In 1907, a mysterious tomb was discovered in Egypt. Known as KV55, the tomb contained a variety of artifacts and a single body. Identification of the body has been complicated by the fact that the artifacts appear to belong to several different individuals. It has been speculated that the tomb was created in a hurry, and that the individual buried there had been previously laid to rest elsewhere. With many different possibilities for the identity of the mummy – ranging from Queen Tiye (Akhenaten’s mother), to King Smenkhkare – researchers who set out to identify the mummy were presented with a puzzling challenge.
In January 1907, financier Theodore M. Davis had hired archaeologist Edward R. Ayrton and his team to conduct excavations in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. The Valley of the Kings is an area in Egypt located on the West bank of the Nile River, across from the city of Thebes. Almost all of the pharaohs from Egypt’s “Golden Age” are buried in this famous valley.
As Ayrton’s team was working on January 6, 1907, they discovered the entrance to a tomb – KV55. They notified Davis the next day, and began removing the rubble blocking the entrance. On January 9, Davis and Ayrton entered the tomb, accompanied by Joseph Lindon Smith and Arthur Weigall. Over the next few days they took photographs of the items within the tomb and began removing artifacts. By January 25, they were able to view and investigate the coffin and the skeletal mummy within the tomb.
The KV55 tomb is fairly small and simple. The entrance includes a flight of 20 stairs. At the time of the discovery, the entrance and stairs were covered by rubble which all had to be removed. A sloping corridor leads to the tomb, which contains a single chamber and a small niche. Within the tomb, at the time of discovery, were four canopic jars, a gilded wooden shrine, remains of boxes, seal impressions, a vase stand, pieces of furniture, a silver goose head, two clay bricks, and a single coffin. The coffin had been desecrated, with parts of the face having been removed.
Overall, the physical appearance of the tomb is unremarkable. However, the contents became more puzzling and mysterious as they were examined, as each piece appeared to be connected to different individuals. This made efforts to identify the remains within the tomb more difficult. According to some researchers, the presence of this variety of items indicates that whoever was entombed here was done so in a hurry, or possibly the individual was buried somewhere else, and then relocated to KV55 at a later date.
While identifying the remains in the tomb has been challenging, there are many clues in the items found within the tomb. Many of these items have been linked to King Akhenaten. The four canopic jars within the tomb were all empty. They contained effigies of four women, believed to be the daughters of Akhenaten, and may have been created for Kiya, one of Akhenaten’s wives. The gilded shrine appeared to have been created for Akhenaten’s mother, Queen Tiye. And Akhenaten’s name was on the two clay bricks.
Davis’ first impression, after in situ examinations were conducted by physicians, was that the remains belonged to Queen Tiye. Evidence that the remains were female included the positioning of the arms, post-mortem damage to the pelvis, and lack of male genitalia. Later it was proposed that the coffin could have belonged to Nefertiti, Meketaten, or Meritaten. Eventually, it was agreed that the coffin was initially created for Kiya. However, upon further study and tests of the remains, researchers concluded that the individual buried within the tomb was, in fact, male.
Even after it was determined that the remains were those of a male, there remained questions as to who he was, and how old he was when he died. Scientific testing revealed that he may have been closely related to King Tutankhamen, who is believed to have been Akhenaten’s son.
Another theory was that the remains belonged to Smenkhkare, who may have been Akhenaten’s successor. The remains were first estimated to belong to a man who died around the age of 25, but it was later determined he would have been closer to 20 at the time of de̳a̳t̳h̳.
Anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith suggested that the man may have suffered from a condition that would have delayed maturation of his skeleton, known as Frölich’s syndrome, in addition to chronic hydrocephalus. However, later examinations showed no abnormalities in the skull or skeleton. While the skull’s shape was unusual, it was not abnormal. In February 2010, further testing of the remains was conducted, with the age established at approximately 35 years at the time of de̳a̳t̳h̳. Through scientific studies, researchers were able to make various connections to determine the gender, age, and identity of the mummy located in KV55. Those who created and later altered the tomb certainly did not make that easy.
As of February 2010, scientists declared with near certainty that the skeletal remains in KV55 are in fact Akhenaten himself, the son of Amenhotep III, and the father of King Tutankhamen. This determination was made more than 100 years after the tomb was discovered. For now, the “almost certain” determination that the mummified remains belong to Akhenaten are the conclusion to this mysterious find.
Attempts have been made to recreate the circumstances that led to this mysterious, hasty burial. It is possible that Queen Tiye upset Amenhotep III’s burial plans when she outlived him by 12 years.
Akhenaton, originally named Amenhotep IV, was one of the most radical pharaohs of Egypt. The father of Tutankhamun, was a revolutionary who is noted for abandoning traditional Egyptian polytheism and introducing the first monotheistic religion centered on the one ‘true’ god of Aten (the Sun disk), so it is also possible that Akhenaten’s later reputation as ‘heretic king’ led workmen to hastily remove other sarcophagi, such as Queen Tiye’s, from Akhenaten’s presence, leaving him alone in the damaged tomb.
Although we can be confident that the remains belonged to Akhenaten, we may never know the exact circumstances that led to the presence of his isolated remains in this mysterious tomb.