For at least 3,339 years, nobody has seen what lies behind the west and north walls of the burial chamber of Tutankhamun. But this secret of three millennia might not last much longer.
On Thursday, Mamdouh Eldamaty, the Egyptian antiquities minister, held a press conference in Cairo to announce a tantalizing new piece of evidence: Radar scans on those walls have revealed not only the presence of hidden chambers, but also unidentified objects that lie within these rooms. These objects, Eldamaty said, seem to be composed of both metal and organic materials.
“It could be the discovery of the century,” he said. Noting that he can’t speculate further about the things that lie within the chambers, he said that another radar test has been scheduled for the end of this month, in order to determine the best way to proceed with the investigation.
The results of the radar scan represent another step toward a radical new understanding of the most famous tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. First discovered by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922, the tomb of King Tut yielded an astonishing array of grave goods—more than 5,000 artifacts, many of them in pristine condition. It was the most intact royal tomb ever found, providing Egyptologists with an unprecedented glimpse into the material life of a king who ruled during the 14th century B.C. (Read more about the pharoah who shaped the future of Egypt.)
But for almost a century, nobody imagined that Carter’s painstaking excavation—he spent a decade documenting and clearing objects from the tomb—might be essentially unfinished. In July of last year, Nicholas Reeves, a British archaeologist who specializes in the Valley of the Kings, published a paper claiming that there may in fact be another tomb hidden behind the walls of Tut’s burial chamber.
Reeves’s theory was based in part on close examination of high-resolution laser scans of the tomb, which seemed to indicate traces of passageways and door openings that had been plastered and painted over during the preparation of Tut’s chamber.
Initially, Reeves’s paper was dismissed by many Egyptologists, but over the past half year, an ongoing examination of the tomb has supported a number of his key ideas. “I’ve not found anything that makes me doubt my initial conclusions,” Reeves said, when contacted by telephone earlier this week. “I guess we’re getting closer to a resolution now.” (Related: Will King Tut Fever Bring Visitors Back to Egypt?)
The radar results represent the biggest endorsement thus far. Last November, Eldamaty invited Reeves and Hirokatsu Watanabe, a Japanese radar specialist, to Luxor, where they spent two evenings conducting radar scans of the west and north walls of Tut’s burial chamber. An initial read of the scan was compelling: After those tests in November, Eldamaty announced that he was “90 percent positive” that another chamber lay behind the north wall of the tomb. But his comments were based entirely on the analysis of one man—Watanabe—and at that time the Japanese specialist had yet to conduct a detailed study of his data.
Thursday’s announcement, though, was based on Watanabe’s full report, which was delivered to the minister earlier this year. Eldamaty noted that the Japanese specialist believes there are objects made of metal and organic materials behind the north wall, and others composed of organic materials behind the west wall. “But I cannot say exactly what it is,” Eldamaty noted at the press conference.
“There’s Something in There”
These radar findings have also been reviewed by outside experts. Remy Hiramoto, a specialist in semiconductors and microelectronics who has served as a consultant to the UCLA Egyptian Coffins Project, examined the raw data, along with some of his colleagues, including Adrian Tang, a strategic researcher who works at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the THz systems group.
When contacted by telephone earlier this week, Hiramoto described the data set as “tight” —he felt that Watanabe’s equipment had performed well in the tomb. “It validates the initial hypothesis that there is a non-natural occurring chamber or cavity on the other side of that wall,” Hiramoto said. “Based on the signatures that are in the data, there’s a void, and there’s definitely something that’s within the void. There’s something in there.”
Hiramoto said that he and his colleagues could not tell what those objects are made of, or what they might be—whether they are naturally occurring features, or grave goods, or something else. But he noted that reading a radar is “like a Rorshach test,” and such work tends to be highly specialized.
Jason Herrmann, who specializes in archaeological geophysics at Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen in Germany, said that a radar expert can determine some details about unseen materials. “In my past experience I’ve been able to pick out metal versus stone pretty easily,” he said, noting that in the past he used radar to locate metal artifacts that were buried within sand dunes in the United Arab Emirates. He said that detecting a metal object in a stone-carved room should be easier than detecting it in sand.
“I’m not surprised that he’s able to pick out something that’s a weaker reflector than stone would be, or metal would be,” Herrmann said, referring to the possible presence of organic matter.
Later this month, a team of specialists from National Geographic will travel to Egypt at Eldamaty’s invitation, in order to carry out another series of radar tests, with the hope of confirming Watanabe’s results. At the press conference, Eldamaty mentioned that one of the main purposes of the new scan will be to determine the thickness of the walls, in order to decide the next step of the investigation. But he refused to say what that step might be. “We have to wait,” he said.
Signs Point to Queen Nefertiti?
Almost anything that comes to light behind the walls will force specialists to envision the age of Tut with new eyes. “It makes us re-look at everything,” said Kara Cooney, an Egyptologist at UCLA who has done extensive research on the 18th Dynasty, Tut’s period. She noted that one of the most explosive aspects of Reeves's theory is the idea that Nefertiti, who most people believe was Tut's stepmother, may be buried behind the north wall of the tomb.
As of yet there is no hard evidence for this theory, but a number of prominent Egyptologists have agreed with Reeves's suggestion that the famous funerary mask of Tutankhamun was originally fashioned for Nefertiti. And there are signs that many of Tut's grave goods were originally made for somebody else.
Cooney says that nowadays when she looks at statues of Tutankhamun, she's not sure if she's seeing his face or Nefertiti's—part of the disorientation that is happening as experts confront new possibilities regarding the 18th Dynasty. “You’re looking at the coffin, at the tomb, at the statues," she said. "Everything about this period has to be reevaluated.”
Offspring of a union between siblings, this often-studied pharaoh is now revealed to have had a congenital clubfoot afflicted with bone disease, which would have made walking painful. Inbreeding may have caused this deformity and even prevented him from producing an heir with his wife, who was probably his half sister.