by Pearce Paul Creasman, University of Arizona
A short-lived king of ancient Egypt’s 18th Dynasty, Tutankhamun (transl. “the living image of Amun”; but born Tutankhaten, “the living image of the Aten”) is the most widely known pharaoh today. Tutankhamun’s notoriety in the present is primarily due to the discovery of his largely intact tomb in the Valley of the Kings (Luxor, Egypt). In 1922, the English archaeologist Howard Carter’s team discovered the tomb, now known by its location and sequential find number: “KV62.”1 Lavishly appointed, the tomb contained extravagant trappings of the sorts that were likely buried with most kings of Egypt’s New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1080 BC; including the ruling families who composed the 18th, 19th and 20th Dynasties).2 Since virtually all other tombs in the Valley of the Kings had been serially robbed from antiquity to the present,3 that this tomb escaped most such activity makes it remarkable (it was slightly plundered in two brief events in the few years after the king was interred, but then rested safely until its discovery in 1922). Prior to the tomb’s discovery, Tutankhamun was a minor figure in the history of Egypt and even less important to the history of Egyptology.
Tutankhamun was the son (perhaps by a minor wife) of a prior pharaoh: Akhenaten. Akhenaten is best known for his erstwhile attempt to convert the integrated religious-social-political system of Egypt to a single deity (the Aten) above and in place of the traditional pantheon.4 Akhenaten ruled for nearly two decades from a new city (Akhetaten, a site called Amarna today, from which this period takes is name: the Amarna Period) and imposed his preferred system on the populace, but after his death the old ways returned.5 After exceedingly brief reigns of one or two other kings, one of whom perhaps began reformation of Akhenaten’s ways,6 Tutankhamun was placed on the throne of Egypt at about the age of nine. He ruled for some nine years, aided in the work by advisors and relatives. This time continued the transition back to the polytheistic ways and re-advancing the previously favored gods (i.e., Amun). While many works in this vein were conducted in Tutankhamun’s name, it is likely that the king himself played a minor role in the effort.
Even though his mummy is available for study, Tutankhamun’s death, around the age of 18 or 19, is shrouded in mystery. Numerous theories have been offered and rebuffed,7 but whatever the cause, his death seems to have come somewhat suddenly, to gauge from the hurried appearance of preparations of his interment.8 However sudden, Tutankhamun was rewarded for his participation in the rejuvenation of Egypt after its Amarna interlude with a proper kingly burial. It was the duty of the new king to ensure that his predecessor received such treatment, as death awaits all kings. Tutankhamun waited in the darkness of his tomb, unassumingly and overlooked historically, only to be brought to light by Howard Carter. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb and its treasures captivated the world and have continued to do so for nearly a century.
Of late, Tutankhamun and his tomb have returned to prominence. In a July 2015 publication, Nicholas Reeves (a renowned expert on the Amarna Period, and Tutankhamun specifically) proposed that more remains to be discovered in KV62. Based on numerous lines of evidence, Reeves posited that at least two additional chambers (or portions thereof) may remain undiscovered in this tomb in the Valley of the Kings.9 While the data employed and the theory that something else is to be discovered in KV62 are scientifically sound and well justified, Reeves advanced the case to suggest that that “something” would be, specifically, the burial of Nefertiti. Nefertiti was Akhenaten’s favored wife and step-mother to Tutankhamun. Furthermore, it now seems likely that Nefertiti ruled briefly as pharaoh herself, albeit under a different name.10 Nefertiti’s burial place has never been found but has long been hunted. However, the case for Nefertiti co-occupying a tomb in a hidden chamber(s) with Tutankhamun, while certainly possible, remains supported by largely circumstantial evidence rather than the scientific data that indicate the existence of something beyond the walls. Any number of other royals from the period are viable candidates for co-occupancy, and it is just as likely, based on the data in hand, that the something comprises one or more empty or incomplete chambers (which are common among the other tombs the Valley of the Kings).
The head of archaeology in Egypt at the time, Minister of Antiquities and Heritage Dr. Mamdouh El Damaty (accompanied by a special Investigation Committee to evaluate the theory), invited Reeves visit KV62 in September 2015 for an up-close empirical investigation and initial vetting of the theory. With the support of the Minister, in November 2015, an international team conducted a non-invasive and non-destructive remote sensing examination from the interior of KV62 to evidence if, indeed, additional chambers are present. The results suggested that Reeves’ theory was correct.11 Two subsequent studies by other international teams came back divided on the result.12 At present, the work stands here. Announcements have been made that a special committee is evaluating all of the data collected and will advise the archaeological authorities in Egypt on any future work.13 Presently, the most likely course of future action appears to be additional scans from inside the tomb with different technologies. Ground-penetrating radar scans from outside the tomb (from the surface level) have not yet been conducted and would provide perhaps the most definitive statement on the theory short of accessing the spaces by drilling a hole and inserting an endoscopic camera or similar device. So Tutankhamun’s tomb may yet hold more wonders. Only time—and technology—will tell.
References & Further Reading
Mark Howard Carter, The Tomb of Tut.ankh.Amen: Discovered by the Late Earl of Carnarvon and Howard Carter, 3 volumes (London: Cassell, 1923–1933).
2 Nicholas Reeves, The Complete Tutankhamun: The King, the Tomb, the Royal Treasure (London: Thames & Hudson, 1995).
3 C. N. Reeves, Valley of the Kings: The Decline of a Royal Necropolis (London: Kegan Paul International, 1990).
4 Nicholas Reeves, Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet (London: Thames & Hudson, 2001).
5 Barry Kemp, The City of Akhenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and Its People (Thames & Hudson, 2014).
6 James P. Allen, 1994. “Nefertiti and Smenkh-ka-re,” Göttinger Miszellen 141 (1994): 7–17; Nicholas Reeves, Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet (London: Thames & Hudson, 2001).
7 For example: (multiple causes) Zahi Hawass et al., “Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun’s Family,” Journal of the American Medical Association 303.7 (17 February 2010): 638–647; (kick by a horse or donkey) W. Benson Harer, Jr., 2006. “An Explanation of King Tutankhamen’s Death,” Bulletin of the Egyptian Museum 3 (2006): 83–88.
8 See Reeves 1995.
9 Nicholas Reeves, The Burial of Nefertiti? (Tucson: Amarna Royal Tombs Project, 2015).
10 James P. Allen, 1994. “Nefertiti and Smenkh-ka-re,” Göttinger Miszellen 141 (1994): 7–17; Nicholas Reeves, Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet (London: Thames & Hudson, 2001).
11 Mark Strauss, “Infrared Scans Show Possible Hidden Chamber in King Tut’s Tomb,” National Geographic Online (6 November 2015), http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/11/151106-tut-tutankhamun-tomb-thermal-imaging-nefertiti-archaeology/ .
Mark2 Peter Hessler, “In Egypt, Debate Rages over Scans of King Tut’s Tomb,” National Geographic Online (9 May 2016), http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/05/160509-king-tut-tomb-chambers-radar-archaeology/ .
Mark3 Publically stated by government authorities at the “Second Annual Tutankhamun Grand Egyptian Museum Conference in Cairo” on 8 May 2016, for which the author was in attendance; see also Hessler 2016.