Of all the great monuments left behind by the ancient Egyptians, it is perhaps their tombs that archaeologists find most fascinating. They were the great focus for investment: those who could afford it would never commission better craftsmen or use finer materials than when making provision for the afterlife. Tombs protected both the body and burial goods – everything essential for the individual to succeed in their journey to the next world.


Tombs have provided an unimaginable wealth of material. Although most of what there would once have been has been lost, a great deal has survived, and much that has been recovered represents the finest Ancient Egypt had to offer.

It is no coincidence that the most iconic image to have survived from this era, the golden mask of Tutankhamun, came from his tomb, which was unearthed by Howard Carter in 1922. That discovery, the culmination of a century or so of sensational finds, birthed the archetype of the archaeologist holding a lamp into a gloomy interior to see heaps of golden treasure glinting back at him.

Tutankhamun reigned towards the end of the 18th Dynasty, a period that, along with the 19th and 20th Dynasties, represents one of the great eras of Egypt’s past: the New Kingdom. One of the defining features of the period was the use of the Valley of the Kings as the royal cemetery. At the beginning of the 19th century, the tombs of 13 of the 33 New Kingdom pharaohs had been identified in the Valley; by the time Carter added Tutankhamun’s to the list, only five remained to be found.

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Who were the first modern Egyptologists?

Histories of Egyptology commonly begin on 1 July 1798, when Napoleon landed on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt with an expeditionary force not only comprised of soldiers, but also of artists and scientists.

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Napoleon’s intention was to establish Egypt as a French colony, strengthen his grip on the Mediterranean and deal a blow to Britain. His ‘savants’, however, were there for more enlightened reasons: they were to journey around the country, surveying and recording all they found, including the remains of Egypt’s ancient monuments. These had been visited and described by various western travellers, but no expedition on this scale had ever been attempted.

On 26 January 1799, the savants reached the spectacular ruins of Thebes; Molouk, ‘the Valley of the Gates of the Kings’. Two of them, Prosper Jollois and Édouard de Villiers du Terrage, made the first accurate map of the site, noting the position of 16 tombs, most of which had been open and accessible since antiquity. Furthermore, they seem to have been the first to record the existence of the side wadi leading off the main branch of the necropolis to the west, now known as the Western Valley.

Histories of Egyptology commonly begin with Napoleon

The savants were clearly awed by what they had found. The tombs consisted of long corridors cut into the rock that eventually led to larger chambers, the last of which typically contained a stone sarcophagus that should have held a body. In each case it had been pillaged by robbers.

Little remained of any grave goods or the occupants, but the walls were brightly painted with exotic scenes of the kings and an array of curious human and animal gods, and everywhere were the enigmatic hieroglyphic signs, though no-one could read the inscriptions at this point.

In attempting to attribute the monuments to any particular period or king they were largely reliant on the somewhat garbled accounts of Egypt’s history written by classical authors such as Diodorus and Strabo. They could only guess at who had been buried there.

Giovanni Battista Belzoni's big break

In 1815, Giovanni Battista Belzoni arrived in Thebes, instructed by British Consul General of Egypt Henry Salt to ready the head and shoulders of a statue of Ramesses II for transport from ‘the Ramesseum’ – the Pharaoh’s great mortuary temple – to the River Nile, where it would begin a journey to the British Museum. The task had defeated Salt’s rival, French Consul-General Bernardino Drovetti – Belzoni achieved it within around two weeks.

Salt subsequently sent Belzoni to the Valley of the Kings, where Belzoni removed the sarcophagus box from one of the tombs Napoleon’s savants had entered, that of Ramesses III. By this time, he had become interested in making his own investigations. He was aware that the classical authors had described many more tombs than had been unearthed and resolved to find the missing ones.

Photo of the tomb of royal priest Wahtye
The tomb of royal priest Wahtye was unearthed at Saqqara in 2008 (Photo by Khaled DESOUKI/ AFP/Getty Images)

He began his search in late 1816 in the Western Valley, where Napoleon’s savants had noted the existence of the tomb of Amehotep III. There, a little further down the wadi, he found the tomb of Ay, the penultimate pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, although only by accident and without realising whose tomb it was: “I went into these mountains only to examine the various places, where the water descends from the desert into the valleys after rain,” he wrote.

“I cannot boast of having made a great discovery in this tomb though it contains several curious and singular painted figures on the walls; and from its extent, and part of a sarcophagus remaining in the centre of a large chamber, have reason to suppose, that it was the burial place of some person of distinction.” The world would not know it was Ay’s tomb until it was investigated again in the 1970s, although almost all the figures and names of the pharaoh had been defaced.

Belzoni soon found a second tomb in the same area. This one was unfinished and undecorated, but contained the coffined mummies of eight individuals probably belonging to a family of the 22nd Dynasty.

Returning to the main branch of the Valley of the Kings, he discovered the resting place of Mentuherkhepeshef (a son of Ramesses IX), then another undecorated tomb. In October 1817, he finally found the tomb of a great pharaoh: the first king of the 19th Dynasty, Ramesses I.

A staircase led into the bedrock from the Valley floor, and was followed by a descending passageway, and then another steep staircase that terminated in a beautifully decorated burial chamber. It was “tolerably large and well painted” in Belzoni’s estimation, with a red granite sarcophagus in the centre.

The tomb was grand, but it seemed not to have been completely finished. Ramesses was the founder of the 19th Dynasty and was not of royal blood himself. He may have come to the throne late in life having already proven himself a capable leader in the Egyptian army. He only ruled for a short period, perhaps just two or three years, which might explain why his tomb wasn’t more magnificent.

In the steps of Imhotep

Chris Naunton strides into the desert to find the architect and physician vilified by Hollywood

The North Saqqara plateau was extensively excavated by Bryan Emery in the 1960s and early 1970s. He wanted to find the tomb of Imhotep and had been drawn to the area by a combination of two types of evidence: some very large tombs of Imhotep’s time, and a scatter of ritual deposits indicating much later cultic activity of the kind one would expect around the temple of Imhotep, which texts tell us was in the area.

In spring 2015, I set off for the plateau to attempt to locate, or at least get close to the site of some of the monuments that have been associated with Imhotep’s tomb. Having studied the archaeological maps and modern satellite images at length, I set out across the sands armed with an iPad and iPhone, heading roughly northwest from what remains of Emery’s dig house.

To my surprise and delight, the main temple complex of the Sacred Animal Necropolis discovered by Emery remained recognisable from the photos I had seen.

Of the tombs Emery found, number 3508 was invisible, though I was able to get close to its position. Tomb 3518 – around which was found both a seal bearing the name of Imhotep’s king (Djoser) and a number of votive offerings made to a god of medicine and healing, which was probably Imhotep himself – was partly visible.

The upper reaches of its preserved mudbrick walls emerged from the golden sands, which continued to swirl around them – as if they might swallow the tomb in a moment.

Looking southwards, the Step Pyramid, the world’s first monumental building in stone (and a creation of Imhotep) was very visible – tomb 3518 seems to have been built in precise alignment with it, adding weight to the idea that it might have been Imhotep’s own.

As I prepared to leave the site, I noticed a series of narrow gauge railway carriages of the kind used by Emery and other archaeologists to carry the debris away from their excavations. Were these Emery’s? I couldn’t be sure. In any case, they were slowly being swallowed up by the sands, a very modern phase of the history of the site nonetheless becoming a part of its archaeology.

Belzoni moved a little farther up the same branch of the Valley, where – at last – he made a discovery of the magnitude he had hoped for: the tomb of Ramesses I’s successor, Seti I. One of the greatest of all pharaohs, Seti I ruled for between 11 and 15 years, re-established Egypt’s territory in Syria-Palestine and launched massive building projects at sites such as Karnak and Abydos. His tomb was the longest ever constructed in the Valley at more than 137 metres, and beautifully decorated throughout.

Like the tomb of Ramesses I, it was entered via a sequence of stairways and sloping passages, but Seti I’s tomb incorporated a further seven principal chambers, five of them supported by squarebased pillars. Fragments of his burial equipment littered the floor of the tomb, including the remains of numerous shabti figurines – small statues that acted as the servants of the deceased in the afterlife.

The most spectacular object was the pharaoh’s sarcophagus, which lay over a staircase leading to a roughly cut passageway leading deep into the hillside (the end of which was only reached in 2007). The lid had been removed and smashed into fragments, but the box that remained was a masterpiece of stone craftsmanship, made from an enormous piece of translucent Egyptian alabaster. It was decorated with finely carved hieroglyphs and accompanying images from various religious texts, principally the Book of Gates.

Belzoni removed it from the tomb and it became part of Salt’s collection. It was destined to be sold when it reached England and was taken to the British Museum in 1821. After two years’ deliberations the Museum authorities agreed to buy the collection but not the sarcophagus, on the grounds that it was too expensive. Instead it passed into the hands of a London architect, Sir John Soane. To this very day it remains in the crypt of his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London, now a public museum.

What else was discovered in the Valley of the Kings?

It was not until the French excavator Victor Loret began working in the Valley in the 1890s that the number of confirmed tombs would increase.

In 1883, Frenchman Eugène Lefébure conducted a thorough survey of the tombs, plotting their location and copying the decoration and graffiti. Loret was a part of Lefébure’s team and had clearly made a note of the possibility that further tombs might be found. In 1897, he became director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, and in the two years he held the post he made an incredible sequence of discoveries to rival Belzoni’s, increasing the number of known tombs from 25 to 41.

The tombs discovered included KV 39, perhaps that of Amenhotep I – the second ruler of the 18th Dynasty, whose place of burial has not been located with certainty yet – and KV 34, which belonged to Tuthmose III, with its curious decoration and cartouche-shaped burial chamber.

The most important of Loret’s finds was the tomb of Amenhotep II. Richly decorated and architecturally complex, it was in good condition, and unusually the king’s mummy was still in place in the sarcophagus.

In the side rooms leading off to the right of the main burial chamber, Loret found two caches of mummies. In the first were three unwrapped bodies lying side by side: in the centre, a young male; to the right, a young woman, now known as the ‘Younger Lady’; and to the left an ‘Elder Lady’. Without any coffins or other inscribed material Loret was unable to identify them.

The mummy of Queen Tiye
Queen Tiye, the ‘Elder Lady’ in the tomb of Amenhotep II, was King Tut’s grandmother. (Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

A combination of evidence gathered since, plus DNA testing, suggests that the Elder Lady is Queen Tiye – wife of Amenhotep III, mother of Akhenaten, and grandmother of Tutankhamun. The Younger Lady could be Nefertiti, but the evidence to confirm that theory is still lacking.

In the second room, Loret found another cache of mummies, this time wrapped and within coffins. In addition to that of Amenhotep II, he had found the bodies of nine pharaohs of the New Kingdom. They had been moved here on a single occasion in the 13th year of Smendes I of the 21st Dynasty, to protect them from desecration by robbers.

Howard Carter finds Tutankhamun

Further discoveries were made in the early part of the 20th century, many under the sponsorship of Theodore M Davis. An elderly lawyer from Rhode Island, US, Davis had spent his winters on the Nile since 1889. He had expressed an interest in becoming involved in excavation to the young Chief Inspector of Antiquities in Upper Egypt, one Howard Carter. Davis agreed to finance Carter’s excavations: following an unspectacular first season in 1902, in January 1903 Carter discovered the tomb of Tuthmose IV.

He would go on to investigate tomb KV 20 – which had been open for many years but about which very little was known. It proved to have been cut for Tuthmose I and was probably the first tomb in the Valley, but was subsequently adapted to accommodate the burial of his daughter, the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. Carter was then re-assigned by the Antiquities Service to Lower Egypt, and could no longer continue his work in the Valley of the Kings.

Davis would continue to sponsor the excavations of Carter’s successors in Upper Egypt, starting with James Quibell, who found the largely intact non-royal tomb of Queen Tiye’s parents, Yuya and Thuya, then Arthur Weigall, and from 1905 with another excavator acting independently of the Antiquities Service, Edward Ayrton.

In 1907, Ayrton discovered the enigmatic tomb KV 55, which contained a jumble of material of the Amarna period, including some of the burial equipment of Queen Tiye and a coffin containing the mummy of a male individual who has recently been shown through DNA analysis to be the father of Tutankhamun. We can’t be sure precisely who this was as there are no inscriptions identifying either of the Boy King’s parents, but it is likely to have been the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten. A year later, Ayrton would also discover the tomb of one of Tutankhamun’s successors, the last king of the 18th Dynasty, Horemheb.

What are Egyptologists looking for?

Every year, dozens of archaeological projects are undertaken in Egypt, and they are not solely concerned with pharaohs – they are searching for evidence of how the most ordinary members of society lived too. They do this using a number of techniques, from topographical surveys and traditional excavation to remote sensing.

Archaeology can be a slow business but spectacular discoveries are still made on a regular basis: recent highlights include the revelation of the tomb of Ramesses II’s army general and the pyramid of a 13th-Dynasty princess. Yet many questions remain.

Although the efforts of Belzoni, Loret, Davis, Carter and others helped reveal the tombs of most of the New Kingdom pharaohs, several remain unaccounted for – including those of Ahmose I, Amenhotep I, Tuthmose II and Ramesses VIII. All in all, of the tombs of more than 200 pharaohs known to have ruled Egypt from the 1st Dynasty to the end of the Ptolemaic Period, approximately half have yet to be found.

Despite two centuries of study, there are still unexcavated areas at Saqqara, Abydos and even in the Valley of the Kings, whilst ancient Alexandria – Egypt’s capital for many centuries and almost certainly the site of the royal tombs of the Ptolemaic Period – is largely inaccessible owing to the buildings of the modern city.

Ayrton left Egyptology shortly after this and was replaced as Davis’s man in the field by Harold Jones. A few further minor discoveries were made in the following years but by 1912 Davis felt able to declare the Valley “exhausted”.

Many believed there were still discoveries to be made, Carter among them. He would take up the concession to excavate in the Valley, this time with the financial support of the Earl of Carnarvon. After a few unsuccessful years, in November 1922, Carter would show Davis to have been wrong in the most spectacular way with the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the 62nd to be found. No further royal tombs have been discovered in the Valley since.

When were the most recent tombs found?

In recent years, two tombs have been found, but neither was intended for the burial of pharaoh. KV 63 contained only a cache of materials used in the mummification process, perhaps connected with the funeral of Tutankhamun. KV 64 was perhaps the tomb of an 18th Dynasty princess but was subsequently re-used during the 22nd Dynasty.

Gaps still remain in our knowledge. The tombs of the first, second and fourth kings of the 18th Dynasty – Ahmose I, Amenhotep I and Tuthmose II – have yet to be positively identified, as has that of Ramesses VIII. It is also possible that royal burials from the time of Tutankhamun’s reign or thereabouts may yet await us as well: although Tutankhamun’s tomb is perhaps the best known of any from the ancient world, those of his wife, Ankhesenamun, and his predecessors Smenkhkare and Neferneferuaten are unknown, and we cannot yet be certain of the final resting place of Akhenaten.

Similar gaps exist for other periods of Egyptian history. Egyptology is fortunate in that so many of the tombs of the kings who ruled that part of the world for almost 3,000 years have survived, but we are perhaps equally fortunate that questions remain – and that there is still the possibility that further discoveries will be made.


Who are the most famous Egyptian archaeologists?

Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823)

Born in Italy, by 1804 he had moved to England and joined a travelling circus in which he performed as a strongman. In 1815, he travelled to Egypt to show to Khedive (Viceroy) Muhammad Ali Pasha a hydraulic machine designed to enable irrigation. The Khedive was not interested, but Belzoni was instead taken on by the British Consul General, Henry Salt, to collect antiquities.

Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832)

The Frenchman was the first to decipher hieroglyphs, making use of the Rosetta Stone, which bore an inscription in three scripts: one already understood (ancient Greek) and two that weren’t (hieroglyphic and Demotic).

In 1822, after many years of study, Champollion announced a system of decipherment which, in the years that followed, came to be generally accepted.

John Gardner Wilkinson (1797-1875)

Wilkinson went to Egypt in 1821 and stayed for 12 years, copying inscriptions, while also learning Arabic and Coptic to help him to understand the ancient texts. In preparation for a survey of the Valley of the Kings he painted numbers at the entrance of all the tombs that were known at the time providing the basis for the ‘KV’ numbering system that is still in use today.

Howard Carter (1874-1939)

Carter was appointed Chief Inspector of Antiquities in 1899. He discovered the tomb of Tuthmose IV in 1903, then spent the next two decades working in the Theban Necropolis, mostly with the backing of the Earl of Carnarvon. In November 1922, he uncovered the tomb of the boy-king Tutankhamun. It proved to be almost intact, with the king’s burial equipment comprising more than 5,000 items.

Chris Naunton is an Egyptologist and author of Searching for the Lost Tombs of Egypt (Thames & Hudson, 2018)

This content first appeared in the February 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed