Investigating unacclaimed tombs with wonderful secrets

Located in the mountains on the west bank of the Nile, opposite ancient Thebes (modern Luxor), the Valley of the Kings served as the royal cemetery during Egypt’s New Kingdom.

It may be the royal tombs that spring to mind when we think of the Valley of the Kings, but you did not have to be pharaoh to secure space in the cemetery. More modest tombs exist in greater numbers, although the identity of many of their occupants remains a mystery. Donald P Ryan has been investigating those who faced the afterlife alongside the god-kings.

The ancient royal cemetery known to us today as the Valley of the Kings, served as the burial site for most of Egypt’s rulers during the era historians refer to as the New Kingdom (Dynasties 18, 19, and 20, c.1550-1069 BC). It was hoped that the Valley, which was remotely situated in arid mountains on the Nile’s west bank, opposite the major ancient political and religious capital of Thebes, would forever serve as a quiet and secure cemetery for pharaohs who were considered living gods while alive, and eternal gods after their death.

The New Kingdom was Egypt’s time of empire, with its controlling reach stretching far south and east, resulting in vast wealth and resources for the homeland. It was also a time of some of the most remarkable individuals known from ancient history, including the female ruler Hatshepsut, warrior pharaohs such as Thutmose III and Rameses II, and the religious heretic Akhenaten. And, of course, Tutankhamun, whose virtually intact tomb brought the world’s attention to the Valley of the Kings.

The crudely carved steps of KV 60. We rediscovered this tomb on our very first day working in the Valley, when cleaning with a broom exposed a crack that proved to be the top of this pit.

The royal tombs were carved deep into the Valley’s limestone, their walls beautifully decorated with funerary texts, and their burials outfitted with an imposing stone sarcophagus and a suitably splendid array of goods for the afterlife. But, despite its modern name, the Valley of the Kings was not reserved for the burial of kings alone. Scattered among these spectacular royal tombs can be found several dozen smaller, unembellished graves. Many simply consist of a vertical shaft leading to one or more small rectangular rooms, while a few possess stairs and corridors. Most were discovered in the 19th or early 20th centuries by explorers who were more interested in finding large decorated royal tombs, preferably intact. When they encountered these modest and usually ransacked burials, they typically took a quick look and moved on. Many had been damaged by devastating flash-flooding over the centuries, a serious threat to the Valley’s tombs even today.

So who were these individuals that were given the privilege of being buried among beings who were considered god-kings? Obviously, they were of great importance, and we know that some of these undecorated tombs belonged to royal in-laws, lesser royalty including queens, and favoured friends or officials. The modest tombs, with their blank walls, represent archaeological puzzles that can only be solved through careful study of all that remains. Appraising their architecture and pottery can help us date them, while the remains of grave goods can provide clues about their ownership.

I first visited the Valley of the Kings as a student and became intrigued with its many tombs, especially the smaller undecorated ones, some of whose precise locations were barely discernible or even forgotten. Eventually, I initiated a project affiliated with Pacific Lutheran University to examine several of these burials. The results have been surprising and, in some cases, provocative. In this article, I will describe our reinvestigation of a few of these fascinating tombs, each of which tells a unique story. Do note that all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings are numbered and preceded by the prefix ‘KV’ for ‘King’s Valley’, as distinguished from other cemeteries such as the Valley of the Queens (‘QV’). The numbering system is especially useful when discussing undecorated tombs whose occupants remain unknown.

The well-preserved female mummy rediscovered within KV 60. Could this be Hatshepsut?

KV 60

This tomb was first encountered by English archaeologist Howard Carter in 1903. The tomb was crudely carved into the bedrock and, inside, Carter found fragments of smashed burial equipment throughout. In an unfinished chamber at the end of a corridor were two female mummies. One occupied a coffin bearing the name ‘Sitre’, a royal nurse now known to have been associated with Hatshepsut, while another lay on the floor. Carter’s very short accounts of the discovery suggest that he was not particularly impressed. The coffined mummy was later moved to Cairo, and the tomb’s entrance covered over, leaving it essentially lost for more than 80 years.

As things turned out, we would encounter KV 60 on our very first day working in the Valley. Having studied Carter’s notes and scrutinised the environment, I identified a likely spot and began to sweep away debris using a simple broom. Within half an hour, we encountered a crack that appeared artificial. Further clearing revealed the edges of a pit, and then a set of stairs leading down to an entrance tunnel blocked with large stones. We had apparently rediscovered the lost KV 60, and in very short order! On entering the tomb, we found that Carter had left much, including the remains of a shattered coffin, and several linen-wrapped packages that X-ray examination determined were food parcels meant to sustain the deceased. The mummy on the floor of the chamber noted by Carter was still there: a remarkably well-preserved body of an elderly woman, mostly stripped of her wrappings by ancient tomb robbers. What happened afterwards perfectly illustrates the fascination such anonymous burials can spark.

Donald Ryan, director of the Pacific Lutheran University Valley of the Kings Project, studies a coffin face-piece reconstructed from fragments recovered from KV 60.

In her 1966 book The Royal Necropoleis of Thebes, American Egyptologist Elizabeth Thomas speculated that, should KV 60 ever be rediscovered, perhaps the long-missing mummy of Hatshepsut might be found within. Hatshepsut distinguished herself by ruling Egypt quite successfully, but after her death many of her monuments were defaced or destroyed, perhaps in an effort to erase traces of the non-traditional precedent of a woman ruling Egypt.

Hatshepsut’s body had never been identified among the known royal mummies, and her official royal tomb, quite close to KV 60, was in ruins. In 2007, Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass included the KV 60 mummy we rediscovered alongside other anonymous female mummies associated with the Valley in a project attempting to identify the body of Hatshepsut. A broken tooth found in a wooden box bearing Hatshepsut’s name seemed to fit perfectly in the mouth of our mummy, and Hawass thereafter declared that she was indeed the female pharaoh. Not surprisingly, there are sceptics who question all aspects of the identification. Indeed, later that same year, my own expedition conserved a coffin fragment from KV 60 bearing the name of another woman, a temple singer named Tiy, which further complicates the scenario. If Elizabeth Thomas had not mentioned Hatshepsut in 1966, might KV 60 now be simply considered the tomb of two special women: a royal nurse and a temple singer? For some, the jury is still out, but for others the body of Hatshepsut has been found in an austere burial, having been relocated from her own royal tomb.

Shafts and chambers

A skull embedded in hard sediment is revealed on the floor of KV 27. The original mummies were reduced to a skeletal state by flooding within the tomb.

Some of the simpler tombs our project investigated consist of no more than a shaft and a small rectangular room, but these too proved remarkable. KV 44 and 45 meet this physical description, and, apart from their original 18th Dynasty burials, both were later reused during the 22nd Dynasty (c.945-715 BC). This is well after the Valley ceased to serve as a royal cemetery, and thus provides us with interesting clues about the Valley’s post-New Kingdom history, which remains barely known. KV 44 is especially interesting. It had apparently been flooded at one time, thus reducing its wrapped mummies to a mostly skeletal state. Our study of the human remains within indicates an unexpected 13 individuals were interred in this tiny tomb during the 18th Dynasty, including eight infants. There is certainly an interesting story to be told, but it is one we are still trying to unravel.

Nearby, KV 27 was a real challenge to excavate, having been choked with 2m of consolidated flood debris. The tomb consists of a shaft leading to four small undecorated chambers. While painstakingly excavating each room, we found little more than hundreds of smashed pottery sherds – until we reached the last section of the final chamber. There, on the floor, were some of the tomb’s original occupants, reduced to a skeletal state and embedded in hard, dried sediment. Close by was a kind of ‘ghost coffin’ among the debris. It lay tilted at an angle, as if finally coming to rest after swirling about in flood waters. All that survived was its barely discernible paint, the wooden coffin having rotted ages ago. Although we have data from the study of their remains, those buried in KV 27 remain at this time anonymous, but were, of course, individuals of great importance.

This is an extract from an article featured in issue 94 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

All photos: Pacific Lutheran University Valley of the Kings Project; Denis Whitfill, principal photographer