Face to face with ancient royals
The first intact tomb since Tutankhamun's has been found in the Valley of the Kings. Nevine El-Aref
witnessed the discovery
Last Friday was a hot, sunny day in the Valley of the Kings, and no less than 50 journalists, photographers, TV anchors and directors were waiting with heightened expectations near a large pit located just across the pathway to Tutankhamun's tomb. They were following the progress being made by Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, and his Memphis University colleague Otto Shaden as they uncovered the first intact tomb to be found in the Valley of the Kings in 84 years.
As the two Egyptologists entered the pit for a preliminary view of its contents, the journalists were barred from following. Anxious to see what lay beneath, they reacted angrily, but a few minutes later they were permitted to enter the pit one by one to allow for the shortage of space. To access the tomb's entrance, everyone had to leap over a dozen huge stone blocks and then negotiate a five- metre-long wooden ladder. I found it hard to contend with these obstacles, but coming face to face with the royal mummies quickly caused my sufferings to melt away.
Through a 30-centimetre large hole it was possible to see five wooden anthropoid sarcophagi with painted faces resting undisturbed in a plain, rectangular rock-hewn tomb. The first coffin, which had toppled over and was facing the door, showed the painted face of a beautiful woman with full makeup and thin, arched eyebrows, black kohl-lined eyes and black hair styled in a blunt cut. The gold pattern of a thick necklace was also visible, but the lower half of the sarcophagi had rotted and broken. The face reminded me of the one painted on the coffin of Pharaoh Amenhotep I exhibited in the royal mummy room at the Egyptian Museum. In one corner was another coffin, which seemed to have been partially opened so that the brown cloth below the lid was visible, most probably part of the mummy's wrapping. At the back was the silhouette of the other three coffins, their faces staring upwards and their hands folded on their chests.
Almost two dozen alabaster and clay jars sealed with ancient Egyptian seals, some of which were broken, were lined up next to the sarcophagi. Although the exact date of the find is not yet certain, Egyptologists believe them to be some 3,000 years old and dating from the late 18th Dynasty.
"They may be mummies of kings or queens or nobles, we don't know yet," Hawass said, adding: "They were definitely connected to the royal family or had the favour of the king, otherwise they would not have been buried in the Valley of the Kings since it was prohibited for just anyone to come and make his tomb there."
Hawass hopes that the mission will find hieroglyphs on the coffins that will identify the mummies. He told reporters that the jars, the contents of which were yet unknown, were not canopic jars but might have contained food and drink to sustain the deceased on the journey to the afterlife.
Mansour Borayek, supervisor of Luxor antiquities, described the discovery as extremely important since it could reveal more about the mysterious Valley of the Kings and what it was really like. It also breaks the long-held belief that there is nothing left to dig in the valley. "It is proof that excavation in the Valley of the Kings is not exhausted, and there is more to offer archaeologists that is just waiting to be discovered," Borayek told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Who were these people? What did they do? Where were their original burials? And why were they buried here, in such a cache? These are among the perplexing questions waiting to be answered after further excavations are carried out.
Hawass told the Weekly that the vessels found in the cache had been arranged haphazardly, suggesting that the burials took place in haste. This was more likely, he continued, than that the cache was used as a storeroom for sarcophagi moved later from other tombs, either by priests to protect them from thieves, or by thieves to be stashed before being completely removed.
This is the fourth cache to be discovered in Luxor. The first was stumbled upon sometime before 1887 by the Abdel-Rassoul family, who found 40 hidden intact royal mummies. The second was the cache found in 1891 containing 100 sarcophagi of priests of Amun, while the third discovery was made in 1898 with 12 royal mummies being uncovered inside the tomb of Amenhotep II.
"It is a dream come true," Shaden says. "It is just so amazing to find an intact tomb 84 years after [Tutankhamun]." He says that after 13 years of working on tombs which have been known for a long time and had been partly cleared, and following other excavators, his mission finally had something new to add to the Valley of the Kings.
Shaden said a foretaste of what might be to come had been found last year as his team was working on the neighbouring tomb of Amenmeses, a late 19th-Dynasty pharaoh. While digging outside this tomb the team stumbled upon the remains of workmen's huts and noted a depression in the ground which they believed could be the top of a shaft leading to a tomb. When this year's archaeological season began three weeks ago, the team uncovered the intact tomb after removing the stone-block doorway at the bottom of a 10-metre-deep shaft.
Shaden believes that since it was an honour to be buried in the Valley of the Kings, these mummies belonged to relatives of the king, perhaps a brother-in-law, a gardener or another minor person in the palace who was given special honour.
Sarcophagi carry the names and all information about the person buried, but Shaden adds that so far the team has not been able to enter the burial chamber to examine them.
Hawass believes that further excavation will lead to more revelations about who these people were, and says that within three weeks more details will be announced. These may also specify details about eight pits the team has located inside the tomb, which were possibly used by Ancient Egyptians for entry and exit.