By Andy Brockman
The world of Egyptology has recently been thoroughly embarrassed by [or alternatively, has thoroughly enjoyed] the latest example of the problems brought about by doing archaeology by Media, as it emerges that one of our pharaoh’s, the fabled Queen and step mother to Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, is still missing, and is almost certainly not to be found in any secret chambers in her step sons tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Mostly because those “secret chambers” the alleged location of which caused international headlines in November last year, almost certainly don’t exist.
The story of the supposed secret chambers began in the Spring of 2016 when British Egyptologist Dr Nicholas Reeves FSA published a paper citing data derived from high definition laser scans and colour photography of tomb KV62, the tomb of Tutankhamun, to hypothesise that, previously unrecognised, hidden chambers could exist in the tomb. A perfectly reasonable thing to do. More controversially, Dr Reeves also hypothesised that any hidden chambers could contain the burial of Nefertiti, stating in his conclusion;
“The proposal here put forward – that KV 62 had been both initiated and employed for the burial of Nefertiti – ties in with evidence already noted for Tutankhamun’s re-use of the larger part of this same woman’s co-regent-status burial furniture. “
This combination of the worlds most famous Pharaoh “King Tut”, the world most famous female Ancient Egyptian, Queen Nefertiti, and the possibility of buried treasure, was catnip to the international news media, and also to the Egyptian authorities who were, and still are, desperate to reboot the Egyptian tourist industry after the political turmoil of the last five years, and the tragedy of last years bombing of a Russian airliner over Sinai. An atrocity which killed 224 people and which was allegedly carried out by a Daish/ISIL affiliate.
At the beginning of October 2016, Reeves and then Egyptian Antiquities Minister, Mr Mamdouh Eldamaty met officials in the tomb of Horemheb, also in the Valley of the Kings, in front of three American TV crews and a sizable contingent of local journalists to introduce the project to preliminary results of the investigation into the claims made in Dr Reeves’ paper. However, it soon became clear that other agendas than pure research were in play.
Mohammed Bedr, the Governor of Luxor confirmed to the National Geographic;
“The [tourist] numbers are still down, in October [Luxor hotels were at] 15 percent of capacity. This month, it’s been 20 percent. In 2009 and 2010, it was 100 percent.”
However, on the news that Dr Reeves claims were to be investigated, Egyptian Tourism Minister, Hesham Zazou, had flown in from Cairo and told New Yorker and National Geographic writer, Peter Hessler that he had “a strong feeling” that the rooms Reeves had suggested would be present would be found, adding;
“I think that this will have a huge impact on tourism, which is unfortunately suffering tremendously,”
Hessler also reported that Dr Reeves was fully aware of the pressure of external forces on his research. When Hessler asked if he, Reeves, was trying to dial down expectations for the search Reeves replied;
To try to ground truth Dr Reeve’s theory Mamdouh Eldamaty invited seventy year old Japanese researcher and Ground Penetrating Radar [GPR] expert, Hirokatsu Watanabe, to undertake a survey of the walls of the tomb in the hope of identifying and mapping any voids which might be present. The two day survey was duly undertaken in late November 2015, in the presence of Mr Eldamaty, Dr Reeves, over twenty other people including two TV crews. At the subsequent press conference Mr Eldamaty said that as a result of the survey he was “90 percent positive” that there was a hidden chamber beyond the currently known north wall of the tomb. He also said he Mr Watanabe suspected a further hidden door in the west wall. Standing in front of the north wall of the tomb Mr Eldamaty said of Mr Watanabe’s survey;
“The radar scan tells us that on this side of the north wall, we have two different materials,” as a result he concluded “We believe that there could be another chamber.”
In an fresh article for National Geographic News Peter Hessler went even further. In a colour piece setting up the characters, the story and the science Hessler stated;
“For the first time, specialists have collected data about both the material structure of the walls and the open spaces behind them. It’s these spaces that are most intriguing—they could contain artifacts and possibly even burial goods that rival those found with Tutankhamun.”
The article also revealed a possible reason behind the high profile speculation as to what might lie behind the walls of the tomb. National Geographic was co-funding the work and filming it for an international documentary special as this line demonstrates
(The investigation—supported, in part, by the National Geographic Society—is being documented for a National Geographic Channel special to premiere globally in 2016.)
The National Geographic Channel is, it must be remembered, not a paragon maker and publisher of peer reviewed documentaries. It is a multi million dollar media organisation owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network. As such it lives and dies by ratings. Indeed, the network infamously commissioned what became “Battlefield Recovery” under the ratings grabbing title “Nazi War Diggers”. In this case the channel executives must have been rubbing their hands at the thought that the equation Tut + Treasure + Mummies = Worldwide headlines and audiences of the kind which sell premium rate advertising slots.
Peter Hessler summed up the situation, as National Geographic will have wanted the potential worldwide media and TV audience to see it, in November 2015.
“Everything is adding up,” Reeves, a National Geographic grantee, told me on Thursday evening, immediately after a suspenseful examination with the radar. We were standing next to the north wall, whose painted scene has been visible since 1922, when Howard Carter rediscovered the tomb. But after observing the scans, I found that the wall looked different to me—I couldn’t help but imagine what may lie beyond. “The tomb is not giving up its secrets easily,” Reeves continued. “But it is giving them up, bit by bit. It’s another result. And nothing is contradicting the basic direction of the theory.”
However, this article was written before a second survey, also commissioned by National Geographic, and carried out by Eric Berkenpas, an electrical engineer at National Geographic, and Alan Turchik a mechanical engineer, who worked overnight in tomb KV62, after the Valley of the Kings was closed visitors. Far from providing more fuel for the fire of speculation about fresh treasures the new data provided the coldest of cold showers.
The reports of the failure of a second survey to replicate the results of the first seem to have emerged at the Second Annual Tutankhamun Grand Egyptian Museum Conference, held in Cairo over the weekend of 6-8 May 2016. As fresh information and rumours about the tomb survey spread at the conference, both sides of the hidden chambers argument were seen on maneuvers attempting to position themselves in the media, in what seemed like attempts to control the fall out from what seems to be turning rapidly into another car crash of reputations driven by over hyped claims and data.
For any neutrals watching, adding to the entertainment was a spat between the now previous Minister of Antiquities, Mamdouh Eldamaty, who had been replaced by Egyptian President El Sisi, and the flamboyant former Director of Antiquities and briefly Antiquities Minister under President Mubarak, Zawi Hawass. Someone who it must be said has never been one to back shyly into the limelight. Each accused the other of taking individual, self interested, and inappropriate decisions allowing inappropriate intrusive investigations of the Tutankhamun tomb in the case of Mr Eldamaty, and of the Great Pyramid in the case of Mr Hawass.
Following the weeks of more or less evidence free speculation in the media about secret rooms and royal mummies, more particularly a royal step mummy, National Geographic News quoted, Lawrence Conyers, the author of a standard text book, “Ground-Penetrating Radar for Archaeology”, who summarised the current state of knowledge regarding the claim;
“I tell you, everybody I talked to who is in the GPR business just rolled their eyes and said, ‘There’s nothing here at all.”
The same article suggests that a number of experts were sceptical of Mr Watanabe’s data as reported by Mr Eldamaty in the first place, partly because GPR is not capable of distinguishing “organic” materials, as Mr Watanabe seems to have claimed.
Reporting on the new data Dean Goodman, who developed the GPR-SLICE programme which is used by many GPR users, said he had found no evidence of hidden chambers. Other experts reviewing the data reached the same conclusion.
“If we had a void, we should have a strong reflection,” Goodman said in National Geographic News. “But it just doesn’t exist.”
Goodman is reported as concluding:
“Radar data can often be subjective, but at this particular site, it’s not. It’s nice at such an important site to have clear, convincing results.”
“When someone says that they want to check the data, I am so sad,”
In spite of his having supporters who have claimed some success in identifying sites using his data, Mr Watanabe has also faced criticism.
According to National Geographic News he did not release his full dataset for formal peer review because, after forty years working in the field, he had customised his equipment to the extent outsiders might not be able to properly interpret the data. Of course that begs the question what qualifications the two experts quoted in National Geographic’s earlier coverage of Mr Watanabe’s claim had which the rest of the international geophysics community lacked.
In March 2016, the National Geographic website, nationalgeographic.com carried an article which quoted Mr ElDamaty as saying of the supposed discovery, that “It could be the discovery of the century,” and quoting other experts who had reviewed Mr Watanabe’s complete report.
One of those experts, Remy Hiramoto, a consultant to the UCLA Egyptian Coffins Project, told National Geographic;
“It validates the initial hypothesis that there is a non-natural occurring chamber or cavity on the other side of that wall,” adding. “Based on the signatures that are in the data, there’s a void, and there’s definitely something that’s within the void. There’s something in there.”
Mr Watanabe also appears to have a somewhat individual understanding of academic peer review. He told the conference;
“When someone says that they want to check the data, I am so sad,” adding “I trust my data completely,”
Of course, to any objective researcher, failing to offer a full data set and remarking you are “sad” if someone wants to question your data and its interpretation, should be a red warning flag coupled with a maroon going off as a signal to launch the lifeboats and get away from what is almost certainly a sinking ship of fantasy.
Indeed, while saying he had achieved success working with Mr Watanabe and his data at other sites, Izumi Shimada, of Southern Illinois University accepted that Mr Watanabe has been a controversial figure in Japan.
“Maybe he uses his personal experience more than relying on software or cutting-edge technology,” Shimada told National Geographic News “However good the software is, it’s still a human interpretation of what you see on the monitor. There is a great deal of subjectivity.”
Mr Shimada added that Mr Watanabe could also become “too enthusiastic” about preliminary results.
Others commented that Mr Watanabe continues to use twenty year old Koden machines rather than more modern equipment. A factor which is important in a highly technical and fast moving field, as Lawrence Conyers implies with his assessment of the latest, apparently abortive, survey;
“National Geographic came in and collected two sets of data and they used the used all the newest equipment with the right antenna. They first did a scan of a wall where they knew there was a void space behind it and used that as a model, so they knew what they were looking for. They did multiple scans of every single wall, and from what I understand, there is absolutely no indication of a void space.”
Of course, everyone is fallible and archaeologists are just as capable of making honest mistakes of interpretation as anyone else. Especially in a field where the interpretation of data is often genuinely difficult. I recall one highly experienced Geophysicist colleague who referred to One Guinness, Two Guinness and Three Guinness features, referring to the number of pints of Dublin’s famous black and white beverage you needed to have enjoyed before seeing the features concerned on the print out. Uncertainly is part of the game and no-one here can be shown to have acted in anyway unethically. However, that fact of academic life cannot hide the truth that underlying everything in the latest installment in the story of Tuankhamun’s tomb is the toxic blend of a Media feeding frenzy and the Politics of the story, laced with a piquant sauce of academic rivalry.
National Geographic Channel had the story sown up under a Non Disclosure Agreement [NDA] and is now refusing to answer questions about the issue, referring all inquiries to the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. As a spokesperson told the Guardian;
“National Geographic scans and Goodman’s review of them were shared with the Egyptian ministry of antiquities. Any questions about the National Geographic scan results should be directed to the ministry.”
But as one anonymous scientist, familiar with the controversy, also told the Guardian;
“My understanding is that the Egyptians are in a state of denial about this. They are freaking out, and it has become politically toxic. When you’re the in the middle of a situation in which people are being purged because of their position on this, then scientists should back off and let the politics take its course. We have left the realm of science.”
“Archaeology plus journalism is bad enough, but when you add Politics it becomes a little too much.”
The current situation could not be a more effective proof of the suggestion made by Arthur Mace; Assistant Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Egyptian section in 1923, when he wrote to his wife from Luxor, describing the original media scrum provoked by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Having described a situation where “newspapermen swarm” and the archaeologists could not hold a conversation without checking first if anyone might be listening, Mace added;
“Archaeology plus journalism is bad enough, but when you add Politics it becomes a little too much.”
The lesson of all this, as well as of the newly resurrected Burma Spitfires myth, and the Polish Gold Train legend which also reared its head again recently, is that while the scientific data might indeed provide evidence which helps tell a story, that data is ultimately only as good as the person interpreting it and there is no way of preventing a researcher, or the person who commissioned the data in the first place, or their media sponsor, putting on the magic goggles which allow people to see what they want to see.
Of course, if the thing that the person wants to see is a secret chamber, Tomasz the Panzer Engine, or thirty six buried Spitfires in crates, that makes for a much better story than the results of an inconclusive survey, based on wavy lines on a screen, with an interpretation tending towards the status quo.
And of course one day, probably more by accident than anything else, such an exotic claim will be found to be right [ish], and people in the right place at the right time and with the right contracts and NDA’s, will make a lot of money and fill a lot of TV air time.
Meanwhile, if the story is wrong, just ignore it and move on to the next one.
As a postscript here are a few words of advice to editors and the commissioners of TV Factual.
If someone pitches your magazine/TV channel an archaeology story which involves one or more of the following;
1. A treasure everyone would love to find- in this case it was lost chambers of a Pharaoh’s tomb which might contain the most beautiful women in the World, but any treasure [or even the alleged whereabouts of Hitler/the Roswell Aliens] will do.
2. “Ground Penetrating Radar” and/or other apparently objective scientific data which almost certainly “proves” there is something to the story.
3. An “expert” and other “witnesses” who authenticate the said data, but are reluctant to have the data reviewed by outsiders and;
4. A local politician with a department/career to promote;
then commission at least one independent expert of your own to review what you are being sold before you write the cheque, let alone run the story.
[Remembering that even then things can still go horribly wrong; see the legendary fake “Hitler Diaries” which were initially authenticated for the Sunday Times by eminent historian Hugh Trevor Roper, but at least you can always then blame your expert for the ensuing fiasco].
Of course that presupposes you actually want to tell the real story rather than just employ “Private Eye” magazines famous hack “Phil Space”, to fill space.
As one somewhat jaundiced observer posting as “TheLifeofFriley” commentated after the Guardian claimed that the archaeological world was “electrified” by the alleged discovery in Tut’s tomb;
The world of archaeology was electrified
For the most part we thought it utter tripe”
True, but out in the real world, as click bait it was priceless.
FULL DISCLOSURE: The author of this article, Andy Brockman, was Lead Archaeologist on the 2013 Burma Spitfires Project and edited the academic research report into that particular example of fantasy archaeology which you can read here.
If you do read the report you might even spot one or two similarities between the saga of the Burma Spitfires and the current story from Egypt, and the search for the alleged Polish Gold Train, and the search for the missing Amber Room, and the search for Yamashita’s Gold and the…