Updated at 10 a.m. ET on Thursday, Aug. 13.
The burial chamber of King Tut has revealed many secrets over the years, but there may be a whopper yet to discover: the tomb of his mother, Queen Nefertiti.
A scan of the wall texture in King Tutankhamun's tomb reveals indentations or faint lines, which could suggest two hidden doors. Based on other aspects of the tomb's geometry, it's possible that Nefertiti is hiding behind the door, said Nicholas Reeves, an archaeologist at the University of Arizona who has proposed the theory of Queen Nefertiti's secret tomb.
If Nefertiti's tomb indeed lies undisturbed behind the wall, that would be big news.
"We could be faced for the first time in recent history with the intact burial of an Egyptian pharaoh in the Valley of the Kings," Reeves told Live Science. "Goodness knows what that will tell us." [In Photos: The Life and Death of King Tut]
However, other Egyptologists are skeptical, because the scratches on the wall are the sole indications of the queen's burial.
King Tut's tomb
King Tutankhamun (also spelled Tutankhamen), often dubbed the boy king, was an Egyptian pharaoh who rose to power in 1333 B.C., at the tender age of 10. His mother was Queen Nefertiti, and his father was Akhenaten. He died at age 20, possibly of malaria or bone abnormalities, and his rule could have been a footnote in Egyptian history if not for one thing: His gold-bedecked, opulently appointed tomb was discovered, mostly intact, by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922.
The boy king was buried in haste; bacterial traces suggest the paint had not even dried before he was sealed into the place. And his tomb is smaller than others in the Valley of the Kings, leading many experts to believe that his death was unexpected, and so his underlings had to scramble and put him in a makeshift tomb originally intended for someone else, Reeves said. [See Gorgeous Images of Egypt's Valley of the Kings]
Reading between the lines
Over the years, throngs of tourists had damaged the tomb, so the Egyptian government commissioned a replica of King Tut's tomb for tourists to visit. As part of that process, the reconstruction company Factum Arte took photographs and created scans of the wall's textural surface.
Reeves was studying these scans when he noticed strange "echoes of features" beneath the plaster walls inside King Tut's tomb. He noticed vertical lines on the west wall of the tomb. When he measured the dimensions of these lines, they corresponded to the dimensions of an existing doorway in a nearby wall. He speculated that someone had plastered over a hidden doorway in antiquity.
The layout of the tomb also suggested there should be a chamber at that spot. Another wall also had faint lines suggestive of another hidden doorway and wall partition.
In addition, Tutankhamun's tomb is smaller than others in the Valley of the Kings, and to get to the chamber, one must turn right from the main corridor — a configuration typically used for Egyptian queens, not kings, whose chambers were off to the left, Reeves said.
"I think Tutankhamun's tomb started off as the tomb of a queen, and that Tutankhamun was buried only later and buried in the outer part of the tomb," Reeves said. The outer part of the tomb was quickly enlarged to make it a proper royal burial that could house the nest of shrines that was due to a pharaoh.
The real centerpiece tomb — that of Nefertiti — was never discovered because it was hidden by a "blind," or a painted wall, he speculated.
Queen to king
Many Egyptologists believe that after King Tut's father, Akhenaten died, Nefertiti became a pharaoh, not just a queen. For instance, a female pharaoh appears in historical records at about the same time as any mention of Nefertiti disappears, said Aidan Dodson, an Egyptologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the study.
If Nefertiti were indeed a "super queen" or female pharaoh, she might have been buried in what was originally planned as Akhenaten's tomb, Reeves speculated.
Supporting this super-queen theory, the dimensions of the hidden doorways suggest her tomb was large enough to fit a nest of shrines — the fitting tribute for a pharaoh, Reeves said.
However, not everyone is convinced by Reeves' hypothesis.
"It's a very interesting observation that there are these traces; however, the jump to 'and Nefertiti's behind the wall' — the logic just doesn't follow at all," Dodson told Live Science. "All we've actually got are a bunch of scratches on a wall," Dodson said.
There's no proof that there is a chamber behind the vertical lines, and even if there were, they could contain other items or people besides Nefertiti, he said. Some Egyptologists believe that Nefertiti's mummy has already been found, and is sitting in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Dodson said. (A prior DNA analysis found that mummy could have been the mother of Tutankhamun, Dodson said.)
"I think it's a very attractive idea, but I think the evidence for it is not very solid," said Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, who was not involved in the study. "It's rather a bold statement to say that behind painted parts of Tutankhamun's tomb lies the tomb of Nefertiti."
Even when Carter was excavating the tomb in 1922, he was aware that false doors could lie behind painted walls, so it's not as if no one had looked for hidden rooms in the tomb before, Ikram added.
One easy way to settle the matter is to drill a tiny hole in the wall and thread a thin fiber-optic camera through it, Dodson said. But before drilling into a tomb that has been hermetically sealed for 3,500 years, archaeologists should use a noninvasive method such as radar to check that a chamber is even there, Reeves said. Either way, it could be worth using techniques such as magnetometry simply to settle the matter, or it may become one of the classic "red-herrings" that people speculate endlessly about in Egyptology, Ikram said.
Editor's Note: This story was updated to add additional comment from Salima Ikram.