The beautiful queen Nefertiti, wife of the monotheistic king Akhenaten, has always perplexed archaeologists. Nefertiti acquired unprecedented power during the first 12 years of the reign of her husband, and she occupied the throne alongside him and appeared nearly twice as often in reliefs as Akhenaten during the first five years of his reign. She continued to appear in reliefs even when, in the 12th year of Akhenaten’s reign, she disappeared from the scene and her name vanished from the pages of history.
Some think she either died from plague or fell out of favour, but recent theories have denied such claims. Four images of Nefertiti adorn Akhenaten’s sarcophagus, not the usual goddesses, indicating that her importance to the pharaoh continued up until his death and disproving the idea that she fell out of favour. They also show her continuous role as a deity or semi-deity with Akhenaten.
Shortly after her disappearance, Akhenaten took a co-regent to the throne. The identity of this person has created speculation. One theory says it was Nefertiti herself in a new guise as a “female king,” like the female Pharaohs Sobkneferu and Hatshepsut who ruled the country for several years.
Another theory introduces the idea of two co-regents, a male one called Smenkhkare and Nefertiti under the name of Neferneferuaten. Some scholars believe that Nefertiti became co-regent with her husband and that her role as queen consort was taken over by her eldest daughter Meritaten.
Although her iconic bust, now on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin, was unearthed in an artist’s workshop at Tel Al-Amarna in 1912 by German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt, neither her tomb nor her mummy have yet been unearthed.
Back in 1898, French Egyptologist Victor Loret excavated the tomb of Amenhotep II in the Theban Necropolis and came upon a remarkable find. This was the first tomb ever opened in which the pharaoh was still in his original resting place, and, moreover, 11 other mummies were also discovered in a sealed chamber in the tomb, nine belonging to members of the royal family.
Eight of the mummies were transferred to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and three were left in situ due to their critical state of preservation. One of this trio of mummies is a female who had managed to retain her remarkable beauty and is known among Egyptologists as the “Elder Lady”. She was identified as queen Tiye, the chief wife of the Pharaoh Amenhotep III.
A mummy of a young prince, not identified, bears a facial resemblance to that of Tiye’s mummy, suggesting it could be prince Thutmose, the eldest son of Amenhotep III. As for the third mummy, known as the “Younger Lady”, Egyptologists sway between thinking it is queen Nefertiti and princess Sitamun, a daughter of Tiye and Amenhotep III.
The research was carried out at an early stage to verify whether the mummy of the Younger Lady was, in fact, Nefertiti, but to no avail. Over the years, scientists have tried to identify the mummy of Nefertiti and determine her real facial features by carrying out scientific and archaeological research or using technology. But all attempts have thus far failed and been considered as mere speculation. Now, however, some historians believe Nefertiti has already been found and currently lies in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
In 2003, Joanne Fletcher, a mummification expert from the University of York in the UK, announced that she and her team may have identified the mummy of the queen, as she believes that Nefertiti’s mummy could be that of the Younger Lady. She based her conclusions on a number of factors, such as its similarity in physiognomy and the swan-like neck of the mummy that bears a resemblance to Nefertiti’s face as immortalised in the limestone bust in Berlin, a doubled-pierced ear lobe, which she claims was a rare fashion statement in Kemet and that can clearly be seen in images of Nefertiti, and a shaven head and the impression of the tight-fitting brow-band worn by royalty.
Fletcher’s hypothesis has not been accepted by many Egyptologists, however. The x-ray examination carried out on the mummy of the Younger Lady prior to Fletcher’s theory indicated that it was a 16-year-old girl, whereas Nefertiti is thought to have died in her 30s. Without comparative DNA studies, any speculation about the owner of the mummy is dubious.
In 2015, British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves made headlines by announcing his belief that Nefertiti was buried in a secret chamber located behind the west and north walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. But after three scan trials on the tomb’s walls the theory proved a failure, as well as receiving criticism from other Egyptologists and historians. Even so, it does demonstrate the enduring fascination with Nefertiti and finding her mummy.
New attempts: In an attempt to put an end to the Nefertiti mystery, the second phase of the Egyptian Mummies Project, whose first phase started in 2005 to solve the mystery of the death of the boy-king Tutankhamun, has resumed to study the rest of the royal mummies. The project will begin with those on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo before their relocation to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) in Fustat.
“CT scans on all the royal mummies now on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo that will be transferred to the NMEC were carried out last month,” said former minister of antiquities Zahi Hawass, highlighting that among the most important was the mummy belonging to king Seqenenre because previous studies had revealed it to be in a poor conservation condition. Seqenenre is thought to have died from a blow from an axe during battles against the Hyksos, a foreign group that had invaded Kemet. However, some claim he was assassinated in his sleep.
Hawass said that the earlier study had not used scientific analysis or CT scans. More recent studies had found that the wounds on the mummy were from a battle against the Hyksos and that the pharaoh had died during battle.
In September, a fresh search for Nefertiti’s mummy will begin. “We have prepared for such a search by the identification of two poorly preserved female mummies, one of them headless, found in 1870 by Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni inside tomb KV21 in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor,” he said.
Samples of foetuses found in the tomb of Tutankhamun were also taken for analysis,” Hawass told the Weekly, adding that these had long been thought to be the stillborn daughters of Tutankhamun and his royal wife Ankhesenamun, the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.
“Comparison between their DNA and the headless mummy revealed that the headless KV21 mummy was in fact the mother of the two foetuses, which should mean that this was Tutankhamun’s wife queen Ankhesenamun,” Hawass said. He pointed out that the mummies from KV21 were in poor conservation condition due to the effects of floods that have swept through the Valley and into the tomb. To prevent further degradation of the remains, the mummies were moved to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo for conservation.
“I believe that the second female mummy in KV21 could be none other than queen Nefertiti,” Hawass said, explaining that the ancient Egyptians sometimes placed mother and daughter near each other in burial chambers. This was the case in tomb 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.
He continued by saying that the Egyptian Mummies Project would also begin the search for other mummies that belonged to Nefertiti’s family, including her five other missing daughters and her sister queen Mutnodjmet in order to compare them with the second mummy without a head in KV21.
However, “I have not been able to find the remains of Mutnodjmet that were previously located by Egyptologist Geoffrey Martin inside the tomb of her husband Horemhab in Saqqara,” Hawass said. Paleopathologist Eugen Strouhal, Hawass said, had studied these remains, which included the skull, and determined that Mutnodjmet had died at about the age of 40 and may have died during labour since the bones of a foetus or newborn were found with her.
“If these bones can ever be DNA tested, they could yield many important clues about Tutankhamun’s family,” he added.
“Although I do not really trust DNA tests, I decided in 2005 to study such a project in order to begin about a new era of scientific research on mummies to be carried out by Egyptian archaeologists and scientists who are experts in the field in collaboration with foreign experts and scholars and directed by myself,” Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly. He said that the royal mummies had been moved quickly at night by the high priests of Amun who controlled the Theban Necropolis during the Late Intermediate Period to hide and preserve the bodies of the 18th, 19th and 20th-Dynasty rulers.
“The priests might have stripped the mummies and the royal tombs of their most valuable treasures, yet they still wanted to protect the royal remains from the tomb robbers who roamed the sacred hills of Thebes,” he said.
In their hurry, Hawass believes, some mummies were misplaced or unidentified. Initially, the royal mummies were rehoused in nearby tombs, and records show that the mummy of Ramses II was originally moved to the tomb of his father Seti I and then later transferred to the Deir Al-Bahari cache. “It is difficult to plot the routes followed by the mummies,” Hawass said. In the process of moving the corpses and the confusion that ensued some were stripped of all identification.
Tutankhamun: Further studies will also be made on the mummy of Tutankhamun to reveal the exact cause of his death.
Hawass told the Weekly that the general health of Tutankhamun might have been affected by the high degree of inbreeding he had been exposed to, and radiological evidence carried out in the first phase of the Mummies Project had undermined the possibility of murder by head blows and revealed a fracture in his left femur just above the knee.
Radiological imaging of the left knee had also pointed to an early bone reaction to fracture and hence a short period predating death.
This scenario favours the theory of an accident causing a fracture and the open wound leading to a probable infection and death. Today, Hawass said, scientific analysis could test the theory and reveal whether the infection was the cause that led to the king’s death. Yehia Gad, a professor of molecular genetics at the National Research Centre who heads the committee dealing with paleo-biology, said that the project would not only reveal the health of the ancient Egyptian royals and their genetic diseases but their linages as well. It could help find the answers to many historical questions and mysteries, he added.
The project would also determine the microbes that affected the mummies in order to find ways of restoring them.
Forensic technology has recently been playing a major role in Egyptology. After centuries of ambiguity and mystery surrounding several chapters of ancient Egyptian history, modern science has finally cleared up many enigmas and provided a better understanding of some important episodes in this great civilisation.
Modern methods have succeeded in identifying several royal mummies, detailing their lineages and recognising the diseases from which they suffered in life as well as solving the paradoxes behind some mysterious deaths.
Among these achievements has been solving the enigma of the early death of the boy-king Tutankhamun, including the symptoms that led to his demise in early manhood as well as the identity of the mummies of his two unborn children.
They have also identified the mummy of the monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten and proved that he was Tutankhamun’s father by a secondary wife. The mummies of queen Hatshepsut and Amenhotep II, the grandfather of Tutankhamun, have also been identified.
Science has also solved the long-debated mystery over the death of the Pharaoh Ramses III, as recorded on the “harem conspiracy” papyrus now exhibited in the Turin Museum in Italy. CT scans on the mummy have revealed a deep wound in the throat of Ramses III’s mummy, which would have caused his immediate death.
The Pharaoh’s death was overshadowed by a plot described in the “Judicial Papyrus” in Turin. Despite the information in the papyrus it could not be determined whether Ramses III escaped or was killed during the plot, however.
According to the Papyrus, also known as the “Trial Transcripts Papyrus”, a plot to kill Ramses III was woven in 1155 BCE by officials in the palace and army standard bearers, as well as his secondary wife Tiya and her son Pentawere. The plan was to end the life of the king and place Pentawere on the throne in his stead. You can read about here.
The Papyrus says that the coup failed and the defendants were rounded up and sent for trial, but it was unclear whether the assassination was successful.