King Tut died long ago, but the debate about his tomb rages on

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King Tut died long ago, but the debate about his tomb rages on
In a photo provided by Yumiko Ueno shows, Nicholas Reeves, third from right, evaluates documents inside the tomb of King Tutankhamen in Luxor, Egypt. (Yumiko Ueno/The New York Times)

by Franz Lidz

NEW YORK, NY.- More than three millenniums after Tutankhamen was buried in southern Egypt, and a century after his tomb was discovered, Egyptologists are still squabbling over whom the chamber was built for and what, if anything, lies beyond its walls. The debate has become a global pastime.

At the center of the rumpus is confrontational enthusiast Nicholas Reeves, 66, who shares a home near Oxford, England, with a nameless house cat. In July 2015, Reeves, a former curator at the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, posited the tantalizing theory that there were rooms hidden behind the northern and western walls in the treasure-packed burial vault of Tutankhamen, otherwise known as King Tut.

It was long presumed that the small burial chamber, constructed 3,300 years ago and known to specialists as KV62, was originally intended as a private tomb for Tutankhamen’s successor, Ay, until Tutankhamen died prematurely at 19. Reeves proposed that the tomb was, in fact, merely an antechamber to a grander sepulcher for Tutankhamen’s stepmother and predecessor, Nefertiti. What’s more, Reeves argued, behind the north wall was a corridor that might well lead to Nefertiti’s unexplored funerary apartments, and perhaps to Nefertiti herself.

The Egyptian government authorized radar surveys using ground-penetrating radar that could detect and scan cavities underground. At a news conference in Cairo in March 2016, Mamdouh Eldamaty, then Egypt’s antiquities minister, showed the preliminary results of radar scans that revealed anomalies beyond the decorated north and west walls of the tomb, suggesting the presence of two empty spaces and organic or metal objects.

To much fanfare, he announced that there was an “approximately 90%” chance that something — “another chamber, another tomb” — was waiting beyond KV62. (Reeves said: “There was constant pressure from the press for odds. My own response was 50-50 — radar will either reveal there’s more to Tutankhamen’s tomb than we currently see, or it won’t.”)

Yet two years and two separate radar surveys later, a new antiquities minister declared that there were neither blocked doorways nor hidden rooms inside the tomb. Detailed results of the final scan were not released for independent scrutiny. Nonetheless, the announcement prompted National Geographic magazine to withdraw funding for Reeves’ project and a prominent Egyptologist to say, “We should not pursue hallucinations.”

Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s onetime chief antiquities official and author of “King Tutankhamun: The Treasures of the Tomb,” said: “I completely disagree with this theory. There is no way in ancient Egypt that any king would block the tomb of someone else. This would be completely against all their beliefs. It is impossible!” (Reeves countered by pointing out that every successor king was responsible for closing the tomb of his predecessor, as the mythical Horus buried his father, Osiris. “This is even demonstrated in what we currently see on the burial chamber’s north wall, as labeled Ay burying Tutankhamen,” Reeves said.)

Kara Cooney, a professor of Egyptian art and architecture at the University of California, Los Angeles, noted the fraught scholarly terrain.

“Nick’s work is evidence-based and carefully researched,” she said. “But few Egyptologists will say it on record because they are all afraid of losing their access to tombs and excavation concessions. Or they are just plain jerks.”

Despite the setback, Reeves soldiered on. In “The Complete Tutankhamun: 100 Years of Discovery,” a freshly revised edition of his 1990 book to be published in January, he draws on data provided by thermal imaging, laser scanning, mold-growth mapping and inscriptional analysis to support his fiercely debated scholarship. The provocative new evidence has bolstered his belief that Tutankhamen was given a hasty burial in the front hallway of the tomb of Nefertiti.

“Much of what Tutankhamen took to the grave had nothing to do with him,” said Reeves, who spoke by video from his home office. He maintained that King Tut had inherited a suite of lavish burial equipment that had then been repurposed to accompany him into the afterlife, including his famous gold death mask.

The father of Tutankhamen was Akhenaten, the so-called heretic king whose reign was characterized by social, political and religious upheaval. The 18th-dynasty pharaoh rejected Amun, Osiris and Egypt’s traditional gods in favor of a single disembodied creator-essence, Aten, or the sun disc. In the space of a generation, Akhenaten had created a city from scratch at el-Amarna for his new god, and prepared royal tombs for himself, his children and his wives, including Nefertiti.

After Akhenaten came an obscure pharaoh named Smenkhkare, whom Tutankhamen succeeded directly. Reeves has long held that Smenkhkare and Nefertiti were the same person, and that Akhenaten’s queen simply changed her name, first to Neferneferuaten, during a period of rule with her husband, and then to Smenkhkare following his death, navigating a period of sole, independent rule. To the boy-king would fall the burial of this rare female pharaoh.

During King Tut’s decadelong reign, he appeared to have been largely occupied with rectifying the chaos bequeathed to him by his old man. But it would not be enough: Shortly after his death in 1,323 B.C., a new dynasty chiseled his tarnished name into dust.

Pyramid Scheme

Reeves has conducted research directly in the tomb on several occasions over the years. He came to his theory about Tutankhamen in 2014 after examining high-resolution color photographs of the tomb, which were published online by Factum Arte, a company based in Madrid and Bologna, Italy, that specializes in art recording and replication. The images showed lines beneath the plastered surfaces of painted walls, suggesting uncharted doorways. He speculated that one doorway — in the west — opened into a Tutankhamen-era storeroom, and that another, which aligns with both sides of the entrance chamber, opened to a hallway continuing along the same axis in form and orientation reminiscent of a more extensive queen’s corridor tomb.

“I saw early on, from the face of the north wall subject, that the larger tomb could only belong to Nefertiti,” Reeves said. “I also suggested, based on evidence from elsewhere, that the perceived storage chamber to the west of the burial chamber might have been adapted into a funerary suite for other missing members of the Amarna royal family.”

To support his radical reassessment, Reeves pointed to a pair of cartouches — ovals or oblongs enclosing a group of hieroglyphs — and a curious misspelling painted on the tomb’s north wall. The figure beneath the first cartouche is named as Tutankhamen’s Pharaonic successor, Ay, and is shown officiating at the young king’s burial carrying out the “opening the mouth” ceremony, a funerary ritual to restore the deceased’s senses — the ability to speak, touch, see, smell and hear. The key, Reeves said, is that both of the Ay cartouches show clear evidence of having been changed from their originals — the birth and throne names of Tutankhamen.

Reeves suggested that the cartouches had originally showed Tut burying his predecessor, and that the cartouches — and hence the tomb — were put to new use.

“If you inspect the birth name cartouche closely, you see clear, underlying traces of a reed leaf,” he said in an email. “Not by chance, this hieroglyph is the first character of the divine component of Tutankhamen’s name, ‘-amun,’ in all standard writings.”

Beneath Ay’s throne name may be discerned a rare, variant writing of Tutankhamen’s throne name, “Nebkheperure,” employing three scarab beetles. This is a variant whose lazy adaptation provides the only feasible explanation for the strangely misspelled three-scarab version of the Ay throne name “Kheperkheperure” that now stands there, Reeves said.

He deduced that the scene had originally depicted not Ay presiding over the interment of Tutankhamen, but Tutankhamen presiding over the burial of Nefertiti. There are two visual clinchers, he said. The first is the “rounded, childlike, double underchin” of the Ay figure, a feature not present in any image currently recognizable as him, implying that the original painting of the king must have been of the chubby, young Tutankhamen. The second is the facial contours of the mummified recipient — until now presumed to be Tutankhamen — whose lips, narrow neck and distinctive nasal bridge are a “perfect match” for the profile of the painted limestone bust of Nefertiti on display in the Neues Museum in Berlin.

“There would have been no reason to include a depiction of this predecessor’s burial in Tutankhamen’s own tomb,” Reeves said. “In fact, the presence of this scene identifies Tutankhamen’s tomb as the burial place of that predecessor, and that it was within her outer chambers that the young king had, in extremis, been buried.”

Rita Lucarelli, an Egyptology curator at the University of California, Berkeley, said she had been following Reeves’ old and new claims with interest.

“If he is right, it would be an amazing discovery because the tomb of Nefertiti would be intact, too,” she said. “But maybe even if there is a tomb there, it’s not that of Nefertiti, rather of another individual related to Tut. We simply cannot know it unless we dig through the bedrock.”

The problem, Lucarelli said, is finding a way to drill through the decorated north wall without destroying it.

“This is also why other archaeologists do not sympathize with this theory,” she said.

Reeves’ unsympathetic colleagues are legion.

“Nick is flogging a dead horse in his theories,” Aidan Dodson, an Egyptologist at the University of Bristol, said. “He has provided no clear proof that the cartouches have been altered, and his iconographic arguments as to the faces on the wall have been rejected by pretty well every other Egyptologist I know of who is qualified to take a view.”

The Politics of Heritage

Cooney, whose book “When Women Ruled The World” argues that Nefertiti may have been Tut’s grandmother, is one of Reeves’ few champions.

“I am not one of the many scholars laughing behind their hands,” she said. “Nick’s theory is brilliant but easily discounted in a very political and nationalistic Egypt that has refused to give permits to Western scholars who disagree with the party line. Maybe there’s nothing beyond the north wall of Tutankhamen’s tomb. Maybe it’s Al Capone’s safe. But if there is something there, this could potentially be the discovery of the millennium.”

At least part of the backlash against Reeves’ ideas can be traced to the politics of heritage. The narrative that Tutankhamen’s tomb was unearthed by heroic English archaeologist Howard Carter has long been openly challenged by Egyptians, who took the discovery as a rallying cry to end 1920s British rule and establish a modern Egyptian identity. Among Egyptologists today, the hot topics include the decolonization of the field and more inclusive and equitable accounts of Egyptian team members involved in archaeological excavations.

“Sure, some in Egypt take a different view from me, which is easy enough to understand,” Reeves said. A weary expression spread over his face. “Archaeologists in the U.K. would, I am sure, look askance at some foreigner sounding off on who might be buried in Westminster Abbey. But my sole interest as an academic Egyptologist, my intellectual responsibility, is to seek out the evidence and report honestly and as objectively as possible on what I find.”

Nefertiti’s burial is what the raft of new facts points toward when considered altogether, he said, and inevitably Nefertiti plus Tutankhamen is a big ask.

“I can understand the skepticism with which my proposals have been greeted in some quarters,” he said. “And I initially shared it; I would spend a year testing and retesting my conclusions before feeling comfortable enough to publish.”

That was back in 2015, and Reeves believes that the evidence now is stronger than ever.

“Indeed, with the discovery that both cartouches of Ay overlie original cartouches of Tutankhamen, we have the veritable smoking gun,” he said. “To simply deny the evidence is not going to make it go away.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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