Variations on an enigma
Recent discoveries at the Valley of the Kings on Luxor's west bank have changed the understanding of one of the most intriguing archaeological sites in Egypt, says Nevine El-Aref
The Valley of the Kings is one of the richest and most fascinating archaeological sites in the world. It was here that in 1922 Howard Carter found the tomb and treasures of Tutankhamun, perhaps the most sensational discovery in the history of archaeology. In 2005, a team from the University of Memphis in the United States located the first new tomb found in the valley since Tutankhamun, bringing the number of known tombs to 63, of which 26 belonged to kings. Yet, although explorers and archaeologists had been combing the Valley of the Kings for centuries, not a single tomb had been found by an Egyptian. Not, that was, until early last year, when the first all-Egyptian archaeological mission ever to work at the Valley of the Kings opened a new chapter of discovery. The team has recently made several important and revolutionary discoveries that are helping to solve some of the enigmas surrounding the site.
Although several important discoveries were made there in the 19th and 20th centuries, there are still a number of Pharaohs and other royals who were probably buried in the Valley of the Kings but whose tombs have not yet been found. The resting places of Ramses VIII, Tuthmosis II, and the queens and princes of the 18th Dynasty are still unknown.
"There are still many treasures left to be discovered in the valley," says Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), who led the excavation team.
Excavation work by the team focussed on three different areas at the valley; The first is between the tombs of Merenptah and Ramses II on the northern side of the central valley; the second in the area to the south of the tomb of Tutankhamun; and the third in the western part of the valley, where the tombs of Amenhotep III and Ay are located.
At the area in the cliffs between the tombs of Ramses II and Merenptah, a man-made drainage channel that probably helped prevent the flooding of the royal tombs in the vicinity has been found. Along with masses of stone piled near a man-made wall at the base of the cliff which appears to represent a collection area for runoff, it provided protection from the occasional rains in the high desert that have inundated the Valley of the Kings since ancient times. Hawass says the area at the base of the channel is probably the location mentioned in an ostracon as the site where a sacred tree once grew, and the "tears of the gods" were collected. A small, sheltered area off to the side of the channel, where the team found a stone basin that may have held food and water, probably served as a resting place for the workmen.
In the central part of the valley, south of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the team has found the remains of small structures made of stone. "These buildings were probably used for storage, perhaps of food and other items intended for offerings or of embalming materials," Hawass suggests. The team also uncovered a number of workmen's huts, which were identified but never excavated by Howard Carter, and a cave cut into the rock to the south of the tomb. "This cave was probably used as a shelter by the workmen," Hawass says, adding that the excavation area is in the vicinity of the Amarna-period tombs KV63 to the southeast and KV55 to the northeast. "It is possible that if important figures from this era, such as Nefertiti, for instance, were reburied in the Valley of the Kings after the city of Akhetaten [Amarna] was abandoned, their tombs would be in this area," Hawass says.
The mission also worked in the area north and east of the tomb of Seti I, where they have found traces of cutting in the bedrock underneath the modern rest house which may lead to a previously unknown tomb. Unfortunately, as Hawass points out, it would be necessary to remove the entire building in order to explore this area, so they will not be able to do so in the immediate future. A radar survey of the central valley was recently conducted that identified a number of areas of interest, and further analysis of the data may reveal features that warrant archaeological investigation.
Hundreds of graffiti, most of them previously unknown, have been uncovered. One unique example tells that the vizier Userhat built a tomb for his father, the vizier Amonnakht, in the place known as set- maat, or "place of truth". An inscription mentioning a previously unknown queen, the first part of whose name reads "Weret". This woman bore the title of "god's wife", an important religious office held by royal women beginning in the early 18th Dynasty. A beautifully painted ostracon showing a queen presenting offerings was also discovered, in addition to inscriptions of the cartouches of Ramses II and Seti I. Pieces of beautiful painted pottery dating to the New Kingdom have been also unearthed.
In the western valley, known as the Wadi Al-Quroud, or "valley of the monkeys", where the tombs of Amenhotep III and Ay are both located, the mission has carried out excavation work in an attempt to find Queen Tiye's tomb.
Hawass said that Queen Tiye, the mother of Akhenaten, was the wife of Amenhotep III and possibly the sister of Ay. If she was buried in the Valley of the Kings, her tomb might have been carved out near that of her husband, and if Ay was in fact her brother it would be all the more appropriate for her tomb to be near his as well. "It will be interesting to see what excavations in this area will reveal," Hawass says.