When Nicholas Reeves announced in August that he’d found the tomb of the ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti concealed behind a wall in the burial chamber of King Tut, it seemed like another outlandish theory from another Egyptologist hoping to make his mark. After all, Nefertiti has been dead for 3,345 years, and no one has found her final resting place in that time. How could it be hiding in plain sight, just inches from a place frequented by tens of thousands of tourists and archaeologists for nearly 100 years?
But in the past few months, skepticism has been transformed into excitement as evidence for Reeves’s theory has mounted. On Saturday, after two days conducting radar scans of Tutankhamun’s millennia-old tomb, Egypt’s Antiquities Minister Mamdouh Eldamaty announced he was “90 percent positive” that another room is hidden just beyond the burial chamber’s north wall.
Anything could be inside the sealed-off room in Egypt’s sun-baked Valley of Kings. But if it really holds Nefertiti’s remains, as Reeves proposes, it would be “one of the most important finds of the century” Eldamaty said at a news conference.
Standing inside Tut’s tomb, Eldamaty explained that a wall painted with scenes from the boy king’s burial ceremony is made of two different materials, indicating that there is likely an empty space behind it. Scans also revealed empty space behind another of the chamber’s walls.
The imaging was conducted by Japanese radar specialist Hirokatsu Watanabe, National Geographic reported. Pushing a radar machine on a metal trolley rigged to look like a high-tech lawn mower, he slowly inched along the walls of the hot and airless chamber while journalists and antiquities experts watched in breathless silence.
The radar scans have been sent to Japan for further study; the results of Japanese investigators’ evaluation should be announced in a month, according to Reuters. If their analysis confirms Eldamaty’s belief, researchers will develop a plan to figure out what’s inside the hidden room — and how to get it out.
“Everything is adding up,” Reeves told National Geographic.
“The tomb is not giving up its secrets easily,” he continued. “But it is giving them up, bit by bit. It’s another result. And nothing is contradicting the basic direction of the theory.”
Reeves’s theory, which is convoluted even by Egyptology’s cryptic standards, goes like this: Nefertiti, the first wife and co-regent of the Egyptian king Akhenaten, took power after the king died. First as Nefertutaten, then using the man’s name Smenkhkare to garner greater legitimacy, she ruled until her own death, when she was given a pharaoh’s burial in a tomb of her own. When her step-son and successor Tutankhamun (believed to be the son of Akhenaten and one of his sister’s) died at age 19 after just nine years of rule, no tomb was prepared for him. Instead, Tut was hurriedly buried in an ante-chamber to Nefertiti’s tomb, and Nefertiti — a controversial queen who some at the time may have wished to forget — was left to languish behind a blocked-off wall.
Reeves acknowledges that it’s an eyebrow-raising proposal, one that challenges a lot of accepted thinking about Egypt’s tumultuous Amarna period, when Nefertiti and Tut both lived. For one thing, most scholars believe that the short-lived Smenkhkare was a king in his own right, not just an alias of Nefertiti. For another, it turns gender norms from the time on their head.
“There’s a lot of ‘I think’ in this article, I’m afraid,” he told the New Yorker in August.
But, Reeves argues, evidence for his theory is all over King Tut’s tomb. Not just in the hints of a hidden chamber — which Reeves first noticed by examining high resolution images published online by the Spanish foundation Factum Arte earlier this year — but in the art and architecture of the tomb itself.
Tutankhamun’s tomb is smaller and more modestly decorated than other royal tombs from the time. Even its discoverer, Howard Carter, commented on the un-kingly arrangement in his journals in the 1920s:
“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.
Carter didn’t recognize the tomb as a king’s because it was really for a queen, Reeves says. The illustration on the tomb’s north wall — the one that purportedly conceals the hidden room — may bolster his claim.
Reeves says that the painting, long thought to show a young King Ay (Tut’s successor) performing a funerary ritual for an elderly-looking Tutankhamun, actually shows Tut performing the ritual for Nefertiti. The older figure shares several important features with the famous Nefertiti bust at the Egypt Museum in Berlin, he wrote in his paper published in August: they have the same long straight nose, rounded chin and deep groove at the corners of their mouths. The younger figure, meanwhile, seems to resemble contemporary images of Tut with its plump, boyish face and soft double chin.
Given the chaotic politics of the Amarna period, Reeves’s unorthodox version of events is not entirely inconceivable. Along with Akhenaten, Nefertiti led a religious revolution that turned Egypt into a monotheocracy devoted to worship of Aten, the sun god — a movement known as the “Atenist heresy.”
But Tut — who was originally named Tutankaten (“living image of Aten”) — reversed the change, restoring the god Amun to primacy and switching his name to Tutankhamun (“living image of Amun”). In those circumstances, it’s possible that those who buried Tut might have aimed to conceal evidence of Nefertiti’s reign and the “Atenist heresy” at the same time.
Speaking to Reuters on Saturday, Reeves cautioned that excavators must proceed carefully, lest they damage the contents of a chamber that has been hermetically sealed for thousands of years.
“The key is to excavate slowly and carefully, and record well,” he said. “The fact is this isn’t a race. All archaeology is disruption. We can’t go back and redo it, so we have to do it well in the first place.”
Meanwhile, Egyptians antiquities and tourism officials are watching with bated breath. In a country plagued by bouts of violence and an economy wracked by upheaval, the announcement of the “most important find of the century” would be a much-needed boon to tourism.
According to the New York Times, 12,000 people used to line up daily to see the ancient city of Luxor, across the Nile from the Valley of Kings. In 2012, a year after the revolution that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak, that number dropped to just 300. Tourists were just beginning to inch back to normal when a Russian airliner crashed in the Sinai Peninsula last month, prompting several countries to impose travel restrictions to Egypt and plunging the future of Egyptian tourism back into uncertainty.
“If we discover something, it will turn the world inside out,” Mustafa Waziry, the director of antiquities of Luxor, told the Times. “And they will come.”