Dr Joan Fletcher's chance encounter with a wig triggered a 13-year quest ending in the discovery of what she believes to be the mummy of Egypt's Queen Nefertiti. She tells Sarah Foster her amazing story.

DR Joann Fletcher watched the workman chipping at the plastered wall with mounting excitement. For her, this was the culmination of years of work and the realisation of what had once seemed an impossible dream. Standing sweating in the furnace-like tomb, Joann could no longer contain her impatience. As the workman paused for breath, she seized her chance, raising her torch and peering into the dense blackness

"What I saw next will stay with me for the rest of my life," she recalls. "For there, looking right at me, were three people who had died over three thousand years ago. And yet I recognised each of them, looking for all the world as if they had been expecting me. And all I could say was, 'Oh my God. It's you!'"

Joann's epic journey to this walled-up chamber, within Tomb KV35 in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, had begun in 1990, when she found an unidentified wig in Cairo museum. Intrigued, the Egyptologist, an honorary research fellow at York University, set herself the challenge of tracing its owner. Never in her wildest dreams did she think it would be Nefertiti, an iconic figure who was both revered and hated, and that she would end up coming face to face with her.

Joann's interest in Egypt began before she could even read, while growing up in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. After flirting with dinosaurs, its towering pyramids and lost civilisations soon became her main passion, and this was fired when at the age of six, the Tutankhamen exhibition came to London. "Britain went Egypt mad. It only increased my interest," remembers the 38-year-old, who lives on the Yorkshire coast.

By the time she was 15, and paid her first visit to what had become her spiritual home, she had already fixed on Egyptology as a career. "It was mind-blowing. To be able to see all these things I'd only ever seen in books was amazing," she says of the trip.

She studied at University College London, spending the following year learning German so that she could read articles written by Egyptologists of that nationality, renowned for their pioneering research. Joann then spent a staggering eight years working on a PhD on ancient Egyptian hair at Manchester University. She emerged as something of an expert, which is how she came into contact with the mystery wig. Her knowledge suggested that it had come from a shaven-headed body and this led her to Egypt's Valley of the Kings, a famous repository for mummies, and ultimately to Tomb KV35.

"It was discovered in 1898 and it was full of royal mummies that had been salvaged by ancient priests because tomb robbery was a big problem. It had obviously functioned as a safe place," says Joann, whose partner Stephen Buckley is a chemist specialising in mummification.

While most of the mummies had been taken to Cairo museum, three - those of two women and a boy - had been left hidden behind a wall. "It was a question of why? It was something that really bothered me. It was a search for that," says Joann.

Armed initially with only a few black and white photographs of the remains, taken when the tomb was first discovered, she soon found her efforts frustrated. What she really needed was access to the hallowed chamber - something which under Egyptian bureaucracy, proved exceptionally difficult to obtain. Yet Joann never thought of giving up. "It was this almost childlike curiosity of, 'What's behind this wall?'" she says.

Finally, in June 2002, she was granted permission for a single day's research behind the wall, without being able to actually touch the mummies. With the help of another expert, Joann gleaned as much information as she could in the precious time she had. Then, that evening, the chamber was re-sealed.

Exhilarated by the experience but fearing the whole truth would never be known, Joann returned to the UK with her findings. Then the Discovery Channel became interested, and the quest took on a new momentum. Keen to make a programme following Joann's progress, it facilitated what she describes as, "the biggest expedition to the Valley of the Kings in 25 years". Equipped this time with X-ray and digital imaging devices and accompanied by a camera crew and a hand-picked team, Joann returned to Tomb KV35 in February 2003. "I needed to get as many experts as possible into that tomb. There were easily 20-odd people," she says.

By now, she had formed an explosive theory on the identity of the younger female mummy but she concealed this from her fellow experts. "I wanted them to tell me what we had," she says.

As the team undertook its research, noting the younger woman's double pierced ears, marks of a tight-fitting royal brow band and mutilated face, a picture of her identity began to emerge. But it was only when specialists at Nottingham University used the X-rays to reconstruct the mummy's face that the evidence seemed irrefutable. "It was beautiful, really stunning. While we can never say this is Nefertiti for sure, that's my personal belief," says Joann.

Over the years it has taken her to identify the legendary queen, Joann has become intrigued by her. "We know from historical records that Nefertiti was far more than a pretty face. She was very much on a par with her husband - a royal woman who wielded the powers of a king," she says. Although she will never know for certain, she believes that the gash in the mummy's mouth was caused not by grave robbers, as was previously thought, but by someone who hated Nefertiti, to prevent her from breathing in the afterlife. "Nefertiti, like her husband, was despised because of what they did to Egypt," says Joann.

As well as making the television documentary, she has written a book, The Search For Nefertiti, describing her experiences. Impressed by her down-to-earth manner, the publishers asked her to simply write as she spoke - something she was only too happy to do. "I wanted to write it so that people would read it and not think, 'Oh God, this is heavy going,'" she laughs, admitting that as a northerner and a female Egyptologist, she's something of a "square peg in a round hole".

Following her success in identifying the three mummies - she believes the other two are Nefertiti's mother-in-law, Queen Tiy, and her brother-in-law, Prince Tuthmosis - Joann's expertise has been widely recognised. As well as her work at York University and Harrogate museum, for which she is a consultant, she now makes regular television appearances.

She says that finding Nefertiti was like "lighting a touch paper", sparking off a host of other questions to which she hopes to find the answers. Yet while there may be many more adventures to come, she will never forget the allure of Tomb KV35. "I never thought in a million years that I'd get into that tomb," says Joann. "To be allowed to do it once was amazing. To be allowed to do it twice was mind-blowing."

* THE SEARCH FOR NEFERTITI by Joann Fletcher (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99). We have a copy of the book to give away. Just tell us the name of Nefertiti's mother-in-law. Answers by the end of the week to Nefertiti Competition, Features, The Northern Echo, Priestgate, Darlington DL1 1NF.