Science Book a Day Interviews Jo Marchant


jomarchantSpecial thanks to Jo Marchant for answering 5 questions about her recently featured book – The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut’s Mummy.

Jo Marchant is an award-winning science journalist and author. She has worked as an editor at New Scientist and at Nature and writes on topics from the future of genetic engineering to underwater archaeology. – From her Homepage: http://jomarchant.com

Jo Marchant’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/JoMarchant

#1 – The story of King Tutankamun has been caught up with popular culture since he was unearthed. What do you think is the reason for the continued fascination with this King compared to others?

One reason is the spectacular discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922. Other royal tombs found in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings were empty, looted long ago. But Tutankhamun’s tomb was intact since ancient times, and it was filled with thousands of gorgeous artefacts from ornaments and jewellery to weapons, thrones and even chariots. The king’s mummy itself was found in a solid gold coffin, wearing the golden burial mask that is now so famous. This was the greatest haul of treasure ever found from the ancient world, and it still stuns people today.

But there are other reasons too. Lord Carnarvon, who funded the effort to excavate the tomb, died suddenly shortly after its discovery, kickstarting the legend of the pharaoh’s curse. Tutankhamun himself comes from an intriguing but murky period in Egyptian history: his predecessor, Akhenaten, threw out Egypt’s traditional religion and is often described as the world’s first monotheist. And when Carter unwrapped Tutankhamun’s mummy, he discovered that the king had died young, aged just 18, raising the question of what killed him. So I think that all of these mysteries, plus the lure of that fabulous treasure, combine to make Tutankhamun irresistible to us.

#2 – How has the story of King Tut changed with advances in science and technology?

Each time new experimental techniques become available, they are applied to King Tut’s mummy and we get a new story about who he was and how he died. The mummy has been autopsied, X-rayed and CT scanned. Scientists have tested its blood group, and its DNA. These studies have led to theories including that Tut was murdered by a blow to the back of the head, that he fell from a chariot and broke his leg, that he died from malaria, that he was an inbred weakling who walked with a cane, and that he was trampled with a hippo. One of the things I wanted to do in the book was to look at all of these studies and unpick what the science really tells us about this ancient king.

#3 – In the course of your research, did you have a chance to see King Tut’s mummy in person? What was the experience like?

I visited King Tut’s tomb in February 2012. The mummy is in a glass case in the tomb, so it’s possible to take a close look. When I visited, tourist numbers were still very low after the Egyptian revolution, so I had the tomb pretty much to myself. It was a strange experience. In the burial chamber you can see Tutankhamun’s coffin – an impressive golden figure with huge, mesmeric eyes. This is the “King Tut” that’s familiar to us from popular culture. Then tucked away in the corner is the mummy itself. My first thought was how delicate it is – it is stick-thin and black as ash, and looks as though it could fall apart at any moment. You get a sense of Tutankhamun as a frail mortal, he’s just a boy. It’s sad, but also incredible that the mummy has survived so long – through the rise and fall of entire civilisations. And it made me think that now we have taken it out of its protective coffins and wrappings, it probably isn’t going to survive very much longer.

#4 – Who would you recommend this book for?

Anyone who’s interested in ancient Egypt of course, but I hope that the book will also appeal to anyone who’s fascinated by human nature and motivations. For example, I follow the personal stories of the scientists who have studied the mummy, from Douglas Derry, the hard-as-nails Scottish anatomist who first unwrapped King Tut in 1925, to Yehia Gad, the geneticist who fought for years to set up Egypt’s first ancient DNA lab before risking his career to march against Mubarak in 2011. I also look at the rise of “King Tut” as a popular phenomenon, including different theories for the mummy’s curse (from evil spirits to aliens); how Tutankhamun has been used in attempts to prove the truth of the Bible; how he has played a crucial role in the Middle East peace process; and why everyone from the Mormons to the Muslim Brotherhood has been fighting over his DNA.

#5 – Are you working on a new project? Can you tell us about it? 

My next book is going to be on the effects of the mind (our thoughts, expectations, emotions and beliefs) on our physical health. That includes everything from stress and the placebo effect to mind-body therapies such as meditation and hypnosis. This might seem quite a different topic to King Tut’s mummy, but there are some similarities because it’s an area where quite a lot of rubbish gets written, and where there are some compelling human stories. I’m hoping to take a critical, evidence-based look at the subject, looking at what works and what doesn’t, and asking how we can use some of the latest scientific findings in our own lives.

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