February 2016 – VT, USA
In this article I take a skeptical look at the media show that currently surrounds the tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt. I was hesitant to don my skeptical hat. It’s not my preferred attire. It is very good at lending its wearer a voice of authority. As such it is a disguise often usurped by naysayers and reactionaries to stifle unwanted progress or change. But it is also a hat that can be worn when urging caution and for redirecting a discussion towards more appropriate paths. Appropriate paths in Egyptology and archaeology always follow the scientific method; Hypothesis, followed by testing for facts, followed by logical analysis. Repeat if necessary until a conclusion is reached.
I am donning the skeptic’s hat because mainstream Egyptology has taken a problematic turn in recent months. I want to advise a change of route, back on to a track of hard facts and a rigorous scientific method, even before the final results are in.
The global media has long held an obsession for all things associated with Tutankhamen. This has intensified since the start of the Egyptian revolution in 2011. At that time several wooden statues from his tomb went walkabouts from the Egyptian Museum off Tahrir Square. Only a pair of sandals were left behind. The statues eventually returned, but then the beard of his gold funerary mask was snapped off by a clumsy curator. It was apparently glued back on, perhaps in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid an international outcry. Most recently, the media has been dominated by the search for a chamber supposedly hidden behind a wall in Tut’s tomb, and supposedly containing none other than Tutankhamen’s mother, queen Nefertiti. The difference in this most recent case is that the news was created by a qualified and experienced academic.
I respect my colleagues and friends in the field of Egyptology, and the people of Egypt, and it is often uncomfortable to raise a voice in dissent. Established universities, antiquities departments and news desks have a cosy working consensus that is always difficult to interrupt. The status quo inclines to be maintained, and in the current climate any news is seen to be good news. The more superlatives employed, the better.
Speculation is an integral part of research, but there have always been voices of dissent in Egyptology. Often raised sporadically at first when the speculation becomes too far fetched. As we await long-overdue scanning results from the Valley of the Kings, I note the appearance of other dissidents, also wearing skeptical hats and also suggesting that all is not quite as it seems.
In summer last year a hypothesis was published by Nicholas Reeves, a British archaeologist associated with the the University of Arizona. He proposed that Nefertiti is interred in a chamber hidden behind the decorated north wall of Tutankhamen’s burial chamber, in tomb KV62. Although based on circumstantial and superficial evidence, this theory was jumped on by the popular media and the official antiquities ministry, and accepted at face value so quickly that the putative chamber has already been designated its own unofficial reference code.
At relatively short notice, the antiquities department granted Reeves permission to carry out radar scanning tests on the wall in the famous tomb. After carrying out the radar scans on the eve of the Egyptian parliamentary elections, Reeves stated that “Clearly it does look from the radar evidence as if the tomb continues, as I have predicted”. “The radar behind the north wall seems pretty clear. If I am right it is a continuation—corridor continuation—of the tomb, which will end in another burial chamber”.
Much ink has understandably been spilled as a result of these claims. The Minister of Antiquities added that “The radar scans have been sent to Japan for further examination, with final results expected in a month” (History Channel online article by Christoper Klein Dec 1 2015).
It is now more than two months since those radar scans were carried out, and no results have been published.
I made my thoughts clear on this matter around 6 months ago on the Scottish Egyptology Facebook forum. I urged caution rather than rejection of Reeves’s theory which I felt to be far fetched. The tomb does not lie within my specialist subject area in the huge field that constitutes Egyptology and so I kept my mind open and awaited developments. Nick Reeves certainly has a great deal of philological knowledge about the Valley of the Kings as well as experience on the ground. Nevertheless, there were other questioning voices from the start. The most prominent was Dr Zahi Hawass, ex Director of Antiquities. Never one to miss out on a good sensation or mince his words, in this case he warned that Reeves had ‘sold the air to us’. Contrast this with the statement of the new Egyptian Antiquities Minister Mamdouh Eldamaty who told the gathered reporters after the scan: “We said earlier there was a 60 percent chance there is something behind the walls. But now after the initial reading of the scans, we are saying now it’s 90 percent likely there is something behind the walls”.
In fact, there do not seem to be any significant scan results on which these momentous claims and percentages were based. If the scans did not reveal what was being stated, then we are in a problematic situation. It may seem wise for everyone to simply carry on and let bygones be bygones, but herein lies the problem. When the scientific method is correctly applied, negative results are just as important as positive results. If there is nothing behind the wall then it is just as important to inform researchers of this negative finding as it is to inform them of any positive findings. Serious researchers now need an answer to clarify the reality. Budding scholars looking on from the sidelines also need to see the scientific process in action. Whatever the results, we all need to see that Egyptology is indeed a science and not just a form of light entertainment.
The wheels are spinning. Reeves’s team needs to clarify what results they have and what route to take to get the show back on the road.
If Reeves follows the scientific method, explains what the actual results were, and reaches clear conclusions, then he will bring us all enlightenment, if not Nefertiti. Egyptology of this sort is not just a question of perspective, it has entered the realm of archaeology, which is testable, and that means there will be concrete, or in this case perhaps, solid stone, results.
The good news is that even if the results are negative, the truth is always more interesting than the fiction. If Nefertiti is not behind the wall in Tutankhamen’s tomb then that strengthens the case that we already have Nefertiti, and she lies in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Marianne Luban, an independent researcher from the USA has spent over a decade analyzing the anatomical and DNA data from a mummy called KV35YL and its relatives. In 1999 she posted an article on the web titled “Do We Have the Mummy of Nefertiti? and at the end of 2015 she published a full thesis devoted to the issue. She set out her argument at length that the so-called ‘younger lady’ is the body of Nefertiti. To the best of my knowledge all of her study and writing has been self-financed.
We owe it to people like Marianne, to the subject itself, to the Ancient Egyptians, to our predecessors who worked tirelessly in libraries and in the field, and to the next generation of budding scholars, to expect facts and a conclusion. In the long term we must hand on a subject that has followed the scientific method. We must avoid handing down one that is corrupted by politics, the media or confused by the statements of mystics.
Curators and academics know that it is vital to generate excitement around a subject to attract the attention of the younger generation, but the content of what we hand on to them is every bit as important as the act itself. Do we want to teach them to be mystics or scientists? Surely the best thing we can teach them is how the scientific method is applied. Is science just the application of fancy technology, or is it a systematic method of thought?
It seems useful for the beleaguered Egyptian tourist industry that a state of perpetual hype is created around Egyptian archaeological sites. Potential tourists are thrilled to think that another Tutankhamen, or his mother, might be just around the corner or through the next wall. But surely tourists are attracted to Egypt because they want to learn the facts about the past?
It is useful for beleaguered political leaders if the Egyptian people believe that a glorious new discovery is imminent, particularly on the eve of parliamentary elections. This latter-day legitimation process works in the short term. Egypt’s modern leaders have all employed pharaonic imagery in their publicity posters. It is all too easy to draw on the pharaonic relics from the past to help retain power in the present. But should academics allow themselves to be caught up in what are effectively political propaganda programs?
Over 100 years ago the great Egyptologist Flinders Petrie described the archaeology of Egypt as being like “a house on fire, so rapid was the destruction”. He felt it was his duty to be a “salvage man, to get all I could, as quickly as possible and then, when I was 60, I would sit and write it all”.
Petrie showed us how to derive knowledge and facts from everyday objects such as broken pots. He showed us how to be interested in all of the people of Ancient Egypt, not just the despotic 1%.
I prefer his approach to one that focuses exclusively on the bling and tinsel of the New Kingdom pharaohs. To be honest, I find many of Tutankhamen’s most impressive artifacts to be ugly; their style is laborious, staid, lethargic and deliberately emotionless. I am attracted to Egyptology with a focus on the the more progressive examples of the Ancient Egyptians’ arts. Their scientific developments, their everyday lives and their creativity teaches us more than the backwards looking material culture of the post-Amarna period.
I enjoy studying Ancient Egypt, its art and its symbols, but most of the pharaohs were in fact totalitarian, monarchic, theocratic dictators. Putting their statues on pedestals is one thing, putting that type of regime on a pedestal is quite another. Cambridge Egyptologist Dr Toby Wilkinson put it well here:
“The first pharaohs understood the extraordinary power of ideology and of its visual counterpart, iconography to unite a disparate people and bind them in loyalty to the state. Egypt’s earliest kings formulated and harnessed the tools of leadership that are still with us: elaborate trappings of office and carefully choreographed public appearances to set the ruler apart from the populace; pomp and spectacle on grand state occasions to reinforce bonds of loyalty; patriotic fervor expressed orally and visually. But the pharaohs and their advisers knew equally well that their grip on power could be maintained just as effectively by other, less benign means: political propaganda, an ideology of xenophobia, close surveillance of the population, and brutal repression of dissent. In studying ancient Egypt for more than twenty years, I have grown increasingly uneasy about the subject of my research. Scholars and enthusiasts alike are inclined to look at pharaonic culture with misty-eyed reverence. We marvel at the pyramids, without stopping to think too much about the political system that made them possible. We take vicarious pleasure in the pharaohs’ military victories—Thutmose III at the Battle of Megiddo, Ramesses II at the Battle of Kadesh—without pausing too long to reflect on the brutality of warfare in the ancient world. We thrill at the weirdness of the heretic king Akhenaten and all his works, but do not question what it is like to live under a despotic, fanatical ruler…..”.
Tutankhamen embodies the way in which Ancient Egypt is presented within modern Egypt, in the Middle East and in the mainstream global media. There is a risk that this representation becomes not just the predominant view but the only image of Ancient Egyptian culture. Egyptology could become an overwhelmingly authoritarian subject matter as a result, with an emphasis on preservation, monarchy and centralized regimes, rather than everyday lives, cultural progress, creativity and the development of the arts and sciences.
After all the hype, some people may be surprised if we find that there is nothing behind the wall in KV62, apart from the bedrock out of which the tomb was cut. Nevertheless, it is vital that the scientific process is followed and is seen to be followed. Science is dispassionate and that is the way it should be. Facts do not depend on what we would like to find, but on what is actually there.
So it’s time to take off that uncomfortable skeptical hat and reach a conclusion. A reality check will get the show back on the road. Negative findings are not something to be embarrassed about or ignored. It might not seem such an exciting prospect, but transparency, rigorous intellectual method and good old fashioned honesty are on the road map we need to get to our destination safely.