Posted on Categories Discover Magazine
The Search for Nefertiti
Nefertiti may be the most famous missing woman in the world. Her story has all the elements of a good mystery: a beautiful woman, a missing body, political intrigue and a decades-long debate over her fate.
We know that she existed, thanks to hieroglyphic writings that indicate she was a queen and mother of six during Egypt’s 18th dynasty, around 1300 B.C. And we have an idea of what she might have looked like from the Berlin Bust, an iconic piece by the sculptor Thutmose created during her lifetime that now resides in a German museum.
That’s about all we know, though. What her role was in life, whether she was Tutankhamun’s mother and the circumstances surrounding her death all remain unknown. Identifying her body would answer some of those questions, but we have not yet discovered a tomb bearing her name. That’s not for lack of trying, of course. The search has gone on for decades, with competing and often hotly contested theories.
The latest chapter in the saga began in 2015, when University of Arizona Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves claimed to have discovered evidence of another chamber in Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, based on radar scans. He theorized that the room could contain Nefertiti, inciting a storm of controversy. Further scans cast doubt on his conclusions, however, and it appears that the search for her body has again come up empty-handed.
Another theory holds that a mummy called “the younger lady,” discovered in 1898, is actually Nefertiti. The mummy was found in a side chamber of the tomb of Amenhotep II, the great-grandfather of Nefertiti’s husband. Its age is right, and other clues point to a royal burial, including the symbolic positioning of her arms. A comparative analysis of her facial features indicated a match to the Berlin Bust. But other researchers believe, based on a controversial DNA study, that the younger lady is Tutankhamun’s mother — but not Nefertiti.
The controversy over Nefertiti’s resting place is in some ways an extension of the tumult she experienced in life. The pharaoh Akhenaten, her husband, upended centuries of polytheistic tradition and converted Egypt to the worship of the sun god Aten, even going so far as to construct a new capital city some 250 miles to the north of the previous capital, Thebes. This swept the country into disarray, and the changes he wrought would ultimately be overturned.
During this time, some Egyptologists believe that Nefertiti came to rule as a pharaoh in her own right, possibly under the name Smenkhkare. She would have reigned for no more than a year or two.
When she died, pharaoh or not, her royal status meant she would have been mummified according to tradition: Priests would have removed her organs and washed her body with a solution of natron, a naturally occurring soda ash similar to modern baking soda. They then would have placed packets of linen, resin and natron in her body cavities and anointed her body with oils and resin. Finally, they would have wrapped layer upon layer of resin-soaked linen around her body, sealing the queen in an antimicrobial shroud.
While we know that she lived, and what would have happened to her after death, we are still missing the critical piece of evidence that would tie her story together: Nefertiti herself. It’s a cold case for the ages.