Saturday, 20 February 2016

Tut’s it?

Once upon a time there was a tweenie who found ancient Egypt very exciting, even romantic. She had been reading memoires of early explorers, especially those women in the 1920s and 1930s joined the trips to Africa or did animal observation somewhere. She also ended up loaning Christiane Desroches-Noblecourt ’s book on Tutankhamen and was mesmerised by the fragmented evidence for the family history and all the faded characters in the saga, including all the minor pharaohs and Tiye and other women. The Amarna age and monotheism was a safe haven in the still slightly religious young eyes and there was all the splendour and adventure to count in.

Fast-forward – ohm – quite a lot of time and the same girl was sitting in front of the television on a Friday night while her husband was in a Green party meeting and wondering if anything good will come out from Channel 5. Or if she should even be watching anything from a channel the recent archaeological offerings have been less than ethical. However, the theory of the secret chamber in Tutankhamun’s tomb had got a lot of publicity and number of articles in journals and some in the archaeological and heritage community had got excited. However, the young mesmerised tweenie is now a somewhat more sarcastic character and the monotheist hero of the past in ancient Egypt looks like quite a deranged zealot with many health problems who moved a lot of people onto a very dry plot along the Nile. No wonder all ran off as soon as the pharaoh was gone.

It all promised a good story, though, and I wanted to know more about that potential chamber where Nefertiti was supposed to lie. The programme started promisingly with a specialist telling how different items in the tomb where made potentially for a woman (there is apparently a wide academic back catalogue on this) and how the famous mask was a composite and the ears had belong to a woman (ditto). However, the bearded male theorist was joined by another male specialist, this time with glasses and significantly less facial or other hair, from one of my former almae matres, the University of Bristol, which made it all far more interesting, starting to trace another story for the current whereabouts of Nefertiti.

Talking of Nefertiti. Quite a lot of air time was actually given to the bit part players who were re-enacting the young Tut and the royal couple, Akhenaten and Nefertiti. I hope they had afforded slightly more expensive head gear, considering the flimsy number the young Tut was wearing. In addition, calling Tutankhamun constantly ‘Tut’ gave the programme not a popular flavour they probably were after, but slightly down-market one (not helped by the head gear). Not only feeling a bit ‘tut tut’, but ‘Tut’ also easily rimes with ‘tat’. Not necessarily the association the programme makers wanted to have.

The theories were actually quite interesting. The bearded specialist, Chris Naunton, Director of the Egypt Exploration Society, was explaining the way Tutankhamun’s burial chamber may actually had started as a corridor to another, original burial chamber. The sealed and concealed rooms were a feature in pharaonic tomb chambers. There even were suitable unevenness in the ceiling to conform to this theory. The art historians had made a nano-level accurate model of the tomb paintings that as a 3D laser scan and its 3D print also faithfully reproduced the surface of the wall. There are all kinds of lines there and a red rectangular was place on one part of the painted wall. All quite plausible, but this specialist just was not Nicholas Reeves who originally made the claim. He did pass the space in front of the camera during the programme, but he was not a main character, just passing. What was going on there?

However, the University of Bristol expert, Dr Aidan Dodson, painted a totally different story. Nefertiti has actually potentially been found, one of the female royal mummies reburied after the ongoing tomb robbery in the Egyptian times. Dr Dodson was standing next to a display case, where a visibly beautiful woman, showing some resemblance to the famous bust, but unfortunately having a very nasty rip where the mouth once had been, was lying. This woman, he asserted us, was the biological mother of Tutankhamun, as evidenced by DNA testing of female mummies of the Amarna age. The father definitely was Akhenaten, but the mother has been assumed to be somebody else but the main wife, Nefertiti. The DNA suggested that the parents were brother and sister, but Akhenaten did not have any known sisters. Possibly the continuous marriages between first cousins and siblings resulted with the similar DNA? This woman thus could be a Nefertiti, actually.

What became clear was that Nefertiti is very much still dead and her mummy can be here or there. But what about that secret chamber? Then came the major disappointment: after having shown quite a many shots of the scanning and printing of the wall, the recent thermal imaging of Tutankhamen’s chamber was rushed through, the resulting map of more thermal area there on the screen for such a short time it was a ‘blink and miss it’ moment. Was it the same area as the fault lines I saw or the red rectangular? Why does thermal photographing give results here? It apparently has in the pyramids, but there is probably no one alive in. How does this work? The Egyptian authorities in the programme talked of 90% certainty or probability that there may be a chamber. But this was galloped through in the last couple of minutes of the programme and the two experts were left wondering how the best to break a wall. I felt quite counterfeited. However, some googling explained: the Egyptian archaeologists do not believe the theory and in late December 2015 stated that they will not allow any damage to the chamber. I do not blame them.

What is my ancient Egypt grading and evaluation? Easy, give me Joann Fletcher. Any time. But I am just an archaeologist: the Guardian loved the programme... Unless they were also older and wiser. They did in the end paraphrase the treasure hunt feel in the programme: “If it’s ‘just’ a store room like the others in the tomb, it is probably chock full of unbelievable stuff – the most incredible hoard since Carter found Tut!”

You may wonder why I am a bit frivolous instead of writing of a real archaeological good news, the potential statutory status of HERs and planning archaeology in Wales as part of the new heritage bill. Part of the reason not to, is that I am a big softie and Tutankhamun is still my childhood explorer self’s hero. It is the week when Howard Carter found the tomb back in the 1920s after all. The other thing is that Howard Williams wrote a very good blog post on the matter – and he knows much more about Wales than I do. This time, I trust a professor with the matter!

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