Will the real mummy please stand up?
Egyptologists have long wondered about the location of the mummy of Queen Nefertiti (Tutankhamun's stepmother and the wife of the pharaoh Akhenaten, also known as Amenhotep IV, and a ruler in her own right). Could the missing mummy of Nefertiti actually have been discovered a century ago and simply misidentified? A team of British researchers led by Egyptologist Joanne Fletcher conducted a 12-year search for the mummy. In 2003, they claimed that they had identified the missing Queen's mummy as one discovered in a cache of mummies uncovered in 1898.
Case closed? Not quite. Another researcher stepped forward with a different identification from the same mummy cache.
Which of two possible mummies is the missing Queen? Read on.
The 1898 Discovery of Tomb KV 35
The previously unidentified mummy thought to be Queen Nefertiti was originally discovered in 1898. French Egyptologist Victor Loret discovered KV 35, the tomb of King Amenhotep II, in the Valley of the Kings. The tomb not only contained the king's mummy but a stunning cache of other royal mummies that had been moved into Amenhotep II's tomb for protection from grave robbers. Besides Amenhotep II, the tomb contained the mummies of the missing pharaohs of the 18th-20th Dynasties: Thutmose IV, Amenhotep III, Merenptah, Sipah, Seti II, Rameses IV, V, and VI.
The excavators also discovered a secret chamber of King 's tomb which contained three very mutilated mummies who had been stripped of their wrappings. Here is how Victor Loret described what he found in the secret chamber:
An unusually strange sight met our eyes: three bodies lay side by side at the back in the left corner, their feet pointing towards the door....
We approached the cadavers. The first seemed to be that of a woman. A thick veil covered her forehead and left eye. Her broken arm had been replaced at her side, her nails in the air. Ragged and torn cloth hardly covered her body. Abundant black curled hair spread over the limestone floor on each side of her head. The face was admirably conserved and had a noble and majestic gravity.
The second mummy, in the middle, was that of a child of about fifteen years. It was naked with the hands joined on the abdomen. First of all the head appeared totally bald, but on closer examination one saw that the head had been shaved except an area on the right temple from which grew a magnificent tress of black hair. This was the coiffure of the royal princes [called the Horus lock]. I thought immediately of the royal prince Webensennu, this so far unknown son of Amenhotep II.
The last corpse nearest the wall seemed to be that of a man [this was later determined to be a female and is now referred to as the Elder Woman, though she was not particularly old]. His head was shaved but a wig lay on the ground not far from him. The face of this person displayed something horrible and something droll at the same time. The mouth was running obliquely from one side nearly to the middle of the cheek, bit a pad of linen whose two ends hung from the corner of the lips. The half-closed eyes had a strange expression, he could have died choking on a gag but he looked like a young playful cat with a piece of cloth. Death which had respected the severe beauty of the woman and the impish grace of the boy had turned in derision and amused itself with the countenance of the man.
A remarkable fact was that the three corpses...had their skulls pierced with a large hole and the breast of each one was opened.
Since the mummies were in such poor condition, Loret and his team virtually ignored them. They became known as The Younger Lady (cataloged as Mummy 61072), The Elder Woman (Mummy 61070), and the boy (Mummy 61071).
Here are more recent details about the three hidden mummies:
- the mummy of a boy (about 12-14 years old, according to the British researchers) had been mutilated. Its chest had been hacked with a sharp instrument.
- the mummy of the Elder Woman (about 35-45 years old according to the British researchers). The body had a hole it its chest, but was in otherwise good condition. The position of the arms was unusual: the right arm was placed straight at the woman's side, while the left arm was raised across her chest. This mummy has been identified either as Queen Meryetre (the wife of Thutmose III) or as Queen Tiye (wife of Amenhotep III), but this was merely a theory.
- the Younger Lady was stripped of wrappings and her face mutilated around the mouth. The right arm was missing. A hole in her chest was most likely done at a later date, possibly by grave robbers.
In 1907, the three mummies were photographed:
Taken by candlelight, this is a photo of three mummies. The mummy of the young boy is in the middle, flanked by the Elder Woman (on the left) and the Younger Lady (on the right). Notice the candles above the heads of the two women. The mutilated chest of the boy and the Younger Lady are visible. The raised arm of the Elder Woman is also apparent.
This solitary photograph would eventually provide a clue as to the Younger Lady mummy's possible identity.
Joanne Fletcher and the Younger Lady
During the British team's 12-year search for Queen Nefertiti's mummy, Egyptologist Joanne Fletcher came across the 1907 photograph and noticed a resemblance between the mummy in the photo and a famous bust of Queen Nefertiti that is displayed at the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, Germany.
The British researchers gained the permission of Egyptian authorities to examine the mummy for the first time (a rare privilege). In June 2002, Fletcher and her team (funded in part by the Discovery Channel) entered the secret chamber. According toTime, Fletcher said, "When the wall was taken down, and we shined our [flashlights] in, the first thing I saw was the older woman staring back at me. That took a bit of getting used to." The team also returned for a second visit in February 2003.
Methods used during the examination were all nondestructive techniques and included digital x-rays.
Clues that led Fletcher to the conclusion that the mummy was Nefertiti were these:
- royal-type embalming
- a double-pierced left earlobe (Nefertiti apparently was one of only two Egyptian queens who did this; the other was her daughter. Egypotolgists have concluded this by looking at busts made of Nefertiti and her daughter which show the double-piercing);
- evidence that the mummy had worn a rather tight browband (worn only by a pharaoh and his queen during this time period)
- a shaved head (so that the tight-fitting crown would stay in place)
- jewelry found inside the mummy's abdomen
- a Nubian-style wig found near the mummy (worn by women of royal stature during the 18th Dynasty, which coincided with Akhenaten's reign). [However, at least one Egyptologist, Lisa Sabbahy, has pointed out that the wig might not have belonged to that mummy.]
- the position of her right arm (placed in a royals-only arm-up position), the hand still holding a now-missing scepter (most likely taken by grave robbers). [The problem with this clue is that the right arm had been removed from the mummy; Fletcher's team found two incomplete arms in some discarded wrappings in the tomb. One of the arms seemed to be in a flexed position (which means it would have gone across the chest) and its hand appears to have been holding something.]
- the mutilation that occurred to the mummy (the right arm was ripped off, the face was stabbed with a sharp object). As the principal wife of the Akhenaten (otherwise known as Amenhotep IV), she may have been greatly disliked. Akhenaten abolished the accepted religion of Egypt (polytheism) and replaced it with a religion that called for the worship of Aten, the sun god; he even changed his name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten ("one who serves the sun god"). When Egypt eventually returned to polytheism after their deaths, their names were obliterated from public monuments and their burial tomb was ransacked. The mutilation of the Younger Lady may indicate that she was Nefertiti.
- the striking resemblance of the "swanlike neck" on the bust of Nefertiti and the mummy. (Not everyone is in agreement with this clue. Zahi Hawass (Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and Director of the Giza Pyramids Excavation) is quoted by the AP as saying that the similarity cannot be taken as evidence, since at that time "art was idealistic and not realistic.")
- the age of the mummy. According to Fletcher's analysis of the x-rays, the mummy was between the ages of 19 and 30. (However, an AP story reports that an analysis of the x-rays by unidentified people indicates that the body belonged to a 16-year-old girl.)
Egyptologist Fletcher told reporters that the mummy is "a royal woman of the late 18th dynasty who wielded tremendous power. There are not many who fit that description. We can never have cast-iron certainty that it is Nefertiti but we have narrowed it right down.” And she concludes (as quoted in Time): "We're never going to be 100% sure. She's not going to sit up and tell us who she is."
Not everyone agrees with Fletcher's conclusion. Egyptologist Kent Weeks (quoted in Time) says: "If the mummy is female and if it is royal, then you still do not necessarily have Nefertiti." And Peter Locavara of the Carlos Museum in Atlanta told Time: "It's very difficult to identify a mummy with a particular person, especially without DNA."
As luck (or commerce) would have it, however, the announcement of the discovery coincided with another: the Discovery Channel was going to air a two-hour documentary about Fletcher's search for the Queen Nefertiti's mummy in August 2003. Could there be a connection? Was this a case of Discovery Channel hype? When the team of Egyptologists is primarily funded by a for-profit company, a clear conflict of interest can be seen.
Susan James and the Elder Woman
And then another Egyptologist's theory concerning the mummy of Queen Nefertiti was announced. Egyptologist Susan James concluded that the missing mummy of Nefertiti was actually the Elder Woman, Mummy 61070.
She compared the face of the Elder Woman's mummy to known busts and statues made of Nefertiti; they appear to match, according to James, in at least two important ways: (1) the narrowness of the skull and (2) the "very pronounced" groove between the nose and the upper lip (the philtrum).
Until her theory was announced, many Egyptologists thought that the Elder Woman was probablyQueen Tiye (wife of Amenhotep III). They reached this conclusion because a lock of the Elder Woman's hair was found in Tutankhamun's tomb. This seemed to indicate that there may have been a family tie between the two; Egyptologists concluded that she was most likely Queen Tiye, his probable grandmother.
They were mistaken, according to James. The facts of the "Elder Woman" mummy don't match the facts known about Queen Tiye: Elder Woman was between 24 and 34 years old; Queen Tiye would have been over 40 when she died. [NOTE: Fletcher's team has reported that x-rays of the Elder Woman reveal an age range between 35 and 45.]
Dueling Mummies: Solving the Mystery
So, which Egyptologist is correct?
The only way to know for certain would be to conduct DNA testing to determine the genetic relationships between Elder Woman and other known royal mummies, but Egyptian officials have refused to allow such testing in recent years. For now, the mummy known as 61070 remains in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
About the Younger Lady (Mummy 61072), James said:
What we know about mummy 61072 would indicate that it is one of a young female of the late eighteenth dynasty, very probably a member of the royal family. However, physical evidence known and published prior to this expedition indicates the unlikelihood of it being the mummy of Nefertiti. Without any comparative DNA studies, statements of certainty are merely wishful thinking.
It is unlikely that Egyptian authorities will ever allow the study of the mummy's DNA (even if it could be retrieved), since this raises many concerns about the mummy's possible ancestry. Researchers have applied to study the DNA of King Tut and Rameses I, but the Egyptian Government has been steadfast in its refusal to permit this.
(According to London's Sunday Times, Egyptian officials may have blocked research on King Tut, because "they feared Israel would use the tests to suggest the boy pharaoh was related to Hebrew patriarchs." And in another article at thetimes.co.uk, noted Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass is quoted as saying that DNA testing “is not always accurate and cannot be done with complete success when dealing with mummies. Until we know for sure that it is accurate, we will not use it in our research.” Is this a case of too much information may be a dangerous thing?)
Without a DNA study, however, it is unlikely that James or Fletcher will ever be able to determine which mummy is Nefertiti. Even then, a DNA study may reveal nothing. Lisa Sabbahy, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, told the AP that a DNA test would be meaningless, since Nefertiti was born outside the royal family.
Books about Nefertiti