Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt by Chris Naunton

Reviewed by Harriet

The civilisation of Ancient Egypt exerts a seemingly eternal fascination. All those pharaohs and their dynasties, stretching back to three thousand years before the birth of Christ, all those tombs and their precious artefacts. Archaeologists have been exploring them for centuries, but it was Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of the intact tomb of the 18th dynasty pharaoh Tutankhamun, together with its hoard of treasures, that really fired the public imagination and set in motion numerous searches in the hope of discovering something comparable. Many other tombs have been excavated, including those in the Valley of the Kings and those in the depths of the famous pyramids at Giza. But the tombs of many famous individuals remain undiscovered, and it’s the attempts to find these which form the subject of Chris Naunton’s book.

Why tombs, you may ask. The answer is simple. The ancient Egyptians had a strong belief in the afterlife, and thus when an important individual in their society died, he or she was buried in a very specific manner, to ensure a safe passage to the next world suited to their station. Not only were their bodies embalmed (those mummies that fascinate us so much) but their beautifully and elaborately decorated tombs contained a huge collection of artefacts to accompany them on their journey. Because the tombs were carefully sealed and hidden, much of this material has been preserved, although from the beginning of the era to the present day many tombs have been uncovered and desecrated by robbers seeking to profit from the valuable items – gold, silver and precious stones – to be found therein. However, there is still much to be discovered, and this book describes in highly readable detail the story of the search for the burial places of celebrated individuals. The material is arranged chronologically, starting with the great inventor Imhotep and making its way to the very end of the period with Alexander the Great and Cleopatra.

Imhotep is an interesting figure to begin with. A high-status individual in his lifetime, and credited with designing the very first (‘Step’) pyramid, he became an object of worship after his death, a cult figure. Perhaps best remembered today by the fact that he is the principal character in the Hollywood movies The Mummy (1932 and 1999), he is believed to be buried in North Saqqara, but despite many attempts the tomb has never been securely identified. Next comes Amenhotep I, presumed to have been buried in the Valley of the Kings, though along with many others his mummy was moved elsewhere. Numerous searches have failed to find his original burying place. Then we have the famous pharaoh Akhenaten, instigator of a revolutionary religion in which the many gods worshipped by his predecessors were replaced by a single god, Aten; not forgetting his successor, the famously beautiful Nefertiti. Towards the end of the period comes Alexander the Great: although he was born in Macedonia and died in Babylon, he is known to have been buried in Egypt, where he achieved godlike status. His tomb was an object of worship for centuries, but its location has never been discovered. And finally there’s the great queen of Egypt Cleopatra, whose huge tomb is described by various historical sources but has never been found.

It’s not the case, of course, that other tombs have not been found. Thousands have, but most are empty, having been pillaged by robbers from ancient times onwards. Similarly numerous objects taken from pillaged tombs have found their way onto the open market, but their provenance is usually unknown. The great holy grail, of course, is to find an undisturbed tomb to rival that of Tutankhamun: it’s not hard to imagine the excitement of Howard Carter and his team when they uncovered this incredible gem, which had remained hidden and sealed for more than three thousand years. So far no such discovery has been made, despite the best efforts of many teams of archaeologists from the early twentieth century to the present day. It is their stories that are told here, their successes and their disappointments. Their work today is aided by science, but still depends on guesswork supported by historical sources and much assiduous digging. There’s a new branch of the practice, known as marine archaeology, which has been used in the search for Cleopatra’s mausoleum, which is widely believed to have been submerged under the sea.

This is a scholarly book, complete with additional material which includes a complete list of the rulers of Egypt from 3000 BC to the Roman period of the post-Christian era, and a full bibliography. But it will also be of great interest to anyone who is fascinated by the ancient past and the enduringly memorable figures who populated it. There are many black and white maps and illustrations and two sections of colour plates bringing to life some of the important finds that have surfaced in recent years. And exciting finds have certainly been made, though not the tombs of those individuals described here. And in answer to the question as to whether there is anything left to be uncovered, Naunton answers with a resounding yes. Enthusiastic archaeologists continue to study and search, and important finds may be just around the corner. Long may they continue.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Chris Naunton, Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt (Thames and Hudson, 2018). 978-0500051993, 304pp., hardback.

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