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Who's in Tomb 55? Volume 55 Number 2, March/April 2002
by Mark Rose

In a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie, scholars seek clues to the identity of a mummy that could clarify the royal succession at the end of Egypt's 18th dynasty.

On January 6, 1907, Theodore M. Davis, a wealthy American financier, and his hired archaeologist, a young Englishman, Edward R. Ayrton, opened a most unusual tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings. The tomb, designated KV55 or simply Tomb 55, was unimpressive, with a single chamber and side niche, but its contents were extraordinary.

The largest object was a wooden shrine, sheathed in gold, that had been made for the funeral of Queen Tiye, the mother of the late 18th Dynasty pharaoh Akhenaten (r. 1350-1333 B.C.). This pharaoh's name could be read on two of the four clay bricks found on the tomb's floor. In the niche were four jars, originally inscribed for Kiya, a secondary wife of Akhenaten, mismatched with stoppers bearing exquisite portraits, probably of one or more of Akhenaten's daughters. The strangest of the tomb's contents was an elaborate coffin, also originally for Kiya as attested by reworked yet still decipherable inscriptions, but adapted for a male burial by the addition of a beard and the alteration of the inscriptions. The face on the coffin had been broken off and the royal names on it, which might have identified its occupant, removed.

In the century following its discovery, Tomb 55 has been hotly debated, especially the identity of the remains in the coffin and how that person fit into the royal family and succession at the end of the 18th Dynasty. "It is probably true to say," notes Aidan Dodson of Bristol University, "that there are as many interpretations as Egyptologists who have written about the notorious Tomb 55. But it matters: the tomb provides part of the key to what was actually going on at the end of Akhenaten's reign-and perhaps at the end of Tutankhamun's as well." Results of an examination of the skeleton by British Museum Egyptologist and physical anthropologist Joyce M. Filer, published here in detail for the first time (click here), may help close the book on Tomb 55's mysterious occupant.

Mark Rose is the executive editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America