A sprightly look at the grand era of tomb plundering.
Meyerson (The Linguist and the Emperor: Napoleon and Champollion’s Quest to Decipher the Rosetta Stone, 2004, etc.) presents an enjoyable portrait of the megalomaniacal British artist and antiquities excavator Howard Carter (1874–1939), whose discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 became the greatest find in the fabled Valley of the Kings and marked the culmination of years of dogged work and punishing setbacks. In Meyerson’s digressive study, which dashes erratically among the movements of the various players, Carter emerges as an irascible, determined, brilliant man who truly cherished the ancient art and artifacts he unearthed—that they also fetched a good price on the antiquities market was certainly appealing as well. A largely uneducated son of a working-class family, Carter learned to sketch and paint from his artist father, and got his break at age 17 when he was sent to Egypt to work as an apprentice copyist at the Beni Hasan tombs under the aegis of William Flinders Petrie, “the father of modern archaeology.” Meyerson embarks on a dizzying exegesis of the reign of renegade pharaoh Akhenaton—who ruled during the 1300s BCE and was married to Nefertiti—his son Tut and their mutable entombments. The author also scrolls through the nascent field of Egyptology. Only after his partnership with his wealthy patron Lord Carnarvon did Carter finally make his life’s discovery. The many years prior were plagued by fruitless digging, a world war and the suspicion—by everyone but Carter—that the Valley of the Kings had already been exhausted of its booty. Even after the Tut discovery, Carter was denied access and credit.
Meyerson makes a valiant case for this strange, compelling character in a breezy gambol through the annals of Egyptology.