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Mystery of Tut's Father: New Clues on Unidentified Mummy

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
July 10, 2007
 
Egyptologists have uncovered new evidence that bolsters the controversial theory that a mysterious mummy is the corpse of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, husband of Nefertiti and, some experts believe, the father of King Tut.

(Photos: Who Was Tut's Father?)

The mummy's identity has generated fierce debate ever since its discovery in 1907 in tomb KV 55, located less than 100 feet (30 meters) from King Tutankhamun's then hidden burial chamber.

So an international team of researchers led by Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, used a CT scanner to peer inside the body and those of several other Valley of the Kings mummies. (The expedition was partially funded by the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)

The scan revealed a number of striking physical similarities between the mystery mummy and the body of Tut, including a distinctive egg-shaped skull. (Related photo gallery: King Tut's New Face.)

"CT technology virtually unwraps the mummies without damaging them," explained Hawass, who is also a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, in a press release.

"They reveal everything, including information about age and disease."

A CT machine produces some 1,500 cross-sectional "slice" images for each body. When put together they reproduce the entire body in three dimensions.

Heretic Pharaoh

Akhenaten, a powerful mid-14th century B.C. pharaoh also known as Amenhotep IV or Amenophis IV, had a heretical devotion to Egypt's sun god.

He decreed that Aten, the divine embodiment of the sun's life-giving warmth, was Egypt's one true god and that the pharaoh was the earthly incarnation through which Aten must be worshiped.

Akhenaten banned ancient festivals and closed temples that had honored other deities for centuries. He also founded a new capital city, Akhetaten (now Amarna), to honor Aten and break from the past.

But the radical new religion came crashing down with Akhenaten's death. Aten's temples were razed and Egyptians once more worshiped a full pantheon of favored gods.

The Amarna era ended with the disappearance of the royal family's mummies, leaving an enduring mystery for scholars.

"There are probably as many theories about what's going on in the Amarna period as there are Egyptologists who have taken an interest in that period," said Aidan Dodson, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol in England.

The newly scanned mummy's tomb held some clues, however.

The face and cartouche, or nameplate, of the mummy's coffin had been hacked out. But traces of gold leaf, along with hieroglyphics surrounding the cartouche, hinted over the years that the body might belong to the heretical leader.

"I think the alteration of the coffin in KV 55 suggests it must be a male member of the Amarna royal family and most likely Akhenaten," said Peter Lacovara, an archaeologist for the Amarna Royal Tombs Project, which is affiliated with England's Durham University.

New Evidence

The CT scan supports the idea that the mummy is Akhenaten by revealing it as a male between the ages of 25 and 40 who shares many physical similarities with Tut—assuming Akhenaten was Tut's father, as some experts believe.

The mystery mummy's strange elongated, egg-shaped skull, called dolichocephalic, is strikingly similar to Tutankhamun's.

The jaw, cheekbones, cleft palate, impacted wisdom teeth, and slight scoliosis of the spine are all also similar to Tut's—suggesting familiar traits that may have been passed on from father to son.

"[This] means we can say now the mummy in KV 55, based on this evidence, and based on the age, and based on the inscriptions written in the coffin, that this could be the mummy of Akhenaten," Hawass told the National Geographic Channel.

But the mummy could also be one of several other people—including another mysterious member of Tut's family—Hawass cautioned.

Dodson, of the University of Bristol, said, "I still think that the mummy is that of Smenkhkare—who was probably either the brother or son of Akhenaten and thus will have shared many of his features."

"Akhenaten may have been buried at one time in KV 55—'magic bricks' [denoting a royal tomb] in his name were found—but the mummy was probably later removed and destroyed. I do not believe that there will ever be 100 percent agreement about this particular mummy."

Even ascertaining the family trees of ancient Egypt's dynasties can be difficult, Dodson added.

"The concept of a royal family recording who was the son of whom just didn't happen," Dodson said.

"There's virtually no example of [recorded evidence for] a king being the son of his predecessor until the 19th dynasty [around 1290 B.C.]. Until then the royal sons are hardly ever mentioned on monuments at all."

No Clues on Nefertiti

The research expedition originally centered on Akhenaten's better-known wife—Nefertiti. But her whereabouts remain unknown, the team says.

Two female mummies found together just a few hundred feet from King Tutankhamun's burial chamber have been the focus of endless speculation.

At various times both corpses, known as the "Younger Lady" and the "Elder Lady," have been identified as the queen—but none of these assertions has proved conclusive.

CT scans revealed critical new information about these mummies, including the women's ages at death, their history of childbirth, the nature of wounds, important piercings, and the original positions of their arms—a key indicator of royal status.

The cumulative evidence led Hawass's team to conclude that neither is Nefertiti.

"The [Younger Lady] mummy that everyone thought is Nefertiti, it is not Nefertiti," he told the National Geographic Channel. "We gave the proof for that."

The Elder Lady may be the powerful Queen Tiye, Akhenaten's mother, while the Younger Lady might possibly be his secondary wife Kiya—the likely mother of King Tutankhamun—the researchers say. (Related: "Egypt's Female Pharaoh Revealed by Chipped Tooth, Experts Say" [June 27, 2007].)

DNA evidence is probably the only way to provide definitive identifications, but it may be impossible to acquire after so many years.

So Nefertiti may remain lost forever, said Lacorva, of the Amarna Royal Tombs Project.

"Barring any significant discovery, such as her burial, which is unlikely," he said, "we may never know the truth."

A one-hour special on the mummy investigation, Nefertiti and the Lost Dynasty, will air on the National Geographic Channel Monday, July 16, at 9 p.m.

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