson (1990) lacks any of the recent analysis but is a good, solid account of the discovery and examination of the tomb and its contents.


* Dylan Bickerstaffe:  I must claim an interest in the story of the Lotus Head which forms a chapter in my An Ancient Egyptian Case Book; and is part of the section, ‘Carter Carnarvon and Tutankhamun’, in Part One of Refugees for Eternity: The Royal Mummies of Thebes, both now due in 2014.




Jo Marchant, The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy (Da Capo 2013)

Joyce Tyldesley, Tutankhamun’s Curse:  the Developing History of an Egyptian King (Profile Books 2012)

Nick Reeves, The Complete Tutankhamun, published by Thames and Hudson (1990)

T. G. H. James’, Tutankhmun: The Eternal Splendour of the Boy Pharaoh (Tauris Parke 2000).