CAIRO, EgyptNever underestimate the mysterious, unpredictable, and slightly insane power of Egyptology.
This was the lesson of this past weekend’s Second Annual Tutankhamun Grand Egyptian Museum Conference in Cairo, where attendees may have been lulled by a lineup of sessions that included “Tutankhamun’s Embroidery,” “A Constructive Insight of Some Plant Species from Tutankhamun’s Tomb,” and “The Golden Pendant of Tutankhamun: A New Interpretation of the Epithet of Wertethekau.” If only the epithets had stopped with Wertethekau.
On the third and final day of the conference, more than a hundred people watched two former government ministers sit onstage and angrily accuse each other of trying to drill holes into World Heritage Sites without proper permission. Other exchanges were friendlier, if no less passionate. A couple of scholars bantered about the shape of Queen Nefertiti’s lips, and there was a running debate about whether adult male pharaohs wore earrings during the 14th century B.C., when Tut ruled.
But nothing compared to the news about the boy king’s tomb. After months of speculation about the possibility of hidden chambers in the tomb, officials revealed another surprise: that two different radar scans of King Tut’s burial chamber have resulted in contradictory conclusions.
“Until now, we don’t have a conclusive result,” Khaled El-Enany, the minister of antiquities, announced on the final day of the conference. He called for the formation of a committee to decide the next step, which will likely include further examination by radar and other high-tech methods. On his way out of the lecture hall, El-Enany continued: “This is my message—that science will talk.”
But how will people interpret what it’s saying? Science and technology first gave birth to the theory, which was based on the results of a laser scan that portrayed the texture of the burial chamber’s walls in unprecedented detail. Nicholas Reeves, a British Egyptologist, studied the scans and noticed a series of striking door-like features hidden beneath the painted scenes that decorate the north and west walls. Last July, Reeves published a paper speculating that the tomb may actually contain another intact burial—in his opinion, the tomb of Queen 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.
Last fall, a thermographic scan of the north wall revealed anomalies that seemed to correspond to the features in question, and a physical examination of the tomb was also encouraging. From the beginning, most Egyptologists were skeptical of the idea that Nefertiti in particular might be buried there, but they became more receptive to the possibility of additional chambers last November, when a radar scan seemed to detect the presence of voids behind the north and west walls.
Those scans were conducted by Hirokatsu Watanabe, a Japanese radar specialist, who claimed that his equipment also sensed metallic and organic objects within those voids. Afterwards, Mamdouh Eldamaty, the minister of antiquities at the time, announced at a press conference that he was “90 percent positive” that another chamber lies behind the north wall.
In March, a second team of radar technicians, organized by National Geographic, conducted a follow-up scan to see if Watanabe’s results could be replicated. But they failed to locate the same features, as Zahi Hawass, the former minister of antiquities and one of Egypt’s most prominent scholars, noted during the weekend conference. “If there is any masonry or partition wall, the radar signal should show an image,” he said. “We don’t have this, which means there is nothing there.”
After claiming that radar has never led to a single discovery in Egypt, Hawass said, “We have to stop this media business, because there is nothing to publish. There is nothing to publish today or yesterday.” But then he promptly gave the media business something to publish by accusing Eldamaty of secretly submitting paperwork to the authorities in order to drill a hole in Tut’s tomb and insert a fiber-optic camera.
“Why did you say it secretly like this?” Hawass said, while the two men were seated side by side on the stage.
“It is said where?” Eldamaty responded angrily.
“Why didn’t you announce that you took a permission?”
“I said several times I will not do anything before I am 100 percent!” Eldamaty said. He then countered with an accusation of Hawass’s conduct during his own time as minister: “You did the drill in the pyramid and you took permission after!”
Void Behind Wall "Just Doesn't Exist"
If the circle of Egyptologists is small and intense, there’s an even tighter ring that encompasses those who specialize in the archaeological application of ground-penetrating radar (GPR). Ever since March, when Watanabe released some images from his scans, other radar experts have offered a great deal of criticism.
“I tell you, everybody I talked to who is in the GPR business just rolled their eyes and said, ‘There’s nothing here at all,’” Lawrence Conyers, the author of Ground-Penetrating Radar for Archaeology, said. A number of experts said that radar can’t distinguish “organic” material, as Watanabe claimed.
The second scan was carried out by an engineer named Eric Berkenpas, and then the raw data was sent out to be reviewed by multiple experts in the United States and Egypt. Dean Goodman, a geophysicist who developed the GPR-SLICE software used by many specialists, analyzed the data and found no evidence of hidden chambers. All of the other analysts came to the same conclusion.
“If we had a void, we should have a strong reflection,” Goodman said. “But it just doesn’t exist.” He also couldn’t recognize signs of masonry in the locations where Reeves proposed the existence of blocked-over doorways. “Radar data can often be subjective,” Goodman said. “But at this particular site, it’s not. It’s nice at such an important site to have clear, convincing results.”
Goodman noted that Watanabe has not released his raw data for review. When interviewed at last weekend’s conference, Watanabe said that after more than 40 years of working with radar, he has customized his equipment to such a degree that its data is unreadable to others. “When someone says that they want to check the data, I am so sad,” he said, through a translator. But he expressed no doubts about his results. “I trust my data completely,” he said.
Watanabe is in his mid-seventies, and a number of experts have criticized him for using Koden-brand machines that haven’t been on the market for more than two decades. Izumi Shimada, an anthropologist at Southern Illinois University who worked with Watanabe in the past, said that he has always been a controversial figure in Japan.
“Maybe he uses his personal experience more than relying on software or cutting-edge technology,” Shimada said. “However good the software is, it’s still a human interpretation of what you see on the monitor. There is a great deal of subjectivity.” He said that Watanabe has a history of success: “He has worked in many archaeological settings, and he has found things that archaeologists were looking for and that they hadn’t been able to find.”
Shimada also said that Watanabe has a tendency to become “too enthusiastic” about preliminary results. He noted that Watanabe isn’t an academic, with a background originally in industry. Nevertheless, Shimada decided to enlist Watanabe’s services because “there was no doubt that he has worked in a most diverse range of settings.” They collaborated for more than a decade on the northern coast of Peru, where Watanabe’s radar helped Shimada carry out a series of extremely successful excavations of tombs from the Sicán culture.
When informed of the contradictory radar results from Tut’s tomb, and the fact that other specialists were questioning Watanabe’s findings, Shimada said, “I don’t think I heard about the cases of his predictions being wrong like that.”
"No Individual Decisions!"
In Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization, Barry J. Kemp writes, “All people’s knowledge of most things—their everyday ‘working knowledge’—is throughout akin to myth, and is in part truly myth.” You flip a switch and have faith that light will appear, when in fact you can’t explain an electric current, a transformer, a power station. For Kemp, the ancient “avenues of thought” still course throughout the modern mind.
Some of our casual thinking about science, for example, may not be so different from the ways in which ancient Egyptians believed that their gods animated the world. Of course, even if basic human mental patterns are similar, we now have infinitely more resources at our disposal when we decide to investigate something. Kemp writes, “Progress gives us choice in our myths, and the power to discard those that we find inappropriate.”
At some point in the coming months, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities will probably approve another series of scans in Tut’s tomb, and the results will push Reeves’s theory, in our minds, toward either truth or myth. El-Enany, the antiquities minister, said that he is going to appoint a committee that will decide how to proceed. No doubt he took note of the angry exchange between his predecessors; immediately afterwards, he mentioned the committee to a reporter and said, “No individual decisions!”
The most prominent conference participants, even Hawass, advocated additional tests by radar and other technologies. Still, all the brave talk of science couldn’t quite hide the range of eternal human qualities that were on display in the lecture halls: curiosity and stubbornness, pride and ambition, companionship and distrust.
It was also striking how many technical things failed to function on Sunday. Much of Watanabe’s presentation was effectively lost, because nobody could connect his computer to the auditorium’s sound system. There were problems with lights; a number of computers crashed. At one point Yasser Elshayeb, a professor of rock mechanics at Cairo University, struggled with his computer at the podium and announced, “This proves that technology does not work all the time.” After the laughter had subsided, he called out to somebody in the audience: “Can I get your computer? It seems that it’s the only computer that is working.” And then Nicholas Reeves stood up and handed it over.