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Inquiry: AN OCCASIONAL COLUMN

Missing Tombs of the Pharaohs

  • By Peter Tyson
  • Posted 01.03.06
  • NOVA

Could another crypt as rich as King Tut's still lie buried in Egypt's fabled Valley of the Kings?

At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold—everywhere the glint of gold.
—Howard Carter, on his first peek into King Tut's tomb

When I was about 12 years old, my father gave me a book called Gods, Graves, and Scholars. It retold the great stories of archeology: Heinrich Schliemann and Troy, Napoleon and the Rosetta Stone, John Lloyd Stephens and the Mayan city of Copán. One find above all transfixed me: Howard Carter's unearthing of the tomb of Tutankhamun, the boy pharaoh known as King Tut. For years after reading C. W. Ceram's book, I dreamed of becoming an archeologist and stumbling upon downward-leading steps just as Carter had done in 1922. Eventually I took another path, but ever since I've wondered: Could another tomb like Tut's await discovery in the Valley of the Kings?

This is what greeted Howard Carter's eye when he first held a lighted candle through a small opening he made in the door to Tutankhamun's tomb. No one had beheld this sight for 3,000 years. Enlarge Photo credit: © Griffith Institute, Oxford, OX1 2LG

If you'd asked me, I'd have guessed that archeologists would have combed the place by now, leaving no stone unturned. But I'm happy to report that several leading Egyptologists I spoke with recently say there's still a chance of finding more tombs in the world's most famous necropolis. In fact, they gave tantalizing reasons why unrevealed tombs, even those of legendary pharaohs, might yet lie beneath the feet of the thousands who visit the Valley each year. And even if no more crypts as splendidly appointed as Tut's turn up, all agreed that significant discoveries still await the trowels and inquiring minds of experts. One even hinted at a find perhaps soon to be announced that, in the few particulars he furnished me, took me right back to the breathtaking moment when Carter's workers revealed that first carved stone step.

Lost souls

Three ancient Egyptian dynasties buried their pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings. They were Dynasty 18 through Dynasty 20, which together comprise the New Kingdom and stretch from 1550 to 1070 B.C. (Dynasty dates remain under debate; these come from the Atlas of Ancient Egypt by John Baines and Jaromir Málek.) In the nearly two centuries that amateur and professional Egyptologists have turned over the Valley's limestone rubble, they have accounted for the tombs of most god-kings from the New Kingdom. Yet a few have never been located, including those of some of the most famed figures from ancient Egyptian history.

The tomb of Akhenaten, for one, the heretic pharaoh (and father of Tut) who instigated radical changes in Egyptian religion and society, remains a mystery. Some feel the tomb known as KV 55—KV stands for "Kings Valley"—may be Akhenaten's; others think his tomb awaits discovery. The crypt of Nefertiti, Akhenaten's wife and perhaps the most well-known woman from the New Kingdom, is missing. "My strong feeling is that Nefertiti may well be buried somewhere in the Valley of the Kings," says Nicholas Reeves, an Egyptologist at Eton College who searched for her tomb as director of the Amarna Royal Tombs Project from 1998 to 2002. "It would be wonderful to find Nefertiti's tomb, because not only is this a person of the greatest historical importance, but it's a period of the most superb art."

The famous limestone bust of Nefertiti, found in the workshop of an ancient sculptor and now in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, is an icon of Amarna art. Enlarge Photo credit: © Ruggero Vanni/CORBIS

Another missing tomb is that of Smenkhkare, a pharaoh who preceded Tut on the throne and may even be Nefertiti herself. (Some scholars believe she adopted the name Smenkhkare when she served as coregent with Akhenaten.) If Nefertiti's tomb were ever found, says Reeves, "if there was any text that would enable us Egyptologists to stop squabbling about who was Smenkhkare and who wasn't Smenkhkare, I'm sure we'd all be very, very grateful." Other tombs thought to belong to certain New Kingdom pharaohs may in fact belong to nonroyals, leaving those kings' burial chambers also unaccounted for. The crypt of Rameses XI, the last pharaoh of the 20th Dynasty, is one such tomb in question.

Signed and sealed

If royal resting places are happened upon, they very well may not be intact. Ninety-nine percent of tombs in the Valley had been robbed, most in antiquity, by the time they were brought to light. Even Tut's had intruders, though they apparently made off with little, and the four-room chamber was resealed and remained untouched for 3,000 years until Carter entered it in the 1920s. One reason that Tut's was virtually pristine was that subsequent rulers erased him from Egyptian history, along with his father and the rest of the rulers of the so-called Amarna Period that Akhenaten established; later plunderers may not have known to look for his tomb.

"Something’s coming up—there are some scratches on the stone that are clearly man-made and not natural."

Even if undisturbed, a royal tomb may not have the exceptional grave goods that Tut's afforded. Tutankhamun ruled at the end of an enormously wealthy period in Egyptian history, and he restored the traditional religion of Amun that Akhenaten had banished—both of which may have resulted in Tut receiving an unusually rich burial, says Peter Lacovara, an Egyptologist at the Michael C. Carlos Museum in Atlanta.

In this stone relief in the tomb of a high official in Thebes, Akhenaten (left) and his wife Nefertiti appear bathed in the golden light of the Aten or sun-disc. Their images were defaced in antiquity, when subsequent rulers tried to erase Akhenaten's memory. Enlarge Photo credit: Peter Tyson/© WGBH Educational Foundation

But kings were not the only ones buried in the Valley of the Kings. More than half of the 62 tombs identified in the Valley are those of nonroyals—members of the royal family, high priests, even royal pets—and some of their tombs were sumptiously decorated. The tomb of Yuya and Tjuyu, the parents of Amenhotep III's principal wife Tiye, for example, was stuffed with high-quality gold- and silver-leaved coffins and funerary equipment when it was unearthed in 1905. More such tombs might lie undetected.

More to explore

And not just in the East Valley of the Kings—where Tut's and the tombs of great pharaohs like Seti I and Rameses II lie—but in the West Valley. People who have never been to the Valley of the Kings may not realize that its little-visited western branch is six times larger than the eastern arm yet remains largely unexplored. I didn't, at least not until my teenage dream came true and I walked down those storied steps into Tut's tomb on a visit to the Valley in 1999. It seemed amazing to me then, and still does today, that any part of the Valley of the Kings could still be relatively uncanvassed. Especially considering that the West Valley has several 18th-Dynasty pharaonic tombs.

Even the East Valley has not been, as archeologists phrase it, "worked out." Despite everything from ancient looting to 19th-century treasure hunting to intense modern surveying and excavation, parts of the Valley remain archeologically intact. This includes ground beneath both the central area of the Valley and the tourist parts, which have never been cleared and retain their stratigraphy, Reeves says.

"All the things that we thought we would never be able to answer, all the context that we needed to understand the tombs and the people who made them—by a miracle, it's still there," he says. "Now the challenge is to make sure that these areas are treated with the utmost care and respect, and dug extremely thoughtfully, extremely carefully, with the best possible archeological techniques, by the best possible settlement archeologists."

Weighing 22 and a half pounds, Tutankhamun's gold mask consists of thick sheet gold inlaid with glass, semi-precious stones, and faience, a kind of glazed ceramic. Enlarge Photo credit: © Robert Holmes/CORBIS

Common ground

Indeed, many Egyptologists would say that the most coveted treasure they could find today would be grave goods or other archeological materials that shed light on daily life of the time, something the tombs of the elite have only minimally shown. "All else being equal, I would like to find the tomb of a high official in which he buried all of his documents, his personal journals and papers and so forth, the kind of material that would give us real information about how the Egyptians lived in this life," says Kent Weeks, an Egyptologist at American University in Cairo who is excavating KV 5, the most significant discovery in the Valley since Carter's. "Gold and jewels are fine; we can live with those. But I would like to find something of a commoner, not a king, and something that contained, well, homely things."

Lacovara concurs. "Some people on the project were keen on finding another tomb," he says of an archeological expedition to the Valley run by England's Durham University that he joined in the late 1990s. "But what was really interesting was that we found some of the ancient workmen's houses that were like ones Carter removed from above Tut's tomb. For the first time, we really got to see them in detail, to understand how artists were stationed and how they worked on the tombs. So there's lots of information still to be gleaned from the Valley that really speaks more to the concerns of modern archeology, that has nothing to do with treasure hunting but is really about science and trying to understand ancient Egypt."

The ground beneath the central and tourist parts of the Valley of the Kings remains archeologically intact, says Nicholas Reeves. What might still lie there, awaiting revelation? Enlarge Photo credit: Peter Tyson/© WGBH Educational Foundation

And yet...

All the same, it was something that Weeks said toward the end of our conversation that—I'll be honest—really pricked up my ears. "One of my colleagues may very well make an announcement within the next three or four months of something, whether it's another tomb remains to be seen," Weeks said. "He is working in an area of the Valley that has not been looked at before. It was an area that I described in my book The Lost Tomb and predicted that there might very well be a tomb in that area. And something's coming up—there are some scratches on the stone that are clearly man-made and not natural."

Will I for one be keeping an eye out for the news? You bet.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program The Mummy Who Would Be King.

Peter Tyson is editor in chief of NOVA Online.

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