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Open up research about Tutankhamun’s tomb

The golden sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun in his burial chamber with frescos of figures on the wall behind

More open science is more likely to settle the debate over the existence of hidden rooms behind Tutankhamun’s tomb.Credit: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty

The discovery of possible hidden rooms behind the walls of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings generated many headlines last week. A team of researchers used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to scan the area, and have reported detecting a space around 2 metres high and at least 10 metres long.

The survey was intended to help settle a debate about whether — as some researchers are proposing — the young king’s burial space contains hidden rooms that could include the burial place of Egypt’s queen Nefertiti. The Supreme Council of Antiquities, a government body that approved the survey, has yet to comment. But the results are unlikely to achieve the survey’s aim.

This is partly because they need to be confirmed — ideally, by further surveys. However, that will still not satisfy those who say that GPR on its own is insufficient, and that confirmation will need further excavations. But these are unlikely to take place, partly because any drilling will damage priceless artwork inside.

Another reason for the continued controversy is the absence of fully available evidence. Egyptology research is a complex undertaking with a troubled history. Egypt lacks the resources to create its own research and publishing infrastructure, and this vacuum has been filled by international research teams and external funders — including private companies, such as media groups.

At the same time, because of Egyptology’s colonial history, the government is cautious about allowing research on its historical sites and disseminating the results. All of this means that the results of research — including the latest survey — are not always (or not immediately) made public. And when results are released, raw data are held back, further restricting public and scholarly involvement.

Now is the time for Egypt and its international partners to change this. There’s great excitement around preparations for the opening of several museums in Cairo on the centenary of the 1922 discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. These plans should also include one for better dissemination of research results — a plan that the Egyptian public should co-produce and own. In addition, Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves, who first proposed that there might be an extension to Tutankhamun’s tomb, has said that if evidence of its existence accumulates, experts should meet to decide what to do next. That is a suggestion we support.

The arguments, of course, may well continue — but by further opening up the research process and openly publishing their findings, Egypt’s authorities and their partners will know their work is robust.

Nature 578, 490 (2020)



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