Will a New Bout of King Tut Fever Bring Visitors Back to Egypt?
If new clues pointing to an undiscovered chamber in Tut’s tomb prove out, it could lift a curse on Egypt’s tourism industry.
Archaeologist Nicholas Reeves (in blue shirt) believes that there are two false walls in the tomb of Tutankhamun—and that what lies behind them could be the biggest find in Egypt since Tut himself.
Photograph by Brando Quilici, National Geographic Channels
By Peter Hessler, for National Geographic
PUBLISHED October 09, 2015
LUXOR, Egypt—Last week, the Egyptian antiquities minister, the tourism minister, and British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves had a short meeting deep within the tomb of the pharaoh Horemheb. They were surrounded by more than 50 people. There were three American television crews, nearly a dozen Egyptian journalists, and more government officials from both ministries.
All of them had converged on the Valley of the Kings because of reports about Reeves’s new theory that two walls in the burial chamber of Tutankhamun contain blocked-over doorways. Most provocatively, he believes the tomb was originally built for Nefertiti, the stepmother of Tutankhamun, whose burial site has long been one of the great mysteries of Egyptology. Reeves believes that her mummy could still lie within one of the Tutankhamun tomb’s hidden chambers, behind a wall that is now covered with a painted scene. Mamdouh Eldamaty, the antiquities minister, had announced that an inspection of the tomb seemed to confirm Reeves’s theory—a preliminary finding that inspired the tourism minister to fly in from Cairo, hoping for good news in a country desperate for some.
King Tut's Tomb Howard Carter discovered King Tut's tomb in 1922...but the mystery of Tut's death and possible murder lives on.
In Horemheb’s tomb, Reeves stood on a small wooden platform and pointed out an architectural feature that, in his opinion, supports the new theory. Horemheb, who died in the early 13th-century B.C., was the last pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, whose royal figures also included Nefertiti and Tutankhamun. Halfway into Horemheb’s tomb, the passage to the burial chamber had been blocked off and covered with a painted scene, but roughly 3,000 years ago, intruders figured out the trick. They broke through the painting, removed the wall, and found the pharaoh’s sarcophagus.
“This tells us that in antiquity this wall was painted completely,” Reeves said. “With the tomb of Tutankhamun, this is obviously still intact. So that would mean that whatever is behind it is also still intact.”
From a touristic perspective, this find is to be rivaled with the original rediscovery of the tomb by Howard Carter!
Eldamaty, spoke up. “If we’re sure 100 percent that there’s a chamber behind the wall, a complete tomb, it means that we have to find a way to reach it.”
Hesham Zazou, the tourism minister, asked if radar and thermal imaging scans, which are tentatively scheduled for November, would provide results quickly.
“Yes, we should know immediately,” Reeves said.
“This itself, in my opinion, is a very big breakthrough,” Zazou said excitedly. Like everybody else in the crowded tomb, he was sweating profusely. “In my opinion, from a touristic perspective, this find is a discovery to be rivaled with the original rediscovery of the tomb itself, by Howard Carter!”
More journalists and officials pushed their way onto the wooden platform. “It seems to me that maybe we can move,” Zazou said, “because maybe somebody would be afraid this would break.”
“Well, that would be good, because of the curse of the pharaohs,” Reeves said lightly.
Curse of Tutankhamun
Carter found the tomb of Tutankhamun near the end of 1922, and soon afterward, Arthur Mace, a British Egyptologist who helped with the excavation, wrote a letter to his wife in which he described the team’s struggles with government officials and journalists. “Archaeology plus journalism is bad enough,” he wrote, “but when you add Politics it becomes a little too much.”
Reeves, Antiquities Minister Mamdouh Eldamaty, and others examine the painted north wall of the burial chamber. In Reeves’s theory, the right side of this wall—the section containing the three right-most figures—was plastered and painted atop a blocked-in passageway.
Photograph by Brando Quilici, National Geographic Channels
The pressure took its toll on Mace, who died within six years of the tomb’s opening, one of a series of deaths that led the popular press to speculate about the “curse of Tutankhamun.”
Nearly a century later, Mace’s remark is still appropriate. Carter’s rediscovery occurred during a time of troubled politics, when British control over Egypt was starting to slip, and now Reeves’s theory has arrived at another sensitive moment. The Egyptian economy has been devastated by post-revolution instability, and last month, not long before Reeves’s visit, the army accidentally killed 12 Mexican tourists after mistaking them for terrorists. In the valley, Zazou, the tourism minister, seemed energized by the opportunity to talk about something else. He has no archaeological expertise, but he wasn’t shy about his own theories—he told me that he has “a strong feeling” that additional rooms will be found. “I think that this will have a huge impact on tourism, which is unfortunately suffering tremendously,” he said.
All of this can be worrying to an archaeologist. When I asked Reeves if he was trying to tone down expectations, he winced and said, “Desperately!” He’s well aware of the story of Carter, who was a skilled excavator but terrible at managing relationships with the press, his sponsor, the Egyptian government, and nearly everybody he worked with.
And the sheer force of Tut mania may be one reason that Carter and other Egyptologists missed key clues. The tomb’s unorthodox layout had made Carter suspicious, and he seems to have tested some of the walls, though apparently not in the places that Reeves is focusing on. But Carter already had plenty of work to do under immense pressure -- it took a decade for him to remove and document all the artifacts -- so it’s hardly surprising that he wasn’t focused on the possibility of additional chambers.
And other Egyptologists tended to avoid following in Carter’s footsteps. A surprising number of the Tutankhamun burial goods have been neglected by serious scholarship. According to Jaromir Malek, an Egyptologist at Oxford University’s Griffith Institute, only 30 percent of the artifacts have been fully studied. Even some of the most obvious pieces remain poorly understood.
“I think people got Tutankhamun’d out,” Reeves told me. “An entire generation was lost to Tutankhamun studies because they’d just had enough. It was in the press every day. They found simpler, less vulgar, less ostentatious aspects of Egyptology much more appealing.”
In contrast, Reeves belongs to a generation with a different relationship to Tut. Like some other Egyptologists I’ve met, Reeves became determined to pursue his career as a teenager, after visiting the blockbuster Tutankhamun exhibition that traveled the world in the 1970s. For him, Tutankhamun was a point of inspiration rather than exhaustion and annoyance, and this has allowed him to study the tomb and its artifacts with fresh eyes.
In recent years, Reeves turned his attention to the famous funerary mask of Tutankhamun, on which he found compelling evidence that it was originally designed for a woman —in his view, Nefertiti. His theory is based on details that people should have noticed long ago, including the fact that the mask has large holes for earrings, which weren’t worn by male pharaohs.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Of course, none of this means that he’s right about hidden passages lying behind the walls of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber. But last week, after I was allowed to spend several hours in the tomb, I was struck by how even a layman can recognize some of the physical evidence that seems to support the new theory.
Reeves first began to develop his ideas after studying laser scans of the tomb that had been prepared by Factum Arte, a Spain-based team of conservators and artists who created a facsimile of the Tutankhamun tomb. The facsimile is at the site of Carter’s former home, outside the entrance to the Valley of the Kings, and the conservators hoped that this alternative destination would help reduce traffic in the original tomb. Factum Arte also wanted to contribute to scholarship by making its scans publicly available on a website.
While studying these images, Reeves noticed that the burial chamber contains some unusual features that are invisible to the naked eye, including a series of straight lines beneath the plaster that correspond to the size and shape of doorways.
An entire generation was lost to Tutankhamun studies because they’d just had enough.
Last week’s inspection turned up other details. The most obvious is a carved line that crosses the stone ceiling of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber. Lines like this are made when workers use chisels to fashion the right angle between ceiling and wall, and such a mark runs the length of the antechamber. But as the antechamber opens into the burial room, this chiseled line continues straight across the middle of the ceiling. There’s no logical reason for it to be there, unless the burial chamber was originally part of a longer corridor that subsequently was widened in one section.
The line in the ceiling ends at the back, or north, wall of the burial chamber. This wall is covered by the painting that Reeves believes is similar to the one that formerly hid a passageway in the tomb of Horemheb. In Tutankhamun’s tomb, if you stand close to this painted wall, you notice that the texture of the left side is much smoother and more regular than that of the right. This could indicate that the plaster on the left covers solid stone rather than a filled-in passageway. There’s also a lot more mold on the right side. It’s logical that mold would grow thicker on a section of the wall with an open space behind it, which would result in a wider range of temperatures and humidity levels.
The divide between these details corresponds exactly to the line that crosses the ceiling. They also match the vertical features that Reeves noticed on the laser scans.
Post-Pharaonic Sweet Spots
The day after the ministers’ visit, I returned to the Valley of the Kings. The crowd of journalists and officials was gone, and there were almost no tourists, which is common during these troubled times. At the tombs, sleepy-eyed guards often position themselves in the elusive post-pharaonic sweet spot: deep enough into a tomb that they can enjoy some cooler air but not so deep that they lose cell phone coverage.
I descended into eight royal tombs and found myself to be the only visitor in seven. Even at Tutankhamun’s tomb, the guard told me that he didn’t expect many more than a hundred visitors that day. Inside the tomb of the pharaoh Seti II, another guard had found the sweet spot—sitting in the shade, fiddling with his phone—and he told me that only 20 people had stopped by.
At the facsimile tomb, which opened last year, the guard said that I was the sixth visitor of the day. Work on the facsimile began in 2009, when tourism was booming and authorities felt an urgency to create something that would take visitors out of the valley. The irony is that now the facsimile could have the opposite effect. It has led directly to Reeves’s theory, and nothing would make the authorities happier than a new discovery with the potential to bring the lost crowds back to the Valley of the Kings.
Inside the replica of the burial chamber, I found that almost all the signs of a possible hidden passage had been faithfully re-created: the smoother wall surface on the left side, the proliferation of mold on the right. (Though here the mold had been artfully portrayed rather than grown.) There was also a subtle but clear vertical line on the lower right side that matches what Reeves believes is a doorway.
But the chiseled line across the ceiling was absent. When I contacted Adam Lowe, the founder and director of Factum Arte, he told me that the ceiling had been made from lower-resolution data than the walls. This had been a concession to expedience. (Factum Arte donated the facsimile and all the labor involved, at an estimated cost of more than $600,000.) And although it was reasonable to expect that the ceiling would convey less useful information than the painted walls, a valuable detail had been missed.
“This is exactly the reason why high-resolution data is so important,” Lowe told me in an email.
On the walls, which had been measured at a resolution of 100 million points per square meter, the level of detail is amazing. I felt like I was in the real tomb, studying irregularities and imagining the possibility of hidden chambers within. I almost jumped when my phone rang. That was another achievement of Factum Arte—they had created Egypt’s first royal tomb with full coverage.