5 Unsolved Mysteries of King Tut’s Tomb

A recent imaging scan hints at hidden chambers that could offer insights into questions surrounding the life and death of the boy pharaoh and his place in Egyptian history

Credit: CRIS BOURONCLE / Staff via Getty Images

Archaeologists thought the last burial chamber in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings had been discovered even before Howard Carter opened the unsullied tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922. Tut ruled Egypt for only a decade, from 1332 to 1322 B.C., and died around age 19. Untouched by looters before its discovery, the tomb’s dazzling golden artifacts captured the public’s imagination and made him one of Egypt’s most famous and intensively studied mummies. But Tut’s tomb was not, in fact, the last secret the valley held. In the past 10 years two more chambers have come to light: one is a storage area for coffins and burial supplies, the other contains the mummy of a woman who was a singer at the Temple of Karnak. In November 2015 radar specialist Hirokatsu Watanabe conducted a series of ground-penetrating radar scans. Now his analysis of those scans is complete, and they suggest that there might be other chambers, possibly containing burials, hidden behind the walls of the boy king’s tomb. Ground-penetrating radar is notoriously difficult to use on the rock in the Valley of the Kings. According to former Minister of State for Antiquities Zahi Hawass, natural cracks in the rock can reflect radar waves in ways that make them look like man-made chambers, so another round of scanning is planned to confirm that the chambers do exist.

At first glance, Tutankhamun seemed to be a minor figure in Egyptian history—very few written records refer to him. But he ruled at a time when his nation was undergoing a profound change. The pharaoh Akhenaten, whose reign ended four years before Tut’s began, had changed Egypt’s official religion, which involved worshipping a pantheon of gods, to a monotheistic cult devoted to the sun god Aten. This shift took power away from the wealthy and powerful priests of the traditional Egyptian gods. Soon after Akhenaten’s death, the nation returned to worshipping the traditional deities. Those cults quickly reasserted their power, and it was during this time of upheaval that Tutankhamun took the throne. As with any great discovery, Tut’s tomb raised a number of new important questions about Egyptian history, such as who his predecessors and successors were and what other figures might also be buried in his tomb. If there are new chambers to be explored, answers about the lives of Tut and his royal relatives could be closer than ever. Still, there are other mysteries about Tut that are likely to go unanswered.

WHO WERE TUT’S PARENTS?

Around the year 1341 B.C., during Akhenaten’s reign, a royal child was born and named Tutankhaten “the living image of Aten.” Sometime after Akehnaten’s death he was renamed for the traditional solar deity, Amun and his name became Tutankhamun. Some scholars believe that the boy’s mother was Akhenaten’s principal wife, Nefertiti whereas others believe his mother was one of his secondary wives named Kiya. But it is not even certain that Akhenaten was Tutankhamun’s father. It is possible that Tut’s father was the pharaoh Smenkhkara, who was the ruler immediately preceding Tutankhamun. An DNA analysis of several mummies found in the Valley of the Kings seems to indicate that Tut’s father is the person buried across the valley from him in tomb KV55 and his mother is buried farther to the west in KV35, but the identities of those mummies is unknown. Egyptologist Marianne Eaton-Krauss, an expert on Tutankhamun who has taught at universities in Germany, also points out that whereas these mummies are clearly close relatives of Tut, it is difficult to establish precise familial relationships using only DNA. Knowing who Tut’s parents were could help to clarify what kind of royal intrigue surrounded his ascension to the throne at age nine. If another mummy is found in Tut’s tomb, inscriptions on the burial artifacts identifying the individual could help resolve this question.

WHO RULED BEFORE TUT?

Toward the end of Akhenaten’s reign in 1336 B.C. he appointed a co-ruler called Neferneferuaten who may have been Nefertiti using a different name. Following Akhenaten’s death, Neferneferuaten ruled for three years, after which someone named Smenkhkara took over the throne. Smenkhkara, however, is a controversial figure. Some scholars including Nicholas Reeves of the University of Arizona believe that Smenkhkara was another of Nefertiti’s aliases. The other possibility is that Smenkhkara was a male relative of Akhenaten’s. If an older burial chamber was walled off to accommodate Tut’s tomb, any mummy it might contain would predate Tut and could answer questions about his predecessor.

WHO RULED AFTER TUT?

Tutankhamun seems to have died suddenly at the age of 19 and fathered no heirs. Inscriptions show that he was married to Ankhesenamun, who was Nefertiti’s daughter—meaning that she may have been his half sister. The couple had two daughters who died shortly after birth. Their mummies were found in Tut’s tomb. Tut’s death may have left Ankhesenamun in a desperate situation. A letter to the King of the Hittites, who ruled much of what is now Turkey and Syria, asking him to send a groom to share the throne of Egypt may have been written by her as a last-ditch effort to hold onto power. Documents show the Hittite prince Zannanza was sent to Egypt but he seems to have disappeared on the way. When the letter was sent is a matter of debate, according to Eaton-Krauss. It is possible that Nefertiti was the letter’s author and she was asking for a groom in an attempt to retain power before she ultimately took the title of pharaoh for herself. The contents of any new chambers are unlikely to reveal who wrote the letter, but what happened in the aftermath of Tut’s death is mystery that many Egyptologists would love to solve.

WHO WAS TUT’S TOMB ACTUALLY BUILT FOR?

To some scholars, including Reeves, Tut’s tomb seems a little small for a pharaoh. Some have thought that a tomb that was already constructed may have been repurposed when Tutankhamun suddenly died. Although the tomb contained a wealth of artifacts, only one of the four rooms—the burial chamber—had its walls plastered and painted. Other royal tombs of this time had much more extensive decoration. The paintings in Tut’s tomb describe the first stages of his spiritual transition to the afterlife. According to Reeves, 80 percent or more of the burial artifacts show signs of being repurposed from earlier rulers, including Akhenaten. Reeves thinks that instead of enlarging a small tomb for Tut, builders might have walled off part of a larger tomb for him. He thinks the original owner of the tomb may lie in one of the newly detected chambers—and that person was Nefertiti buried as the pharaoh Smenkhkara. Hawass, however, thinks that the prominent role Nefertiti played in the cult of Aten makes it unlikely that she was buried in the Valley of the Kings, which was an area sacred to the god Amun.

WHO ELSE MIGHT BE BURIED IN TUT’S TOMB?

Few scholars share Reeves’s optimism that any new chambers would contain Nefertiti’s tomb. Although finding her mummy, under whatever name, would be a tremendous boon to the study of ancient Egypt, there is a good possibility that a newly discovered chamber would contain something else. Frank Rühli of the University of Zurich, who has conducted a thorough study of Tut’s mummy, compiled a list of other royal persons who could be interred there, including Tut’s older sister Meritaten, his possible mother Kiya and, of course, Smenkhkara either as Nefertiti or not. Any of those mummies could tell us more about who Tut was related to. Another possibility that has received less attention is that they could just be storage chambers. If the chambers do exist, the possibilities of what they might tell us about Tut are nearly limitless. As Eaton-Krauss puts it, “the only thing we know for certain about Tutankhamun is that he died.”

HOW DID TUT DIE?

One important question that is not likely to be answered by anything that might be contained in any newly discovered chambers is how Tutankhamun died. DNA analysis by Rühli showed that the boy king suffered from malaria and CT scans indicated he probably had a rare bone disorder called Köhler disease that caused his left foot to be deformed. Tut’s tomb contained 130 walking sticks, some even showed signs that he had used them during his life. Neither of these diseases would necessarily have been fatal, according to Rühli. He believes that the best explanation may be a severe leg fracture. His knee was broken so badly that it pierced the skin and may have caused massive bleeding. Although a fatal leg fracture fits the idea that Tut died abruptly, Rühli cannot state for a medical certainty that the fracture occurred while Tut was alive. It is possible that his knee was broken after his death.

Understanding Tutankhamun’s health affects how scholars view him, Rühli says. Was he a strong dynamic pharaoh who led armies into battle or a sickly weak figurehead manipulated by the ambitious older men in his court? Rühli hopes to be able to do a thorough but noninvasive examination of Tut’s body to gather more data on his health and cause of death.