A technician uses ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to search for voids behind the west wall of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The 2018 investigation was coordinated by specialists from the Polytechnic University of Turin in Italy.
Recent radar scans of Tutankhamun's tomb conclusively prove that there are no additional chambers or passages behind the walls of the famed pharaoh's burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings, Egyptian officials announced today.
A statement was released today on behalf of Mostafa Waziri, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, during the fourth annual International Tutankhamun GEM Conference, held at the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) in Giza.
The announcement brings to a disappointing end an investigation that began three years ago, when Egyptologist and National Geographic grantee Nicholas Reeves theorized that the tomb of legendary 18th-Dynasty queen Nefertiti may be hidden behind the walls of Tut's 3,300-year-old tomb.
Two previous tests of Reeves' theory, using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to search for hidden chambers or passages, produced contradictory results.
The third and most recent radar investigation, conducted earlier this year with support from the National Geographic Society, is a joint scientific mission coordinated by Franco Porcelli of the Polytechnic University of Turin. It’s considered the most comprehensive search yet.
The scientific report submitted on Saturday by Porcelli to Waziri and Khaled El Enany, Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities, ends with the statement: "We conclude, with a very high level of confidence, that the hypothesis concerning the existence of hidden chambers adjacent [to] Tutankhamun’s tomb is not supported by the GPR data."
SEEING THE UNSEEN
Ground-penetrating radar, a remote-sensing technique commonly used in prospecting for oil and gas and other minerals, is an increasingly critical tool for archaeologists. It enables them to detect man-made voids in the earth, such as tombs and passages, without unnecessarily disturbing fragile ancient sites.
In 2015, radar specialist Hirokatsu Watanabe conducted a GPR scan of Tut’s tomb and announced startling results: evidence for hidden doorways on the north and west walls of the burial chamber.
However, a second radar scan of the tomb, performed by National Geographic Society engineers in 2016, did not replicate Watanabe's results.
Following a contentious discussion over the discrepancy between the results of the two scans at the 2016 International Tutankhamun GEM Conference, Minister El Enany commissioned a comprehensive "tie-breaker" radar analysis.
COVERING ALL THE BASES
The report submitted to Egyptian officials today includes the results of three new GPR scans, conducted in February 2018 by three independent teams and each using a different frequency—high, medium, and low. High-frequency radar can provide detailed results up to distances of about seven feet; lower frequencies penetrate deeper but provide coarser results.
The research teams—from the Polytechnic University of Turin, Italy, in partnership with the University of Turin and two private companies, Geostudi Astier and 3DGeoimaging—worked over the course of seven days and collected data equivalent to scanning 1.6 surface miles.
After the experts individually interpreted their radar data, they came together to cross-check their results.
"The finding is that there is no evidence of doors or empty spaces beyond the funeral chamber up to four meters [13 feet]," Porcelli tells National Geographic.
"It's disappointing, but this is the result. This is conclusive in our point of view," he adds.
GHOST SIGNALS IN TUT'S TOMB
Porcelli suspects that previous radar anomalies detected in the pharaoh's burial chamber, which raised the exciting possibility that Nefertiti's tomb might lie beyond it, were the result of "ghost signals"—rogue radar reflections originating in front of the walls, not behind them.
Under normal conditions, a GPR antenna sends radar waves straight through a wall, and they bounce right back to the receiver, providing a very clear signal.
But it appears that at some points in Tut's tomb, the radar waves did not penetrate through the walls but rather traveled along the wall surfaces before returning back to the receiver.
The culprit? The researchers suspect that the elaborately painted plaster covering the limestone rock of the tomb may have properties that enable it to conduct electricity.
"The rock itself could have properties that cause this phenomenon," Porcelli explains.
The researchers suspect that additional ghost signals may have come from Tut's massive quartzite sarcophagus, which takes up much of the central burial chamber.
PROOF OF CONCEPT
While the results from this most recent radar scan do not support the initial "hidden Nefertiti tomb" theory that instigated the research, Porcelli believes that the project demonstrates that GPR can provide conclusive answers. This is especially important when many in the Egyptian archaeological community still regard the technology with skepticism, despite its proven track record at ancient sites around the world.
"It may be more efficient than traditional archaeology and less destructive," he adds.
Fredik Hiebert, National Geographic's archaeologist-in-residence, agrees.
"This is the first conclusive GPR project in the Valley of the Kings,” Hiebert says. “It proves the technique, and it is proof of concept for great work that can be done in Egypt."
"The results may be disappointing, but the science is paramount."
The press conference announcing the discovery of King Tut’s final resting place unfolds just outside the tomb’s entrance. Distinguished guests include the sultana of Egypt and the queen of Belgium.