Ever since the discovery of the Nefertiti bust in 1912, the fourteenth-century Egyptian queen’s likeness has captivated antiquarians and attracted visitors to the Neues Museum in Berlin. The statue has been a symbol of Egyptian artistry, of German identity and of feminine strength and beauty.
Nefertiti’s allure has long been compounded by the mysterious circumstances of her death in 1331 B.C. and the fact that her tomb has never been found. Possibly until now. A prominent British Egyptologist believes he’s located it — inside another major archaeological site. Nicholas Reeves, a scholar currently based at the University of Arizona, who’s also been a curator at the British Museum and a fellow at the Metropolitan Museum, recently published his theory that the tomb of Nefertiti is actually hidden inside the tomb of King Tut — who some believe was her son.
Who was she?
Alongside her husband, Pharaoh Akhenaten, Nefertiti oversaw one of the most prosperous periods in Egypt’s history. The couple introduced (and mandated) a new religion, which replaced the pantheon of Egyptian gods with a single deity. Some scholars believe Nefertiti outlived her husband and ruled on her own after his death, wielding an amount of power almost unprecedented for a woman.
Nefertiti is renowned for her looks, too; her name translates as “the beauty has come.” Makeup buffs and beauty bloggers are still trying to replicate her heavily lined eyes, angular cheekbones and elaborate hairdo. Her bust is the logo of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery.
The fraught history of Nefertiti’s bust also adds to her mystique. Artists and historians have speculated about her relationship with the sculptor, Thutmose; their imagined romance is the basis for the famous film Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile. Ever since it was excavated by a team of German archaeologists in 1912, the statue has been a source of national pride for Germany. During World War II, the bust spent time in a bunker; after the war, museums in East and West Germany fought over it.
Hidden in plain sight
Reeves’s theory is based on his examination of photographs posted by Factum Arte, a European company that uses 3D laser scanning to capture high-definition images of heritage sites. The images, which allow anyone to take a virtual tour of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber, were commissioned by Egyptian authorities hoping to reduce the number of tourists visiting the fragile site.
The close-up photos show the texture of the walls, which, on the actual tomb, is hidden beneath layers of frescoes and paint. Reeves noticed a series of cracks in the wall, and he believes they indicate the existence of two passages that were covered up with plaster. The smaller one appears to have led to a storeroom; he believes the other door, located beneath the north wall, could be hiding the passage to another burial chamber.
King Tut’s tomb is smaller than most of the other burial chambers in the Valley of Kings, and the treasures within are less impressive than those associated with similar royal tombs. Its layout—with the main axis on the right of the entrance—is more typical of a queen’s tomb than a king’s. Reeves explains these peculiarities by arguing that King Tut’s tomb was actually an antechamber leading to the tomb of Queen Nefertiti, whose husband was Tutankhamun’s father. (Scholars debate whether Nefertiti was Tut’s mother or stepmother.)
Detractors weigh in
Reeves’s hypothesis has already been picked up by international outlets including The Economist, The Guardian, NPR, and CNN. Yet some scholars in the field of Egyptology are skeptical.
“I do not see anything close to a binding argument in this hypothesis,” Leo Depuydt, professor of Egyptology and Assyriology at Brown, told Women in the World. “So I lost all interest. I do not have time for this.”
Carol Redmount, the chair of Near Eastern Studies at University of California, Berkeley, also warned against jumping to conclusions. “It is a hypothesis, no more, no less,” she said. “The evidence suggesting that there may be additional subsurface structures behind Tutankhamun’s tomb seems to me to be the strongest; the evidence identifying these structures with a queen’s tomb seems to me to be tenuous; and the evidence identifying them with Nefertiti’s tomb seems to me to be the most tenuous of all.”
“As things stand now, I am not convinced.”
Brian Muhs, associate professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago, points out other possible explanations for Reeves’s observations. “The plaster cracks might indicate doorways, but there need not be anything beyond them, as tombs were often left unfinished at the death of their owners,” he said. “If so, the plaster would only hide the fact that it was unfinished. The tomb might have been originally intended for someone other than Tutankhamun, but it need not have been; and if it was, it need not have been Nefertiti.”
National Geographic reports that it’s the third time in 12 years her tomb has allegedly been found.
Archaeologists expect that Egypt’s antiquarian authorities will form a committee to investigate Reeves’s hypothesis. Meanwhile, he himself admits his theory is not exactly airtight. “If I’m wrong I’m wrong,” he told The Economist, “but if I’m right this is potentially the biggest archaeological discovery ever made.”