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Twist of fate leads to new finds in Tutankhamun’s tomb

Firm behind the high-resolution images that led to the discovery was “moved on” from another important pharaonic burial site

The archaeological community was thrown into a state of wild excitement in March, when Egyptian officials announced the results of new investigations into the tomb of Tutankhamun that could lead to “the discovery of the century”.

Radar scans of the tomb show two hidden rooms behind the chamber’s north and west walls. The former Egyptian antiquities minister Mamdouh Eldamaty, who was replaced by the general supervisor of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, Khaled al-Anani, a week after the announcement, also revealed that the scans, taken in late November by Hirokatsu Watanabe—a specialist from Japan—suggest that these secret rooms contain what appear to be organic and metallic materials, which implies that they may be grave goods. As we went to press, further scans were due to be performed to ascertain the thickness of the walls, so that the nature of the rooms’ function can be determined. The results are due to be presented on 1 April.

The investigation into Tutankhamun’s tomb was prompted by a theory put forward in July 2015 by the British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves, from the University of Arizona’s Egyptian Expedition. He argues that the hidden room behind the west wall is a storage area, and that the other room is the burial chamber of Nefertiti, the chief consort of the 18th-dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten—Tutankhamun’s father. Reeves asserts that the tomb was originally designed for Nefertiti and was repurposed for Tutankhamun upon his sudden death in 1323BC. The crux of the argument is based on his observation of “ghosts” of doorways, which are visible in high-resolution images taken by Factum Arte, the company behind the replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb at the entrance to the Valley of the Kings. The images were posted online and were accessible to anyone.

The discovery was only possible because Reeves had access to three- dimensional, forensically accurate data recorded in high resolution that enabled him to study the surface of the walls, as well as their general shape, says Adam Lowe, the founder and director of Factum Arte. “His discovery would not have been made had these images been recorded using medium-to-long-range scanning equipment that many people refer to as high-resolution,” Lowe says, stressing that it is not the same as three-dimensional modelling from photographs. “We can discover new data from these scans because they were high-resolution at levels of accuracy down to one-tenth of a millimetre.”

Second choice The irony is that Factum Arte only gathered data from Tutankhamun’s burial chamber because the pharaonic tomb in which the firm originally planned to work, one belonging to Seti I (the father of Ramesses the Great), was being excavated at the time. “We worked on Seti I’s tomb in 2001 and came back in 2009, but we were moved on because [the antiquities minister at the time, Zahi] Hawass was excavating in the tunnel of Seti I,” Lowe says. “Seti I’s tomb is the one that everyone believes contains hidden rooms that have yet to be discovered because none of the pharaoh’s major funerary objects has surfaced.”

This month, Lowe and his team will finally return to finish their work on Seti I’s tomb, which Lowe describes as the “largest and most important in the Valley of the Kings”, as its decoration and architecture are considered to represent the height of New Kingdom tomb art.

The project to fully document the site is part of a larger plan called the Theban Necropolis Preservation Initiative, a collaboration with Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, to train Egyptians in three-dimensional scanning techniques.

Factum Arte will be working with the University of Basel on Seti I’s richly decorated tomb. It was considered to be one of the best-preserved tombs when it discovered by Giovanni Battista Belzoni in 1817. The Italian created the first facsimile of the tomb, which also unfortunately damaged some of the wall paintings. Further damage was caused by the removal of architectural elements, including a pair of door jambs, which are now in the collections of the Louvre in Paris and Florence’s Museo Archeologico.

“We’d like to increase our understanding of [the known elements] in the tomb, but we also hope to reveal other aspects that have perhaps remained hidden,” Lowe says. He adds that it is worth remembering that the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb was one of the best documented of any Egyptian tomb, and yet nearly a century later, and only with the help of advanced technology, are we closer to learning the truth about the tomb.