Back in 1922, when British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered what has now become almost a world wonder, few imagined that the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings on Luxor’s West Bank might have more treasures to reveal. Now archeologists believe that another important burial could be concealed within its depths.
The tomb of the 18th-Dynasty king who died in 1323BC was found intact with its treasures of gold funerary furniture thrown higgledy piggledy in a set of small chambers. That the tomb was smaller than the usual kings’ tombs in ancient Egypt was not surprising; Tutankhamun died at the age of 18, so there had not been time during his reign for builders and decorators to prepare a proper tomb fit for an Egyptian king. At the time of the discovery, however, Carter made a remark which now appears to gain special importance: “The unfamiliar plan of the tomb repeatedly caused us to ask ourselves in perplexity whether it was really a tomb or a royal cache?” he asked.
The tomb’s small rooms were arranged in an unfamiliar pattern and were more modestly decorated than was customary for Egyptian kings; they resembled more those built for queens, a point over which experts have long puzzled.
Radar and imaging
Today, a paper by archaeologist Nicholas Reeves of the University of Arizona claims that the legendary Queen Nefertiti, who some believe was Tutankhamun’s mother, is buried in a concealed chamber attached to her alleged son’s tomb. Dr Reeves claims that the tomb originally belonged to Nefertiti, but its outer chambers were hastily used to bury her son after his untimely death. Dr Reeves proposes the existence of two hidden chambers, a store room and a burial chamber, a layout which more closely resembles the types of tombs of ancient Egypt’s royalty.
Antiquities Minister Mamdouh al-Damati announced that he too believes some substantial find lies hidden behind the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb, waiting to be discovered. Dr Damati says that radar analysis and thermal imaging of the earth beyond the chamber will be conducted to determine if there really are other rooms there. These measures, he says, will begin next November.
“Not a single indication”
Yet the theory that it is Nefertiti who lies in the hidden tomb is highly contestable. It is not even confirmed that Nefertiti was Tutankhamun’s mother, as Dr Reeves and others claim. In fact, it has been widely believed that he was the son of Pharaoh Akhenaton, Nefertiti’s husband, by another wife named Kiya.
Dr Reeve’s theory about the hidden chamber is based on a year of peering at high resolution images of Tutankhamun’s tomb which were published online by the Spanish foundation Factum Arte earlier this year. The images offer an extremely detailed look at the tomb. Dr Reeves says he has found strange, very straight cracks in the walls beneath layers of paint and decoration. Those cracks are actually doors, he believes, one of which might lead to the second burial chamber where the body of Nefertiti possibly lies.
Egyptian Egyptologist Ahmed Saleh thinks it far-fetched that the tomb could belong to Nefertiti. He points to historical facts that Nefertiti was married to Akhenaton in about 1357BC and had six daughters but no sons.Many images of her show simple family gatherings with her husband and daughters. Tutankhamun was never depicted with her. This proves, according to Mr Saleh, that she was not his mother.
“There is not a single sign to indicate that Nefertiti could be buried in this [Tutankhamun’s] tomb,” Saleh says. Even though her tomb has never been found, he says, it is widely believed that she was buried in Tel al-Amarna in present-day Minya, some 200kms north of Luxor. Amarna was the capital city and seat of Akhenaton and it is believed he and his family are buried there. There is no information that his son, Tutankhamun, transferred the bodies of Akhenaton, Nefertiti, or their daughters to what is today Luxor.
Obscure historical figures
If there is anything Nefertiti and Tutankhamun share it is their having been rather obscure figures in ancient Egypt’s long history, while gaining modern fame through the art work that immortalises them.
Nefertiti’s bust, which was discovered in the ruins of an artist’s shop in Amarna in 1912 and is now in the Berlin Altes Museum, is the epitome of female beauty. Her broad brow, wide eyes, straight high cheekbones and the beautiful, swan-like neck make the bust one of the most copied works of ancient Egypt. She was Akhenaton’s wife and co-regent and mother of his six daughters. Akhenaton himself was not one of the mighty or widely-revered kings; he is famous for having abolished the worship of the several gods of Egypt, embodied in the one god Amun Ra, in favour of the worship of the sun god Aten. He is thus known as the father of monotheism. Predictably, he was hated by the priests of Amun who, once he died, persuaded his successor to go back to the worship of Amun. Tutankhamun himself was born Tutankhaten, but changed his name upon going back to the worship of Amun.
Nefertiti herself a pharaoh?
Nefertiti’s tomb has never been found. History says that two little-known pharaohs succeeded Akhenaten, but Dr Reeves is of the opinion that Akhenaten’s successor was Nefertiti herself. He believes that the queen-turned-pharaoh took the throne as Neferneferuaten, then changed her name to a man’s, Smenkhkare, to solidify her claim to power. He argues that the pharaoh’s tomb in which Tutankhamun was buried was actually built for Nefertiti. When he died a few years later, there had not been enough time to build him a proper tomb, so he was buried in the outer chambers of his mother or stepmother.
If studies and investigations indicate that some other tomb is indeed concealed behind that of Tutankhamun, uncovering it would pose a genuine problem. Digging into the supposed tomb from outside would be complex and costly. Preserving the wall paintings and getting to the door behind them would be very difficult. A fiberoptic camera could be sent in through a tiny hole, but that would not solve the problem of access to whatever the chambers might contain.
“If it is true that there is a hidden tomb, we are approaching a discovery that might overshadow that of Tutankhamun himself,” Dr Damati says.
14 October 2015