How the discovery in King Tut's tomb could change the history of ancient Egypt
On what recent scan results tell us about ancient Egypt and Egyptology, part 1
It seems very likely that there are two unexplored chambers beyond the walls of Tutankhamun's tomb, based on the March 17 announcement by Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities of recent radar scan results.
This discovery is more than just a sensational archaeological find, however, because the start of Tutankhamun's reign is the focus of one of Egyptology's most intensely debated periods. An untested hypothesis by Nicholas Reeves of the University of Arizona suggests the new discovery indicates his tomb originally belonged to Nefertiti.
Tutankhamun and Nefertiti are connected through King Akhenaten, who ruled for 17 years, from about 1352 – 1336 BCE: Nefertiti was the "great royal wife" of Akhenaten and Tutankhamun was his second successor. But the history is not as simple as it sounds.
Three key questions about the lives and deaths of both Tutankhamun and Nefertiti hint at the potential magnitude of these hidden chambers for our understanding of ancient Egyptian history.
First, we do not know what happened to Nefertiti. No texts after the 16th year of Akhenaten's reign mention her, and we have not found her burial site. Second, it's unclear who succeeded Akhenaten for the few years between his death and Tutankhamun's reign. Third, we don't conclusively know who Tutankhamun's parents were and or how he came to the throne.
Akhenaten rejected thousands of years of polytheistic religion in Egypt to focus worship on one god, the sun disc Aten, leading many to consider him the first monotheist. He solidified the new religion by building a new capital and court at a completely untouched site called Amarna in the low desert, east of Minya. During his reign, Nefertiti held extensive power, both as great royal wife and as a key point of access to the Aten. Ancient depictions of Nefertiti are unusual and relate to the broader changes caused by drastic social and political reform, but she was portrayed as a strong queen and almost an equal to Akhenaten, adopting regalia and iconography associated with kingship, even driving a chariot.
For many years, Egyptologists thought that in year 12 of Akhenaten's reign, Nefertiti disappeared, because we had no inscriptions of the queen after that date. Speculation as to the reason ranged from early death, to losing Akhenaten's affections and being exiled. In 2012, however, a Belgian team published an inscription recently discovered at Deir al-Bersha that records Nefertiti (with the title of great royal wife) alive and well in year 16 of Akhenaten's reign. One piece of missing evidence can drastically change our understanding of the history of ancient Egypt.
But we still don't know what happened to Nefertiti after Akhenaten's death in year 17 of his reign. Akhenaten's religious experiment failed after his death and the cults of the old gods were reinstated. The post-Akhenaten backlash was extensive. Many of his monuments (and those of his associates) were defaced in an effort to erase his name, making it difficult to reconstruct the events of his successors' reigns.
3 mysterious names
The mystery of who succeeded Akhenaten prior to Tutankhamun lies in the person or people who went by the names of Neferneferuaten and Smenkhkare. It's complicated, because each king and queen could be known by several names.
Three names are key here: Nefertiti Neferneferuaten (Nefertiti's full name), Ankhkheperure Neferneferuaten (Neferneferuaten for short) and Ankhkheperure Smenkhkare (called Smenkhkare, also for ease). For three to four years immediately before and right after Akhenaten's death, Neferneferuaten and Smenkhkare became either king or co-regent — the official successor, who shared joint rule for the last few years of the king's life. We don't concretely know the identities of Neferneferuaten and Smenkhkare, but it's immediately apparent that these three names are connected through the names Neferneferuaten and Ankhkheperure.
Much ink has been spilled trying to sort out the identity and political status of these people and the sequence of events surrounding their reigns. Neferneferuaten took power some time around the end of Akhenaten's reign. Inscriptional evidence makes it reasonably clear that he or she held power for three years at most, but whether as sole ruler or a co-regent is hotly debated.
The really exciting thing here is that some Egyptologists argue Neferneferuaten could actually be Nefertiti. At some point, Ankhkheperure Neferneferuaten's name was changed to Ankhetkheperure Neferneferuaten. That "t" seems to holds a vital clue: As the "t" was a feminine ending in ancient Egyptian language, many scholars suggest Neferneferuaten was a woman. She could be Nefertiti for many reasons, including the shared second name, Neferneferuaten. If so, she must have depicted herself as a male to take on the office of kingship — a similar move to the reign of the famous Queen Hatshepsut. So Nefertiti might have briefly been the king of Egypt before Tutankhamun.
As for Smenkhkare, he or she suddenly appears in the historical record with no clue as to parentage or relationship to Akhenaten. Based on ancient texts, Smenkhkare was in power for roughly one year, but again we're unsure if this was as sole king or co-regent. Some scholars see Smenkhkare as a male relative of Akhenaten, possibly half-brother or son, who ruled as sole king. Another group agrees that Smenkhkare was king and successor of Akhenaten, but say Smenkhkare was Nefertiti taking on a new name as she ascended to the throne. In this case, Nefertiti was first Nefertiti (great royal wife), then Neferneferuaten (co-regent to Akhenaten) and finally Smenkhkare (sole king). A third group argues that Smenkhkare lived before Neferneferuaten and never actually became king. This sees Smenkhkare as Akhenaten's male co-regent who was being groomed to maintain the Aten religion, but disappeared from the record (perhaps dying prematurely), leaving Akhenaten to elevate Nefertiti to successor with the new name Neferneferuaten. There's not enough evidence to confidently support any of these theories.
If the tombs of Neferneferuaten or Smenkhkare, with any associated inscriptions, tomb paintings and funerary objects, are ever discovered, light would surely be shed onto these mysteries.
When Smenkhkare or Neferneferuaten died, Tutankhamun ascended to the throne. During the 10 turbulent years (ca 1336 – 1327 BCE) of his reign, the king and his court managed to move the capital back to Memphis, restore the temples, make Thebes once again Egypt's cultic heart, build several small monuments and send military campaigns to Nubia and possibly the Near East. The most remarkable aspect of Tutankhamun, however, is that his Valley of the Kings burial site somehow escaped the rampant tomb robberies that have occurred ever since ancient times.
Our big problem with Tutankhamun is that we don't know who his parents were, as was the case with several other contemporaneous figures. One inscription states that he was the "king's bodily son," which would support the notion that he was the son of Akhenaten. A DNA study conducted by Zahi Hawass and scientists from Cairo's National Research Center in 2010 reported that Tutankhamun was the son of a male mummy found in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings (KV 55) containing several mummies and a mix of grave goods. The coffin inscriptions had been hacked out, but the burial goods and coffin style suggest a date around Akhenaten's reign. This led many to suggest the father mummy must be Akhenaten or Smenkhkare. No texts indicate the identity of his mother, but the DNA study shows a mummy from another mixed cache of royal mummies in the Valley of the Kings (KV 35) was his mother. Again, we have the body but no identification.
An unlikely tomb
Also, several aspects of Tutankhamun's burial do not fit the image of a kingly burial. His tomb is really small. At 109.83 square meters, it pales in comparison to the other tombs in the Valley of the Kings. For example, King Thutmose IV, who also reigned for just 10 years, had a 407.4 square meter tomb with a more complex layout. And most of Tutankhamun's burial goods were not actually made for him. Many objects were usurped from Akhenaten-era royal burials — mostly belonging to Neferneferuaten and Smenkhkare — and re-carved with his name. Even Tutankhamun's famous sarcophagus was probably taken from Smenkhkare's burial assemblage.
The best explanation is that the king died suddenly at a young age, leaving everyone scrambling to assemble a burial. So, his successor decided to take over a tomb belonging to a non-royal individual in the Valley of the Kings and commandeer other people's funerary objects. But the high ratio of repurposed Neferneferuaten and Smenkhkare funerary items is unusual, and raises a host of questions about where these two individuals were buried.
With the Antiquities Ministry's confirmation of two chambers in Tutankhamun's tomb, there's great potential to better understand unresolved issues surrounding the reigns of Akhenaten and Tutankhamun. The worst-case scenario is that the two doorways lead to empty rooms, but that would still be an extremely exciting, as it will change our understanding of the monument. This find could, however, lead to an inscription, a relief, painting or object that sheds light on the end of Akhenaten's reign, what happened to Nefertiti, the identities of Neferneferuaten and Smenkhkare and who Tutankhamun's parents were.
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