Sleuthing in a royal tomb
The huge tomb of Amenhotep III -- one of the most prodigious builders of ancient times -- is at long last receiving the attention it deserves. Nevine El-Aref looks into the second stage of its restoration
On a ridge on the western side of Luxor's West Bank, exactly at the slope facing the Valley of the Kings, lies the final resting place of Amenhotep III, one of Egypt's greatest Pharaohs. The large, rock-hewn tomb was built away from its royal relatives with an interior design and decoration unlike those of the Pharaoh's predecessors.
The reign of Amenhotep the Magnificent was peaceful and prosperous. His era was one of the most artistic periods of Ancient Egypt.He was the Pharaoh who reaped the benefits of the conquests of his predecessors, and Thebes was at the peak of its glory during his 36-year rule, which lasted from 1412BC to 1376BC. His tomb was one of the largest in the Valley of the Kings, and an assortment of foundation deposits discovered outside the entrance and representing rituals carried out at his burial was found by Howard Carter back in 1915. Even earlier, in 1912, an antiquities dealer had sold Carter three hardstone bracelet plaques inscribed with the names of Amenhotep III and his chief consort, Queen Tiye. This had aroused his interest in the tomb, and on excavating a deep well shaft inside it he discovered a fourth such plaque, as well as a fine hub from a chariot wheel. And while clearing the mouth of a water course beneath the entrance to the tomb, Carter unearthed an ushabti, minus the legs, of Queen Tiye along with fragments of faience, glass, five intact foundation deposits and a plundered deposit from the time work first began on the tomb, which was during the reign of Thutmosis IV. He also found a fragment of Amenhotep's calcite canopic chest inside the burial chamber. But Carter never went back. He was too obsessed with finding the tomb of Tutankhamun, and the resting place of Amenhotep for too long remained in a sorry state of disrepair.
In the late 1980s Japan's Waseda University took an interest in this splendid tomb. They began to excavate and document it prior to restoration and conservation, but their task was not easy. This was largely because, in August 1799, long before Carter's involvement, the tomb had been stumbled upon by two engineers of Napoleon's scientific expedition, Prosper Jollois and Edouand de Villiers du Terrage. They drew a plan of the tomb and made sketches of the objects they discovered. "This exploration was detrimental to the tomb instead of being beneficial to preserve and accurately excavate it," Mohamed El-Beyali, director-general at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), told Al-Ahram Weekly. After that it was noticed by anyone who passed by, and severely plundered several times. Travellers of the 19th century had eased their way into the tomb, still partly filled with rubble, thereby damaging the walls. Worse, they carried off a number of small objects as souvenirs of their visit. Some even went so far as to cut out parts of the beautifully painted decorations in the tomb, which was how, Beyali said, a fine relief portrait of Amenhotep III came to be on display at the Louvre in Paris while a broken leg of a ushabti figure of his beloved wife Queen Tiye is today exhibited at The Bibliotéque National de France. Other funerary items regularly made their way onto the antiquities trade market.
The archaeological team from Waseda set about clearing and excavating what was left of the exquisite decoration of the monument after the brutal defacement it had suffered. In the process, they located seven smaller and uninscribed foundation deposits. These contained the head and some small bones of a calf, five miniature pottery vessels, a model wooden cradle and a wooden carving of a symbolic rope knot, all placed in a reed basket. They also found several hundred fragments of funerary material. As they looked into the tomb's structure they saw that it was clearly in need of consolidation before restoration, and the team observed that salt leeching through its walls had caused some of the painted reliefs to crumble away. The columns in the inner chambers also showed evidence of salt damage.
Early in the XVIIIth Dynasty royal tombs consisted of an entrance stairway followed by a series of four passages separated by steps or sloping ramps, with bends and turns leading to a large pillared hall and the tomb chamber. Amenhotep's tomb was not traditional of the period. Noticeably different, according to Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, were the room cut at the base of the well shaft, the corridor between the antechamber and the burial chamber, and the two colonnade burial rooms they speculated could be dedicated to his wife Queen Tiye and his daughter Princess Sitamun.
The tomb is relatively large. Following the entrance and its series of stairs and corridors is a well shaft, after which comes a small, two- pillared hall and then another stairway. After this is a corridor leading to the antechamber, and this gives on to a large hall with six pillars in two rows. Between the last two columns is a short stairway leading to the actual burial crypt. It was here that the sarcophagus of Amenhotep III was found.
An irregular feature of this tomb is that there are two chambers, each with two pillars and a storeroom, leading off the king's burial chamber. Both Carter and the Japanese team found objects in them that suggested they might have been intended for the burials of Queen Tiye and Princess Sitamun, who later became his wife. We find a parallel in his palace, where Amenhotep III apparently squeezed in a set of rooms between his own and those of Tiye.
The Waseda team drew up its study and decided on a restoration programme. They instigated the first stage of restoration early in 2003 under the supervision of UNESCO experts and with the collaboration of Italian restorers who had previously carried out research and restoration/conservation on the tomb of the beautiful Queen Nefertari in the Valley of the Queens. Sabri Abdel-Aziz, head of the Ancient Egyptian department at the SCA, said the project was being financed by the Japanese government with a grant of some $1,000,000. The first stage has now been completed and the second and third will be executed forthwith.
"The project will take another year of restoration aimed at strengthening the tomb's structure and patching up cracks on all the walls according to the latest technology," Abdel-Aziz said. "After that attention will be given to the tomb's fine painted reliefs, which have never been cleaned."
El-Beyali told the Weekly that the broken leg of a ushabti figure of Queen Tiye which Carter found in one of these rooms had up to now puzzled Egyptologists. According to ancient Egyptian religious practice a queen would not have been buried at the same time as a Pharaoh, and once a monarch for whom the tomb was built was duly buried no one could ever reopen the tomb. "So how could the broken statuette of the queen have been placed inside the chamber?" El-Beyali asked.
Nicholas Reeves, in his The Complete Valley of the Kings, mentioned that when Carter found the piece he believed that Queen Tiye had been buried with her husband. However, Reeves doubted this hypothesis; in his view Amenhotep may have intended that both his queens, Tiye and Sitamun, would be buried with him and consequently prepared two rooms for them. But they both appeared to have outlived their Pharaoh, and since the introduction of one or both at a later date would have involved breaking the sanctity of the burial and even destroying the scene which appears to have been painted over the well-shaft entrance after his burial, alternative arrangements may have been made for the queens.
Reeves said nothing was known of the burial arrangement of Sitamun, who disappeared from view soon after he death of Amenhotep III. But Queen Tiye evidently died during the reign of her son Akhenaten, who provided her with gilded shrine (found in KV55) and a red granite sarcophagus of which a fragment was found in a royal tomb at Tel Al-Amarna.
What makes the picture even more confusing is that the ushabti found in Amenhotep's tomb was inscribed with the name of Tiye as the "great royal wife" and "royal mother", which suggests that it had been fabricated during Akhenaten's reign. So how could Akhenaten provide items of burial equipment for his mother in his father's tomb? Reeves concludes that its presence would be easier to explain if the reigns of Amenhotep III and his son were concurrent; he speculates that if there had not been a coregency this figure would have to be interpreted not as ushabti but as votive images offered by the queen to her husband's burial.
"Among the most impressive decoration motives in the tomb is the one found just before the well shaft, featuring the Pharaoh with the royal ka (soul) before the goddesses Hathor and Nut," El-Beyali says. On the walls of the well shaft Hathor leads one group of deities while Nut leads another. Here, the deceased Pharaoh's entry into the western realm of the dead is depicted. Also in the well shaft is a scene showing Hathor receiving both the Pharaoh and the ka of his father, Tuthmosis IV.
In addition to the formal decorations of the tomb, the Japanese team discovered interesting graffiti between the antechamber and the stairway giving into it. It reads, "Year three, third month of akhet-season, day seven". While its meaning is unclear, this may be the date on which Amenhotep III was enclosed within the tomb. If true, this inscription may someday shed light on any coregency (still much debated) he may have shared with his son Akhenaten.
No bodies were recovered from the tomb. Amenhotep III's mummy was found by Victor Loret in 1898 in the tomb of Amenhotep II (KV35), along with a mummy now believed to be that of his beloved Queen Tiye.
It is strange indeed that the tomb of Amenhotep III, whose peaceful and prosperous era was marked by great building activity, and who built so many splendid monuments, should not until recently have been considered worthy of professional attention. His fabulous palace at Malkata on the necropolis was a huge estate with large audience halls, parade grounds, villas for public officials, kitchens, offices, workshops and quarters for servants. At Karnak he continued a new theme in architecture, a huge pylon -- a stone tower sloping inwards from the base, and his solar court at Luxor Temple is one of the grandest in existence, with its seven pairs of columns with calyx capitals and heavy architraves. Amenhotep's mortuary temple on the necropolis was unfortunately swept away by a high flood and its stones usurped for later monuments, but nevertheless the massive, sadly weathered statues known as the Colossi of Memnon stand as impressive relics of his golden era.
Culture Minister Farouk Hosni says the Pharaoh's reign signalled a splendid development in statuary, and refers particularly to "the appearance of such detail as draped clothing and certain features that foreshadow the Amarna style which was to emerge in the reign of his successor, Akhenaten."
Amenhotep died at the age of 50, in his 39th year of his reign, of an undefined illness. Work on his tomb may yet provide clues to many as yet unanswered questions -- or it may hold some surprises in store.