Using a portable CT-scan machine donated to the Supreme Council of Antiquities by the National Geographic Society and Siemens, Inc., Dr. Zahi Hawass and a team of radiologists and technicians (part of the larger Egyptian Mummy Project) have performed new studies on three controversial ancient cadavers from the Valley of the Kings. The first of these is a disarticulated skeleton, believed by some to be the “heretic” pharaoh Akhenaten, from a cache of Amarna-period (mid-14th century BC) material ( KV 55,); and the other two are anonymous mummies found in a side chamber of KV 35, the New Kingdom tomb of Amenhotep II (c. 1454-1419 BC), which was used as a cache for New Kingdom royal bodies in the 21st Dynasty (c. 1081-931 BC). One of this latter pair of mummies has been in the news a great deal of late, as she has been identified as Akhenaten’s wife, the beautiful Nefertiti; the other is thought by some scholars to be Queen Tiye, Akhenaten’s mother. These new scans have revealed that many of the ideas being promoted about them are in fact unfounded, and that further research is needed before conclusions can be reached concerning their identities.
The KV 55 skeleton was found in a royal coffin whose face had been ripped away and its inlaid cartouches removed. The lid of the coffin was broken, and the mummy had been exposed to significant damage and decay and is now an incomplete skeleton. The Originally identified as female, subsequent studies have consistently proved that the bones were male. Previous researchers have concluded that the skull, like Tutankhamun’s, is dolicocephalic, and that two men share a blood group. Most of the studies of this skeleton have put the age at death in the early 20s, although one team of researchers concluded that the bones were that of a man of about 35. Based on the age at death, the contents of the tomb (which included objects bearing the names of kings Amenhotep III, Akhenaten, and Tutankhamun), many scholars think that the skeleton is Smenkhkare, a mysterious and ephemeral king, possibly Tutankhamun’s older brother, who may have shared the throne with Akhenaten in his last years and then succeeded him. Others, opting to believe the older age estimate, vote for Akhenaten himself, who would have been at least 30 when he died.
The results of the recent CT-scan show clearly that it is still too early to unequivocably identify the KV 55 skeleton. The EMP radiologist notes that the upper right wisdom tooth is unerupted, as noted by earlier studies, but argues that this is not a conclusive indicator of age. The most interesting finding is that the spine, which is slightly scoliotic, shows significant degenerative changes, suggesting an age of over 60. This is a significant new finding that needs further investigation; Dr. Hawass believes that a decision cannot be reliably made as to whether the body is that of Akhenaten, Smenkhkare, or someone else entirely.
The “Younger Lady” from KV 35
One of the most intriguing mummies from the Valley of Kings is the “Younger Lady” from KV35. She has recently, and unconvincingly, been identified as Akhenaten’s chief queen Nefertiti, renowned as one of the great beauties of the ancient world. Traditional scholarship has already successfully debunked this speculative assumption; the latest CT-scan confirms that this identification is indeed highly unlikely.
The mummy, found lying on the floor in a side chamber, had been badly damaged, and its right arm had been ripped off. The scholar who has most recently proposed the “Nefertiti” identification concluded that a bent right arm, found nearby, belongs with the body, rather than a straight arm also discovered close to the mummy. This might, according to this scholar’s theory, argue that she is royal, as queens often have one arm (although usually the left) bent and the other straight. In fact, this arm position is also seen for non-royal women, and the recent CT-scan performed by the EMP indicates, based on the density of the bones and the relative lengths of the arms, that it is the straight arm that goes with the mummy, not the bent one. Another point raised by the Nefertiti enthusiasts is that the lower portion of the Younger Lady’s face is badly damaged, taken as evidence of an extreme form of damnatio memoriae appropriate for someone as controversial as Akhenaten’s great wife. However, the team’s radiologist, Dr. Ashraf Selim, argues that if the mummy’s face had indeed been smashed after embalming, one would expect to see bits of dried bone and flesh within the wound; the CT-scan performed by the EMP revealed very few pieces of the relevant broken bones within the sinus cavity, suggesting that the damage to the mummy’s face occurred before embalming, most likely even before death.
Dr. Hawass reiterates that other points made in support of the identification of the Younger Lady as Nefertiti can be refuted without referring to the CT-scans. These include a wig of a type worn by Nefertiti found in the tomb and the fact that the mummy has a double-pierced ear; both of these attributes are seen in non-royal women of the New Kingdom, so do not at all prove that this is Nefertiti. The age range suggested by the CT-scan is between 25 and 35; again, this would fit any number of important New Kingdom Dynasty females. In summary, Dr. Hawass concludes that there is no convincing reason to identify the Younger Lady as Nefertiti.
The “Elder Lady” from KV 35
Found next to the Younger Lady was a second female, well-mummified and with long curly hair. (See how she looks.) Previous studies have suggested that this woman was aged about 50 when she died, and many scholars believe that she may be Queen Tiye, mother of Akhenaten. In support of this theory are her age at death and the possibly “royal” position of her hands (the left arm at the chest and the right down by her side). In addition, one study comparing a strand of the Elder Lady’s hair to a lock of hair found inside a tiny coffinette inscribed for Tiye from Tutankhamun’s tomb concluded that the two samples matched. However, these results have been disputed, and the identification is still not secure.
Dr. Hawass reports that the results of the recent CT-scan neither confirm nor deny this identification. Radiologist Selim concludes that the careful pattern of embalming and the arm position favors the possibility of a royal identification. Age at death, based on epiphyseal fusion and signs of mid degenerative changes of the cervical spine and both knees suggest an age at death of between 40 and 60 years. Further study will be needed before other conclusions can be drawn.