Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Discovering Akhenaten?

As scientists, we keep an open mind, but we have to base our ideas about the past on archaeological evidence. ~ Zahi Hawass

Restraint is a rare commodity these days in the media, even in the scientific media. When it comes to science, often the more cockamamie an idea or discovery is touted to be, the more hype it gets. Part of the problem, of course, is that the people making the announcement are contributing to the problem by making large claims on small evidence (including samples of size one - which generated this rant from me).

It was pleasant therefore to see how well the discovery of the mummy of Hatshepsut was handled. For a change, there was a preponderance of evidence that what had been thought to be 18th Dynasty's female Pharoah's nanny was in fact the woman herself. It was even more amazing to see how another discovery recently made in Egypt almost went under everyone's radar.

Remember all the fuss about how KV-63 might be holding the mummy of Tut's mother? Well, it didn't, but KV-55, not far from Tut's tomb may well have contained his father Amenhotep IV, or, as he is more commonly known, Akhenaten.

Akhenaten
is one of the rulers of ancient Egypt that many people recognize, usually as the "heretic." How many ways did he go against the Egyptian norm? For starters, he had himself and his family portrayed realistically despite his somewhat grotesque appearance. He may have allowed one of his wives, the legendary Nefertiti, to wield an extraordinary amount of power in the running of the kingdom. He moved the capital to Amarna. And he most surely turned the religious and political life of the country upside down by his overthrow of polytheism in favor of the worship of a single god, the Aten.

The priesthood of Egypt was a powerful institution, and Akhenaten swept them aside with a new idea. One has to wonder how the ordinary citizen must have felt, having the order of things tossed away and replaced with a completely different spiritual framework. It comes as no surprise that, soon after Akhenaten's passing, the priests moved to regain their power, probably to the relief of the people.

Zahi Hawass has been on a mission of late, it seems, to reexamine mummy caches and identify once and for all which ones are the ancient rulers of Egypt. KV-55, where the presumptive Akhenaten was found, was such a cache. But KV-55 had some other aspects of interest. The cartouche on the coffin of one particular mummy had been hacked out, which was typically done to erase the memory of the buried (as well as potentially costing the mummy the chance for an afterlife). An early examination of the mummy also revealed another fascinating fact: The skull was elongated and egg-shaped. We've seen this before, in the images of Akhenaten and the mummy of Tut.

Hawass, with the cooperation of the National Geographic Society, was able to perform a CT scan of this and other mummies, a technique which has proved useful in investigating both Tut and Hatshepsut. When they did, they found a cleft palate, along with several other characteristics all shared with Tutankhamun. So, Hawass now had a wealth of information including the time period of the burial, the hacked out cartouche, the physical characteristics similar to Tut, all of which pointed to the person in KV-55 being a close relative to Tut.

To his great credit, Hawass stopped short of a blanket announcement that he had Akhenaten and that Akhenaten was the father of Tut. What he said was,
"[This] means we can say now the mummy in KV 55, based on this evidence, and based on the age, and based on the inscriptions written in the coffin, that this could be the mummy of Akhenaten." But, he left the door wide open to the possibility that this was some other relative common to both Tut and Akhenaten, like Smenkhkare, for instance.

This shadowy individual could have been Tut's brother or Akhenaten's brother. He could even have been Tut's father. But, it is almost beyond a shadow of a doubt that the occupant of KV-55 was closely related to the royal family of Amarna.

There's still a lot for Hawass to do. For example, Nefertiti's mummy may still be out there to be found, along with Tut's mother. And there's still the re-analysis he has stated that needs to be done of the already identified mummies, using CT and DNA evidence, to determine if they can reasonably verified to be who they have been thought to be. There is also the tomb (and possibly mummy) of Imhotep, architect of the first true pyramids still out there.

Fortunately, Zahi Hawass loves his job.

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