We love interesting burials here at Skeleton Keys. Add in some fascinating history and we’re in heaven. We spent lots of time examining the process of finding and identifying Richard III. We covered the potential discovery of the remains of Joan of Arc and King Alfred. We looked at the plague burials of London, the Roman burials of York, and even those entombed at Pearl Harbor. But we’ve never tackled ancient Egypt.
This past week, there was a press conference in Cairo. The Egyptian minister of antiquities announced that new research being conducted in King Tut’s tomb revealed the possible presence of two hidden chambers off the room that held the royal sarcophagus. Seeing as almost everyone thought the tomb had been fully excavated by Howard Carter between 1922 and 1932, the announcement came as quite a surprise.
The one man who thought there was more to discover was Dr. Nicholas Reeves, an archeologist from the University of Arizona. Known as a scientist who often makes discoveries by fully analyzing the research of others, he published a paper in 2015 based on radar scans of the tomb done by a team of conservators from Factum Arte. Factum Arte’s scans were commissioned in order to produce a replica of the tomb for an Egyptian project to preserve tombs in the Valley of the Kings. After the scans were complete, they were uploaded to the Internet for all to see. When Dr. Reeves examined the highly detailed scans, he saw what everyone else had missed—the outline of two doorways in clear, straight lines beneath layers of plaster and paint. His analysis of the data prompted further scans to determine if there was any truth behind his theory.
Dr. Hirokatsu Watanabe, a well-known Japanese radar expert, was brought in to run fresh scans of the north and west walls of the tomb. Immediately following the scans, Watanabe was “90% positive” of the presence of a hidden room behind the north wall. Six months later, the full analysis is complete and Watanabe reported finding empty space on the other side of both walls, with metal and organic material behind the north wall, and organic material behind the west wall. Organic material in this case could be anything from wooden items to human remains.
The quality of the plaster in those two areas is also different from the tomb walls themselves. It is composed of a softer, grittier material than the tomb walls proper. More specifically, this type of gritty plaster exactly matches the material sealing another door opened by Howard Carter in his initial excavation. Carter kept some of the material so Reeves was able to do a direct comparison.
Reeves has a theory about the reported organic materials. It is his opinion that the remains of Queen Nefertiti, stepmother to King Tut, are buried in the chamber behind the north wall. If so, KV62, the most important archeological find of the 20th century, may prove to also be the most important archeological find of the 21st century.
Howard Carter was an amazingly thorough archeologist and painstakingly took a decade to document and excavate King Tut’s tomb, a dedication that was considered unusual for the times. But imagine such an excavation with modern archeological and scientific tools at the researchers’ disposal. They would be able to do field testing radically unlike anything Carter could achieve and in-lab testing well beyond that. Not to mention that current conservation skills far outstrip any of a century ago, ensuring the safety of any objects inside the tomb, sealed away for the past 3,339 years.
So what are the next steps? National Geographic has been invited to send in a team of specialists to confirm the previous radar data as well as to determine the thickness of the walls. Once that is determined, Dr. Reeves would like to use a tiny fiber optic camera to breach the wall with as little damage as possible to visualize any open space beyond without defacing the beautiful painted murals that cover both the north and west walls. He would also like to talk to Japanese conservators with experience in removing wall paintings intact in case they have to fully breach the wall to excavate behind it.
It’s a very exciting prospect, but one that will take time and care to achieve. So patience will be the watchword as the Egyptian government carefully oversees the entire process. But they will not be the only ones to pay attention. To say the whole world will be watching is surely not an overstatement.
Photo credit: By Philip Pikart - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0