Is Egypt closer to unlocking the mystery of Queen Nefertiti in King Tut’s tomb?

The first infrared scans of the tomb of Tutankhamun could indicate a hidden chamber behind a wall, Egypt’s minister of antiquities announced this week, raising hopes that the crypt of Queen Nefertiti could be found.

Representatives of the ministry of antiquities and a team of international archaeologists “started the first experiment using infrared thermography to map out the temperature of the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb”, minister Mamduh al-Damati said in a statement.

“The preliminary analyses have shown differences in the temperatures registered on different parts of the northern wall” of the tomb, he said.

Al-Damati added that the team would need to verify the early findings with several more tests and analyses. The first experiment kept researchers in the tomb for 24 hours; the scientists will need a week or more to confirm the results.

Temperature variations on the northern wall could indicate one or more hidden chambers, their presence reflected in the heat (or lack thereof) of pockets of air behind painted plaster. The northern wall of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber appears to show the king, who died aged 19 in 1324BC, in rituals of passage to the afterlife.

Tutankhamun ascended at nine years old, after his father Akhenaten, who was called the “heretic king” for abolishing the Egyptian pantheon in favor of a single sun deity. Tutankhamun’s mother was also his aunt – DNA analysis suggests he was a sickly king – and though not believed to be Nefertiti, her identity is unknown.

Where her tomb lies is also a mystery. In August, University of Arizona archaeologist Nicholas Reeves published a paper arguing that Tutankhamun’s tomb has two hidden doorways: one leading to a store room and the second to Nefertiti’s sarcophagus.

Reeves wrote that Tutankhamun’s small but rich chamber resembles the antechamber of some larger complex, not a major burial room itself. Given the young king’s unexpected death, he was buried in haste and in an already occupied tomb, Reeves argued, its doorways plastered shut and coated in paint.

But the murals also hold hints of Nefertiti, Reeves wrote. He argued that one image does not show Tutankhamun but rather Nefertiti. The figure has the “somewhat scooped brow and nose and a straight jawline with gently rounded chin” that appears in her portraits, according to Reeves. He also wrote that he believes about 80% of the burial equipment in Tutankhamun’s tomb was made for someone else.

Nefertiti died about seven years before Tutankhamen and loomed large over her era of Egyptian history. She supported her husband’s conversion of Egypt, presided over a period of striking art – some of its most famous works are sculptures of her –and may have ruled the kingdom alone in the years after Akhenaten’s death.

Reeves subscribes to the theory that Nefertiti ruled as her husband’s successor – but as Smenkhkare, the name of an enigmatic pharaoh who briefly ruled after Akhenaten.

Nefertiti’s burial place has eluded archaeologists, and some note that her mummy may have been found but left unidentified for lack of DNA or identifying evidence.

In September, al-Damati said preliminary study of Tutankhamun’s tomb made him confident a royal sepulchre would turn up adjacent to it, though the minister speculated it might belong to Kiya, another of Akhenaten’s wives.

“I am now 70% certain that we are going to find something,” he said.

Other archaeologists have cautioned that the chambers, if they exist, may hold only objects or nothing at all.

Reeves, who has for years maintained that Nefertiti is somewhere in the Valley of the Kings, told National Geographic this fall that he could barely register the excitement.

“To be honest, I feel numb,” he said. “This has been part of my life now on a daily basis for more than a year.”

Tutankhamun’s tomb was found in 1922 in the Valley of the Kings, north of Luxor, a city known to the ancient Egyptians as Thebes.

The archaeologists plan to announce more findings about the broader project, which is also scanning the pyramids and other tombs, on Monday.

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