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Where is Nefertiti Buried? - Death & Tomb

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Nefertiti is one of the most famous ancient Egyptian queens today, but there's a lot we don't know about her. In this lesson, we'll explore some of the leading theories about her final resting place.

Nefertiti

There are few figures from ancient Egypt who have captured our imaginations as vividly as Nefertiti. Living in the mid-14th century BCE, Nefertiti was the model of ancient Egyptian beauty and a one of the most powerful queens of the ancient world.

As wife of the pharaoh Akhenaten, Nefertiti may have helped influence Egypt's adoption of the monotheistic worship of the sun deity Aten. Traditionally believed to be the stepmother of Tutankhamun, she helped raise the famous boy-king. While it's disputed, more historians are also starting to believe that she ruled entirely on her own after Akhenaten's death while Tutankhamun came of age. She's a mysterious figure, but there's one mystery in particular that has endured: what happened to her body?

The famous bust of Nefertiti
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The Death of Nefertiti

So, how did Nefertiti die, and where is she buried? The honest answer to both is that we have no idea. This is going to be a really short lesson, isn't it?

Let's focus on what we do know. After roughly 14 years as Egypt's queen, Nefertiti disappeared from the historic record. She simply vanished, with no clear reason as to why. Some historians think she was abandoned by Akhenaten due to her failure to produce a son. This seems unlikely, since Akhenaten had a son (Tutankhamun) through his lesser wife, Kiya, so his lineage was already assured.

Another theory, which is gaining more attention, is that Nefertiti continued ruling under a different name, that of Smenkhkare. Smenkhkare (who ruled after Akhenaten died) was traditionally believed to have been a male, but many now posit that this was actually Nefertiti, ruling Egypt until Tutankhamun came of age.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti with their children
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Was this Nefertiti? We may never know for sure. Akhenaten may have died extremely unpopular after changing Egypt's religion, and a later pharaoh tried to have his memory erased. Temples were demolished and records were destroyed in an effort to purge any evidence that Akhenaten or his family had ever existed. This is why our knowledge of Nefertiti's life (and death) is so limited.

The Tomb of Nefertiti

Nefertiti died a queen and would have been buried as one. Even Akhenaten's most ardent opponents wouldn't have violated the sanctity of a royal tomb, which means that the queen's body should have remained interred in the Valley of the Kings. But where is it? We've found dozens of royal tombs, but Nefertiti's remains a secret.

In 2015, a British Egyptologist named Nicholas Reeves announced a dramatic theory: the tomb of Nefertiti wasn't hiding in the desert, it was hiding in the tomb of her stepson, Tutankhamun. Reeves' theory was based on a series of high-resolution scans of Tutankhamun's tomb, which Reeves claimed revealed the presence of previously unknown fissures in the wall. He believed these cracks to be ancient doorways into two hidden chambers buried behind plaster and paint.

Why on earth would Nefertiti be buried here? Reeves' argument was based on something that many archaeologists had actually puzzled over. Tutankhamun died unexpectedly and at a very young age. Why did the Egyptians already have a tomb ready for him? According to Reeves, the tomb was originally that of Nefertiti's, but her section was sealed off to make room for the unexpected interment of the young pharaoh. This would explain why Tutankhamun's tomb is smaller than those of most pharaohs.

Is there a secret tomb behind the painted walls in the tomb of Tutankhamun?
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Early tests in 2016 revealed a very high likelihood that Reeves was at least partially right. There do seem to be two chambers beyond the walls of Tutankhamun's tomb, sealed off long ago. What's within those chambers, however, is entirely unclear. Some continue to hope that Nefertiti's mummy rests inside, while others are more skeptical. After all, hidden chambers like these have been found in other royal tombs and ended up being nothing more than tunnels for the workers who built them.

The Younger Lady

Some of Reeves' biggest opponents claim that Nefertiti's mummy couldn't be in Tutankhamun's tomb for one simple reason: she's already resting in a museum in Cairo. Way back in 1898, Egyptologists uncovered a tomb in the Valley of the Kings with a few people inside, all presumably relatives of a pharaoh. One of these is known as the Younger Lady.

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