But one new theory now seems to be more than just spooky speculation.
This summer, University of Arizona archaeologist Nicholas Reeves published a dramatic new paper claiming that the remains of the iconic Queen Nefertiti, believed by some to be Tut’s mother, have been resting in a concealed chamber attached to his burial complex near Luxor, Egypt. His proposal got a jolt of credibility this week, when Egypt’s antiquities minister announced that he too believes a queen’s tomb is hidden behind those walls.
Which queen’s tomb is a matter of some debate. Conventional wisdom — such as it is, in the convoluted and highly contested realm of pharaonic family histories — has long said that Tut’s mother was a woman named Kiya, the second wife of Akhenaten, Tut’s father and Nefertiti’s husband. The antiquities minister, Mamdouh el-Damaty, told the Associated Press he thinks that she would be buried in any potential hidden chamber.
But DNA analysis published in 2010 found that Tutankhamun was the product of incest, most likely between Akhenaten and his sister. Tut, who died at age 19 in the year 1323 B.C., is known to have been plagued by birth defects — perhaps this explained why. Then again, critics of this theory say, several thousand years in a dusty, underground chamber tends to degrade DNA. Besides, the bloodlines of Egyptian royalty are so complicated by generations of cousin marriage that genetic relationships can be difficult to disentangle.
Reeves holds out hope that the resident of the hidden tomb isn’t an obscure second wife or unnamed sister. Instead, he thinks it’s the legendary queen Nefertiti, revered for her beauty and immortalized in a lifelike bust that is one of Egyptology’s most iconic artifacts.
Though Nefertiti looms large in the study of ancient Egypt, her remains have never been found. Reeves’s theory, as explained in his paper, goes like this: As Akhenaten’s first wife and co-regent, Nefertiti may have succeeded him as pharaoh and ruled Egypt until her death. The burial complex in which Tut was found was really Nefertiti’s. When Tut died young, amid political and cultural chaos, no tomb was ready for him, so he was rushed into an ante-chamber to his step-mother’s (or mother’s). And the relatively minor boy king has been there ever since, a distraction from the true treasures that lay beyond.
Whoever may be hiding behind those 3,300-year-old walls, her presence will go some way toward explaining an array of oddities about Tut’s tomb. Its discoverer, Howard Carter, commented on the un-kingly arrangement of the burial palace: small rooms arranged in an unfamiliar pattern and more modestly decorated than was customary for ancient Egyptian royalty.
“The unfamiliar plan of [the] tomb repeatedly caused us to ask ourselves in our perplexity whether it was really a tomb or a Royal Cache?,” Carter wrote in his journal.
The layout proposed by Reeves, with two hidden chambers added, a store room and a burial chamber, more closely resembles the types of tombs Carter was accustomed to.
Reeve’s hidden chamber theory is based on a year of staring at high resolution images of King Tut’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 — better even than can be gotten standing inside it, some say.
The images are available to anyone who cares to view them, but no one has examined them more closely than Reeves, who spent months poring over the scans before coming up with his theory. He says he’s found strange, very straight cracks in the walls beneath layers of paint and decoration. Those cracks are actually doors, Reeves believes, one of which might lead to the second burial chamber where Nefertiti was laid to rest.
The idea raised some eyebrows when Reeves first floated it in a self-published paper in August (an unusual choice in his field, where serious scholarly works are expected to be published in peer-reviewed journals).
Aidan Dobson, an Egyptologist at the University of Bristol, wrote in an e-mail to National Geographic at the time: “It’s a long way from observing POSSIBLE outlines of doors to the conclusion that one leads to the burial chamber of Nefertiti!”
“In decreasing levels of likelihood, the marks could be: traces left by the quarrymen who cut the burial chamber that just happen to look a bit like doors; the beginnings of doors that were never finished (there are examples of such in many tombs); doors to additional store chambers (which Reeves proposes for one of them); a door to a store chamber and a door to a second burial chamber,” he continued. “I would suggest that the last of these is a remote option at best.”
Reeves’s theory hinges on so many unknowns. First, it’s still not clear if there even are any hidden chambers — though this week’s announcement from Egypt’s antiquities minister does make it seem more likely that Reeves is right. After visiting the site with other archaeologists and officials, Reeves told National Geographic they had confirmed a “distinct difference in the surface of the surrounding wall and the central part that would be covering the door,” and lines on the ceiling suggesting that Tutankhamun’s burial chamber was actually a corridor. Egyptian officials have requested radar analysis and thermal imaging of the earth beyond the chamber to determine if there really are other rooms there.
Second, even if the hidden chambers theory turns out to be true, Reeves has to prove they belong to Nefertiti. This part of his argument stems from his belief that the two little-known pharaohs who ruled between Akhenaten and Tutankhamun were actually one person — Nefertiti herself. The queen-turned-pharaoh took the throne as Neferneferuaten, then changed her name to a man’s — Smenkhkare — to solidify her claim to power. She may even have taken one of her daughters as a ritual “wife,” Reeves told the New Yorker. (“It doesn’t mean that they were sleeping with each other,” he assured the reporter.)
It’s a minority theory, one that challenges accepted accounts of ancient Egypt’s dynastic politics and turns gender norms on their head. But Nefertiti was one of Egypt’s most powerful queens. In art from her time she was often depicted in roles typically reserved for the pharaoh: smiting enemies, overseeing rituals. And, along with her husband, she led a short-lived religious revolution that changed the official religion from polytheism to monotheistic sun disc worship. If anyone could have upended tradition, it would have been her.
The pharaoh’s tomb in which Tut was buried was actually built for Nefertiti, Reeves argues. The best evidence for this theory lies inside the tomb itself. The art and architecture of the burial complex seem to have been built for a woman. And Reeves says that a painting on the burial chamber’s northern wall, long believed to show a young King Ay (Tut’s successor) performing a funerary ritual for an elderly-looking Tutankhamun, actually shows Tut and Nefertiti. In his paper, he compares the depiction of the older figure to the famous Nefertiti bust at the Egypt Museum in Berlin: the two share a similar brow line, a long straight nose, a rounded chin and a deep groove at the corners of their mouths. Meanwhile, the younger figure seems to have the same plump features and double chin as other portraits of the young King Tut. Nefertiti, not Tut, is the one being honored here, Reeves says.
Reeves acknowledges that his theory raises questions — “There’s a lot of ‘I think’ in this article, I’m afraid,” he told the New Yorker. The only way to answer them is to confirm the existence of the hidden chambers and find out what’s inside.
But that’s a challenge unto itself, Reeves told National Geographic. No Egyptologist wants to destroy the paintings that decorate the walls of Tut’s burial chamber in order to get at what’s beyond. Digging into the supposed rooms from behind would be complex and costly. There might be some way to preserve the wall paintings and get at the door behind them, but that too would be difficult. A fiberoptic camera could be sent in through a tiny hole, but that doesn’t solve the problem of access to whatever the chambers might contain.
But those decisions are not up to him, Reeves said. They lie with high level archaeologists and Egyptian officials — should they decide to pursue the possibility.
“If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. Then we move on,” he told CBS. “But I think it’s something we can’t just ignore. Because if I happen to be right, it will change everything.”