Have we finally found the secret lost tomb of ancient Egypt's Queen Nefertiti?

The Big Question: The discovery of a secret tomb behind Tutankhamun's is being hailed as unique by archaeologists around the world. Cambridge Egyptologist Kimberley Watt explains what's been found - and why we should all be excited

Why are we asking this now?

The tomb of Tutankhamun, the king of ancient Egypt who became famous when Howard Carter discovered his tomb nearly intact in 1922, is now a hot topic again.

That's because Dr Nicholas Reeves, an eminent Egyptologist and former director of the Amarna Royal Tombs Project, published a paper demonstrating how behind the walls of this small tomb, there were more rooms as demonstrated by thin cracks in the decorative paintings. In his opinion, the rooms could contain the remains of Queen Nefertiti.

The scans of the walls were done in November 2015 but the results were only released on the 17 March 2016 by Dr Mahmoud Eldamaty, the Minister of Egyptian Antiquities since 2014. 

What was found?

Using ground-penetrating radar (radiating electromagnetic pulses into a surface then analysing the type of response), a team composed of the Egyptian minister and various specialists performed a scan of the walls of the burial chamber and treasury of the tomb of Tutankhamun. These scans indeed indicate that there are openings behind the West and North walls of the burial chamber.

Further examination of the resulting data indicates that there are organic and metallic remains behind each of these voids. This means that they were intentionally created and carefully concealed, with access plastered over and then decorated to hide it from view.

They were so well hidden that they lay undiscovered for nearly a century after the first opening of the tomb.

Who was Tutankhamun? 

His tomb was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter and Douglas Berry, and surprisingly seemed to have gone unnoticed by past and recent tomb robbers. The famous golden head mask exposed in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo is one of the most impressive pieces of its funerary goods, but the wooden panels and statues are just as unique in their designs.

Tutankhamun was the eleventh king of the 18th dynasty (16th – 13th century BCE), who reigned for nine years and died when he was approximately 18 years old. DNA analyses indicate that he was the son of Akhenaten, the previous king, and of Akhenaten’s sister, a royal concubine. He died with no heirs, which allowed two army generals to access the throne, Ay followed by Horemheb. 

After the break from orthodoxy of the Amarna period, Tutankhamun and his successors resumed the ancient form of the religion and started extensive temple constructions in the country.

What more do we want to know? 

Tutankhamun’s tomb is unique not only because it was one of a few preserved from robbers, but also because its plan differs greatly from the other tombs of the period.

The tombs were carved and excavated by workmen within the Theban mountain (on the opposite bank of modern Luxor), thus hiding the royal remains and funerary furniture deep into the mountain. 

The funerary material that was uncovered was unprecedented for any king in our records. This means that a lot of it seems unique. It is possible this new discovery will change our opinion, if it appears that another member of the royal family was buried in these hidden rooms.

What can we expect? 

The most low-key discovery would be the beginning of halls extending the tomb further than its actual plan, in which offerings had been made. Upgrading from these finds, it could be that these rooms contain more of Tutankhamun’s funerary goods. 

It has been suggested that it contains the burial of another royal member of the family. This is possible, but until further exploration is made we should be cautious. But one may hope …

Why is everyone referring to this as Nefertiti’s tomb? 

In 2015, Dr Nicholas Reeves published his theory about potential rooms in Tutankhamun’s burial and mentioned that they would be a likely final resting place for Akhenaten’s wife, Nefertiti.

During his reign, she had a major role in the new religion and possibly too in the governing of the country. She survived her husband and may have become a regent of Tutankhamun in his early years, or may even have assumed the ruling position on her own, as Pharaoh Neferneferuaten. 

In the Egyptian Museum, many mummies have been scanned and identified during the Egyptian Mummy Project. From all the currently known mummies, none match the age and physique of Nefertiti.

Restored Tutankhamun

One mummy, who had been suggested to be Nefertiti by Dr Joann Fletcher, has in fact been identified as Tutankhamun’s mother - the royal concubine. It is possible the mummy of Akhenaten himself may be among those for which the lack of contextualised information renders identification complex.

Neferititi is, therefore, a likely candidate for the hidden chamber - particularly as she died before Tutankhamun. It could also be the final resting place of a major court official whose tomb was "borrowed" for Tutankhamun’s impromptu death.

Why should we care that this tomb has been found now? 

This could be an extraordinary discovery: not only the fact that there may well be precious objects, unseen creations and lengthy texts, but mostly because this is an unique opportunity to understand the way Egyptians managed their death.

As it is only happening now, this discovery will be recorded with the latest technology and the process itself will be a matter for posterity. 

How will it change our understanding of ancient Egyptians? 

In Egypt, thanks to the dry climate, human and organic remains are extremely well preserved. Understanding the concepts and designs of their burial customs provides an insight into their culture and habits. 

Evidently, the individuals like Tutankhamun buried in the Valley of the Kings were mostly of royal birth or closely related to it. But as ancient Egyptian society fit a very clear hierarchy, we can expect the actions of those at the top to be reflected on those at the base of the pyramid.

We will need to adapt the data slightly to understand the common people - but the archaeological evidences hidden here will build on our understanding and knowledge of a whole civilisation which started more than 5,000 years ago.

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