Why would a statue in the golden pharaohs tomb portray him with breasts? And why does his face look so feminine? As crowds flock to the British show, we investigate a story to rival the infamous curse

He may not have the whip, the hat, the gun and the dusty old leather jacket, but Nicholas Reeves has a theory that is straight out of the Indiana Jones movies. Reeves, a British Egyptologist, has written a string of highly respected books, most notably The Complete Tutankhamun, and his idea certainly harks back to the golden age of treasure hunting. It is far-fetched, undoubtedly, but then thats how Indys greatest adventures always started.

As the crowds flock to Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh a recent arrival in Britain after breaking attendance records in France Reeves believes they are being sold a dummy: that these stupendous objects were not made for the Egyptian boy king and his journey into the afterlife at all. So who were they for? I reckon, says Reeves, almost all the burial equipment for Tutankhamun was originally made for Nefertiti.

It is a sensational claim. Do these extraordinary relics really belong to the Egyptian queen? What we do know for certain is that Howard Carters discovery of Tutankhamuns tomb in 1922 is the most celebrated moment in archaeology. It even sparked the legend of a curse, whose alleged victims include Archibald Douglas Reid, a radiologist who supposedly died mysteriously after X-raying the mummy; Arthur Mace, one of the dig team, believed to have succumbed to arsenic poisoning; and Richard Bethell, Carters secretary, thought to have been smothered in his bed.

If Reeves is right, even this needs revising: we should instead fear the Curse of Nefertiti. Reeves thinks it is the very opulence of Tutankhamuns tomb that has stopped archaeologists digging deeper. The gold, he says, has just dazzled everyone. It was certainly what entranced the adventurers who first peered into the miraculously unspoiled tomb.

The gold has dazzled everyone Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves in Horemheb tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty Images

Known to specialists as KV62, the tomb was in the Valley of the Kings, where many pharaohs were buried. Carter had been a digger since 1907, funded by the Egyptomaniac Lord Carnarvon. By 1922, Carnarvon was getting frustrated by the lack of glittering discoveries. Fortunately, Carter had a superstitious feeling that there might be something hidden under some huts in a neglected part of the valley.

His Egyptian workforce soon found a step down into the earth. Then, having excavated a buried stairway leading to a passage, Carter made a hole in an ancient door. Yes, he replied when Carnarvon asked if he could see anything. Wonderful things! Theyd found the tomb of Tutankhamun, so perfectly preserved that even its funeral flowers lay desiccated where they had been strewn in about 1325 BC.

In the antechamber, they saw chariots in kit form, ready to assemble themselves in the afterlife, carved animals, alabaster jars, treasure chests and gold, raved Carter, everywhere the glint of gold. Two gilded statues of Tutankhamuns ka, the soul that must be sustained after death, stood guard over a second sealed doorway that led to Tutankhamuns painted burial chamber and his mummy.

But did the British explorer have a hunch there was more to find? Reeves mentions a part of the north wall of the burial chamber that, according to before and after photographs, seems to have been clumsily restored, with splashes of paint used to recreate mould. In other words, he believes Carter did something to the wall, then covered his tracks.

The closest thing to a real-life Indiana Jones Howard Carter, left, oversees the removal of a gilt shrine from the tomb, c 1922-23. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

He was a cunning beast, says Reeves, who thinks he wanted to see what lay beyond, believing there might be more chambers. And his hunch was right, according to Reeves, who thinks the young king was buried in part of Nefertitis tomb, where she still remains hidden in an un-excavated space. In a new study highlighting certain anomalies, Reeves claims the paintings in Tutankhamuns burial chamber, even the gold death mask, either portray Nefertiti, or did so initially before being adapted. His reference point is the famous bust of Nefertiti discovered almost a century ago, noted for its incredible realism.

Why make these adaptations? Well, it was common in ancient Egypt for funeral art to be recycled. It was expensive, after all, and when the tomb was sealed, who would know the difference? Its certainly striking how ambiguous the gender of Tutankhamun appears in some treasures. Was he an exceptionally graceful looking youth or were these reworkings from Nefertitis bounty? At least one statue in the exhibition gives him prominent breasts. KV62, says Reeves, looks like it began life as a queens tomb.

But his theory doesnt stop there. Tutankhamun was the son of a king, Amenhotep IV, who overturned this civilisations pantheon of animal-headed deities and replaced them with a new sun god, Aten. He even renamed himself Akhenaten, meaning Atens representative on earth.

Akhenaten ordered artists to stop using their idealised style and employ instead a grotesque yet lifelike manner. After Akhenaten died, there followed a series of short-lived rulers as politics and art recovered. Crucially, some Egyptologists believe that Nefertiti, Akhenatens famous Queen, even became pharaoh herself. This would make Tutankhamun her successor. By the end of his 10-year reign, the previous gods were fully restored. We know this because their images appear in his tomb, created in the old idealised manner.

Exceptionally graceful the 3,300-year-old limestone bust of Queen Nefertiti. Photograph: Robert Michael/AFP/Getty Images

There is one painting there reproduced in the Saatchi exhibition of a ritual that only one pharaoh could perform for another. It is the Opening of the Mouth: touching a mummy on the lips with an incense-burner to enable the dead to live again. This painting has been traditionally identified as the opening of Tutankhamuns mouth by his successor Ay. But Ay was an old man, says Reeves, and this work clearly depicts a youth. Reeves thinks the toucher looks like Tutankhamun while the mummy has the appearance of a woman and one with features that correspond closely to Nefertiti.

There is also the tombs shape. The ground plan shows that it turns to the right from its entrance, which was the Egyptian pattern for the burial of a queen, whereas a kings turned left. Carter probably didnt know that. If hed dug into the other end of that wall, he might have found Nefertitis sarcophagus.

Reeves began to formulate his theory after seeing a 3D scan of the tomb made by Factum Foundation, world leaders in such work. After spotting oddities, he went public with his Nefertiti proposition. The Egyptian government authorised surveys, using ground-penetrating radar that can locate cavities underground. Last year, on the basis of an Italian study, it announced there was nothing to find. The story died.

But Reeves published a reassessment, arguing that the Italian study was out of sync with other independent surveys, all of which concluded there may be secret chambers. As Adam Lowe, founder of Factum Foundation, puts it: There have actually been four radar tests and three suggest hes right.

The Egyptian governments declaration last year that there was no evidence for hidden chambers led National Geographic magazine to withdraw support for Reeves hypothesis. But he is standing firm. Its probably not improved my employment prospects, he says. Its ruffled a lot of feathers.

Carter would have sympathised, for his own achievement soon turned sour. In 1923, Lord Carnarvon died in agony after a mosquito bite turned septic. The elderly Arthur Conan Doyle author of spooky Egyptian stories, believer in spirits, creator of Sherlock Holmes told reporters the death was caused by supernatural forces. Does the curse stand up? Well, to take one example, while Reids death was put down to the fact he X-rayed Tutankhamun, no such X-ray survives and his obituary blamed exposure to radiation.

The golden sarcophagus of Tutankhamun in his burial chamber. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

Yet behind the hokum, there may lurk something just as intriguing. In 1922, Egypt was dominated by European empires but was starting to assert its national identity. Unlike many archaeologists before him, whod carted off everything from the Rosetta Stone to Nefertitis portrait, Carter lost control of Tutankhamuns treasures. They stayed in Cairo: this current tour is a farewell, before they take up permanent home in the new Grand Egyptian Museum, close to the pyramids.

The field of Egyptology is still one in which teams from old imperial powers Britain, France, Italy and new global players such as China compete with Egypt itself for the glory of making new discoveries. Egypts ownership of Tutankhamuns treasures is a major asset in its desire to assert control over its own past. Reeves thinks these politics of heritage have bedevilled what could be the greatest find since Carters.

His view is backed up by Lowe, a highly respected expert currently working with the British Museum and the Grand Egyptian Museum. Lowe thinks the authorities may want the Nefertiti story to die for now, in the interests of news management for we are just three years from the centenary of Carters find. My suspicion, he says, is that 2022 will be a great time to announce the new discovery.

As the closest thing there has ever been to a real life Indiana Jones, Carter is often seen as an aberration in modern archaeology. But now, in his wake, come such adventurous characters as Reeves and Lowe, daring to dream of ancient chambers and treasures so wondrous they might dwarf even Tutankhamuns. Grab your whip, Indy, and get ready for Raiders of the Lost Sarcophagus.

Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh is at the Saatchi Gallery, London, until 3 May.

Source: http://www.theguardian.com/us


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