VALLEY OF THE KINGS, Egypt (AP) — Egypt on Friday invited archaeologists and experts from around the world to examine new data from new, extensive radar scanning conducted on King Tutankhamun's tomb to explore a theory that secret chambers could be hidden behind its walls.
The open invitation to a conference in Cairo in May, issued by the antiquities minister at a news conference just outside the tomb, aims to bring broader scientific rigor to what so far have only been tantalizing clues.
The new exploration was prompted by a theory by British Egyptologist Nicolas Reeves that undiscovered chambers lie behind the tomb's western and northern walls and that they likely contain the tomb of Queen Nefertiti, one of pharaonic Egypt's most famous figures — whose bust, on display at the Berlin Museum, is a much storied symbol of ancient beauty.
Preliminary scans whose results were announced last month suggested two open spaces with signs of metal and organic matter. Egypt's archaeologists announced Friday they completed more extensive scanning, sponsored by National Geographic, and the results must now be analyzed.
If chambers — whether containing Nefertiti's tomb or not — are discovered behind the western and northern walls covered in hieroglyphs and bas-reliefs in Tut's tomb, it would likely be the biggest discovery in Egyptology since Howard Carter first discovered the king's 3,300-year-old burial chamber and its treasures in 1922.
Antiquities Minister Khaled el-Anani, who was appointed to his post last week, counselled caution.
He said Egypt's "scientific credibility" and the preservation of its antiquities were at stake, adding; "We will rely only on science going forward. There are no results to share at the current stage, but only indications. We are not searching for hidden chambers, but rather we are scientifically verifying whether there are such rooms."
"We are looking for the truth and reality, not chambers."
Another radar scan will be carried out at the end of the month. It will be done vertically from atop the hill above the tomb, using equipment with a range of about 40 meters (yards).
Harvard University Egyptology professor Peter Der Manuelian, who is not involved in the project, said the Valley of the Kings is "notorious for containing fissures, cracks" that complicate interpreting the scans. "So the more scans we do, and from different angles and directions, inside and outside the tomb, the better," he told The Associated Press.
Even if the spaces are rooms, they could be undecorated small rooms for holding embalming materials, he said — or, more dramatically, "the beginning of a larger floor plan."
"We'll have to be patient. In the meantime, kudos to Nick Reeves for pointing out the presence of these anomalies and for sharing them with the world."
Reeves' theory was prompted by the unusual structure of Tut's tomb. It is smaller than other royal tombs and oriented differently. Furthermore, his examination of photos uncovered what appear to be the outlines of a filled-in doorframe in one wall.
He has speculated that Tutankhamun, who died at age 19, may have been rushed into an outer chamber of what was originally Nefertiti's tomb. Nefertiti was one of the wives of Tut's father Akhenaten, though another wife Kia is believed to be Tut's mother.
"We have a theory, and now what we're trying to do is test it. And, I , if I am right, fantastic, if I am wrong, I've been doing my job, I've been following the evidence trail, and seeing where it leads," Reeves told the AP.
El-Anani said Egyptologists and Valley of the Kings experts will discuss on May 8 the findings of the scans in a previously scheduled conference devoted to King Tut to be held at Egypt's new national museum near the Giza Pyramids outside Cairo. There, they can discuss the findings. The outcome, he said, will guide what course of action Egypt takes.
The Valley of the Kings was one of the main burial sites for ancient Egypt's pharaohs, located among the desert mountains across the Nile River from Luxor, the site of the monumental temples of Thebes, one of the pharaonic capitals.
Tut's was the most intact tomb ever discovered in Egypt, packed with well-preserved artifacts. But he was a relatively minor king ruling for a short period at a turbulent time.
Nefertiti was the primary wife of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, who unsuccessfully tried to switch Egypt to an early form of monotheism. Akhenaten was succeeded by a pharaoh referred to as Smenkhare. Reeves believes Smenkhare and Nefertiti are the same person, with the queen simply changing her name during her rule.
Not long after Tut died in 1323 B.C., his family was overthrown by a general, ending the 18th Dynasty that had been in power for 250 years.
John Darnell, professor of Egyptology at Yale University, said Tut's tomb is "somewhat anomalous due to its small size ... But the question is: Was Tutankhamun's tomb small, or do we have only a portion of a larger tomb?"
The latest scans were carried out over 12 hours along five different levels of the walls, producing 40 scans. The data will be analyzed by U.S.-based experts, but the results would not be known for at least another week.
"Technology is beginning to open doors that were permanently locked, or seemed permanently locked or maybe we did not know it existed," said Terry D. Garcia, chief science and exploration officer for National Geographic. "It is creating a revolution ... and it is going to result in the 21st century being the greatest in exploration in the history of mankind and we are just scratching the surface."
The mystery is also a golden opportunity for Egypt to boost its deeply damaged tourism industry by drawing world attention to its wealth of pharaonic antiquities.
But any benefit from the discoveries may be slow coming, with Egypt still facing turmoil, including a deadly fight against Islamic militants in the Sinai.
Pharaonic sites were once Egypt's main draw. But cities like Luxor have suffered heavily from the plunge in tourism. Now, visits to Egypt's beaches have also been devastated since the crash of a Russian airliner in October over the Sinai Peninsula that killed all 224 people onboard. Russia said it was downed by an explosive device and suspended all flights to Egypt. Britain suspended all flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptian Red Sea resort from which the doomed aircraft took off shortly before it crashed.
AP correspondent Brian Rohan contributed to this report from New York.