The Occupant of the KV55 Tomb: Who Was He?

The Valley of the Kings - photo by Peter J. Bubenik

The Valley of the Kings - photo by Peter J. Bubenik License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

The KV55 tomb—Smenkh-ka-re’s tomb in my novel The Scarab Heart—was discovered in 1907 by the Englishman, Edward Ayrton, and the American, Theodore M. Davis, and was found pretty much as described in my book—with bricks strewn about the place, the bier in pieces and the re-worked casket lying broken on the floor. Though it looked as if the tomb had been ransacked by tomb robbers, the first thing robbers would have targeted—the mummy—was present and intact.

When Ayrton and Davis made a closer inspection of the debris, they found a significant number of funerary goods for Ti, Akhen-aton, Tut-ankh-amun, plus a non-royal lady of the court (most probably Kiya, who remained unknown until decades later). Although most of these had been reworked or remodelled in some way—and various names chiselled out—it seemed likely that it was one of these four people who was buried there.

The mummy, which was small in stature and had what was described as “a delicate head and hands”, appeared to be well-preserved but was in fact in a very poor state of repair. One of the exposed teeth turned to dust when it was touched, and all that was left of the body after a hasty unwrapping were the bones. On taking less-than-expert advice from both a local doctor and an obstetrician, who happened to be holidaying in Luxor, Davis concluded that not only were the bones that of a woman, they were Queen Ti’s, and for many years after, KV55 was often referred to as “the tomb of Queen Tiyi” (Davis’s spelling).

In 1912, while cataloguing the royal mummies in the Egyptian museum in Cairo, Grafton Eliot Smith, who was far more skilled at anatomy, came across the bones and pronounced them to be those of a male. At this point, given the number of artefacts from KV55 that bore Akhen-aton's name, it was assumed that the tomb was probably his.

In the late 1920’s, however, they were examined again—this time by Dr Douglas Derry, Professor of Anatomy at Cairo University. He declared that the bones belonged to a male no older than twenty-five at the time of death. It was Derry who had been in charge of unwrapping Tut-ankh-amun’s body in 1925, and it was he who first noted the similarity in the shape of the skulls in both instances. Since Akhen-aton reigned for seventeen years, and therefore must have been at least thirty when he died, the occupant of KV55 had to be someone else—someone younger, whose skull bore a passing resemblance to Tut-ankh-amun’s.

The Valley of the Kings - photo by Peter J. Bubenik

X marks the KV55 tomb

It wasn’t until 1957 that Alan Gardiner, the leading hieroglyphic translator of his day, produced the first weighty suggestion after studying the inscriptions on the KV55 casket that the mummy might be Smenkh-ka-re. Smenkh-ka-re had always been a shadowy figure, known to us primarily from a mural in the Amarnan tomb of non-royal Meryre II, which seems to depict the pharaoh Smenkh-ka-re and his Great Royal Wife Merit-aton (though, as work on this tomb is believed to have stopped around the thirteenth year of Akhenaton’s seventeen year reign, this reading of the mural proves rather problematic). Even his name has been (and often still is) confused with that of Akhen-aton’s equally shadowy co-regent, who increasingly appears to have been female (some believe her to be Nefretiti masquerading under a new name), although there is a strong possibility that these two figures are actually one and the same. Confused? It’s hardly surprising.

From the 1960’s onwards the bones were the subject of much X-raying and speculation but, for the greater part of the past thirty years, the consensus was clear: the KV55 mummy was indeed Smenkh-ka-re, a young male, no older than twenty-five years of age at the time of death, a brother or half-brother to the boy-king Tut-ankh-amun.

This view was shaken to the core in 2010 when a group of highly respected scientists led by Dr Zahi Hawass, PhD, and Yehia Z. Gad, MD, published the findings of a two-year study they had conducted in the Journal of the American Medical Association: Ancestry and Pathology in King Tutankhamun’s Family. Their study involved comparing DNA taken from Tut-ankh-amun with samples from ten other mummies believed to be close family relatives. This in itself was extraordinary, groundbreaking work, and their conclusions could not have been more shocking or contentious:

“We identified Yuya and Thuya as great-grandparents of Tutankhamun, Amenhotep III and KV35EL [one of the mummies from the KV35 tomb, known as ‘The Elder Lady’] as his grandparents, and the KV55 male and KV35YL [another mummy from the KV35 tomb, ‘The Younger Lady’] as his sibling parents…More than 55 bone biopsies were used to elucidate the individual relationships of 18th-dynasty individuals, with the result that several of the anonymous mummies or those with suspected identities are now able to be addressed by name. These include KV35EL [‘The Elder Lady’], who is Tiye, mother of Akhenaten and grandmother of Tutankhamun, and the KV55 mummy, who is most probably Akhenaten, father of Tutankhamun.”

Even with the proviso “most probably”, the news hit the Egyptology community hard. Yet in a sense it probably shouldn’t have: consider the evidence of the unfinished, undecorated tomb, the magical bricks bearing Akhen-aton’s name, and the reuse of tomb furnishings bearing signs of desecration. The major reason for identifying the mummy as Smenkh-ka-re had been the assessment of the bones as those of a male no older than twenty-five years, but CT scans performed during the Hawass study suggested that they were older than previous estimates, closer to forty in fact.

The Hawass study brought something else to light too, which appeared to challange another of our cherished ideas. Note the words: “his sibling parents”. What they mean is that Tut-ankh-amun’s parents were brother and sister—not half-brother and sister—but full brother and sister. Akhen-aton is nearly always assumed to be Tut-ankh-amun’s father (although the only proof offered for this, an engraved stone tablet from Armana, actually names Tut as “the King’s son”, but does not name the king), and Kiya, his mother, who, based on one of two birth-scenes in Akhen-aton’s unfinished Amarnan tomb, is supposed to have died in childbirth (even though the dying woman in the painting is unnamed). If Hawass was right, either Kiya was Akhen-aton’s sister (although there is no record of this)—or she was not Tut’s mother (and one of Ti’s four daughters—who were not included as characters in The Scarab Heart—was).

The backlash from the scientific community came thick and fast in an effort to prevent these new ideas from becoming the norm. Some took exception to the analytical techniques the Hawass team used. Others argued that it would be impossible to retrieve uncontaminated DNA (from Tut-ankh-amun, at least) as the bones were too fragile and thin. Brenda J. Baker, a bioarchaeologist and associate professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, pointed out that the pattern of fused and unfused epiphyses (the caps on the ends of growing bones) on the KV55 skeleton, together with the pubic symphysis of the pelvis, narrowed its age to between eighteen and twenty-three, not the forty that had been claimed.

Scientists were not the only ones to strike back. Dedicated Egyptology bloggers also demanded their say. The most interesting of these responses came from a woman named Kate Phizackerley here in the UK. She used the Hawass team’s published results to draw her own conclusions—and how truly fascinating they were!

In order to determine familial relationships, the Hawass team had tested particular sections of the genome called microsatellites (which are referred to in the study as loci—the Latin word for “sites”). These are sites that contain paired alleles (inherited genetic characteristics), with one allele coming from the subject’s mother and the other from the father. As these alleles vary from one individual to the next, it is possible to work out whether test subjects are related or not—by comparing the allele-pairings present across several known sites.

Phizackerley’s argument went like this. If the two mummified foetuses found in Tut-ankh-amun’s tomb were his stillborn children by his one known queen, Ankhesen—which is certainly a plausible reading for their inclusion in his tomb—then, based on the Hawass data, KV55 cannot be Akhen-aton.

Foetus 1 showed alleles 10 and 13 on locus D7S820 (a particular site on the genome); foetus 2 showed 6 and 10. As Tut-ankh-amun showed 10 and 15, the mother (presumably Ankhesen) must have shown alleles 6 and 13, because Tut had neither of these to pass on to his offspring). Since we believe Akhen-aton to be Ankhesen’s father, she ought to have inherited at least one of these alleles from him, but the KV55 mummy showed neither: it showed 15 and 15. So although KV55 may be Tut-ankh-amun’s father, he is certainly not Ankhesen’s (if the stillborn children are hers and Tut’s). Therefore the KV55 mummy cannot be Akhen-aton.

You can see a number of pitfalls with this line of reasoning (for example, the children were Tut’s but not Ankhesen’s, or Ankhesen was Nefretiti’s daughter but not Akhen-aton’s), but it is still very appealing. So if KV55 is not Akhen-aton, who is he?

While taking great pains to stress that there is no way of knowing, Phizackerley suggested that a good fit for our unknown prince, whom the study showed to be a son of Amun-ho-tep III and Ti, would be Smenh-ka-re. She pointed out that his spouse, the KV35 Younger Lady, who was entombed along with Ti, could be his niece Merit-aton (I have no idea if this is possible, but I can certainly see why the Hawass team identified her as KV55’s sister—the evidence looks compelling), thus making Tut-ankh-amun Smenkh-ka-re and Merit’s son.

So is the occupant of the KV55 tomb Akhen-aton or not? Either way, the Hawass team has given us insights and opened up possibilities that never before existed, and you can be absolutely sure of one thing: the debate is not over yet.