This article was first published in the December 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine
Even with its hordes of tourists, the Valley of the Kings still retains the aura of the magical machine in which the pharaohs went to join the gods. Work continues on tombs, and discoveries are made all the time, yet at various stages during the 20th century archaeologists believed that the valley’s treasures had all been found.
In 1932 Howard Carter completed his decade of work on Tutankhamun’s tomb.
Excavations had been ongoing in the valley since the Paduan explorer Giovanni Belzoni found the tombs of kings Ay, Ramesses I and Sethy I (late 14th and early 13th centuries BC) in 1816–17, thus adding to the dozen or so sepulchres that had lain open since antiquity. On his return to Europe, Belzoni had declared that, in his “firm opinion… there are no more [tombs] than are now known”.
Undeterred, Victor Loret, head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, found more royal and non-royal tombs in 1898. Between 1902 and 1912, American lawyer Theodore Davis uncovered more tombs of kings, their families and officials; he then echoed Belzoni: “I fear that the Valley of the Kings is now exhausted.”
EGYPT – 1922: Archaeologist Howard Carter removing oils from the coffin of Tutankhamen (lived around 1350 BC), ancient Egyptian pharoah, which he discovered in 1922. (Photo by Mansell/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Then came Carter’s discovery, in November 1922, of Tutankhamun’s almost untouched tomb. At that point the general opinion was that the site really had revealed its last secret.
However, by the late 1960s views were changing. Though it was generally doubted that new tombs would be found, it was clear that many open ones had never been scientifically recorded, and that many shafts, corridors and chambers were still choked with debris.
In 1972, as ‘Tutmania’ gripped the western world, American Egyptologist Otto Schaden led the first archaeological expedition into the valley since Carter’s day. His objective was the tomb of King Ay, Tutankhamun’s successor. Belzoni had found Ay’s tomb back in 1816, but debris still filled many of the rooms. By removing this, Schaden revealed the missing lid of the king’s sarcophagus.
By the 1970s there were also concerns that environmental changes, brought about in part by the recent creation of the massive Lake Nasser by the construction of the Aswan Dam 150 miles (250km) south of the valley, might be harming some of the tombs. Thus the next expedition, begun in 1978 under the leadership of British draughtsman John Romer, had as a key objective the gathering of geological and conservation data throughout the valley. But in the 1979 season the tombs built for Ramesses X and XI (early 11th century BC) – the last two to be cut in the valley – were investigated. Neither seemed to have been used, and they had stood open since their builders abandoned them.
Ramesses X’s tomb had, for many years from 1903, housed the electric generator for the valley, and only a few traces of decoration were visible. These were photographed by Romer’s team, which also recorded the decoration of Ramesses I’s tomb, found so many years earlier by Belzoni but largely ignored since. Ramesses X’s tomb was later worked on by a Swiss expedition led by Hanna Jenni since 1998.
In addition to recording the few drawings in Ramesses XI’s tomb, the archaeologists began clearing the debris that filled a deep shaft in the middle of its burial chamber. It proved to contain the smashed remains of coffins and other tomb equipment. Some came from an intrusive burial made in the tomb two centuries after its abandonment, others from the tomb’s use as a workshop by cemetery officials charged with clearing robbed tombs in the valley after an orgy of looting in the 12th and 11th centuries BC. From Ramesses XI’s own time came only some small plaques and beeswax figurines, discovered in foundation deposits around the mouth of the shaft.
In 1978 the Theban Mapping Project had been founded by American Egyptologist Kent Weeks with the aim of producing a definitive map of the west bank of the Nile at Luxor
– the cemetery of ancient Thebes that includes the Valley of the Kings and much else besides. Its fundamental purpose was to survey the standing monuments, but also to undertake modest clearance to clarify a point of detail.
As such, in 1987 it relocated a tomb that had been known in the 19th and early 20th centuries but had been covered by a car park. At that time it had been given the official number KV5; indeed, nearly all tombs in the valley have such an official number, allocated since the late 19th century in order of discovery (Tutankhamun’s is KV62). An old plan of KV5 existed, but the team was keen to verify it.
Though the old plan by Scottish explorer Robert Hay proved to be accurate, it told less than half the story. While crawling through the debris-choked rooms, Weeks stumbled on a whole complex of hitherto unknown corridors and chambers – at least 130 – that is still being cleared. The tomb housed at least some of the 50 sons of Ramesses II (13th century BC).
Another tomb, KV39, was cleared in 1989, nearly 90 years after its discovery. Experts remain divided on its ownership but it was clearly intended for more than one burial, and the remains of a number of mummies and coffins have been discovered. Names found on foundation deposits suggest that KV39 may be the burial place of some of the children of Amenhotep II (late 15th century BC).
At the same time, Japanese Egyptologists Sakuji Yoshimura and Jiro Kondo started a long-term project to re-clear and conserve the tomb of Tutankhamun’s grandfather Amenhotep III (mid-14th century BC), last worked on by Carter in 1915.
In 1989, American archaeologist Don Ryan turned his attention to a long-neglected set of tombs intended for minor members of the royal family and the nobility. Just over one-third of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were built for kings; the rest are generally much smaller tombs comprising only one or two chambers. Few of their owners are known with certainty, but they include at least one vizier (prime minister). Most nobles were buried close to their rock-cut mortuary chapels on the opposite side of the cliffs from the valley, but some of the most favoured were granted rest close to their divine kings.
These tombs had been found by various excavators during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but largely passed over with minimal comment. Ryan re-investigated some of them with modern methods. Six tombs were worked on between 1989 and 1991 and again in 1993, with work resuming in 2006.
Some nobles had substantial tombs in the valley. Between 1988 and 1994 German Egyptologist Hartwig Altenmüller cleared out the tomb of the early 12th-century BC chancellor Bay. He found that, after the disgrace of its owner, the tomb had been reused later that century for the burial of two princes, whose sarcophagi were still in place.
Another tomb in which the inner rooms had been choked with flood debris was that of King Amenmesse (early 12th century BC). Debris removal was begun by Otto Schaden in 1992; his work showed that the tomb was unfinished, and also that some paintings seen by 19th-century explorers in one of the rooms had now almost completely disappeared, demonstrating the need for full documentation of the tombs.
There remained a small part of the valley that was wholly virgin. When Carter discovered Tutankhamun
he had been in the process of systematically clearing the last area in the valley that had not been dug in modern times. He had also found workmen’s huts dating to around 1180 BC lying not far below the surface, which meant that the layers below them had not been touched since that time. A significant section of this area had been left un-dug when Carter found the first traces of Tutankhamun’s tomb, and remained unknown territory.
Yet more intriguing was the fact that the only tombs found in this part of the valley belonged to the mysterious Amarna Period in the late 14th century BC during which the Egyptian pantheon of gods had been replaced by a single sun-god under the auspices of King Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti. One of these tombs was that of Tutankhamun, the other, KV55, a strange hiding place with a mummy that some believe to be Akhenaten himself, though others argue it to be his son-in-law Smenkhkare. Might the area hold more tombs – one of them perhaps that of Nefertiti?
The Amarna Royal Tombs Project (ARTP), led by Nicholas Reeves and Geoffrey Martin, worked in the area between 1998 and 2002. Though no tomb was found, much of the workmen’s settlement was uncovered, together with ancient graffiti and various small objects. The team re-cleared the ‘Gold Tomb’, a pit found by Davis in 1908 that contained royal jewellery from the 13th century BC.
Meanwhile, Otto Schaden continued his clearance of the nearby tomb of Amenmesse. In addition to the tomb’s interior, he was also interested in what might lie outside its entrance, particularly whether any of the customary foundation deposits might survive. On 10 March 2005 a shaft was found to the left of the tomb entrance. It was not till February 2006 that the shaft was fully cleared, accompanied by a formal announcement of the find by Dr Zahi Hawass, head of the Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities, which governs all archaeological research in Egypt.
The news that a new tomb, numbered KV63, had been found flashed around the world. What – or who – might it contain? The mystery thickened when the first images of the interior showed what turned out to be seven black coffins (one apparently containing a mummy), together with 28 huge sealed pottery jars. Was this a reburial of royal mummies, the remains of a family of a pharaoh’s loyal retainers, or something else?
Not one of the coffins contained a body. The ‘mummy’ turned out to be feather pillows, and as the archaeologists carefully worked through the tomb it became clear that its contents were the leftovers from the mummification of a corpse
. Such embalmers’ caches are not unknown, and were intended to safeguard material that had been in contact with a high-status body (and which thus contained some of its sacred essence). A smaller cache with material from Tutankhamun’s burial had been found in 1907. From whose burial might this one be?
Seal-impressions in the jars hinted to a date around the reign of Tutankhamun, but the definitive evidence came from another piece of new work in the valley. British engineer Stephen Cross had been studying the layers left by ancient floods, caused by storms in the high desert that carried large amounts of rock and other debris into the long-dry watercourses that make up the Valley of the Kings. One of his most important conclusions was that within weeks of Tutankhamun’s burial, the tomb had been sealed underneath such a flood-layer – one that was not penetrated until 1922. This dated the ancient attempt to rob the tomb to this brief window of opportunity. As the layer also covered KV63 and KV55, both must have been closed for the last time no later than shortly after Tutankhamun’s funeral. KV63 was thus confirmed as the main embalming cache of Tutankhamun, and the 1907 cache as containing items overlooked when KV63 was closed.
Since 2009 a team led by Susanne Bickel from the University of Basel, Switzerland had been examining in detail a series of long-known smaller tombs in the southern branch of the valley, belonging originally to members of the royal family and nobility. In January 2011 they found the mouth of a previously unknown tomb-shaft. Political upheaval prevented excavation until January 2012, when the newly numbered KV64 revealed the intact burial of the priestess Nehmesbast, who had lived around 900 BC, with her coffin, mummy and stela [stone slabs]. She had not, however, been the original owner of the tomb; under the layer of debris upon which Nehmesbast had been placed were found the remains of a burial, probably of a princess, from 500 years earlier.
This original interment had been robbed sometime during the 11th century BC – like many tombs, another being the adjacent KV40 which, though located, had not been entered by archaeologists before the Swiss in 2011–12. In this case, however, the tomb had originally held not one person, but at least 33 burials of royal children and their attendants. A similar number of secondary burials had been placed atop their robbed remains around the 10th century BC, themselves later plundered.
The discoveries of KV63 and KV64 are further demonstrations of the folly of ever declaring that the Valley of the Kings – or any other archaeological site, for that matter – has been “exhausted”.
Remarkable tombs in the Valley of the Kings
The tomb of Tutankhamun was found in 1922 and proved to be the only largely untouched tomb in the valley. Its contents are now in the Cairo and Luxor museums, though the king’s sarcophagus, outer coffin and mummy may still be seen by visitors.
The hidden mummies
The tomb of Amenhotep II (late 15th century BC) was used to hide a number of royal mummies rescued from their robbed tombs during the 11th and 10th centuries BC. They were till there when the tomb was opened in 1898, and are now in the Cairo Museum.
The largest tomb
KV5 is the largest subterranean tomb in Egypt. It was constructed by Ramesses II for at least some of his 50 sons. It is still under excavation after two decades and is not open to the public.
Ramesses’ unused tomb
The last tomb to be cut in the valley was that of Ramesses XI, but it was not used for his burial. He may have been buried somewhere in northern Egypt.
The big discovery
In 2006 tomb KV63 was discovered. It contained the leftovers from the embalming of Tutankhamun.
Sethy I’s tomb
Perhaps the finest tomb is that of Sethy I – the first to be decorated throughout in painted relief. Found by Belzoni in 1817, it has been badly damaged by flooding and the mutilation of many of its paintings, and has been closed for some years.
The earliest tomb
The earliest tomb in the valley sometimes open to the public is that of Thutmose III (mid-15th century BC). Its burial chamber is decorated as though a huge papyrus scroll has been unrolled against the walls.
Tawosret was one of the few women to become a pharaoh, seizing the throne in the early 12th century BC. After she was overthrown, her tomb was used for her vanquisher, Sethnakhte. His names can be seen painted on the plaster that was used to obliterate the images of the queen.
Aidan Dodson is a senior research fellow in archaeology at Bristol University. His latest book, The Royal Tombs of Ancient Egypt, is due to be published by Pen & Sword in 2016.