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Excavating and conserving the Valley of the Kings

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People have been claiming that there is nothing left to find in the Valley of the Kings almost as long as they have been digging there. Giovanni Belzoni thought so after clearing all the known tombs in 1817; so did Theodore Davis, who scoured over thirty tombs and pits (1902–14). Yet in 1922, Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb made headlines around the world.

Nothing more was found till 1995, when clues from a papyrus in Turin led Kent Weeks to clear the debris from tomb KV5 – which Carter had dismissed as looted in antiquity – and uncover the entrance to a mass tomb for the sons of Ramses II, reckoned to contain 150 chambers, some huge. While inscriptions suggest that fifty of Ramses’ one hundred or so sons were meant to be interred here, the remains of only four adults have been found so far, and the risk of ceilings collapsing has hampered further excavation (see the Theban Mapping Project website, w kv5.com, for news plus images of other royal tombs)).

More recently, in 2006, Otto Schaden uncovered an XVIII Dynasty chamber designated KV63, containing empty child-coffins and embalmers’ gear, while in 2011 Swiss archeologists found an undisturbed burial chamber near the southeastern end of the valley, now designated as KV64. Dubbed the “Tomb of the Chantress” after the discovery of a sycamore coffin and resin-impregnated mummy belonging to a temple-chantress called Nehemes-Bastet, it is one of the few non-royal burials in the valley to be definitively identified. Excavations came to a halt during the 2011 Revolution and have yet to resume at the time of writing.

Another, as-yet uncovered, tomb near Tutankhamun’s has been located by ground-penetrating radar. Its discoverer, Nicholas Reeves, believes that it might be the final resting place of one or more of the “Amarna women” (Akhenaten’s wife Kiya, or his daughters Ankesenamun, Meritaten and Mekataten), but has been denied permission to excavate.

Conservation – and the future of the Valley

The Valley of the Kings is vulnerable to several hazards. Flash floods present a grave danger to the tombs, but clearing the wadis of debris and digging drainage channels risks destroying evidence that might point to undiscovered tombs. The SCA and foreign donors have already spent millions tackling an expanding sub-stratum of grey shale which ruptured several tombs in the 1990s, and installing glass screens and dehumidifiers to reduce the harm caused by tourism (the average visitor leaves behind 2.8g of sweat to corrode the murals). The upshot is that some tombs are permanently closed (except to VIPs and a few privileged tour groups), and the rest open according to a rota system. Though frustrating for visitors, this may be the only way to preserve the tombs’ fragile artwork for future generations.

As a long-term goal the SCA intends to create life-size replicas of all the royal tombs on a site near the Carter House. The originals have been laser-scanned to be replicated by digital milling machines, but the Revolution halted their construction before it began. If the project is ever completed, access to the Valley of the Kings will be restricted to a few premium-paying visitors, and ordinary tourists obliged to settle for the replica tombs.

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