Al-Ahram Ueekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
8 - 14 June 2000
Issue No. 485
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Tomb tales

Reviewed by Jill Kamil

The Lost TombThe Lost Tomb, Kent Weeks, Cairo The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp330

The Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II ruled Egypt for an unprecedented 67 years, fathering a large family and having several wives, Nefertari being the most famous of these. As many as 32 of his sons may be buried in the tomb known as KV5 in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, the "lost tomb" of this book's title. Kent Weeks's account of the steps that led to his discovery of this tomb, of the significance of its labyrinthine corridors and of the relics found in its debris-choked chambers makes for exciting reading, and it is with special delight that I review his book.

I first met Kent and his family when he was director of the University of Chicago's Epigraphical Survey in Luxor in the mid-1970s and have followed his work with interest ever since. He is an archaeologist with a vision, and as far back as 1973 be had begun to explore the possibility of making the first scientific map of the Theban necropolis. "The last map of the necropolis can be dated to 1921, and it was incomplete even then," he explained to me, stressing that the identification of all the tombs was an essential first step in protecting the necropolis. The project started in 1978, and I followed his work season after season. Detailed measurements and recording of all the known tombs was carried out, mapping their positions and subterranean contours with the aid of the most sophisticated surveying equipment and taking aerial photographs from a hot-air balloon with the cooperation of the Egyptian Academy of Science. By 1980 the team had completed the first stage of a three-dimensional map of the valley, and, with the publication of The Lost Tomb, Weeks brings to life the heady emotions of those exciting years.

I can particularly recall his description of one morning in February, 1995, when he found himself crawling towards a long-buried doorway that had not been entered for over 3000 years. Kent is not a small man, and he had to force his frame beneath the lintel of the doorway. "I was sweating profusely in high temperatures and high humidity," he said. What was he hoping to find? A small chamber packed to bursting point with gold-encrusted funerary equipment perhaps, such as the one Howard Carter saw when he first peered into Tutankhamun's tomb? Maybe. But that is not what Weeks saw. Instead, he found himself in a vast corridor with doorways lining either side. Half filled with debris, he made his way forward, crawling over fallen rock and sending up clouds of dust, until the beam of his torch fell on a statue of the god Osiris in mummified form wearing his distinctive crown and with his crossed arms holding flails and sceptres.

Weeks's subtitle to this book -- "The Greatest Discovery in the Valley of the Kings since Tutankhamun" -- may give the impression (to the layman at least) of a tiny tomb packed to bursting with gold-encrusted funerary objects for the use of the pharaoh in the hereafter. However this was not the case, since KV5 is in fact not only the largest tomb in the Valley, and therefore contrasts sharply with the tiny tomb of Tuntankhamun, but is possibly the largest in Egypt, its contents being of archaeological rather than material interest. While Tutankhamun was a boy king who ruled Egypt for only nine years and who, judging from the disorder of the tomb, appears to have been buried in a hurry, the KV5 mausoleum spans the reigns of several pharaohs and was used as the burial place of not just one son of Ramses II but of many. It contains well over 150 corridors and chambers, less than seven per cent of which have so far been cleared, and artifacts and texts found in it have already changed what we know about the reign of one of Egypt's best known and most powerful rulers.

Above all the value of this book is that it is a personal account of the tomb's discovery. Kent's aim has not been to present a technical treatise but to describe the practice of archaeological work in one of the most famous royal cemeteries in the world; in so doing, he has succeeded in giving the reader a sense of the emotional appeal of excavation and discovery.

"While our work is frustrating," he writes, "it is also part of the joy of archaeology -- the continuing search for data, the framing of new questions, the revision of theories -- it is these that make our current work in KV5 a prologue to the study of what already has become one of the most interesting and important recent discoveries in the field. It was the kind of discovery I dreamed of making four decades ago when I first fantasized about becoming an Egyptologist." Accordingly, Weeks is determined to make KV5 one of the "best-documented and best-protected tombs in the Valley of the Kings". He emphasizes that years of work lie ahead, but adds that he does not plan to excavate the tomb completely. "That would be bad archaeology," he writes. "Every generation of Egyptologists asks different questions of its data, and data are a finite resource. We will leave parts of KV5 undug so that archaeologists of the future, armed with new questions and new excavation techniques, can seek new answers to old questions and to others we haven't even dreamed of."

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