Nefertiti Found?

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JULIO ETCHART/DISCOVERY CHANNEL

LOVING HANDS: Fletcher examines the mummy in the tomb where it was dumped

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Fletcher was fascinated by the clues and was determined to get inside the burial chamber. Eventually, London-based Atlantic Productions and the Discovery Channel agreed to try to persuade Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities to allow her a peek. Cairo complied, and last June Fletcher finally entered the tomb. "When the wall was taken down, and we shined our torches [flashlights] in, the first thing I saw was the older woman staring back at me," she says. "That took a bit of getting used to."

During that visit and a second one in February, she and a team of researchers amassed a body of evidence suggesting that the young woman was indeed Nefertiti and that the other mummies were those of close relatives. The method and high quality of the embalming, as well as the location of the incisions, are characteristic of the mid-to late-18th dynasty, which was Nefertiti's era. The young woman's left earlobe had been pierced twice, a feature, Fletcher says, she has seen in depictions of no other ancient Egyptian women but Nefertiti and one of her daughters. What's more, the mummy's forehead bore the impression of a tight-fitting brow band, a sign of royalty. "During this period, brow bands were worn only by the king and his principal queen," says Earl Ertman, professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Akron.

According to bioarchaeologist Don Brothwell of the University of York, who participated in the project, the damage to the bodies of the young woman and the boy is too violent to be accidental. Someone hacked at the woman's face with a sharp instrument, and similar damage was done to the boy's chest — just what might be expected during a postmortem desecration of unpopular figures. (A cavity in the woman's chest was likely the incidental handiwork of later grave robbers.) "The damage to the mouth is appalling," says Fletcher. "It looks completely malicious."

Evidence gathered with scientific equipment made the case even stronger. With the help of a small, portable, digital X-ray machine, Fletcher's team captured images of the interior of the bodies from numerous angles and assembled them into complete portraits of the three mummies. That work helped confirm that the young woman was between 19 and 30--the right age for Nefertiti. The older woman was 35 to 45, and the boy was between 12 and 14. "We can't be more precise," concedes Brothwell. "We're dealing with an ancient population that could have had different rates of maturity, and there are factors of nutrition to consider as well." Still, the ranges they cite are consistent with the possible age of death of Akhenaten's mother, Queen Tiye, and one of his brothers — both of whom could have been interred in the same tomb as Nefertiti.

The most puzzling — and most tantalizing — clue involves the young woman's arms. Her left arm is intact, but her right one had been wrenched off below the shoulder. As it happens, two partial right arms turned up in the discarded mummy wrappings. The better preserved of the two is a woman's arm that may be in a flexed position; the hand on the arm is clasped. If attached to the young woman's body, the arm would be bent across her chest and the hand could have held a scepter — an Egyptian sign of kingly power. "This was clearly someone of authority," says Ertman. "The only other time I've seen this is in an image of Hatshepsut, a woman who ruled as king."

Not everyone is convinced that the mummy of the young woman is, in fact, Nefertiti. Chemical and DNA tests, which might help confirm, for example, if any of the mummies are related — and prove that the arm and the mummy belong together — were forbidden by the Egyptian government. "It's very difficult to identify a mummy with a particular person, especially without DNA," says Peter Lacovara, curator of ancient Egyptian art at the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta. "And as for the arm being flexed, a lot can happen when bodies are thrown around the room."

"The evidence strikes me as flimsy," says Egyptologist Kent Weeks, of the American University in Cairo. "If the mummy is female and if it is royal, then you still do not necessarily have Nefertiti. I think the jury is still out."

Fletcher is more sanguine. She believes she has the evidence, although she acknowledges that it is not definitive and that Nefertiti's whereabouts may remain an open question. "We're never going to be 100% sure," she says. "She's not going to sit up and tell us who she is." At least not until they make the movie.

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