If King Tut’s tomb hides a secret burial chamber, the mummy inside could belong to the elusive pharaoh Smenkhkare, or to queen Meritaton, the full or half sister of Tutankhamun, according to an international team of researchers.

Prompted by an inspection of King Tut’s tomb last month by the Egyptian Antiquities Ministry, the new study discusses the likelihood of various missing royals who might be concealed in the 3,300-year-old tomb and rules out the hypothesis that queen Nefertiti, the most favored candidate, is buried there.

The investigation by the Egyptian authorities follows a claim by Nicholas Reeves, a British Egyptologist at the University of Arizona. In July he published a paper arguing that high-resolution images of the tomb’s walls show “distinct linear traces” pointing to the presence of two still unexplored chambers.

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After the inspection last month, Egypt’s Antiquities minister Mamdouh Eldamaty confirmed the likely presence of two hidden chambers behind the western and northern walls of the tomb.

“Based on these preliminary observations, the possible findings range from nothing at all or unfinished and closed corridors to storage chambers or intact burials with treasures,”mummy expert Frank Rühli, director of the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, told Discovery News.

According to Reeves, one chamber contains the remains, and possibly the intact grave goods from queen Nefertiti, the wife of the “heretic” monotheistic pharaoh Akhenaten, Tutankhamun’s father.

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He argued that a painting located behind King Tut’s sarcophagus has been wrongly interpreted. Egyptologists have always believed the scene shows Ay (who largely directed King Tut’s reign and succeeded him)performing the Opening of the Mouth ritual on the boy king.

But Reeves offered a different reading: the figure labelled Tutankhamun is actually Nefertiti. He noted that a line at the side of the figure’s mouth, called “oromental groove,” is a trademark in pictures of Nefertiti. On the other hand, the figure labelled Ay would be Tutankhamun, completing the death ritual for Nefertiti.

Reeves speculated the tomb of King Tut was not ready when he died unexpectedly at age 19 in 1323 B.C. after having ruled a short reign of nine to 10 years. Thus he was buried in a rush in what was originally Nefertiti’s tomb, who died 10 years earlier.

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But Rühli and colleagues Michael Habicht, Francesco Maria Galassi and Wolfgang Wettengel, caution against that hypothesis.

“Queen Nefertiti might be the already found Younger Lady,” Rühli said.

The “Younger Lady” is a mummy found in 1898 by archaeologist Victor Loret in tomb KV35 in the Valley of the Kings. The mummy lay adjacent to two other mummies, a young boy thought to be Webensenu or Prince Thutmose and an older woman, identified by recent DNA tests as Queen Tiye.

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The same genetic analyses identified the Younger Lady as the mother of Tutankhamun.

“Nefertiti is labelled in inscriptions to be Tutankhamun’s mother and indeed the mummy known as the Younger Lady is genetically suggested to be King Tut’s mother,” Rühli said.

Such evidence would automatically rule out Nefertiti as the occupant of the secret crypt.

A controversial wall painting in King Tut’s tomb displays a ritual called the Opening of the Mouth. Wikimedia Commons

In a study published on academia.edu, the same platform used by Reeves for his revolutionary paper downloaded more than 100.000 times within two months, Rühli and colleagues examine likely royal candidates for the potential hidden chamber.

“Chronological boundaries considerably shorten the list,“ they wrote.

They noted that Akhenaton died several years before. He was most likely buried in tomb TA 26 in Akhet-Aton in Middle Egypt, and might later have been transferred to the tomb known as KV55.

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Several of his daughters, such as Nefer-Neferu-Re, Setep-en-Re, and Maketaton died in the twelfth year of Akhenaton’s reign and were also most likely buried in their father’s tomb in Akhet-Aton.

Another daughter, Ankhesenamun, apparently survived King Tut.

“Possibly all these individuals can be excluded,” the researchers said.

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Rühli and colleagues also ruled out the other potential candidate, Queen Kiya, the mysterious secondary wife of Akhenaton who has been controversially debated to be King Tut’s mother.

Her mummy has not been identified so far, but her canopic jars were apparently found in tomb KV55.

“This makes a separate burial in King Tut’s tomb rather unlikely,” Rühli said.

The researchers were left with enigmatic pharaoh Smenkhkare, whose true identity is quite uncertain. A possible predecessor of King Tut, Smenkhkare could be the royal hidden behind the walls of the most famous tomb in the Valley of the Kings.

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“Any unclear new male mummy found in King Tut’s tomb should be genetically tested whether he is a brother of the suggested Akhenaton and a son of Amenhotep III: both would be indicative of Smenkhkare,” the researchers said.

On the contrary, if the mummy turns out to be a female, the name of Queen Meritaton should be considered.

The eldest daughter of Akhenaton and Nefertiti, Meritaton might have acted as a regent for her underage brother Tutankhamun.

“Her tomb is unknown, but some of her personal objects were apparently found among the burial items of King Tut,” Rühli said.

Rühli and colleagues also stress that it is possible that nothing at all is found behind those walls and that any hypothesis about potential royal mummy candidates is very speculative at this stage.