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Mystery and science
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 15 - 11 - 2018

In a few years on 4 November 2022, the whole world will celebrate the centennial of the discovery of the tomb of the ancient Egyptian boy king Tutankhamun.
The Ministry of Antiquities has launched the exhibition “Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” to celebrate the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century, when the intact tomb of Tutankhamun, known formally to Egyptologists as KV62, was found in November 1922.
This exhibition will be touring the world at the very same time that the Valley of the Kings in Luxor may reveal other secrets. A hypothesis proposing that queen Nefertiti's tomb could be hidden behind the north and west walls of the tomb of Tutankhamun will be scientifically investigated, and the search is on for the mummy of Nefertiti herself.
Of all the queens of ancient Egypt, none is as famous as Nefertiti, the beautiful 18th-Dynasty royal wife who ruled Egypt alongside her husband, Akhenaten, and briefly after him. No ancient text mentions what became of her, and 200 years of archaeological investigation in Egypt has never found her mummy. The fate of Nefertiti is one of ancient Egypt's greatest mysteries.
Through the Egyptian Mummy Project, my goal was to start a fresh and scientific search for Nefertiti's mummy. In the investigations to discover the family of Tutankhamun, we tested the DNA of the two fetuses included among the treasures of Tutankhamun's tomb. These had long been thought to be the stillborn daughters of Tutankhamun and his royal wife Ankhesenamun, the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.
We compared their DNA to that of a headless mummy of a royal woman, one of two poorly preserved female mummies discovered in another tomb in the Valley of the Kings, KV21. The tests revealed that the headless KV21 mummy was in fact the mother of the two fetuses, which should mean that this was Tutankhamun's queen Ankhesenamun. The mummies from KV21 are in poor condition due to the effects of the floods that have occasionally swept through the valley and into the tomb. To prevent further degradation of the remains, I moved the two mummies to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo for conservation.
I believe that the second female mummy in KV21 could be none other than queen Nefertiti. The ancient Egyptians sometimes placed mother and daughter near each other in burial chambers. This was the case in KV35, where the mummy of Tutankhamun's grandmother queen Tiye was placed next to the mummy of one of Tiye's many daughters, a woman revealed by DNA tests to be Tutankhamun's mother. We will now also begin the search for other mummies that belong to Nefertiti's family, including her five other missing daughters and her sister queen Mutnodjmet.
Nefertiti was a strong queen who drove her own chariot and had her own palace in her husband's new and short-lived capital of Akhetaten (Horizon of the Sun Disk) at the site known today as Amarna. There are even images that show her smiting the female enemies of Egypt. She was very often shown in the art of the Amarna Period as a loyal, devoted wife and mother in the company of her husband and daughters. The princesses participated in life at court and in worship with their mother.
A group of scientists has also made an amazing new digital reconstruction of Nefertiti's face based on her artistic representations. They compiled images of the famous painted bust of the queen on display in Berlin, another limestone bust in Cairo, and wall reliefs at Amarna showing the queen. The Berlin bust was discovered to conceal a slightly different image of the queen as an older woman beneath its outer layer of painted plaster. The researchers assembled the various renderings of her features and presented the “first revelation” of her face.
Was the final version of the Berlin bust, showing an image of a youthful, yet mature, woman, a more acceptable version than the initial bust carved in stone, which showed the effects of aging? Is this beautiful portrait a realistic representation of Nefertiti, or does it reflect the artistic conventions of the Amarna Period?
If the DNA analysis definitively identifies Nefertiti's mummy, we will commission CT scans of the head of the newly discovered Nefertiti. A digital reconstruction of the face from the CT scan will then be combined with the artistic rendering of the famous bust to reveal the most complete and accurate image of the queen. After more than three thousand years, the light of the sun will shine once again upon the exquisite face of Nefertiti.
When we attempted to reconstruct the face of Tutankhamun, we used three teams from the US, Egypt and France. Without telling the American team that they were reconstructing the face of Tutankhamun, we gave them CT scans of the young king's mummy. Having no idea of the identity of their subject, the Americans reconstructed the face as that of an old man.
I told the Egyptian team that they were receiving Tutankhamun's CT scans, and they reconstructed a face that did not convince me at all that this was how the king had appeared in life. The French team introduced their reconstruction to us, and it showed a person with blue eyes, which made us all joke about how French he looked.


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