It’s been almost a year since the media first noticed something afoot in the tomb of Tutankhamun. The saga is well known and has been much debated. (For anyone who’s been on fieldwork in Antarctica or the Pegasus Galaxy you can find a summary of events in this National Geographic article). It is interesting to consider what the past year can teach us about Egyptology in the media age and what lessons it has for the future.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the story is that the entire saga represents a case of the scientific method directly applied to Egyptology and undertaken in the full glare of professional, public and media scrutiny. The application of scientific techniques is now common in both archaeology and Egyptology, but they mostly appear in the media after they have produced a helpful result; a carbon date for an undated site or object, the residue analysis that reveals what an ancient population ate, the DNA analysis of the family of Tutankhamun. While experts may discuss and even dispute results in learned journals, such debates rarely make it into the media and are usually associated with the minutiae of the research. The public never gets the opportunity to watch the scientific process played out in real time. Scientists and social-scientists quietly formulate hypotheses, construct experiments and undertake fieldwork or analysis to investigate those hypotheses, analyse the results and come to conclusions. Those conclusions are usually published, and occasionally make it to the media, but we are rarely presented with a case where experiment, fieldwork or investigation proved the hypothesis wrong. Until now!
Like any scientist Nicholas Reeves came up with a hypothesis (published in this article), that Tutankhamun’s tomb contained hidden chambers holding the Kingly burial of Nefertiti. This hypothesis was then tested, with a visual inspection in September 2015, followed by the first radar scans in November 2015, after which we were told that Mamdouh Eldamaty, Minster of Antiquities, was ‘90% certain’ there was something behind the wall of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber.
Some specialists in ground penetrating radar (GPR) were skeptical, some Egyptologists countered Reeves’ evidence for Nefertiti’s presence and there were general calls for the radar data to be made public for peer-review by other GPR specialists. Once the data was made public, the skepticism increased and the Ministry of Antiquities sought to repeat the experiment with a new set of radar scans undertaken by a different specialist. A key aspect of the scientific method is that results should be repeatable and comments made by the Ministry of Antiquities reveal that they clearly intended the new scans to be seen as part of a scientific approach to the research in Tutankhamun’s tomb.
We all know that the new radar scan contradicted the initial one. Various experts have examined the new scans and believe there are no voids behind the walls of Tutankhamun’s tombs. No voids, no chambers and no Nefertiti. It appears that after nine months of public and media scrutiny and debate, a very public demonstration of the scientific method has proven the null hypothesis.
There has been considerable criticism of the events, their management, the media response and of Egyptologists ‘jumping on the bandwagon’, as one social media commentator put it. So what are we to learn from these events and how should we react in future?
Should Reeves have been denied permission to investigate in the tomb? I think the answer to this has to be ‘No’. Reeves’s theory was within the bounds of the possible, and he had a range of evidence to support it. It’s possible to disagree with some or all of his evidence, but there are plenty of equally contested theories in Egyptology. At least Reeves’ hypothesis was testable. Since so few theories can be directly subject to this type of experimentation and testing, it’s important that when a testable theory comes along we do actually test it.
Given that the research was necessary, then should Reeves and the Ministry of Antiquities have undertaken the work in secret? Again, the answer must surely be ‘No’! For many pieces of research this is usually the approach taken, with a researcher quietly beavering away until he or she comes up with a useful conclusion that can then be made public. Such an approach is unlikely to have been effective in this case. As if mysterious tombs, hidden chambers and the prospect of golden treasures weren’t enough to capture the imagination, the characters were the perfect combination; the most famous tomb in Egyptology (Tutankhamun’s), one of the most famous women in Egyptology (Nefertiti), belonging to one of the most debated periods (Amarna), with a side order of gender roles (did Nefertiti reign as Pharaoh?), religion and incest. No media outlet could resist such a combination once they got a whiff of something going on. It’s also exactly the sort of subject that leaks rapidly on social media, causing confusion and conspiracy theories to abound. I have previously written about how rapidly conspiracy theories can develop. Only imagine how they would accrue around headlines like ‘Secret Investigations in the Tomb of Tutankhamun’. Secrecy would also make academic and peer scrutiny difficult to obtain and suspect to those ‘out of the loop’, and might even encourage the burying or fudging of inconvenient results. Transparency is surely the best thing in such cases, even if it risks embarrassment. In an age where people are skeptical of scientific research and ‘experts’, then science (like justice) must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.
So given that a testable hypothesis should be tested, and that this should take place in a transparent way when the circumstances dictate, can anything be done about the media hype? The media (and ultimately the public) are likely to remain deeply interested in hidden tombs, Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, the Amarna period, and the prospect of golden discoveries for the immediate future, if not forever. These are the things that have captured the public imagination. Of course there are plenty of people who have a much wider interest in Egyptology and archaeology. The number of Egyptology and archaeology societies, Facebook pages, amateur groups, forums and charities like the Egypt Exploration Society and the Friends of the Petrie Museum testify to a widespread and incredibly knowledgeable body of people with a broad interest in the subject. But the national media report for the whole country, not just professional Egyptologists or knowledgeable groups, and cater for the whole sweep of opinions from the celebrity-obsessed (who naturally take to ‘royal’ celebrities of an ancient age) to the ‘fringe’. It is almost inevitable that most Egyptology in the press and media will be limited to the usual themes; Tutankhamun, Nefertiti, Cleopatra, golden discoveries, tombs, temples and mummies.
So should we Egyptologists engage? Should we present our research in an exciting way so the public gets a chance to hear what we’re up to? I think we need to engage to a certain extent. We need to talk up our research, if only because people need to understand why we do what we do and what’s important about it. But of course we shouldn’t misrepresent our work, or only study topics that are appealing to the media. In light of the results of Reeves’ theory and the media responses to them, I think it’s very important that we defend the scientific method, that we emphasise that not all research produces golden results and that we remind people that the process they have seen played out in public is a, perhaps flawed, but clear example of the scientific process in action. Behind every exciting discovery are months, years and decades of quiet research, much of which came to nothing. Sometimes you produce exciting results and sometimes there is nothing there, and knowing when there’s nothing there is also a valid and useful result.
This strikes me as being particularly important in view of some of the reactions I saw on social media to the Tutankhamun saga. While many people were disappointed but philosophical, observing that archaeological theories often come to naught, others appeared almost angry that the theory wasn’t proven, arguing that they’d been misled and objecting to Egyptologists who ‘went along with it’. While its certainly true that prompt publication and peer-review of the data from the first scan would have been preferable, and helped to avoid any suggestion of misdirection, this does not mean that Reeves or anyone else perpetrated a ‘scam’. There was confusion about what the data from the first scan actually showed and it was not published or peer-reviewed as soon as it should have been, but such mistakes can be made when the stakes are high, things are being undertaken in the public eye and there are various different scientific, government and academic parties involved. The mistake was rectified, the data from the first scan was published and a second set of scans commissioned, reaffirming the importance of the scientific method. The fact that this research was permitted in the first place, announced publicly, and ultimately followed proper scientific methods is a positive thing.
More significantly, if people react angrily when a theory breaks down then there will be greater pressure to deny requests for permission to undertake such research, requirements for secrecy that will harm public perception of the probity of scientists, archaeologists and Egyptologists, and even the temptation to hide, obscure or fudge unfavourable results. Quite apart from the morality or otherwise of any of these reactions, there are enough people trying to persuade the public that we are all covering up one giant conspiracy or another – we don’t need to add fuel to the fire.
There is nothing wrong with undertaking research and hypothesis testing in the public eye, indeed I argue above that in this case it was necessary, but if people believe they will be abused or derided when they are wrong, theories will not be published, research will not be undertaken and we will all be the poorer. The same goes for those who respond to such theories, giving public commentary, interviews or presenting television programmes. Archaeologists absolutely need to be prepared to discuss theories publicly, to provide context in the face of hype, to express the full range of possibilities that may come out of any given research and to remind the public that the essence of science is the testing of hypotheses and the investigating of theories. Ignoring possible theories because they don’t accord with the orthodox view is a dangerous path that strangles scientific debate and cultural progress. We should all be working to avoid that scenario and we shouldn’t be ashamed that sometimes our research proves the null hypothesis, that only demonstrates the importance of the scientific method to us and to the world at large.
In addition to the links in the text, A. Dodson, 2009, Amarna Sunset, published by American University in Cairo Press, provides a good introduction to the general period of Tutankhamun and Nefertiti and to the many debates surrounding it.
The sequel, A. Dodson, 2014. Amarna Sunrise, also by American University in Cairo Press, gives additional background and incorporates some of the newest evidence, including recent DNA tests of the relevant mummies. In addition to giving the author’s take on the Amarna period, both books provide an introduction and references to some of the latest debates concerning this period of Egyptian history.