Discovery of the Century? Radar scans suggest up to two rooms hidden behind Tutankhamun's North and West walls.

Luxor, Egypt

The Discovery Of The Century?

I was unfortunately not able to attend the press conference today in Egypt, but Mamdouh Eldamaty, the Egyptian antiquities minister said it best about the results of the radar scans, “It could be the discovery of the century.”

King Tut's Tomb

Eldamaty went on to describe the results of the work that Hirokatsu Watanabe, a Japanese Radar specialist conducted in November 2015. Watanabe was brought in after Nicholas Reeves, a British Egyptologist, analyzed high-resolution images of King Tut's tomb that suggested there were straight lines in the wall that had been missed by previous researchers. These lines are suggestive of the architectural methods used when sealing a room, which indicated there could be rooms beyond King Tutankhamun's tomb chamber.  These lines, previously hidden by the color and the tombs stones' texture.

Is it Nefertiti?

Who knows? It could very well be a temporary chamber used during the rush construction project for Mamdouh Eldamaty, the Egyptian antiquities  tomb. It could be rooms that were planned to be adorned and circumstance prevented that and the powers instead choose to close them off. But could it be Nefertiti, King Tutankhamun's mother? Yes. It is perfectly plausible, based on contemporary burial practices that in the event of the sudden death of a ruler where there had been no time for proper tomb preparation a portion of another tomb could be repurposed for the recently deceased. With the relatively recent burial of Nefertiti it is very likely there were still laborers and craftsmen who were familiar with her tombs location and layout and with the unexpected death of Tutankhamun it would have made for an expedient burial chamber. 

“There’s Something in There”

National Geographic reports that after the initial scans of the two days of data collection were analyzed in November 2015 there was enough evidence to analyze them further.  This extensive analysis included outside experts like Remy Hiramoto, a specialist in semiconductors and microelectronics who has served as a consultant to the UCLA Egyptian Coffins Project.  Haricot examined the raw radar data, along with some of his colleagues, including  a strategic researcher, Adrian Tang, who works at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the THz systems group.

Hiramoto has described the data set as “tight”, and we all know that is a good sign! And he felt that Watanabe’s equipment had performed well in the challenging environment of the tomb. “It validates the initial hypothesis that there is a non-natural occurring chamber or cavity on the other side of that wall,” Hiramoto said.  “Based on the signatures that are in the data, there’s a void, and there’s definitely something that’s within the void.  There’s something in there.”

Hiramoto also stated that like Watanabe's results he and his colleagues could not tell what those objects are made of, or what they might be—whether they are naturally occurring features, or grave goods, or something else. But Hiramoto noted that reading a radar is “like a Rorshach test,” and such work tends to be highly specialized.

So what does this all mean?

It means the same thing any of us archaeologists experiences anytime we encounter an unknown and unexpected sealed void on any other archaeology project. We will not know until we open it!  If it is Nefertiti, well that is going to get the public excited and it will be a genuine boon to Egypt's necessary, but lagging, tourist industry. And the amount of information that could be added to the already rich data set of Egyptian burial practices will be unprecedented in modern history. Mistakes that were made a century ago in excavation techniques can finally be righted and long standing questions answered. 

And if it is not Nefertiti?

Even if it is just a void the architect created, but left materials in, the archaeological information will be rich. The public might not be so excited, but we will be :-)

What is the risk?

What is the first law of archaeology? Excavation is destruction. And this situation is no different. The north and west walls of Tutankhamun's tomb have been undisturbed for 3,339 years. If a second round of radar analysis scheduled for later this year supports the hypothesis that there is something worth investigating behind the walls then Mamdouh Eldamaty and the staff of the antiquities department will need to come up with a plan of action of how to explore this discovery while minimizing the damage to King Tutankhamun's tomb walls. The challenge is compounded by the possibility that what they are seeing in Tutankhamun's is a wall that was built against a finished closing wall of Nefertiti's tomb. So not only will they need to extremely careful in creating an access port in the existing wall, they will need to be incredibly cautious about not inadvertently destroying a pivotal piece of information on the obverse side!

Based on previous research I expect that if the radar supports further work they will first drill an exploratory hole and insert a camera and use that to build their excavation research plan from. It kind of takes the fun out of exploring, but if there is something there? The media sensation will be a positive endorsement for archaeology. Something our discipline can always use!

Stay tuned for more.


Cornerstone Environmental - Flagstaff, AZ
Florida-based Project Archaeologist with SEARCH