They are two of the most renowned figures in Egyptian history.
But, while King Tutankhamun owes his fame to the stunning treasures that were buried with him after his death, Queen Nefertiti is remembered for her remarkable life.
She ruled alongside her husband, Pharaoh Akhenaten, more than 3,300 years ago, during an era of both tremendous affluence and unprecedented social upheaval. A bust of her face, unearthed by archaeologists, attests to her legendary beauty. Her name translates as “a beautiful woman has come,” and her titles included “Lady of All Women,” “Great of Praises,” and “Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt.”
And yet, the tomb of Nefertiti has never been found. Her mummified body, prepared for its journey to the afterlife, likely rests in the Valley of the Kings. But where?
Archaeologist Nicholas Reeves believes the illustrious Egyptian queen has been hiding in plain sight, within a large chamber behind a concealed door in the tomb of King Tutankhamun, which was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922. Recent scientific surveys of the ancient building have found tantalizing clues that are consistent with Reeves’ theories.
Still, these results are preliminary, and other archaeologists remain skeptical. This is, after all, the third alleged discovery of Nefertiti’s tomb in the last 12 years. Some scientists believe, based upon recent DNA evidence, that the ancient queen’s body may already be lying in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, one of a group of mummies unearthed in 1898.
Even Reeves admits that he has entered his recent work with great trepidation.
“I was nervous about this because it looks as if there’s something here, but let’s face it—it’s ridiculous!” he says, laughing. “Carter was a fabulous archaeologist. He was suspicious. He was thorough. He wasn’t going to miss a trick. But again, there are developments in technology that weren’t available to him.”
Reeves made his discovery when Factum Arte, a Spanish group specializing in the replication of artistic works, conducted detailed scans of Tutankhamun’s tomb.
The high-resolution images were used to create a nearby replica to accommodate the mobs of tourists who visit the Valley of the Kings to see the final resting place of the boy pharaoh. But, last February, upon examining the scans, Reeves saw fissures that he believes indicate the presence of two sealed doors in the tomb's north and west walls.
The smaller of the two, he says, likely leads to a storeroom. But the larger one is fit for a queen.
In his research paper, Reeves suggests that Nefertiti was interred first, and that the entrance to her chamber was later plastered and painted over.
And, he adds, a scene painted in Tut’s chamber depicts figures whose faces have physical features traditionally associated with portrayals of Nefertiti, including “a somewhat scooped brow and nose and a straight jawline with gently rounded chin.”
Reeves cites the size and layout of the tomb as further supporting evidence. With only four rooms, it’s smaller than that of other pharaohs, suggesting that it’s part of a more expansive structure.
And anyone entering the chamber from the main corridor has to turn right, which was a configuration traditionally reserved for Egyptian queens.
If, indeed, the tomb was originally built for Nefertiti, then why was Tut later interred there?
Reeves thinks the decision was steeped in the turmoil of the era. Nefertiti and her husband, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, had created a new state religion that rejected Egypt’s polytheism and worshipped the sun god, Aten, as the one true deity. Amenhotep changed his name to Akhenaten and moved the nation’s capital from Thebes to a hastily built city—called Akhetaten—250 miles to the north.
Later pharaohs branded this monotheistic religion as heresy and sought to destroy records of Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s reign. Reeves, however, is among a group of scholars who believes that, after her husband’s death, Nefertiti continued to rule as pharaoh under the name Smenkhkare.
When she died, Reeves says, she was placed in an extravagant tomb, since, “as sole ruler, she had been entitled to the more elaborate funerary paraphernalia of a fully fledged king.”
bust of Nefertiti
Some scholars believe that, after her husband’s death, Nefertiti continued to rule as pharaoh under the name Smenkhkare.
photograph by Victor R. Boswell, Jr
At the time of Nefertiti’s burial, there had surely been no intention that Tutankhamun would, in due course, occupy this same tomb, Reeves adds. But the sudden, unexpected death of Tutankhamun left the Egyptians unprepared, with no tomb yet dug for the young pharaoh’ s sole use. Reeves believes the ancient Egyptians did the next best thing and used a royal tomb that had already been built.
Found and Lost
If Reeves is correct, it would also be the culmination of a personal quest. He searched for the queen’s tomb when he was the director of the Amarna Royal Tombs Project from 1998 to 2002.
"My strong feeling is that Nefertiti may well be buried somewhere in the Valley of the Kings," he told PBS. "It would be wonderful to find Nefertiti's tomb, because not only is this a person of the greatest historical importance, but it's a period of the most superb art."
Yet it was Reeves’ colleague Otto Schaden, a University of Memphis archaeologist, who discovered a hidden tomb in 2006, fifty feet away from Tutankhamun’s. Some media reports initially identified it as the possible burial chamber of Nefertiti.
The tomb, though, was a bust. Seven sarcophagi were found inside, six of which were empty. The seventh, farthest from the entrance, held out hope that it might contain a mummy—perhaps the queen herself.
But when the final sarcophagus was opened, it revealed not a mummy, but gilded collars ornamented with flowers, sticks, linen pieces, clay fragments, and golden shreds. Whatever it once held, the sarcophagus had apparently been converted to storage for burial materials.
“The Younger Lady”
The hype over the empty tomb was nothing compared to the Nefertiti-mania that swept the media in 2003.
University of York archaeologist Joann Fletcher studied three mummies that had been found in 1898, within the tomb of Pharaoh Amenhotep II. Fletcher announced that one of the bodies, nicknamed “the Younger Lady,” was, in fact, the mummy of Queen Nefertiti.
Her conclusion—which became the basis for a TV documentary, a book, a 60 Minutes report, and numerous newspaper and magazine articles—was based, in part, on a wig found near the mummy. It was, Fletcher said, a Nubian hairstyle worn only by royalty during the period when Nefertiti reigned. And, Fletcher also discovered that one ear was double-pierced—a rare practice that was also attributed to Nefertiti.
Other Egyptologists, however, found Fletcher’s evidence unconvincing. Barbara Mertz, an American Egyptologist and author (who died in 2013), wrote a letter in an academic journal stating that “the discussions will surely continue to rage, but there can be no doubt in the mind of any Egyptologist or educated Egyptology buff that the identification of the mummy in question as Nefertiti is balderdash (good manners prevent me from using a stronger term)."
But in 2013, French Egyptologist Marc Gabolde announced that, after studying the DNA of the three mummies—and comparing it with genetic tests of other members of the royal family—he was convinced that the Younger Lady was, in fact, Nefertiti.
The Return of the Queen?
If Gabolde is correct, Nefertiti is not buried in Tutankhamun’s tomb, as Reeves suggests.
Aidan Dobson, an Egyptologist at the University of Bristol, counts himself among the skeptics, saying that it's a long way from observing outlines of doors to “the conclusion that one of them leads to the burial chamber of Nefertiti.” They could be the beginning of doors that were never finished, he says, adding that “there are examples of such in many tombs.” And, if they are actually doors, the most likely explanation is that they both lead to storage chambers, says Dobson.
So far, however, the data collected in Tut’s tomb is consistent with Reeves’ theories. A survey of the ancient building last September found evidence indicating the existence of two previously undiscovered rooms. “First of all, we saw that on the ceiling itself there’s a distinct line,” Reeves said, after returning from visiting the tomb with Egyptian archaeologists and officials. He explained that, in the room that contains Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus, the line on the ceiling perfectly matches the section of wall that appears to have been plastered over.
Two months later, another survey of the tomb was conducted using infrared thermography, which measures temperature distributions on a surface.
According to Mamdouh el-Damaty, the Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, “the preliminary analysis indicates the presence of an area different in its temperature than the other parts of the northern wall.” One possible explanation is that the variation in temperature is, in effect, an infrared shadow of an open area behind the wall.
Still, if the last 12 years have taught us anything, it’s the need for patience. Technological breakthroughs are enabling new archaeological discoveries and compelling us to revisit old ones. It’s a journey that takes us down long roads that sometimes are dead ends and that sometimes circle back on themselves.
If the next round of scans confirms the existence of hidden chambers in Tut’s tomb, the archaeologists will likely drill a tiny hole in the wall and peek inside the rooms with a fiberoptic camera. If they see anything that indicates the chamber is a crypt, then the archaeologists and the Egyptian authorities will face the difficult question of how to gain access without damaging one of the most famous tombs of the ancient world.
Only then we will find out whether Nefertiti—“the beautiful woman who has come”—has finally made her return.