Until, perhaps, now. A team of archaeologists, radiologists and scholars returned from Egypt earlier this year with what they claim are compelling clues that a stripped and mutilated mummy, first discovered in a side chamber of a royal Egyptian tomb more than 100 years ago, is the lost Nefertiti. The new expedition, funded by the Discovery Channel, will be chronicled in a TV special to be broadcast on Aug. 17. But much of the scientists' new evidence was shown to TIME last week. It is by no means conclusive much of it is merely circumstantial. However, it may be as close as anyone has come to the queen in a long time.
From the beginning of her moment in the public eye, Nefertiti had a star quality that transcended her epoch. Her swan neck, flawless face and curvaceous figure seem to justify her name, which means "the beautiful one is come." Her parents are unknown, although some scholars believe her father eventually became Tutankhamen's vizier (a sort of prime minister) and then ascended the throne himself. Nefertiti was chosen as principal wife of young Amenhotep IV, who became Pharaoh in about 1350 B.C. At the time of her marriage, she may have been no older than 12.
The reign of Amenhotep shook things up in Egypt. The priesthood surrounding Egypt's traditional polytheistic religion had accumulated enormous power. Rather than try to wrest it from the priests, the young king simply pulled their religion out from under them. He abolished the polytheistic system and replaced it with a religion based on the worship of Aten, the sun god. The Pharaoh even changed his name to Akhenaten or "one who serves Aten." This undoubtedly made him a despised figure among the orthodox, a hostility that spilled over to his queen who, if ancient reliefs are to be believed, also wielded enormous power. "She is literally hand in hand with Akhenaten at religious ceremonies and state occasions," says Egyptologist Rita Freed of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.
Things apparently got dicey for Nefertiti sometime after the 12th year of Akhenaten's 17-year reign. She vanished from the historical record about that time. She may have died or, Egyptologists speculate, may have served as co-regent with her husband and after his death, as Pharaoh herself. If so, she ruled under a different name and only briefly, until Tutankhamen took over.
Whenever Nefertiti died, she likely received a glittery interment in the family tomb her husband had built in the city now known as Amarna. But after a return to polytheism, the tomb was sacked. Some scholars think that priests loyal to the former royals rescued the mummies, but for millenniums nobody knew where they were stashed.
Joann Fletcher, a British Egyptologist and member of the University of York's mummy-research team, believes she knows. Fletcher has long been intrigued by a tomb, known in archaeological argot as KV 35, in the Valley of the Kings near modern-day Luxor. The tomb was built for Pharaoh Amenhotep II, who died in about 1419 B.C. However, when archaeologists first opened it in 1898, they found that the mummies of additional Pharaohs including Ramesses IV, V and VI had been placed in coffins in a side chamber. In a second, smaller side chamber, the archaeologists found a bleaker scene: the stripped mummies of a middle-age woman, a younger woman and a boy were lying on the floor, their swaddlings tossed carelessly over their legs. The bodies of the boy and the young woman had been partly mutilated. The remains were studied, sketched and photographed. Then they were respectfully placed on thin mattresses, and the room was sealed.
When Fletcher was working on a doctoral dissertation on ancient Egyptian hair and wigs, she was drawn to a photograph of the younger woman in KV 35. Her hair had been shaved off, a style Fletcher believes Nefertiti favored so that she could wear her snug-fitting crown. Fletcher later learned that a bit of a wig had been found next to the mummy, and when she examined it in a museum she saw that it was consistent with the Nubian-style hairpieces worn by Nefertiti and her court. "There's enough left to give clear evidence of style," Fletcher told TIME.