LUXOR, EgyptNearly a century after the rediscovery of King Tut’s tomb ignited a worldwide craze for Egyptology, new findings could turn out to be almost as stunning.
On Monday, after a group of Egyptian and foreign archaeologists examined the famous tomb, Egypt’s antiquities minister confirmed that they found evidence suggesting the existence of two previously undiscovered rooms. “This indicates that the western and northern walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb could hide two burial chambers,” minister Mamdouh Eldamaty told the Egyptian state press.
“To be honest, I feel numb,” Nicholas Reeves, the archaeologist who first proposed the existence of the hidden rooms, said in his Luxor hotel room, after inspecting the tomb. “This has been part of my life now on a daily basis for more than a year.”
Earlier this year, Reeves published a paper in which he claimed that the tomb of Tutankhamun, an 18th-Dynasty pharaoh who died around 1323 B.C., includes two doorways that were plastered and painted over.
In Reeves’s theory, these doorways are among several clues suggesting that the tomb was originally built for another ruler—Nefertiti, the principal wife of Akhenaten, who is believed to have fathered Tutankhamun with another wife.
Reeves believes that Nefertiti and her grave goods may even lie intact behind the hidden doors, which were never penetrated by ancient robbers or modern archaeologists. But until Monday his theory had not been supported by a physical examination of the tomb itself. (Read more about Reeves's theory.)
Lines of Evidence?
“First of all, we saw that on the ceiling itself there’s a distinct line,” Reeves said, after returning from visiting the tomb with Egyptian archaeologists and officials. He explained that in the room that contains Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus, the line on the ceiling perfectly matches the section of wall that appears to have been plastered over. “It suggests that the room was indeed a corridor,” he said.
The archaeologists also noticed a marked contrast in the materials that cover different parts of the same wall. “What my Egyptian colleagues discovered is that there is a distinct difference in the surface of the surrounding wall and the central part that would be covering the door,” Reeves said. “The surrounding wall is a softer plastering. At the point where I suspect there’s a doorway, it’s quite gritty.”
This gritty material matches fragments that originally covered another blocked door opened by Howard Carter in 1922. Carter, who excavated with a meticulousness that was highly unusual for his era, collected the gritty material, and it’s still stored in a side room of the tomb, where Reeves and the others were able to examine it.
While Carter was obsessively thorough—he spent nearly a full decade excavating and documenting the tomb—he couldn’t have imagined the kind of tools that are available to today’s archaeologists. Reeves first began developing his theory after studying laser scans of the tomb made by Factum Arte, a high-tech team of conservators and artists who built a precise replica of the tomb in Luxor.
As part of that project, which was completed earlier this year, Factum Arte posted all of its data online, including a series of scans that show the tomb’s walls in unprecedented detail. These scans reveal clear, straight lines that lie beneath the surface of the paint and plaster, suggesting the outlines of two doorways.
The material has been available to anybody with even a casual interest in Egyptology— but probably nobody has studied it as closely as Reeves. Over the years, he’s gained a reputation as a scholar who makes breakthroughs by re-examining material that is publicly available.
“He’s always been a very clever and creative guy in the sense that he looks at stuff in ways that a lot of people wouldn’t,” Donald P. Ryan, an archaeologist at Pacific Lutheran University, who has excavated for years in the Valley of the Kings, said in a telephone interview.
Tut’s Treasures—Fit for a Queen?
Ryan referred to one project that began when Reeves visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and simply stared hard at one of the most famous artifacts on Earth— Tutankhamun’s golden funerary mask. Over time, Reeves began noticing details that suggest that parts of the mask may have been repurposed from the burial goods of another ruler. “Reeves made a brilliant argument that the face mask of Tutankhamun was originally made for a woman,” Ryan said.
“For the last few years, I’ve been looking at the objects,” Reeves said, referring to the treasures found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. “I came to the conclusion that an estimated 80 percent of the burial equipment had been made for somebody else, for a woman.” Reeves believes that this woman was Nefertiti, and that she ruled as pharaoh under the name Smenkhkare—a mysterious figure who has been the subject of much debate among Egyptologists.
Reeves acknowledges that many other archaeologists have vastly different views of the 18th Dynasty and its rulers. This is one of the most fascinating periods in ancient Egyptian history, but it’s also one of the most controversial, and it has always attracted extreme views and theories. Even Reeves admits that he has entered his recent work with great trepidation.
“I was nervous about this because it looks as if there’s something here, but let’s face it—it’s ridiculous!” he said, laughing. “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.”
Behind a Priceless Painting
The next step, Reeves hopes, is to conduct a further examination with radar equipment and thermal imaging, both of which could reveal more clues as to what lies behind the possible doorways. He anticipates that this may be done in late November, depending on Egyptian authorities, who thus far have been highly supportive of Reeves’s work. And the Antiquities Ministry will decide what to do if there is further evidence of hidden rooms. This would represent the biggest challenge of the project, because one of the proposed doorways is covered by a priceless wall painting.
“That’s when decisions are made at the highest levels in the ministry,” Reeves said. He mentioned that it may be possible to make a small hole and introduce a fiberoptic camera, to see what lies inside, and elsewhere in the world Japanese conservators have been successful in removing wall paintings intact. Or there may be some other method that allows scholars to access the hidden rooms. “I know that in theory one can do this,” he said. “I think if there’s a will, there will be a way.”
When asked if another mummy and intact grave goods might wait behind the doorway with the painted scene, Reeves said that this would match his theory. In addition to the material evidence of the wall and the grave goods, he believes that the scene in the tomb originally featured Nefertiti, with the figures altered to portray Tutankhamun instead.
Archaeologists study a colossal Olmec stone head in La Venta, Mexico in this 1947 National Geographic photo. The Olmec civilization, the first in Mesoamerica, offers valuable clues into the development of the rest of the region.
“I think that that blocking, that part with the painting, has not been disturbed,” Reeves said. “Whatever is behind it is the burial of the person shown. And that person looks to be Nefertiti.”