Was Nefertiti buried in King Tutankhamun’s tomb?
An intriguing new hypothesis as to one of Egypt’s greatest mysteries is the talk of archaeologists and historians in Egypt and around the world. The hypothesis, proposed by Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves, concerns Queen Nefertiti’s tomb, and it has taken scholars the world over by surprise. Reeves has suggested that Nefertiti, who died around 1331 B.C., is buried in a most unexpected place—a chamber within “tomb KV 62” in the Valley of the Kings, better known as King Tutankhamun’s tomb!
In an article entitled “The Burial of Nefertiti?” published earlier this year,1 Reeves proposed that Nefertiti’s burial chamber and another smaller room may lie behind and next to the burial chamber of Tutankhamun, concealed behind hidden doorways in the walls of the Egyptian pharaoh’s tomb.
Reeves’s article suggests that tomb KV 62—King Tutankhamun’s tomb—was originally a single narrow corridor of uniform width originally created for Nefertiti alone and that she was buried first at the north end of the chamber farthest from the entrance. The theory goes that after Nefertiti’s interment, a wall was built across the corridor, partitioning off the north end but containing a small doorway to allow access to what was now Nefertiti’s burial chamber (chamber “y” in the diagram below). This wall—the north wall, Reeves says—was plastered and painted with images of Nefertiti and served as a “blocking wall” and “blind,” concealing the door and the chamber behind it.2
In the free eBook Ancient Israel in Egypt and the Exodus, top scholars discuss the historical Israelites in Egypt and archaeological evidence for and against the historicity of the Exodus.
Reeves goes on to propose that later, when Tutankhamun died at an early age, he was buried in a part of the corridor just to the south of the north (blocking) wall, that this part of the corridor was widened to create a larger burial chamber and that another blocking wall was built to partition Tut’s burial chamber off from the section of the corridor nearest the entrance, which remained at the original width of the corridor and became an antechamber. At the same time, Reeves says, the north wall, concealing Queen Nefertiti’s tomb, was partly painted over, and images of Nefertiti were changed to show Tutankhamun instead. In addition, a storage room was built in the west wall of Tutankhamun’s widened burial crypt (chamber “x’ in the diagram below), accessible by a small doorway.3
The outlines of the doorways in the north (blocking) wall and the west wall of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber were apparently the first clues Reeves noticed, which hinted at the possible presence of Queen Nefertiti’s tomb. Reeves had studied a series of high-resolution images of the walls of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber that had been created by a conservator group called Factum Arte as part of the process of constructing an exact replica of the tomb. Factum Arte posted the images online publicly. When Reeves examined the images closely, he detected the straight lines beneath the plaster and paint on the west and north walls that indicated hidden doorways and a hidden blocking wall.
At the outset, we should note that Reeves’s hypothesis should be approached with some degree of skepticism. He offers several arguments in support of it, and although some of them seem persuasive—and, as his article says, “more than intriguing”—none of them is conclusive. Moreover, numerous theories about Queen Nefertiti’s tomb have been proposed in the last several years, and none of them has ever been proved. It is also well not to be swept up in the excitement generated by the media and by Egyptian officials eager for an important new discovery to revitalize Egypt’s tourist industry. Most importantly, we should find out soon whether there are in fact rooms adjoining Tutankhamun’s burial chamber and, if so, whether one of them is another burial chamber—because Egyptian officials have ordered radar and thermal imaging scans in the next few months that should answer these questions.
If the tomb proves to contain Nefertiti’s remains, it will be a personal triumph for Reeves, who, according to National Geographic, began his search for Queen Nefertiti’s tomb between 1998 and 2002 when he was director of the Amarna Royal Tombs Project.
The radar and thermal imaging scans were ordered after a group of archaeologists from Egypt and other countries, working with Reeves and the Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, Mamdouh el-Damaty, examined the crypt in late September and, according to National Geographic, found evidence that there are two hidden doorways and that two previously unknown chambers lie behind the north and west walls of Tutankhamun’s crypt.
According to the Associated Press, following the examination of the tomb, el-Damaty announced that a proposal would be presented “immediately” for “non-invasive” radar equipment to examine what lies behind the walls of Tutankhamun’s chamber. The Minister said that the radar scan—which could occur as early as this month—“will confirm whether there’s something” there.
Tutankhamun, born Tutankhaten, was a New Kingdom pharaoh of the 18th dynasty and the son of the pharaoh Amenhotep IV. Amenhotep IV took the name Akhenaten when he established monotheistic worship in Egypt through the cult of the deified sun, Aten, and built his new capital at Akhetaten, present-day Tell el-Amarna. Tutankhamun died in about 1327–1323 B.C. at the age of 19, and there is little record of his accomplishments as king, although some scholars suggest that he or his advisors had a hand in restoring polytheism to Egypt after Akhenaten’s death.
Nevertheless, since the discovery of his magnificent tomb in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor by archaeologist Howard Carter on November 4, 1922, Tutankhamun—popularly known as “King Tut” or “Tut”—has become one of the best-known figures in the modern public perception of ancient Egypt.
Nefertiti was the chief queen of Akhenaten and the mother of six of his daughters, who are shown in several domestic scenes with the king and queen. Some scholars believe that the mother of Tutankhamun was not Nefertiti but one of Akhenaten’s sisters. Nefertiti was closely involved in Akhenaten’s public activities, including those at Amarna, and was a major cultic figure in his monotheistic worship of Aten. However, some scholars believe that she mysteriously disappeared after Akhenaten had reigned for 12 or 14 years.4
She was known for her great beauty and is represented in numerous paintings, reliefs and statues, the most famous of which is a bust in the Neues Museum in Berlin, discovered in Amarna about 1912–1914 (see image above).5 Her name, in fact, means, “The beautiful one has come.”
Some scholars believe that Nefertiti died after the death of her second daughter and that her body was probably buried at Amarna, but then moved to Thebes (Luxor today), like those of other members of the royal family, but it has never been found.6
It is noteworthy that Nicholas Reeves takes the view that Nefertiti became co-regent with Akhenaten during his life, and that at his death, she became sole pharaoh, treated as a male ruler, under the name “Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare-djeserkheperu,” and was buried under the name Smenkhkare. Based on this conclusion, Reeves believes that she was buried with the trappings of a full pharaoh—an important element in his hypothesis.7
Read “Who Made the Bust of Queen Nefertiti?” in Bible History Daily.
The search for Nefertiti’s tomb goes back several years, and it has always proved to be elusive.
In fact, in 2003, another mummy was identified as Nefertiti. This time it was a mummy found in Amenhotep II’s tomb, which University of York archaeologist Joann Fletcher called the “Younger Lady.” Fletcher identified the Younger Lady as Nefertiti on the basis of piercings of the mummy’s ear and a Nubian-style wig found near the mummy which Fletcher said would have been worn only by royal women of the time. Fletcher’s claims were dismissed by another scholar, but in 2010 and 2013, others claimed that DNA evidence showed a link between the Younger Lady and Akhenaten and Tutankhamun.
In 2006, archaeologist Otto Schaden, amid great media attention, claimed that one of eight sarcophagi found near Tutankhamun’s tomb might contain Nefertiti’s mummy, but none of them contained a mummy.
All of these unsuccessful efforts to find Nefertiti’s tomb reinforce the need for caution and a skeptical approach to Reeves’s suggestions.
As University of Bristol Egyptologist Aidan Dobson said to National Geographic in August, “It’s a long way from observing possible outlines of doors to the conclusion that one leads to the burial chamber of Nefertiti!” He also said that the lines seen by Reeves could also be (in order of decreasing probability): marks left by quarrymen; preparations for doors that weren’t completed; doors to storage areas; and doors to one storage room and one tomb.
However, the examination by archaeologists at the end of September suggests that the first two possibilities can probably be eliminated, leaving the third and fourth.
One question is: Why were these anomalies noted by Reeves not discovered by Carter or later archaeologists—if the anomalies are indeed significant? Some writers have suggested that because Carter had his hands full excavating the known rooms of Tutankhamun’s tomb, a process that took 10 years to complete, he may not have had the time to consider additional rooms. However, speaking to National Geographic, Reeves pointed out the all-important difference: that Carter did not have available to him the kind of technology that is available today, including the scans performed by Factum Arte.
As for later scholars, there may not have been much interest in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Reeves, who drew his own inspiration from the international Tutankhamun exhibition in the 1970s, said to National Geographic, “I think people got Tutankhamun’d out […] an entire generation was lost to Tutankhamun studies because they’d just had enough. It was in the press every day. They found simpler, less vulgar, less ostentatious aspects of Egyptology more appealing.”
Similarly, although there is great public interest in Tutankhamun, many archaeologists have avoided making a serious study of the finds in his tomb, and, according to a scholar at Oxford University’s Griffith Institute, only about 30% of them have been fully studied.
Reeves’s theory has struck a responsive chord with Egyptian officials who are hoping that excitement over the possible new discoveries will revitalize tourism in Egypt. Following the 2011 revolution, Egypt’s once-booming tourism industry has been struggling as a result of safety concerns. According to National Geographic, sites in the Valley of the Kings that once saw massive crowds of visitors daily see only a handful today.
Meeting in the tomb of the early 13th century B.C. pharaoh Horemheb, Egypt’s Tourism Minister, Hesham Zazou, told an audience of journalists, “In my opinion, from a touristic perspective, this find is a discovery to be rivaled with the original rediscovery of the tomb itself, by Howard Carter!” He also said that he has a “strong feeling” that more chambers will be found and that he thinks “that this will have a huge impact on tourism, which is unfortunately suffering tremendously.”
For more on King Tut, read “Epilepsy, Tutankhamun and Monotheism.”
Reeves has said he is attempting to rein in expectations and not let the story get out of hand. He acknowledges that his theory is highly improbable.
He said to National Geographic, “I was nervous about this because it looks as if there’s something here, but let’s face it—it’s ridiculous! … Carter was a fabulous archaeologist. He was suspicious. He was thorough. He wasn’t going to miss a trick. But again, there are developments in technology that weren’t available to him.”
Nevertheless, Reeves believes that if his hypothesis is correct, the hidden tomb could contain finds even more magnificent than those found with Tutankhamun.
In any case, we will soon know whether there are hidden rooms behind Tutankhamun’s tomb, because the Antiquities Minister has said that the radar equipment will arrive at the site in the near future.
At the meeting in Horemheb’s tomb, several people crowded onto a wooden platform where Reeves was standing. The Tourism Minister suggested they move so as not to break the platform, at which point Reeves said, “Well, that would be good, because of the curse of the pharaohs.”
In fact, at the time of Carter’s discovery, journalists made much of the “curse.” It was noted that Carter’s pet canary was devoured by a cobra the day the tomb was opened and that Lord Carnarvon, Carter’s benefactor, died from an infection within five months afterwards, and for decades, every time a member of Carter’s expedition died, it was blamed on the “curse.” In fact, however, very few of the people present at the opening of the tomb or the sarcophagus or the unwrapping of Tutankhamun’s mummy died within 10 years.8
Nevertheless, in all likelihood Reeves was only half-joking when he warned the others in Horemheb’s tomb. For who wants to test the curse of the pharaohs?
Update, November 4, 2015: The Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, Mamdouh el-Damaty, announced today—November 4, 2015, the 93rd anniversary of Howard Carter’s discovery—that the planned radar and thermal imaging scans of King Tutankhamun’s tomb would begin on Thursday, November 5. The scans will last until Friday, November 6. We should know soon whether there are additional chambers in tomb KV 62, and if so, whether one of them contains Queen Nefertiti’s tomb.—HCP
Update, November 6, 2015: Earlier today, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities announced via Facebook that an experiment involving infrared thermography had been conducted for 24 hours on the walls of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. According to the Minister of Antiquities, Mamdouh el-Damaty, a preliminary analysis of the scan of the north wall shows that the temperature of an area of the wall is different from that of other parts of the wall. It is the north wall that may conceal Queen Nefertiti’s tomb, according to Nicholas Reeves.
The Antiquities Minister said that additional experiments would be carried out to delineate more precisely the area of temperature difference, and hopefully this will shed light on the significance of the results. El-Damaty said that at least a week or more of tests will be needed to verify the preliminary results with additional thermal imaging.
The scans are being conducted by the Scan Pyramids Mission, which is a joint Egyptian-international project to conduct non-invasive analysis of Egyptian tombs.—HCP
Update, November 28, 2015: The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities announced earlier today that the preliminary results of new radar and infrared scans of the north wall of the burial chamber in King Tutankhamun’s tomb indicate the presence of a “vacancy” behind the wall which “strongly indicates the existence of a new burial chamber.”
According to the Minister of Antiquities, Mamdouh el-Damaty, the preliminary results need to be examined by a new team which performed the latest scans, a group of Japanese experts led by Hirokatsu Watanabe, according to National Geographic. Scans earlier this month had been conducted by the Franco-Egyptian group Scan Pyramids. Following examination of the preliminary results by the new team, a work plan for the procedures to be performed within King Tutankhamun’s tomb will be announced.
The announcement did not indicate the basis for the belief that the vacancy indicates the presence of a new burial chamber, but it expressed the hope “that an enormous archaeological discovery will be declared soon.”
In a related story, National Geographic announced that it would be airing a documentary on the entire investigation next year.—HCP
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 is currently an intern in the Arms and Armor Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
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. Michael Rice, Who’s Who in Ancient Egypt (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 134–135; Rosalie David and Antony E. David, A Biographical Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London: B.A. Seaby Ltd, 1992), pp. 91–92.
5. Rice, Who’s Who in Ancient Egypt, p. 135.
6. David and David, Ancient Egypt, p. 92.
7. Reeves’s views are fully discussed in Reeves, “The Burial of Nefertiti?” pp. 4–5, notes 31–34.
8. Bob Brier, The Encyclopedia of Mummies (New York: Checkmark Books, 1998), pp. 36–37. There were also tales of other strange occurrences, such as a supposed mummified cat coming back to life, and several members of Carter’s expedition falling mysteriously ill while putting on an impromptu play in the Valley of the Kings (Christine El Mahdy, Mummies: Myth and Magic in Ancient Egypt [London: Thames and Hudson, 1989], pp. 170–174). Stories of the known claims of a mummy’s curse are covered in Joyce Tyldesley’s Tutankhamen, which, in the UK, is given the exciting title of Tutankhamen’s Curse.
Examining the Lives of Ancient Egyptian Women by Melinda Nelson-Hurst
“Past Perfect: King Tut, I Presume?” Archaeology Odyssey, July/August 2002.
“Strata: How Many?” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2014.
Find out in how many coffins Pharaoh Tutankhamun was buried.
Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.