Dreams of discovering the royal tomb of Nefertiti.
Somewhere beneath the Valley of the Kings could lie the body of a 3,300-year-old woman whose face has become an icon of beauty. A British-led group of archaeologists, in the first exploration of new ground since Howard Carter unearthed the body of the young King Tutankhamun, dreams of discovering the royal tomb of Nefertiti. The dream is based on reasoning rather than direct evidence, according to Nicholas Reeves, curator of Egyptian and classical art at Eton college, and Geoffrey Martin of Christ's College, Cambridge, who head the Amarna royal tombs project.
Amarna, 170 miles south of Cairo, was fleetingly the capital of Egypt in the reign of Akhenaten, who tried to change the course of Egyptian religion in the 14th century BC, rejecting Amun and Isis and Osiris and an arsenal of local gods and substituting just one all-seeing creator, manifested by the sun. The revolution lasted less than a generation, but a royal tomb was completed at Amarna for Akhenaten and others were begun for his wives and children, including Akhenaten's co-ruler and possible successor Nefertiti. After the death of Akhenaten, the court moved back to Thebes. The boy Tutankhamun, son of Akhenaten, ascended the throne, with a powerful and possibly sinister family figure called Ay as regent. Egypt resumed the old ways.
"And then bang, Tutankhamun is dead. According to some, the king's skull shows damage by blows to the head. Quite likely the boy was murdered," Dr Reeves told a Bloomsbury Academy conference in London at the weekend. "As to motive, we can only speculate. As an adolescent, clearly he had begun to have a mind of his own. Perhaps he was turning out truly to be his father's son, with views and a wilfulness just as dangerous."
But in a land of divine kings, a successor, even an usurper, had to attend to the grave of his predecessor. Authority rested on a cult of the dead. Royal ritual in ancient Egypt required not just an embalmed body, but a sarcophagus, a host of carved servant figures, chariots and boats and food and appropriate treasures for the journey into darkness and then the afterlife. Such things took time to prepare.
Because Tutankhamun - whether through murder or illness - died young, there had been no funeral planning. This is a highly plausible thesis, according to Prof Martin. The tomb of the boy king opened so dramatically by the archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922 may have been filled with "wonderful things" but it also "looked like a car boot sale. The fine objects, haphazardly placed for the most part, suggest to me at least a cache rather than a royal interment, in which the equipment would have been assigned in order in rooms specifically designed for the purpose," Prof Martin said.
Dr Reeves agrees. He argues that many of the objects in King Tut's tomb show signs of having been recycled: names have been changed, female figures used where male ones would have been appropriate, faces and images have been altered. The evidence points to a transfer of royal corpses and their treasures from Amarna to Thebes. Akhenaten may have been placed in a tomb known as KV55. Tutankhamun was interred in a tomb that became known as KV62. When the court moved back to Thebes, the dead joined the living and made the journey too. If Dr Reeves and Prof Martin are correct, the grave goods were pooled, and a selection bundled into Tutankhamun's tomb.
"The famous heretic king Akhenaten and his mother Queen Tiye were certainly moved - you could even prove it in a court of law I think, on the basis of inscriptional evidence in tomb number 55 in the Valley of the Kings, together with another member of the Amarna royal family, not identified," says Prof Martin.
For three seasons, archaeologists in the project have sifted old excavated rubble in one part of the Valley of the Kings, and begun a trench through the accretions of the centuries. They are looking not for royal bodies but for the landscape that existed before the Coptic hermit homes of the post-Christian era and the tourist kiosks and car parks of the 20th century.
"We hit, even in the very first season, an ancient level undisturbed. We are in an area some metres down under the modern road surface of little houses, little huts in which the ancient cemetery workers and sculptors and artists squatted when they were on duty in the Valley of the Kings - exactly the same things Howard Carter found when he was searching specifically for Tutankhamun," says Prof Martin.
"He encountered this kind of ancient settlement which clearly spreads over the whole valley floor, we now think. He was lucky enough quickly to be able to go under a small area of that and encounter the entrance to the tomb of Tutankhamun Whether we shall be in the same position, God only knows."