A COMMON MISAPPREHENSION, shared by many critics, writers and readers, is that no scholar can write a book that is readable, much less entertaining. This assumption is responsible for the production of "popular" books on technical subjects, written, for the most part, by non-scholars. Apparently it is shared by John Romer, author of Valley of the Kings: in an interview published in a London newspaper recently he referred disparagingly to books on ancient Egypt which are "full of dreadful clich,es" and "long words." In the case of Egyptology at least, this assumption could not be more in error. John H. Breasted's History of Egypt and Howard Carter's account of the excavation of Tutankhamon's tomb, to name only two examples, are much better written than most of the popular books on the subject. Romer's book comes in a poor second when compared, as it inevitably will be, with Signs and Wonders Upon Pharaoh, John A. Wilson's marvelous history of American excavation in Egypt.
Romer's literary style now and then produces sentences so awkward that the reader is brought to a jarring halt. "Soaked with water and filled with wet mud, Burton recorded a temperature of over 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the burial chamber . . ." The sense is obvious enough on a second reading, but the initial impression is unquestionably startling.
This is an extreme example; for the most part the writing is competent, if pedestrian. A more serious difficulty is one of organization, inherent in the material itself.
The Valley of the Kings, as it is popularly called, is a narrow, desolate wadi in the cliffs of western Thebes. For a period of some 500 years the kings of Egypt were buried in tombs dug into the rocky slopes. Queens, princes and favored commoners sometimes shared the site, which was patrolled by guards whose duty it was to protect the rich treasures buried with the dead. When weak pharaohs occupied the throne this protection failed. Consequently, the history of the valley is not only the history of the inhumations, but of tomb-robbing, restoration, and re-burial.
But the valley has another history--that of the adventurers and archaeologists who have explored the tombs in modern times. As Romer says, the two histories are intertwined. However, it is necessary for a writer to select and follow one of the two separate chronologies. Romer has chosen the second. His story begins with Greek tourists and ends with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamon. But, in order to explain the significance of the finds, and their place in Egyptian history and culture, he has to skip back and forth across the dynasties, picking up a brief account of Egyptian religion here and a case of ancient political corruption there. The material is incredibly complex and a reader who is not well versed in ancient Egyptian history will find Romer's narrative with its distracting interpolations very hard to follow, and he will inevitably be distracted by the interpolations.
In the ordinary sense Romer is not a popularizer. He has had many years of experience in Egypt, not only as an excavator (under his own auspices), but as an artist and copyist with the Oriental Institute expedition at Luxor. The fact that he lacks a formal degree in Egyptology, and is self-trained in Egyptian history, with no knowledge of the ancient language, does not disqualify him as an authority on his chosen specialty. Some of his theories will undoubtedly be derided by Egyptologists, but nothing he proposes is any more far out than certain of the speculations of those with more impressive academic qualifications. It would be both pedantic and irrelevant to pounce on minor errors. Many of these would appear to be the result of Romer's occasionally misleading style, or poor copy-editing, rather than errors of fact.
Personal evaluations of the work of early excavators cannot be free of bias, but it is somewhat surprising to find Romer so tolerant of Belzoni, the Italian engineer and strong-man, who bashed up quite a few antiquities during his exuberant career, and so hostile toward the work of Theodore Davis, the wealthy American sponsor of so many excavations in the Valley. Another minor but irritating point is the insistent lower-case "e" in "egyptology" and "egyptologist."
Yet the book performs a valuable service in gathering together material which has been unavailable except in obscure, out-of-print publications and in unpublished notes. Particularly fascinating are the photographs, many taken from the original excavation reports. There are some especially good mummies. Despite Romer's prejudice against Davis and his excavations, the chapters on this part of the Valley's history are probably the best in the book. The Tutankhamon material, which has been discussed ad nauseam in recent years, adds nothing new to the subject and is quite properly reduced to a minimum. Also praiseworthy is Romer's concern about the dangers threatening the Valley. As he rightly points out, the haphazard nature of the excavations has altered patterns of drainage and exposed delicate paintings to contamination and vandalism. Early excavators seldom kept accurate records; in some essential cases even the original, scanty notes have disappeared. There is a crying need, not only for measures designed to preserve what is left, but for complete and accurate documentation of this unique area, one of the richest and most informative of all archaeological sites. One hopes that Romer's book will draw the attention of the public to this peril, and certainly, in spite of its shortcomings, it is a useful addition to the library of any informed amateur in Egyptology.