Famed Egyptologist Proclaims Discovery of Queen Nefertiti’s Mummy
Has Queen Nefertiti’s mummy, one of ancient Egypt’s most celebrated New Kingdom rulers, finally been found? According to the world’s most famous Egyptologist, the answer to this question is “yes,” and within a few short weeks he expects DNA testing to confirm this assertion.
Dr. Zahi Hawass, the former Minister of Egyptian Antiquities and the face of Egyptian archaeology in the eyes of the general public, was in Madrid earlier this month speaking at a conference organized in association with the ongoing Daughters of the Nile exhibition at the Palacio de las Alhajas. During an interview with the newspaper El Independiente, he told the reporter that a mummy he has been studying in recent months is in fact Nefertiti, the wife of the ancient pharaoh Akhenaten and the stepmother of the famous boy-pharaoh Tutankhamun, forever known to most people as King Tut.
In partnership with her husband, Queen Nefertiti ruled Egypt’s 18th dynasty from 1353 to 1336 BC, and many scholars believe she continued to rule on her own following Akhenaten’s death in the final of those years. She may also have assisted the young king Tutankhamun after his ascension to the throne at the age of eight (he was just five when his father died).
Whatever her true role might have been, Nefertiti undoubtedly had a major influence on Egyptian affairs during a time of great prosperity, and that is what led to her great popularity among the people of her kingdom. Many archaeologists have been searching for her tomb and remains, and if they have finally been found it will end a quest that has engaged and fascinated the entire Egyptological community for decades.
The best-known bust of Nefertiti from the Egyptian Museum of Berlin collection, presently in the New Museum on Museum Island, Berlin, Germany. (Philip Pikart / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Nefertiti’s Mummy? Genetics will Deliver the Final Verdict
The remains that Dr. Hawass have been analyzing, which includes two female mummies (believed to be mother and daughter) and one of a small boy, were discovered in tombs designated KV21 and KV35, with the KV signifying the Valley of the Kings. One of these could turn out to be Nefertiti’s mummy. The Valley of the Kings is one of the most famous and oft-visited archaeological sites in the world, and over the centuries archaeologists have excavated dozens of rock-cut tombs that were built to house the mummies of pharaohs, their family members, and aristocrats from Egypt’s New Kingdom (16th century to 11th century BC).
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DNA samples were eventually taken from both of the female mummies and from the mummy of the boy, who Dr. Hawass believes was Nefertiti and Ahkenaten’s son. These results of the subsequent DNA testing can be cross-referenced with DNA test results from a mummy known to have belonged to Akhenaten, which should allow all relevant family connections to be traced.
For his part, Dr. Hawass is already certain of what the tests will reveal.
“In October we will be able to announce the discovery of the mummy of Ankhesenamun, Tutankhamun’s wife, and her mother, Nefertiti,” Prof Hawass told the El Independiente reporter. “I am sure that I will reveal which of the two unnamed mummies could be Nefertiti.”
Ankhesenamum was the daughter of Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Nefertiti, while Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten and one of his own sisters. The marriage that united Nefertiti’s daughter with her stepson took place when the boy-king was eight and his half-sister 13 but was necessary according to Egyptian customs at the time.
Like many Egyptologists, Dr. Hawass has been looking for the lost tomb of the great queen for a long time. If his quest has indeed met with success, it would represent the fulfillment of his career, as the 75-year-old Hawass freely admits.
Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and their daughters before the Aten sun god symbol, as depicted on the Stela of Akhenaten, which is part of the Egyptian Museum collection in Cairo. (Gérard Ducher / CC BY-SA 2.5)
Who Was Queen Nefertiti?
Queen Nefertiti’s full name was Neferneferuaten Nefertiti, which meant “Beautiful are the Beauties of Aten, the Beautiful One has come.” As the Great Royal Wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten, Nefertiti was recognized by the people of Egypt as their queen, and while she lacked the powers of a queen serving alone she was undoubtedly one of the pharaohs most trusted advisors and confidantes.
Temple images of the queen emphasized her physical beauty, as did the Nefertiti bust, a stucco-coated limestone sculpture created by Akhenaten’s official court sculptor Thutmose in 1345 BC. But many of these images also captured her personal magnetism and political influence. While she is sometimes shown walking behind the pharaoh, in other portrayals she is seen individually and in dignified poses that suggest she was a powerful and respected leader in her own right.
When her husband died in 1336 BC, his anointed successor, Tutankhamen, was only five. So, it would have been natural for his stepmother to retain great power and influence, and many (but not all) scholars are convinced she ruled the 18th dynasty essentially on her own for a time after her husband passed away.
"I really believe that Nefertiti ruled Egypt for three years after Akhenaten's death under the name of Smenkhkare," Dr. Hawass said, making his thoughts on the matter clear.
Nefertiti is believed to have lived for at least a few more years after her husband’s death (although there is uncertainty about her ultimate fate), and her relations with her stepson seem to have been good enough for her to continue ruling by his side for the first few years following his ascension.
While they were popular with the people, Akhenaten and his queen came into conflict with religious leaders, which ultimately provoked the pharaoh into radical if not downright heretical action. Seeking to regain control of his kingdom from these powerful individuals, in either the fifth or ninth year of his regime Akhenaten banned the priesthood of the god Amun and outlawed the worship of the entire old Egyptian pantheon. He then declared himself as the representative on earth of the one true god, a sun deity known as Aten.
Akhenaten was originally known as Amenhotep IV but adopted his new name after deciding to replace the old ancient Egyptian religion with a monotheistic belief system. As a part of these changes, he also moved the capital of Egypt to the city of Amarna, which he soon renamed after himself.
All indications are that Nefertiti fully supported these changes. It would seem that her influence on her stepson was limited in this area, however. While serving as king during his teenage years Tutankhamen restored the old pantheon, reinstated the former priesthood, and moved the capital of Egypt back to Thebes, thus undoing his father’s efforts at profound religious reform.
Famous Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, who has made the titillating announcement about finding Nefertiti’s mummy, with Barack Obama, in June 2009. (Pete Souza / Public domain)
Zahi Hawass’ Date with Destiny
Dr. Zahi Hawass’ assertion that he has discovered the tomb and mummy of Nefertiti in the Valley of Kings could be seen as rather surprising, given some of his previous statements.
In 2015, when his rival, British Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves, suggested Nefertiti’s tomb and mummy might be found in a hidden chamber inside the tomb of King Tutankhamun, the always-opinionated Hawass scoffed at the notion.
“Nefertiti will never be buried in the Valley of the Kings,” he confidently stated in an interview with the international media. “The lady was worshipping Aton [Aten] with Akhenaten for years. The priests would never allow her to be buried in the Valley of the Kings.”
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Fast forwarding just seven years, Dr. Hawass is now singing a completely different tune. He is counting on DNA tests to confirm that one of the mummies he’s been studying in the Valley of Kings is that of the long-lost Egyptian queen, and he is completely confident he will get the result he is seeking.
But regardless of what the tests show, giving up will not be an option. If Dr. Hawass’ hopes are dashed he will undoubtedly continue searching for Nefertiti’s mummy in the Valley of Kings and elsewhere, as confident as ever that he is one day destined to discover the true location of the tomb of Egypt’s most celebrated ancient queen.
Top image: A stone relief fragment in the Brooklyn Museum that could only be of Nefertiti, and now DNA testing will tell us if Nefertiti's mummy has finally been found. Source: Brooklyn Museum / CC BY 2.5
By Nathan Falde