King Tut’s latest tomb mystery doesn’t mean we’ll be infested by mummies

News that Tutankhamen’s tomb might contain yet more secrets 93 years after it was revealed – possibly including the crypt of his stepmother, Queen Nefertiti, is mildly surprising. You’d think by now that ancient Egypt had been pretty thoroughly raked over. But maybe not.

Bust of Nefertiti, held at the Neues Museum in Berlin, though to have been carved (and 'photoshopped', with gypsum) by Thutmose around 3360 years before the present.
Bust of Neferneferuaten Nefertiti, held at the Neues Museum in Berlin, thought to have been carved and then ‘Photoshopped’, with gypsum, to eliminate wrinkles originally carved into it, by Thutmose around 3360 years before the present.

The logic goes like this. Tutankhamen died aged around 18, probably from complications following a broken leg. One slightly wild idea suggests it happened when he was hooning in a chariot and crashed it. Other hypotheses are more compelling, though also much more boring  – theories include being genetically damaged via incestuous descent, born club-footed, stricken with malaria and fell, or something. Nobody conclusively knows. However, what is clear is that there hadn’t been time to prepare a proper tomb for him, and the current idea is that he was jammed into an outer chamber of his father’s wife’s tomb – the fabled and fabulous Queen Nefertiti.

Nefertiti’s tomb has never been found. But maybe it’s concealed behind Tutankhamen’s. Nicholas Reeves has been working with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities to find out what’s there. Infra-red and X-ray scans of a wall suspected to contain a secret door indicate space beyond. That’s all we know so far, but the prognosis looks pretty good.

One bit of science likely to come out of it will be an air sample. The chamber’s been sealed for around 3360 years, and we can learn all sorts from the air alone. How much lead pollution existed then, for instance? This was a problem in the ancient world, caused by the copper mining methods of the day.

If luck is in there may be another haul of pristine ancient Egyptian relics, joining the 2000-odd items Howard Carter found in Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922. Anything new might include a mummy that may well be that of Nefertiti. It’s safe. I’m fairly sure that whatever’s found won’t come alive and rampage through Cairo killing hapless Egyptologists while making ‘raaargh’ noises. Fun though such a scenario might be, the first steps in mummification actually involved ripping out all the internal organs.

Abu Simbel on the move via 20th century technology. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
Abu Simbel on the move via 20th century technology. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

Fascination with ancient Egypt was the ‘it’ interest of the early twentieth century – a popular enthusiasm that helped drive Howard Carter’s push to find Tutankhamen’s tomb, and which was further fuelled by his discovery. Early inter-war enthusiasm for ancient Egyptian stylings – along with Mayan and Babylonian – helped drive the shape of modernist design (‘art deco’). And the allure of ancient Egypt has since infused itself into pop-culture in more insidious ways, not least in popular speculation about supposed magic, ancient aliens and allegedly lost ‘high tech’ that we don’t have today, including the ability to build more pyramids. There have even been suggestions that the ancient Egyptians had electric lighting, based on the superficial similarity of a bas-relief to a thermionic value – an absurd claim that is easily debunked.

The reason for this sort of silliness, I suppose, is that the people espousing such rubbish take the attitude that ‘I don’t know how this happened, therefore nobody can know’, coupled with ‘experts haven’t agreed on this, therefore my idea is right’.

Could we build a Great Pyramid of Giza today? Easy – it’s purely down to funding. Write me a blank cheque and I’ll arrange it (my fee is 5 percent on top). Don’t forget, in the 1960s the temple complex at Abu Simbel was disassembled and rebuilt because of the Aswan Dam project – of which the temple-move was the radically lesser engineering challenge. But even the temple disassembly was something the ancient Egyptians couldn’t have done so easily, not least due to their lack of steel frames, cranes and power tools.

The Bent Pyramid. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

In point of fact, the ancient Egyptians weren’t even the high-tech champions of their age. They knew pottery, woodwork, glasswork, paints, agriculture and invented flexible writing material – papyrus. But the real tech-sceptre of the world around 3500 years ago goes to the Babylonians, who broadly invented metallurgy, writing and accounting. Along with the Indus civilisation, their efforts and those of the Egyptians flowed from the first great flourish of human endeavour across the Levant and Middle East after the end of the ice ages.

The main construction material the ancient Egyptians used was stone – making their technology fundamentally neolithic. Though that was all they needed to make the pyramids – which are mostly solid and pyramid-shaped for a reason. Stone is low-tensile construction material (granite has a tensile strength of 4800 kpa, for instance, versus around 400,000 for structural steel) – meaning that if you try to make something the size of a pyramid in anything other than a mostly solid pyramid shape, it’ll collapse. The ‘bent pyramid’ is one such example – the builders found out the hard way and changed angle during construction.

Wright_StChappelle Copyright(c)MatthewWright
Interior of St Chappelle, Paris – photo I took in 2004. Stone lacework represented far higher-tech use of that material than the Egyptians achieved.

It was nearly another three millennia before humanity devised ways of building hollow structures out of stone – Europe’s grand cathedrals of the High Medieval period, which were pushing the very limits of what could be done technically with that material.

The other two ingredients behind the pyramids were a large organised labour force and plenty of surplus wealth. That last came from the Nile, which offered an annual bounty of fertile soil – making Egypt flourish and giving its economy a surplus that meant the labour force could be turned to other things – like pyramid building.

The only real argument over how the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids is on the close-focus detail of precisely how they did it. We know where the stone came from, we know how it was handled (lots of sweat), and the debate has devolved to such trivia as precisely what sort of ramps were used to construct the pile.

All of which sounds like a spoiler and kills the magic of ancient Egypt. But then, they weren’t really magic. We see them through the lens of their tombs and monuments and their often stilted art. But in reality they were people just like we are, with the everyday lives that any human has in a complex city-fied society, and the same sort of worries. Times have changed, sure. But in this sense, maybe not by much.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


6 thoughts on “King Tut’s latest tomb mystery doesn’t mean we’ll be infested by mummies

  1. In some ways they were like the Victorian British – they just DID things to see if they could, then improved their methods over time. And they had the wealth necessary to hire the best minds available. 😃

    1. They did. A lot of the capability came down to an economic surplus, and the ancient Egyptians were very fortunate in that regard thanks to the Nile. Itxwas an everyday thing for them however much we elevatecthem because of their antiquity. Have to confess, though, I miss the idea of ambulatory mummies terrorising archaeologists…

  2. According to the noted archeologist, Steve Martin, King Tut gave his life for tourism, which explains the appeal of going on a good dig and finding a mummy or two before having tea. It’s amazing how what’s popular comes full circle. Mummies are, after all, just zombies with a different tailor. 🙂

    1. There was also a rumour that this dynasty lost favour and ended up running a highway-side hotel. Intending guests had to announce themselves by blowing a horn outside before entering. Hence the name Tutenkhamen.

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