In the latter days of New Kingdom Egypt, it had become clear that most of the tombs of the kings and queens were being invaded by looters. In a desperate move to save the royal mummies, the known tombs were opened by priests, and many of the mummies were removed. The priests Pinudjem I [1070-1037 BC] and Pinudjem II [990-969 BC] identified the mummies as best they could, rewrapped them and placed them in one of (at least) two caches: Queen Inhapi's tomb (Deir el-Bahri room 320) and the Tomb of Amenhotep II (KV35).
The Deir el Bahri cache included mummies of the 18th and 19th dynasty leaders Amenhotep I; Tuthmose I, II, and III; Ramses I and II, and the patriarch Seti I. The KV35 cache included Tuthmose IV, Ramses IV, V, and VI, Amenophis III and Merneptah. In both caches there were unidentified mummies, some of which were set in unmarked coffins or stacked in corridors; and some of the rulers, such as Tutankhamun, were not found by the priests. But there the relocated would lie undisturbed for another 2,800 years.
Rediscovery: Maspero and Loret
The mummy cache in Deir el Bahri was discovered between 1875 and 1881 and excavated by French archaeologist Gaston Maspero, director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service. The mummies were removed to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, where Maspero unwrapped them. The KV35 cache was discovered by Victor Loret in 1898; these mummies were also moved to Cairo and unwrapped.
In the early 20th century, Maspero asked the Australian anatomist Grafton Elliot Smith to examine and report on each of the mummies, which he did, publishing photos and great anatomical detail in his 1912 Catalogue of the Royal Mummies. This amazing document is a compilation of everything known at the time about each mummy, and included verbatim notes written in French by Maspero's assistants, information gleaned from x-rays taken in 1903, and notes in German from Rudolf Virchow's 1888 investigations.
No doubt because he spent so much time on the mummies, Smith noticed several oddities. He recognized the strong family resemblance particularly for the kings and queens in the 18th dynasty, such as a long head, a narrow delicate face and projecting upper teeth. Smith was also in an excellent position to study processes of change in embalming techniques. But most importantly, he noticed that some of the mummies did not match the historical information known about them, or the court paintings of them. For example, the mummy said to belong to the heretic pharaoh Akhnaten, was clearly too young, and the face didn't match his distinctive sculptures. Could the 21st dynasty priests have been wrong?
Who's Who in Ancient Egypt?
Several studies have tried to reconcile the identities of the mummies. In the 1960s, the University of Michigan conducted a complete set of x-rays of the mummies at the Egyptian Museum at Cairo. They'd been x-rayed before, but not in this detail, with specific emphasis on the skulls. Researchers James E. Harris and Fawzia Hussein used those skull x-rays to quantify the discrepancies that Smith noticed in his studies. Their research supported Smith's findings; but certainty has not been achieved.
Could DNA resolve the problem? Maybe. There are two outstanding problems that need to be overcome. The first is, preservation of DNA strands is affected not only by the age of the mummy, but by the extreme methods of mummification used by the Egyptians. Interestingly, natron, properly applied, appears to preserve DNA: but differences in preservation techniques and situations (such as whether a tomb was flooded) have a deleterious effect. Researchers have determined that any chance of DNA surviving from before the New Kingdom is unlikely; New Kingdom mummies are our best bet, but only if conditions are perfect.
Secondly, the fact that New Kingdom royalty intermarried may cause a problem. In particular, the 18th dynasty were very closely related to one another, a result of generations of half-sisters and brothers intermarrying. It is quite possible that DNA family records may not be precise enough to identify a specific mummy.
Harris JE, and Hussien F. 1991. The identification of the eighteenth dynasty royal mummies: A biological perspective. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 1:235-239.
Marota I, Basile C, Ubaldi M, and Rollo F. 2002. DNA decay rate in papyri and human remains from Egyptian archaeological sites. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 117(4):310-318.
Ray J. 1994. Hatshepsut: The Female Pharaoh. History Today 44(5):23-29.
Smith, GE 1912. Catalogue of the Royal Mummies. Imprimerie de L'institut Francais D'archeologie Orientale. Le Caire.
Zink A, and Nerlich AG. 2003. Molecular analyses of the "Pharaos:" Feasibility of molecular studies in ancient Egyptian material. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 121(2):109-111.