Desperately Seeking Queen Nefertiti

An archaeologist says he has discovered the legendary monarch’s burial chamber hidden inside King Tut’s tomb—but she’s been “found” before.

She’s back.

If you’ve been online anytime within the last few days, you’ve likely encountered an onslaught of news articles declaring that University of Arizona archaeologist Nicholas Reeves might have found the long-sought tomb of Queen Nefertiti, who died in 1331 B.C.

The legendary Egyptian queen has been hiding in plain sight, Reeves says, in a large chamber behind a concealed door in the tomb of King Tutankhamun, who may or may not have been Nefertiti’s son.

Excitement over a historical find inevitably leads to speculation built upon speculation—which is why now is a good time to hit the pause button and rewind. This is the third alleged discovery of Nefertiti’s tomb in the last 12 years.

What's more, recent DNA evidence suggests that the ancient queen’s body may already be lying in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, one of a group of mummies unearthed in 1898.

Cracking the Case

Reeves made his discovery when Factum Arte, a Spanish group specializing in the replication of artistic works, conducted detailed scans of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

The high-resolution images were used to create a nearby facsimile to accommodate the mobs of tourists who visit Egypt’s Valley of the Kings to see the final resting place of the boy pharaoh. But, last February, upon examining the scans, Reeves saw fissures that he believes indicate the presence of two sealed doors in the tomb's north and west walls.

The smaller of the two, he says, likely leads to a storeroom. But the larger one is fit for a queen.

King Tut’s tomb was constructed and decorated in stages. In his research paper, Reeves suggests that Nefertiti was interred first, and that the entrance to her chamber was later plastered and painted over.

But, he adds, remaining portions of an original scene painted in Tut’s chamber depict figures whose faces have physical features traditionally associated with portrayals of Nefertiti, including “a somewhat scooped brow and nose and a straight jawline with gently rounded chin.”

Reeves cites the size and layout of the tomb as further supporting evidence. With only four rooms, it’s smaller than that of other pharaohs, suggesting that it’s part of a more expansive structure.

And anyone entering the chamber from the main corridor has to turn right, which was a configuration traditionally reserved for Egyptian queens.

"If I'm wrong, I'm wrong," Reeves told the BBC. "But if I'm right, the prospects are frankly staggering.”

Lost and Found and Lost

If Reeves is right, it would also be the culmination of a personal quest. He searched for the queen’s tomb when he was the director of the Amarna Royal Tombs Project from 1998 to 2002.

"My strong feeling is that Nefertiti may well be buried somewhere in the Valley of the Kings," he once told PBS. "It would be wonderful to find Nefertiti's tomb, because not only is this a person of the greatest historical importance, but it's a period of the most superb art."

But it was Reeves’ colleague Otto Schaden, a University of Memphis archaeologist, who discovered a hidden tomb in 2006, fifty feet away from Tutankhamun’s. Some media reports initially identified it as the possible burial chamber of Nefertiti.

The tomb, though, was a bust. Seven sarcophagi were found inside, six of which were empty. The seventh, farthest from the entrance, held out hope that it might contain a mummy—perhaps the queen herself.

In a kitschy stunt reminiscent of Al Capone’s vault, the final sarcophagus was opened on a TV show, revealing not a mummy, but gilded collars ornamented with flowers, sticks, linen pieces, clay fragments, and golden shreds. Whatever it once held, the sarcophagus had apparently been converted to storage for burial materials.

“The Younger Lady”

But, the hype over the empty tomb was nothing compared with the Nefertiti-mania that swept the media in 2003.

University of York archaeologist Joann Fletcher studied three mummies that had been found in the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep II. Fletcher announced that one of the bodies, nicknamed “the Younger Lady,” was, in fact, the mummy of Queen Nefertiti.

Her conclusion—which became the basis for a TV documentary, a book, a 60 Minutes report and numerous newspaper and magazine articles—was based, in part, on a wig found near the mummy. It was, Fletcher said, a Nubian hairstyle worn only by royalty during the period when Nefertiti reigned. And, Fletcher also discovered that one ear was double-pierced—a rare practice that was also attributed to Nefertiti.

Most Egyptologists, however, found Fletcher’s evidence superficial and unconvincing.

Barbara Mertz, an American Egyptologist and author (who died in 2013), wrote a letter in an academic journal stating that “the discussions will surely continue to rage, but there can be no doubt in the mind of any Egyptologist or educated Egyptology buff that the identification of the mummy in question as Nefertiti is balderdash (good manners prevent me from using a stronger term)."

The Younger Lady would make a return appearance in 2010.

A National Geographic article written by Zahi Hawass—then Egypt’s Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs—announced the results of DNA analyses of the three mummies. The Younger Lady, he said, was one of the sisters of King Tut’s father, the Pharaoh Akhenaten, and was Tutankhamun's mother.

But in 2013, French Egyptologist Marc Gabolde challenged that conclusion. Closer examination of the DNA evidence, he says, revealed that Nefertiti was both the Younger Lady and King Tut’s true mother.

Patience is a Virtue

If Gabolde is correct, Nefertiti is not resting in Tutankhamun’s tomb, as Reeves suggests.

Aidan Dobson, an Egyptologist at the University of Bristol, counts himself among the skeptics. “It's a long way from observing POSSIBLE outlines of doors to the conclusion that one leads to the burial chamber of Nefertiti!,” he writes in an email.

There are many other possible interpretations of the evidence presented by Reeves, Dobson argues.

“In decreasing levels of likelihood, the marks could be: traces left by the quarrymen who cut the burial chamber that just happen to look a bit like doors; the beginnings of doors that were never finished (there are examples of such in many tombs); doors to additional store chambers (which Reeves proposes for one of them); a door to a store chamber and a door to a second burial chamber,” says Dobson. “I would suggest that the last of these is a remote option at best.”

Dobson also notes that Reeves presented his research in a self-published paper, which is not standard scholarly process. “One would normally expect such a thing to be done at either an academic conference with peer reviewed papers or in a peer-reviewed journal,” he says.

Barry Kemp, an Egyptologist at Wolfson College, Cambridge, agrees that publishing in a peer-reviewed journal is the norm—though he gives Reeves credit for being completely transparent with his research. “What is unusual is that anyone, including yourself, can put yourself in Reeves' position and study the images which are posted online,” he writes in an email.

So, has Reeves found Nefertiti’s tomb? If the last 12 years have taught us anything, it’s the need for patience. Technological breakthroughs are enabling new archaeological discoveries and compelling us to revisit old ones. It’s a journey that takes us down long roads that sometimes are dead ends and that sometimes circle back on themselves.

The process of discovery can play out over months and years. We might one day learn the truth about Nefertiti’s tomb. But we won’t find the answers in the 24/7 news cycle.

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