Wouldn’t it be great?
News of a new theory that has been circulating since the end of July hit the mainstream media last week (see e.g. The Economist, The Guardian and the BBC). Dr Nicholas Reeves, a highly regarded Egyptologist specialising in the history of the late eighteenth Dynasty, has suggested that new images of the interior of Tutankhamun’s tomb, show evidence of two, previously unknown doorways. Even better than that, according to Reeves, the doorways were deliberately concealed in ancient times, and have never been breached since; one leads to a chamber containing further burial equipment belonging to Tutankhamun, the second to a corridor, itself leading to a second burial, of none other than Nefertiti herself.
I’m not nearly as expert in such things as some of my colleagues but when I was asked to provide some comments on BBC Radio 5Live last week, I began scribbling some ideas and thought they might be worth airing a little more fully here. Initially, I guessed the media had already oversimplified things, making Dr Reeves’ suggestions sound far bolder than perhaps they really were. However, his paper, which is freely available online, is entitled ‘The Burial of Nefertiti?’. He’s not beating around the bush here…
The Amarna Period: a perfect storm
I’ve admired Dr Reeves’ work for a long time (this paper on ‘An Eighteenth-Dynasty Burial Reassembled’, which I saw him present at a conference in Providence, Rhode Island, is a riveting masterpiece of detective work). He is one of half a dozen or so academics who specialize in scrutinizing the material relating the royal family of the Amarna Period, a family that included Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamun, and others whose identities remain the subject of intense debate. By going over the evidence in the very finest detail, Nick and others have been able to tease new information out of it, altering our understanding of the period, which is at once perhaps the most dramatic in Egyptian history and also one of the most obscure, at least in the finer points, which fuels the fascination.
As a result, the Amarna period is perhaps the most closely examined of any period of ancient history and certainly the most popular among Egyptophiles (Dominic Montserrat’s excellent book, Akhenaten: History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt is a brilliant study of the continuing fascination with this pharaoh and his times). This is hardly surprising given it presents something of perfect storm: we know enough to show that this was clearly a fascinating era of extraordinary goings on – an entirely new religion, a revolution in art and iconography, a brand new capital city, a very odd looking king, an incredibly beautiful queen, and a boy buried with the most fabulous haul of archaeological treasure. But there’s enough that we don’t know, sufficient gaps in our knowledge, to provide the very most fertile ground for speculation and interpretation, and for forensic analysis of the evidence to change the picture, often quite dramatically. Three examples:
- In 1968 a first X-ray examination of Tutankhamun’s mummy was undertaken by Dr Rex Harrison of Liverpool University. Harrison detected a tiny fragment of detached bone within the cranial cavity leading him to suggest that the king had suffered a blow to the head, which was the interpreted by the media to mean that he was murdered. (This idea has since been discredited – the fragment is now thought to have detached after the king’s death and is therefore nothing to do with how he met his end).
- In 2004 Professor Jim Allen of Brown University recognized that the epithet ‘Akhetenhes’ (3xt-n-X.s) which followed the name of an Amarna period pharaoh named Ankheperure, should be read as ‘effective for her husband’ indicating that this ruler of Egypt was not male, but female…
- In recent years Reeves’ own close inspection of the iconic death-mask of Tutankhamun led him to suggest that it was reworked into the boy king’s distinctive portrait having originally been made for someone else, specifically Nefertiti (see this report in The Times and also the forthcoming papers here and here).
Tut was murdered! Ankheperure actually a woman! Death mask was really made for Nefertiti! There is no other period of Egyptian history about which such minute observations generate such excitement.
Reeves’ new paper is a riveting read. The story starts with his examination of new, very high resolution images of the surfaces of the walls in Tutankhamun’s burial chamber created by Factum Arte as part of their recreation of the tomb. These provide a picture of the shape of the walls, their contours and texture, and reveal a series of unexpected ‘shadows’ on the western and northern walls, which Reeves believes are the evidence of the two sealed doorways.
Starting from the premise that these are doorways, Reeves then builds a case for what might lie behind them over the course of just over 11 pages. He argues that the chamber opening from the west wall of the burial chamber would have been used to store further burial equipment belonging to Tutankhamun, in similar fashion to the ‘Annexe’ and ‘Treasury’ discovered by Howard Carter. Other royal tombs of the age incorporate four such chambers, positioned approximately at the four corners of the full extent of each tomb’s plan, at ‘2, 4, 8 and 10 o’clock’ to use Reeves’ analogy. The proposed new chamber would give Tut’s tomb three such chambers; a fourth would be impossible however as the ‘4 o’clock’ position is occupied by the entrance passage.
The shadows on the north wall of the burial chamber are altogether more significant in Reeves’ estimation. He believes they indicate not only a sealed doorway, but that this was set not into solid rock but a screen wall which forms the blocking to a corridor. And this, in its dimensions and alignment, corresponds to, and is a continuation of, the antechamber of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Reeves’ conclusion is that the burial chamber of Tutankhamun was simply an enlargement within what had previously been a single corridor, leading to an earlier tomb. Reeves goes on to argue that the architecture suggests it must have been the tomb of a Queen, but that the dimensions of the corridor – larger than that of the descending entrance passageway – suggest it was enlarged at a certain point to allow the ingress of a larger set of funerary shrines than had originally been anticipated – due to a change in the status of the royal woman in question. It is Reeves’ belief that Nefertiti became pharaoh first as a co-regent with Akhenaten, and subsequently, following her husband’s death, as sole pharaoh under the name Ankheperure Smenkhare. So, as Reeves would have it, we should be looking for a female pharaoh who status was elevated at a certain point necessitating a change to the design of the tomb, and this could only be Nefertiti / Smenkhare.
Reeves provides plenty of evidence for his case and his argument proceeds clearly and logically. However, objections to his theory will no doubt be raised (and already have been see e.g. here); although I am not a specialist in this bit of Egyptian history myself I suspect they might include some of the following:
Central to the theory is that we have not yet discovered either the tomb, burial equipment or mummy of Nefertiti. However…
- There are other candidate tombs already known, e.g. among the royal tombs at Amarna and those in the Valley of the Kings.
Nefertiti’s tomb may might also yet lie undiscovered elsewhere in the Valley. Reeves himself has previously suggested that an ‘anomaly’ beneath the surface in an unexcavated part of the Valley of the Kings may be the tomb of a royal woman of the Amarna period, perhaps Nefertiti (see here). This theory cannot be conclusively proven one way or another until the area in question has been completely excavated.
- We should not expect burial equipment to survive – in the case of the Egyptian royals it generally hasn’t – Tut’s is the exception – although Reeves’ point that almost nothing of Nefertiti’s other than what was reused by Tut has turned up anywhere is nonetheless interesting.
- Claims have been made that the mummy of Nefertiti has already been discovered, and should be identified with the ‘younger lady’ of KV 35.
And of course even if Reeves is right, and we haven’t already found these things, there’s no conclusive proof that they must have survived. We only have a fraction of what material must have existed in the past of course. It also seems reasonably likely that such things would not even have survived much beyond the end of the Amarna Period. The jumble of material discovered in KV 55 suggests that some of the Amarna royals’ burials were disturbed and reinterred. This may simply have been due to the shift back to Thebes and the Valley of the Kings after the brief period during which the royal court and cemetery transferred to Amarna, but might it not also have been connected with the Egyptians’ deliberate attempt to remove all trace of the ‘Amarna heresy’ from the records? Tutankhamun clearly was given a proper burial, despite having been sufficiently close to the Amarna heresy for his name to have been omitted from official kinglists such as that at the temple of Sety I at Abydos.
But he was the pharaoh during whose reign the old ways, including Amun worship, were reintroduced, as his ‘restoration stela’ and change of name (he was TutankhATEN – ‘beloved of the Aten’ – before becoming TutankhaAMUN – ‘beloved of Amun’) show. So there may be some justification for arguing that we might not expect Nefertiti’s burial to have been left undisturbed, even though Tut’s survived intact.
One aspect of the argument which has already been contested elsewhere is Reeves’ identification of Nefertiti with Smenkhare; they may not have been one and the same. And one thing that I find particularly puzzling: how and why was the proposed ‘new’ doorway in the western wall so well concealed when those leading to the annexe and burial chamber were not at all hidden, and the entrance to the Treasury not sealed at all? Reeves makes a good case for the ‘corridor entrance’ in the north wall having been quite different but why would the third storage chamber have been so much better concealed than the other two?
Of course the entire case will collapse if the shadows apparent in the new images turn out not to be the evidence of a concealed chamber and corridor, but rather natural faults or the beginnings of architectural features that for one reason or another were then aborted.
A very good thing for Egyptology
In any case though, I love the story. Egyptology needs hooks like this, things that will draw people in, lead them to read a book they wouldn’t otherwise have picked up, visit a museum when they might otherwise have taken a day trip elsewhere, or choose a holiday in Egypt when another destination might otherwise have seemed more appealing.
There is also an awful lot to learn from Reeves’ paper. Even if he’s wrong about the doorways, his argument is mostly very sound and he brings in lots of good evidence, with all the appropriate references to further literature which readers might otherwise never have come across, and will now be encouraged to follow up. The paper was not published in a peer-reviewed journal, which arguably undermines the case somewhat and will lead some to criticise, but it is clearly argued, very well illustrated, and generally very well presented in an entirely scholarly fashion. The advantage of avoiding the peer-review process is that the paper is now freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection, and much more quickly than it would have been had it appeared in the pages of a recognised journal. This has undoubtedly contributed to the reader statistics: as I type it has been viewed over 72,000 times, and that, I can tell you, is far more attention than any scholarly paper in Egyptology would normally get. Full credit to Dr Reeves then for publishing a sensational idea and having the in-depth argument to back it up ready for anyone to consult. The availability of the very high resolution images online thanks to Factum Arte is an added bonus (and it’s great fun playing with them too).
Until we know for sure, the possibility is tremendously exciting. There is no other branch of archaeology I can think of that could generate such excitement. Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, undiscovered treasure and an untested theory: it all makes for precisely the kind of story that fascinates so many thousands of people, puts ancient Egypt in the news, and draws people like me into doing what we do for a living. It occurs to me though, that if ‘tis better to travel than to arrive’, it actually might be better while we don’t know – if there’s nothing there at all then the story will disappear entirely; and even if Nick is right, I suspect something will be lost in knowing… For now, it’s a very exciting possibility.