CAIRO, EGYPT Never underestimate the mysterious, unpredictable, and slightly insane power of Egyptology.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KENNETH GARRETT, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
Crouched by King Tut’s stone sarcophagus, National Geographic technicians Eric Berkenpas and Alan Turchik prepare the radar unit to scan the tomb’s walls.
This was the lesson of this past weekend’s Second Annual Tutankhamun Grand Egyptian Museum Conference in Cairo, where attendees may have been lulled by a lineup of sessions that included “Tutankhamun’s Embroidery,” “A Constructive Insight of Some Plant Species from Tutankhamun’s Tomb,” and “The Golden Pendant of Tutankhamun: A New Interpretation of the Epithet of Wertethekau.” If only the epithets had stopped with Wertethekau.
On the third and final day of the conference, more than a hundred people watched two former government ministers sit onstage and angrily accuse each other of trying to drill holes into World Heritage Sites without proper permission. Other exchanges were friendlier, if no less passionate. A couple of scholars bantered about the shape of Queen Nefertiti’s lips, and there was a running debate about whether adult male pharaohs wore earrings during the 14th century B.C., when Tut ruled.
But nothing compared to the news about the boy king’s tomb. After months of speculation about the possibility of hidden chambers in the tomb, officials revealed another surprise: that two different radar scans of King Tut’s burial chamber have resulted in contradictory conclusions.
“Until now, we don’t have a conclusive result,” Khaled El-Enany, the minister of antiquities, announced on the final day of the conference. He called for the formation of a committee to decide the next step, which will likely include further examination by radar and other high-tech methods. On his way out of the lecture hall, El-Enany continued: “This is my message—that science will talk.”
But how will people interpret what it’s saying? Science and technology first gave birth to the theory, which was based on the results of a laser scan that portrayed the texture of the burial chamber’s walls in unprecedented detail. Nicholas Reeves, a British Egyptologist, studied the scans and noticed a series of striking door-like features hidden beneath the painted scenes that decorate the north and west walls. Last July, Reeves published a paper speculating that the tomb may actually contain another intact burial—in his opinion, the tomb of Queen Nefertiti. Nefertiti is widely believed to have been Tut’s stepmother, and in recent years there’s been a growing acceptance of the idea that she preceded him as pharaoh.
Last fall, a thermographic scan of the north wall revealed anomalies that seemed to correspond to the features in question, and a physical examination of the tomb was also encouraging. From the beginning, most Egyptologists were skeptical of the idea that Nefertiti in particular might be buried there, but they became more receptive to the possibility of additional chambers last November, when a radar scan seemed to detect the presence of voids behind the north and west walls.
Those scans were conducted by Hirokatsu Watanabe, a Japanese radar specialist, who claimed that his equipment also sensed metallic and organic objects within those voids. Afterwards, Mamdouh Eldamaty, the minister of antiquities at the time, announced at a press conference that he was “90 percent positive” that another chamber lies behind the north wall.
In March, a second team of radar technicians, organized by National Geographic, conducted a follow-up scan to see if Watanabe’s results could be replicated. But they failed to locate the same features, as Zahi Hawass, the former minister of antiquities and one of Egypt’s most prominent scholars, noted during the weekend conference. “If there is any masonry or partition wall, the radar signal should show an image,” he said. “We don’t have this, which means there is nothing there.”