Crouched by King Tut’s stone sarcophagus, National Geographic technicians Eric Berkenpas and Alan Turchik prepare the radar unit to scan the tomb’s walls.
Last night a team of specialists performed a second round of radar scans inside the tomb of King Tutankhamun, as archaeologists continued investigating the theory that hidden chambers may lie behind the limestone walls.
Speaking at a press conference outside the tomb Friday morning, Khaled El-Enany, Egypt's newly-appointed Minister of Antiquities, said bluntly, "We cannot talk about results now." He expects that at least a week will be needed to analyze the data, which has been sent to experts in both Egypt and the United States.
Other officials noted the presence of "some anomalies" in the initial data readouts, but called for caution and further study, noting that they have yet to see proof for the theory.
El-Enany called for “an international debate” and asked scholars around the world to participate in a conference on Tutankhamun to be held next month in Cairo, where the minister said he hopes to hear the full range of views on the tomb. “We are not looking for hidden chambers,” he said. “We are looking for reality and the truth.”
The current investigation began with a provocative paper, published last July by Nicholas Reeves, a British Egyptologist, who argued that the tomb of Tutankhamun may in fact also still contain the as-of-yet undiscovered burial place of Nefertiti. Nefertiti is widely believed to have been Tut’s stepmother, and in recent years there’s been a growing acceptance of the idea that she preceded him as pharaoh.
But Egyptologists tend to be skeptical that she lies beyond the walls of Tut’s tomb—as of yet, there has been no real physical evidence that any specific individual would occupy hidden rooms. The possibility of these chambers, though, has been based on high-tech imaging. The starting point for Reeves’s theory was a series of laser scans that mapped out the texture of Tut’s burial chamber in unprecedented detail, revealing a series of straight lines that could indicate plastered-over passages and doorways in the north and west walls.
Last month, Mamdouh Eldamaty, the previous minister of antiquities, declared that he was “90 percent” certain that such chambers exist. His comments were based on a series of radar scans that were carried out last November by Hirokatsu Watanabe, a Japanese radar specialist, who also said that he detected evidence of “organic” and “metallic” objects behind the walls.
Since then, Watanabe’s claims have been criticized by a number of radar experts as well as Egyptologists. “Radar is not scientific,” Zahi Hawass, the former minister of antiquities and one of the most influential scholars in Egypt, said last week. “Radar is art.” Hawass has been particularly outspoken in his criticism of Reeves’s theory, calling for a more thorough investigation.
This week’s radar scans were designed to create a more complete data set to be reviewed by scholars. Beginning at five o’clock in the afternoon, after the Valley of the Kings closed to tourism, a team sponsored by the National Geographic Society worked through the night, carrying out more than 40 individual scans. They scanned the walls in question at five different heights, switching between two radar antennae with frequencies of 400 and 900 megahertz, respectively.
“One was for depth perception, and one was for feature perception,” said Eric Berkenpas, an electrical engineer at National Geographic who was accompanied by Alan Turchik, a mechanical engineer.
Scenes of Drama
Since Reeves’s theory became public, the tomb, which was discovered with great fanfare in 1922 by Howard Carter, has suddenly become the site of new scenes of drama. Over the past six months, various specialists have performed their work in front of the mysterious painted scene of the north wall, which dominates the tomb like a backdrop to a play.
Last November, Watanabe, a septuagenarian with more than 40 years experience with radar, worked alone, calling out perceived tomb features in Japanese while he pushed a customized radar machine across the floor.
Thursday’s scene had a totally different feel: Berkenpas and Turchik are both in their thirties, with a combined age that’s six years younger than Watanabe. Like their antennae, they could have been selected for contrast in height: Berkenpas is 6'5", Turchik is 5'6".
Before travelling to Egypt they tested their equipment by scanning stone columns at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. The state-of-the-art SIR-4000 scanner moved along an intricate series of tracks perched atop tripods, the rapid adjustment of which Berkenpas and Turchik performed with amazing dexterity. They had practiced in their hotel rooms while waiting for the scan to begin.
“Lock it up, back it up, and raise it up!” Berkenpas called out around midnight, when they were barely halfway through their work. “Is that a new club song?” Turchik said.
They were circumspect about the results, explaining that the data would be sent to experts in the United States and Egypt for analysis. Yasser ElShayeb, a professor of rock mechanics at Cairo University who participated in the scanning, noted that some irregularities could be seen in the radar at first glance. “We know there are some anomalies,” he said at Friday’s press conference, “but it’s not clear-cut one hundred percent that something is there.”
The drama of the tomb investigation has been heightened by Egypt’s political and economic climate. Less than two weeks before this most recent test, ten members of the cabinet were relieved from their posts, including the former antiquities minister, Eldamaty. These changes were widely perceived as a reflection of the economic pressures on Egypt’s government.
Eldamaty was present at Thursday’s investigation, and he seemed relieved to be no longer in charge. When asked how long he had served as minister, he laughed and said: “One year, nine months, and six days.” He noted that there have now been five ministers of antiquities since the Egyptian revolution began in January of 2011. “It’s a very tough time to be minister,” he said. “I’m happy to leave my post, because my successor is one of the best.”
In the midst of all this activity, the man who first inspired the investigation looked tense and tired. “I’m like the rest of the world,” Reeves said on Friday. “I’m waiting for more information.” He continued, “Archaeologically, to me, the evidence still seems compelling. What we have to do now is supply it with 21st-century technology.”
The investigation—supported in part by the National Geographic Society—is being documented for a National Geographic Channel special to premiere globally later this spring.