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Radar to search King Tut's tomb for lost queen Nefertiti

The Egyptian government has given permission for a radar scan of the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun...and therein lies a tale.

The limestone Bust of Nefertiti, carved in about 1340 BC and found in Amarna in 1912, is one of the most iconic artefacts of ancient Egypt. © Heritage Images/Corbis

Neferneferuaten Nefertiti, 14th-century consort and wife of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, whose rule preceded that of the famous Tutankhamun (Akhenaten's son), is one of the most well known and beloved of all Egyptian queens. But though we can gauge her appearance from the famous bust of Nefertiti, her final resting place remains elusive, 3,300 years after her death.

For an ancient Egyptian ruler, this is somewhat unusual: Egypt is so well known for its intricate and sacred burial rites that the Egyptian dead, mummies, have entered into horror lore as monsters. The most elaborate burials, of course, went to royalty, who were entombed in labyrinthine pyramids filled with treasures for the afterlife.

The Royal Tomb of Akhenaten was uncovered in the Royal Wadi at Amarna in 1893, the replacement for the Valley of the Kings at the location of Akhenaten's new capital. Depictions of Nefertiti decorate the walls of the tomb, but her body was not found therein. Nor, for that matter, was Akhenaten's body; though a body found in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings has tested positive with the DNA of Tutankhamun's father, suggesting Akhenaten was moved.

It's possible Nefertiti was moved too, though her whereabouts remain a mystery. Nicholas Reeves, residential scholar at the University of Arizona's School of Anthropology and senior Egyptologist with the University of Arizona Egyptian Expedition, believes he knows the answer: she is, he said, hidden away in a secret chamber in the tomb of Tutankhamun.

To try to find her, Egyptian officials have given permission to scan the tomb using radar technologies, seeking hidden chambers in the room, they announced this week. The Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities said that security clearance will be obtained within a month, whereupon Reeves will be able to begin his quest.

"It's not going to cause any damage to the monument," Mouchira Moussa, media consultant to Minister of Antiquities and Heritage Mamdouh el-Damaty, told the Associated Press.

In his paper, which it's important to note has yet to be peer-reviewed, Reeves theorises that the tomb was originally built for Nefertiti, who it seems was possibly just as powerful as her husband and a pharaoh in her own right following his death in 1336 B.C., six years prior to her own. By this token, her tomb should have been magnificent. The tomb, he says, could have been hastily reconfigured for Tutankhamun after his unexpected early death in 1323 B.C. at the age of 19, and Nefertiti's body unceremoniously stashed in another room and hidden away.

As evidence, he offers the size and layout of the tomb, more in keeping, he said, with the tomb of a queen; legible cartouches with the queen's name overlaid by that of Tutankhamun; and, rather shockingly, an analysis of Tutankhamun's iconic funeral mask that indicates it was originally made for a woman.

The layout of Tutankhamun's tomb, with the hypothesised locations of the secret chambers. Nicholas Reeves

The most substantial evidence comes from an online resource, a full 3D tour of the tomb of Tutankhamun on the Factum Arte website, based on high-resolution photographs. Here, the paper says, can be found lines in the plaster on several walls that indicate the walls were constructed over door frames; that behind them will be hidden chambers.

However, in a move that proves archaeological rivalry is alive and well, fellow archaeologist and Tutanhkamun expert Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian minister of state for antiquities affairs, believes that Reeves' hypothesis is unfounded. telling the Art Newspaper that there was "very little evidence" to support it.

This is not the first time Hawass has shut Reeves down: in 2006, Reeves announced that in 2000, he had found with radar what appeared to be the shaft of a burial tomb near the location of king Tutankhamun's tomb; however, after accusations of antiquities smuggling, he had been barred entry to the Valley to conduct further research, even after he was cleared of all charges.

At that time, Hawass said in a letter to USA Today, "Radar can also show anomalies that are not necessarily tomb shafts. It seems to me that Mr. Reeves wants publicity more than conducting his work through a scientific approach. For this reason, I am writing you to state that the information is not true."

The final resting place of Tutankhamun. Could Nefertiti lie beyond that wall? © Jim Zuckerman/Corbis

Hawass provided invaluable information about Tutankhamun when he conducted DNA tests on the pharaoh's body. He and his team found that Akhenaten was Tutankhamun's father and that Tutankhamun's mother was likely Akhenaten's sister or cousin. He also found the age of Tutankhamun when he died; crucial information confirming his club foot and genetic defects; and the likely cause of his death: malaria.

The conduct of Hawass himself, however, has also been questioned. In 2011, he landed in hot water over rigging a contract bid for a museum gift shop. In 2014, he himself was accused of antiquities smuggling. He has also been accused of preventing other archaeologists from conducting research, though others feel that his work in building new museums and instituting zoning laws around significant sites is excellent.

Reeves, whose ban from entering the Valley of Kings has since been lifted, is due to arrive in Egypt the weekend of September 26-27, whereupon he will travel with el-Damaty to conduct preliminary inspections of the tomb.