Report: Egypt

New research on Nefertiti's tomb whips up enthusiasm, and criticism

The golden sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun in his burial chamber at the Valley of the Kings, close to Luxor.
The golden sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun in his burial chamber at the Valley of the Kings, close to Luxor. AFP/Khaled Desouki

It's a theory that has got everyone talking - starting with archeologists. At a press conference in Cairo on 1 October, Doctor Nicholas Reeves outlined his idea that there is more to the famous tomb of Tutankhamun than what was discovered in 1922. Reeves has made headlines around the world for his claim that he's uncovered the tomb of Queen Nefertiti.


His theory has also been enthusiastically backed by the Egyptian government - at a time when tourist numbers have dropped sharply following years of political upheaval.

But his proposal has also caused controversy in Reeves' own field, drawing criticism from others who say that his hypothesis might be nothing more than a mirage in the desert.

After examining scans of some of the walls released earlier this year, Dr Reeves believes that there are hidden doors in the tomb - and that these doors lead to another tomb that has lain undisturbed for centuries.

"What is hidden beyond will not be the burial of an ordinary queen, whose rank would have bestowed merely a small single shrine," said Reeves. "It will be that of a super queen who enjoyed obvious Pharaonic privileges. And the only one at this time who seems to fit that description is Nefertiti."

It's an appealing theory - one that also has the full backing of the Egyptian Minister for Antiquities, Mamdouh El Damaty, who added: "When we rediscover the tomb of King Tutankahmun again now, with another tomb, if it is Nefertiti or Britatol, or Kiya- it will be the most important discovery of this century."

The Minister later stated that he is "67 percent" sure that a new tomb will be found. The discovery could be a boon not just for Egyptologists, but for Egypt's declining tourist figures.

But as much as the Egyptian public and the government are hungry for good news- Reeves' theory hasn't been quite as well received among other Egyptologists.

"The thing is, it is a very seductive theory," said Professor Salima Ikram, of the American University in Cairo. Except sometimes when you start looking beyond the seduction, there is an element of… harsh reality…"

Professor Ikram says that while she's in favour of investigating what's down in the tomb, the use of radar and thermal imaging technology that's planned could throw up a false positive: "With certain kinds of testing you do wind up with these false positives, where if for example you have a large upside-down bucket buried beneath the ground, that would give you a hollow - a vacuum as it were, and that obviously doesn't mean that there's a room there."

Egyptologists agree that there could very well be something else down there- but that doesn't mean it's Nefertiti.

They say that had Doctor Reeves published his theory via traditional academic channels, and not via the Amarna Royal Tombs Project, an organisation that he runs, then traditional academic peer review would have weeded this part of the theory out.

However Tom Hardwick, an Egyptologist based in Cairo, sees the positive in a lack of peer review. "So rather than Nick's hypothesis getting squished by anonymous reviewers," he said, "it's now out there and people are looking at it from lots of different angles- instead of being peer reviewed, it's being crowd-sourced."

Even so, Hardwick has his own issues with Reeves hypothesis- namely, Reeves' re-interpretation of one of the murals in the tomb. "I don't find the examples he gives particularly specific to Nefertiti and Tut rather than Tut and Ay," said Hardwick.

Reeves has said that the paintings on the northern wall of the tomb were changed, from depicting Nefertiti's burial, to Tutankhamun's. He says that the original figures don't show Tutankhamun's elder successor, Ay, burying him, but rather they show Tutankhamun burying Nefertiti.

Hardwick says the facial features on the paintings simply don't match with Reeves theory. "I find it hard to believe this theory, taking everything into account, that the paintings show a much earlier stage of work on Nefertiti's tomb," he said.

"To me, it's not Nefertiti and Tut, it's Tut and King Ay, as everyone has assumed for the last 90 years and as the Egyptians went to the trouble of inscribing the walls."

Still, there is one thing that Hardwick, Professor Ikram and Doctor Reeves agree on wholeheartedly: how incredibly exciting it would be to be alive at a time where a new tomb, filled with riches from the distant past, is discovered.

Doctor Reeves is due to travel to Luxor in November to begin the scans. The Egyptian government are hoping that he'll revive their fortunes, and many Egyptologists are hoping that their critique of Reeves suggestion turns out to be wrong: everyone wants to find something new in the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Read more from Tom Hardwick here.

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