Scans in King Tutankhamun’s tomb offer new clues
Click here for a 2018 update from the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt.—Ed.
It was July of last year when British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves announced his hypothesis that stunned scholars of the ancient world. Reeves’s astonishing hypothesis was that Queen Nefertiti’s tomb—long sought after but never found—is hidden within King Tutankhamun’s tomb, concealed for more than 3,000 years in a secret room behind a wall of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber. Now, on March 17, 2016, eight months after Reeves’s hypothesis was published, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities has announced that radar scans performed on November 26 and 27, 2015, “suggest the presence of two empty spaces or cavities” behind the north and west walls of King Tutankhamun’s tomb and indicate that the cavities contain “metallic and organic substances.”
In fact, back on November 28, 2015, immediately after the radar scans were conducted, the Antiquities Ministry made a similar announcement, saying that preliminary results of the scans suggested the presence of a “vacancy” behind the north wall, and adding that the vacancy “strongly indicates the existence of a new burial chamber.” In addition, on the same day, a National Geographic reporter who watched the scans being performed in King Tutankhamun’s tomb wrote that as the scanning device was moved across the chamber walls, it indicated transitions from bedrock to other materials at the exact lines where Reeves had predicted the border of a blocking partition forming part of the north wall and the edge of a doorway in the west wall.
In a March 17, 2016 article, National Geographic pointed out that while the November 2015 report of a “vacancy” was preliminary, the March 2016 report of the “cavities” is based on a detailed analysis of the radar scans by Hirokatsu Watanabe, the Japanese radar specialist who performed them, and that Watanabe’s findings had been confirmed by several other specialists. What also seems to be new is that the March 2016 announcement states that a space was detected behind the west wall as well as the north wall, and that evidence was found of metallic and organic substances in the “cavities.”
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Readers will recall that Reeves’s hypothesis is truly intriguing (see my Bible History Daily article “Where is Queen Nefertiti’s Tomb?” which is recapped below). In his article published last July,1 Reeves proposed that Queen Nefertiti’s tomb and another smaller room may lie behind blind walls and hidden doorways in Tutankhamun’s burial chamber.
Reeves’s article suggests that the tomb was originally a single narrow, rectangular corridor, constructed as Queen Nefertiti’s tomb alone, and that her mummy was placed first at the north end of the corridor, farthest from the entrance. (See Reeves’s plan of the tomb above.) Reeves goes on to propose that after Queen Nefertiti was buried, a wall was built across the corridor, blocking off the north end, to create Queen Nefertiti’s burial chamber (chamber “y” in Reeves’s plan), but containing a small doorway to allow access to the chamber. This wall, which became part of the north wall of King Tutankhamun’s burial chamber, served as a “blocking wall” and “blind,” and was plastered and painted with images of Nefertiti to conceal the doorway and Nefertiti’s chamber behind it.2
Reeves suggests that later on, when Tutankhamun died, his mummy was placed at a point in the corridor on the south side of the north blocking wall and that this part of the corridor was widened to create a larger burial chamber for King Tutankhamun. He says that another blocking wall was built across the south side of Tutankhamun’s chamber to cordon it off from the narrow part of the corridor nearest the entrance, which became an antechamber.
When Tutankhamun’s burial chamber was created, Reeves suggests, images of Queen Nefertiti in the north blocking wall were painted over and modified to show Tutankhamun instead. In addition, a storage room was built in the west wall of Tutankhamun’s widened burial chamber (chamber “x’ in Reeves’s plan), with a small doorway in the wall.3
In fact, when Reeves first examined King Tutankhamun’s chamber, the first clues he found that there might be hidden rooms behind the north blocking wall and the west wall were hints of outlines of the doorways in the walls. High-resolution images of the walls had been created by a group called Factum Arte in connection with the construction of an exact replica of the tomb. When Reeves examined these images online, he noticed straight lines beneath the plaster and paint on the north and west walls that indicated hidden doorways and a hidden blocking wall. Reeves’s belief that the hidden chamber belonged to Nefertiti is also based partly on his findings that King Tutankhamun’s gold funeral mask may have been made for Nefertiti and that some of the funerary goods in his tomb may have been made for a woman (see National Geographic’s November 2015 and March 2016 articles). Additional reasons for Reeves’s conclusions are fully discussed in his July 2015 article.4
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As my November 2015 post said, we should approach Reeves’s hypothesis with caution. Although he offers apparently cogent arguments in support of it, none is conclusive. Moreover, none of the many theories about Queen Nefertiti’s tomb that have been proposed in the last few years has ever been proved. It is also well not to be swept up in the enthusiasm of Egyptian officials who would welcome an exciting new discovery to revitalize Egypt’s tourist industry.
In any case, the Egyptian government ordered the scans of the walls on November 4, 2015, the 93rd anniversary of Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb on November 4, 1922.
As mentioned above, infrared and radar scans were conducted by Watanabe on November 26 and 27, 2015. On November 28, 2015, the Antiquities Ministry announced that a preliminary analysis of the scans suggested a “vacancy” behind the north wall, and the Antiquities Minister said that he was “90% positive” that it was a new burial chamber.
In its March 2016 announcement, the Antiquities Ministry gave more detail on the results of the November 2015 radar scans, which, according to National Geographic, was based on Watanabe’s full report, delivered to the Ministry. In addition, Watanabe’s conclusions were confirmed by several other radar specialists. As mentioned earlier, the announcement said that the scans indicated that there are “two empty spaces or cavities” behind the north and west walls.
In addition, when Watanabe scanned the north and west burial chamber walls in November, he found transitions from bedrock to other materials as he scanned across the lines detected by Reeves, which he said were the edges of the north blocking wall and a doorway in the west wall. The Ministry’s March 2016 announcement said that the scans had found traces of “door lintels” of possible entrances to the “cavities.” The scans also indicated, as mentioned earlier, that the cavities contained “metallic and organic substances.”
The March 2016 announcement repeated the Ministry’s hope, also expressed last November, that a major archaeological discovery will soon be announced, and said that the steps being taken by the Ministry may result in “a rediscovery of the Golden Pharaoh’s Tomb that might lead us to the ‘discovery of the century.’”
A digital radar survey will be conducted at the end of March, with results scheduled to be announced on April 1. As readers no doubt recognize, the indications of organic material behind the walls may signal that human remains are hidden there, but they could also reflect the presence of non-human organic materials. According to National Geographic, the next scans will measure the thickness of the walls to help in determining the next steps to be taken toward solving the mystery.
Update, May 2018: The verdict is in. Read the results of a third ground-penetrating radar scan conducted in King Tut’s burial chamber.—Ed.
Henry Curtis Pelgrift received his M.A. in Mediterranean archaeology from University College London in 2014 and his B.A. in archaeology from The George Washington University in 2012. He has excavated at Tel Kabri and Tel Megiddo in alternate summers since 2009 and has also dug in Italy, Jordan and Cyprus. Henry’s picture appeared on the cover of the January/February 2014 “Dig” issue of BAR. He works in Greenwich, CT as Gallery Administrative Assistant/Registrar at Cavalier Galleries, which has art galleries in New York City, Greenwich and Nantucket, and he interns in the Arms and Armor Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
1. Nicholas Reeves, “The Burial of Nefertiti?” Amarna Royal Tombs Project, Occasional Paper No. 1 (2015), pp. 1–16.
2. Reeves, “The Burial of Nefertiti?” p. 7.
3. Reeves, “The Burial of Nefertiti?” pp. 7, 8.
4. Reeves, “The Burial of Nefertiti?” pp. 4–11, including notes 31–34 on pp. 4–5.
Where is Queen Nefertiti’s Tomb?
Examining the Lives of Ancient Egyptian Women by Melinda Nelson-Hurst
Epilepsy, Tutankhamun and Monotheism
When Egyptian Pharaohs Ruled Bronze Age Jerusalem
To See or Not to See: Technology Peers into Ancient Mummies
Bible Artifacts Found Outside the Trench: The Amarna Letters
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Why did Reeves have to jump into the past and go to call in Tut’s grandmother who lived in a different part of the world, professed a different religion and was part of a government of opposite political outlook?
Tut’s mother Meritaten was the last exponent of that Old Regime, and she got ousted by a palace coup that murdered her by a blow to the mouth (still visible today). All of her planned funereal goods were left aside as Tut was installed by the Amen priesthood to be their puppet King. But when Tut died, they were brought back for his tomb, some with alterations, some not. None of them had been planned for Nefertiti, whose mummy in Amarna was probably destroyed along with her husband Akhenaten.
Nefertiti is just a hypothetical trump card, not held at all, which is being called upon for marketing purposes.
How many other burial tombs might reveal hidden chambers?
How can they investigate further without destroying the paintings on the walls?