Copyright 2003 www.boston.com

[ August 17th 2003 ]

While Lara Croft blasts her way through movie theaters, television has its own real-life version of Tomb Raider on the Discovery Channel. Airing tonight at 9, Nefertiti Resurrected tracks an expedition led by University of York scientist Joann Fletcher, a British expert on mummies, into a tomb containing human remains that, she suspects, are those of Nefertiti, the legendary Egyptian queen who died more than 3,000 years ago. If she is correct, she will be credited with the most staggering archaeological find since the discovery of King Tutankhamen.

The expedition was financed and filmed by Discovery Channel Quest, the documentary series that last chronicled Titantic director James Cameron's underwater exploration of the sunken German battleship Bismarck. While Resurrected may examine the life and mysterious death of one of Egypt's most storied personages, the two-hour documentary is really the story of two women. Nefertiti shares equal screen time with Fletcher, who collaborated with the Discovery Channel on The Assassination of King Tut last fall. "They are used to me and the way I work now," she said. "I suppose you could call me not really a traditional Egyptologist. I tend to be very, very spontaneous."

Tomb raider that she is, Fletcher isn't likely to be confused with Angelina Jolie anytime soon. The 37-year-old expert on Egyptian hair has a curly mop of flaming red locks reminiscent of Little Orphan Annie, as well as a decidedly un-Annie-like pierced nostril. Inexhaustibly passionate about her work, she somehow managed to remain composed as cameras observed her examining the decomposed remains that she had spent 13 years trying to access. "It was an incredibly emotional moment seeing those mummies," she said. "All of a sudden you're just totally swept along, and you just can't speak for a while because this is something you never thought you'd get the chance to do ever in a million years."

Nefertiti was the wife of the pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who created an uproar among his subjects by defying the national polytheistic religion in favor of a single deity, the sun god Aten, and adopting the name Akhenaten. Nefertiti became a high priestess of the new religion and may have even ruled Egypt alone for several years after her husband's death. Although the circumstances of her demise are unknown, her beautiful face is depicted in countless artifacts recovered from that period.

Fletcher's search began in 1990 in the Cairo Museum, where she examined a Nubian-style wig she determined to have the distinctive markings of ancient Egypt's 18th dynasty, in which Nefertiti reigned. She traced the origins of the wig to a side chamber of a tomb called KV35 in the Valley of the Kings, a cluster of caves in Luxor, Egypt. The more she learned about one of the three unidentified mummies lying inside, the more she suspected it could very well be the queen. "It would be incredibly exciting if it were true," said Don Brothwell, a British expert on human remains who accompanied Fletcher inside the tomb. "Exploring the chamber became a necessity."

Fletcher made two trips to KV35, in June 2002 and last February. More than 3,000 years later, the mummy inside evinces little of the incomparable pulchritude Nefertiti was said to have possessed. The mummy's face has been mutilated, probably by a grave robber who also made off with whatever jewelry adorned her body when she was buried. Tellingly, many of the reliefs depicting Nefertiti from that period have also been defaced -- a parallel Fletcher does not believe to be coincidental, given the enmity Nefertiti elicited from adherents of polytheism who eventually returned to power in Egypt. "Had she just been a bit of arm candy, a bit of decoration at the side of the pharaoh, this surely wouldn't have happened," Fletcher said. "I think a lot of the blame for what happened to Egypt and its empire at this time was laid equally at her door, which sort of suggests that she did have a heck of a lot of power."

Among the potential indications of Nefertiti's identity on the mummy are a double-piercing of the earlobe, a shaved head, and the impression of a band mark, possibly from a crown encircling her head -- all distinguishing characteristics of Egyptian royalty.

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