Published: September 1998
Valley of the Kings
In life they ruled like gods. In death the pharaohs of ancient Egypt's New Kingdom were united with their deities. Decades of excavation in the necropolis near Luxor have turned up treasures like Tutankhamun's gold mask, along with insight into the soul of a dead civilization.
By Kent R. Weeks

No one had ventured inside the ancient Egyptian tomb since 1825, when a British traveler and draftsman named James Burton sketched its first few chambers. It lay somewhere near the entrance to the Valley of the Kings—burial place of New Kingdom pharaohs who ruled Egypt at the peak of its military power, between 1539 and 1078 B.C.

In 1827 John Gardner Wilkinson, one of the founders of Egyptology, designated the tomb KV 5—the fifth tomb beyond the entrance to KV, the King's Valley. Then for more than 150 years KV 5 was all but forgotten.

In 1989 I was directing a mapping project in the Valley of the Kings, and I wanted to relocate KV 5, not because it held treasures—it didn't—but because the roadway at the valley's entrance was being widened. The roadwork seemed likely to damage any tomb in its path, and that path, I believed, lay right above KV 5.

The tomb has turned out to be the largest ever found in the Valley of the Kings. It was a family mausoleum—the burial place of many of the sons of Ramses II. It contains at least 110 chambers, and its artifacts and hieroglyphs promise to change what we know about Ramses II, one of antiquity's most powerful rulers. During his long reign ancient Egypt controlled lands from present-day Sudan northeast into Syria. Of all the pharaohs he was the most prolific builder. To glorify his name, Ramses erected dozens of imposing temples and monuments along the Nile.

On a hot Tuesday morning in July 1989 our workmen began digging just east of the roadway. With crude homemade hoes they scraped away debris and carted it off in baskets made of old automobile tires—standard archaeological equipment in Egypt. A week of digging revealed traces of a tomb entrance. We could see that a narrow trench had been cut through the debris clogging the tomb's doorway. James Burton, I recalled, had dug just such a trench.

Assistant excavation director Catharine Roehrig, senior workman Muhammad Mahmoud, and I squeezed into the trench, painfully pulling and pushing ourselves over thousands of sharp limestone fragments. To our left and right the tomb was packed nearly to the ceiling with silt and limestone chips washed in by flash floods.

According to Burton's sketch, the third chamber was a cavernous pillared hall. Almost on cue, as we crawled along the trench, we could see the broken tops of massive pillars jutting up through the debris. The trench made a sharp turn to the right to avoid a pillar, then began weaving between two- and three-ton slabs of limestone that had fallen from the ceiling. No part of the ceiling appeared to have collapsed since Burton's visit in 1825, but the fallen blocks were unnerving nevertheless. A headline flashed through my mind: "Egyptologists Flattened as Tomb Collapses. Pharaoh's Curse Returns."

After 20 minutes in the stifling heat we were ready to leave. Soaking wet, sweat streaking my glasses, covered in mud, and with my flashlight fading, I turned to Muhammad. "Do you remember where the entrance is?"

"No."

Catharine wasn't sure either. The hall was so filled with debris that we couldn't see more than a few inches in any direction.

"I think we came in from over there," Muhammad said. He crawled forward, looking for a recognizable pillar or scrape in the debris that would show where we'd been. Shining his flashlight around the chamber, he looked up at the ceiling for a moment, then called us over.

"Look" he said. Directly above him we could see crude black letters written with the smoke of a candle: BURTON 1825.

After a few more wrong turns we clambered out of the tomb. Catharine scraped mud from her clothes, wondering aloud about the tomb's original occupants. "Remember Elizabeth Thomas? She thought this might be a tomb for children of Ramses II. Thomas didn't have any proof, but she knew more about the Valley of the Kings than any other Egyptologist in this century. Her theory should be checked out."

I decided to become an Egyptologist when I was eight, my interest in an ancient civilization winning out over dreams of intergalactic travel. Although my parents never tried to dissuade me from so unlikely a career, one aunt regularly pointed out that an interest in ancient Egypt couldn't possibly lead to a decent job. My friends, on the other hand, agreed that cutting open mummies and searching gold-filled tombs were worthy goals.

Not long after I took my Ph.D. in Egyptology from Yale, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago made me director of its field headquarters in Luxor, the modern town built atop ancient Thebes. Surrounded by so many tombs and temples, I had a wonderful opportunity to delve into the archaeology of the New Kingdom—Egypt's golden imperial age.

The warrior pharaohs of the New Kingdom conquered Palestine and Syria with horse-drawn chariots and other advanced military techniques. For three centuries Egypt was the strongest nation in the world. At Thebes the pharaohs built larger and grander temples to proclaim the might and wealth that made their religious capital "the queen of cities … greater than any other city." The city proper stood on the east bank of the Nile; the necropolis, with its royal temples and rock-cut tombs, lay on the west.

On weekends I would take a ferry across the Nile, rent a bicycle or hire a taxi, and head off to the well-known sites. When I began looking for the more obscure monuments, I often couldn't find them.

"I'd like to see the tomb of so-and-so," I'd say to one of the antiquities inspectors.

"I've heard of it," he'd reply. "Do you know where it is?"

"Don't you know where it is?"

"No. The old guard Sheikh Taya, he probably knew, but he died."

Of the tombs crowding the Theban necropolis, few had been mapped by the early 1970s. It was easy to see why: In a four-square-mile strip between the desert mountains and the Nile floodplain lie thousands of tombs, temples, shrines, palaces, and villages—more than in any other part of Egypt, probably more than anywhere else in the world. In some places the tombs are so close together you can crawl from one into another, moving hundreds of feet underground before returning to the surface. In the Valley of the Kings alone, more than half of the tombs are still largely unexcavated—and the burial places of several New Kingdom pharaohs have yet to be found.

The need for a comprehensive map of Thebes struck me as urgent, and I decided to do something about it.

Mapping the Theban necropolis entirely from the ground would take my team decades. Aerial photographs would save time.

In 1982 we made the first ever hot-air balloon flight over Thebes. Never before had I seen anything more beautiful than the necropolis at sunrise from a thousand feet in the air. The bright, early morning light slanted across the landscape, and we photographed Thebes from angles rarely seen before. Though our flight lasted only an hour, we shot more than 20 rolls of film.

We could hear every sound on the ground. Dogs barked incessantly as the noise of our burner disturbed their sleep. Villagers emerged from their homes as we floated overhead, looking up in amazement, saying over and over, "My God! God is great! My God!"

As we landed, a blue pickup sped toward the site. The local police chief got out and walked toward us. In our excitement we had failed to inform him of our flight.

"Why didn't you tell me what you were doing?" he demanded angrily. "Hussein, the schoolteacher, thought you came to invade Egypt. He wanted to shoot you down, and I had to confiscate his gun. This is very bad."

"We are very sorry, sir," I said. "I assure you we did not mean to ignore you. You are the most senior official in this village, and your cooperation is very important to our project. Would you like to come up in the balloon tomorrow? We could show you our work."

The police chief smiled. "That would be very nice. Yes, I will meet you at sunrise. And do not worry about the schoolteacher. I told him that you were not the enemies of Egypt."

I had assumed that making architectural plans of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings would be a simple task. How complex could tombs be that had been surveyed with a carpenter's square, plumb bob, and piece of string and then carved with chert axes and copper chisels? My team of architects and surveyors, on the other hand, had state-of-the-art equipment and a high degree of naive, can-do cockiness.

We seriously underestimated the ancient Egyptians. Tombs we thought could be easily plotted from, say, 500 measurements, often required thousands; tombs we thought could be mapped in a few days took weeks.

Just crawling into the tombs was difficult. To avoid damaging plastered walls and mummies that lay half-buried in debris, we wriggled into pitch-black spaces barely wide enough for our shoulders. Sometimes we would startle a sleeping desert fox or dozens of bats hanging from the ceiling.

The men who dug the royal tombs lived about a mile south of the Valley of the Kings. Their village, Deir el-Medina, offers a fascinating glimpse into everyday Egyptian life. From thousands of inscribed limestone fragments called ostraca—the Post-it notes of ancient Egypt—we know the names of the residents. We know where they lived, when they died, and where they were buried. We even know when they took ill or went on holiday, what they ate, and what they bought and sold.

More than three thousand years ago Deir el-Medina was home to a hundred sculptors, woodworkers, quarrymen, painters, and plasterers. They lived with their wives and children in nearly 70 single-story houses strung along a lane hardly wide enough for two donkeys to pass. Each house had rooms for receiving guests and for sitting and sleeping, a kitchen, and a shaded roof terrace. Wall niches held statuettes of household deities.

In small cellars the workmen stored food they received as payment for their services. What were they paid? An ostracon from the mayor of Thebes to the crew foremen gives the answer: "Please have the wages delivered to the necropolis crew comprising vegetables, fish, firewood, pottery, small cattle, and milk. Don't let anything thereof remain outstanding. [Don't] make me treat any part of their wages as balance due. Be to it and pay heed!"

More than at any other site in Egypt, in the workers' village I feel the presence of people with whom we share familiar emotions and concerns. Listen to two ancient voices—the scribe Pabaki addressing his father, the draftsman Maani-nakhtef:

"I have heeded what you told me, 'Let Ib work with you.' Now look, he spends all day bringing the jug of water, there being no other task charged to him, each and every day. He hasn't heeded your admonition to ask of him, 'What have you accomplished today?' See, the sun has set, and he is still far off [with] the jug."

Workmen left the village early each morning and spent an hour climbing over the hill to the Valley of the Kings. At the end of the day they returned along the same path—unless they chose to spend the night in one of the stonewalled rest houses on the hilltop.

It takes me less than half an hour to hike from Deir el-Medina to the hilltop. A cool breeze—the "sweet breath of the north wind" to the ancient Egyptians—nearly always blows, making hot summer days bearable.

Seated on a rock outcropping with my back to the Valley of the Kings, I peer down on a series of stony hills pockmarked with the entrances to hundreds, perhaps thousands of private tombs from the New Kingdom; most have been plundered but not excavated. Half a mile farther east stand the royal temples of nearly two dozen pharaohs, with great stone columns and pylons and thick brick walls jutting from the desert sand.

Between the desert and the Nile a dozen mud-brick villages still hum with the ageless rhythms of daily life. Children swat sheep and goats down narrow paths, stirring up dust that makes them appear to walk on clouds. Young boys sit astride water buffalo submerged to their necks in the muddy water of an irrigation canal. The panorama reminds me of scenes painted on the walls of the ancient tombs.

At 8 a.m. the temperature on my hilltop has already climbed to 95°F. The sky is cloudless. The modern town of Luxor lies four miles away on the east bank; I can make out the tops of the temple pylons at Karnak and Luxor through the palm trees. Several tourist boats on the Nile jockey for moorage.

Nothing disturbs the tomblike silence up here, except for the whisper of the breeze, the occasional barking of a dog, and the crying of a child in a distant village.

At first glance the Valley of the Kings seems little different from hundreds of other valleys at the desert's edge. Shaped like a human hand with fingers splayed, the Valley of the Kings covers only about seven acres—smaller than nearby valleys. Towering over it is el-Qurn, a 1,500-foot peak shaped like a pyramid. Some Egyptologists believe that this natural symbol of the sun god Re led to the selection of the Valley of the Kings as the site of royal tombs. Another reason was security: There's only one narrow gorge leading into the valley.

By the time Roman travelers hiked the rocky trail and scratched their names on tomb walls, ancient robbers had despoiled most of the royal mummies and carted away the treasures buried with them so that the deceased could live as they had on Earth—furniture, papyrus scrolls, amulets, jewelry, ritual objects, statues. Napoleon Bonaparte brought a team of scholars to record Egyptian antiquities when his army invaded in 1798, and adventurers and archaeologists in the 19th and 20th centuries entered tomb after tomb.

One of the largest and best decorated tombs is that of Seti I, the father of Ramses II. Seti, who did much to promote prosperity during his 11-year rule, overran Palestine, made peace with the Hittites in Syria, opened mines and quarries, and enlarged the great Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak. The discovery of his tomb by Giovanni Battista Belzoni in 1817 caused as much furor in the European press as that of Tutankhamun's tomb 105 years later.

Italian by birth and a hydraulic engineer by training, the flamboyant Belzoni had toured Europe in a vaudeville show in which he carried a dozen men perched on an iron frame braced on his shoulders. In 1815 he sailed to Egypt and over the next two years uncovered four royal tombs. Seti's was the most famous.

Painted reliefs, drawings, and hieroglyphs covered almost every wall, pillar, and ceiling. In the burial chamber Belzoni gazed up at a dark blue vaulted ceiling that glistened as if painted the day before. Red stars overlay figures representing the constellations as the ancient Egyptians saw them—Ursa Major as an ox, Cygnus as a man with arms outstretched, and Orion as a running man.

As Belzoni's flickering candle shone on Seti's sarcophagus, its translucent alabaster glowed in the gloom. Nothing like it had been seen before, but gone were the mummy and almost everything else that was movable.

The mystery of Seti's missing mummy was solved in 1881, when the notorious Abd el-Rassul family confessed to plundering a tomb they had discovered hidden behind a nearly inaccessible crevice. Ancient priests, fearing grave robbers, had stashed Seti's remains and 40 other mummies there.

Seti's mummy now rests in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. X-rays show that before death the pharaoh lost a tooth. After death the head and neck were broken from the body and the abdomen was crushed, perhaps by the priests who transported the mummy to its secret grave.

Seti I died in June 1279 B.C., and Ramses II took charge of his father's funeral. After the priests wrapped the mummy and placed it inside several nesting coffins, a flotilla bearing priests and officials, ceremonial vestments, incense, and funerary furniture set off up the Nile from the delta toward Thebes. Peasants lined the riverbanks. Some cheered their new pharaoh; others stood in silent prayer, mourning the old.

When the flotilla reached Thebes, probably in August, priests received the mummy and performed ceremonies in the major temples. I can imagine the great procession leaving the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak, crossing the Nile, and sailing along a canal that cut westward through farmland toward Seti's royal temple. There the procession stopped while the priests performed ritual ceremonies so the mummy could thrive in the afterlife.

Proceeding on foot, the cortege climbed through the barren hills to the Valley of the Kings and Seti's tomb. The mummy was laid to rest in the burial chamber, along with everything needed for the journey into the afterlife: the Book of the Dead, containing spells to protect the deceased; mummy-like statuettes called ushabti to act as servants; offerings of food and wine; and jewelry and furniture to make the afterlife more comfortable. Not until Ramses II died 66 years later would this ceremony be performed for another pharaoh.

In 1995, six seasons after we began work in KV 5, a European television reporter visited us. When she asked what we were digging at the moment, I described our work in the 3,600-square-foot pillared hall.

"This is one of the largest pillared halls ever found in an Egyptian tomb," I said.

"Did you also find colored balls?"

I did a double take. "I'm sorry?"

"I mean, were billiard halls common in ancient Egypt?"

I had trouble keeping a straight face as the camera rolled. When the interview was done, I suggested we tape it again, but she declined.

After clearing the doorway in the rear wall of the pillared hall, we began digging in the chamber beyond, which we assumed would be small. When I struggled through the narrow crawl space into the chamber, Muhammad Mahmoud was there with Marjorie Aronow, a University of Michigan Egyptology student.

"Look," Muhammad said, pointing to a gap in the wall of debris that lay ahead.

I shone my flashlight into the gap; there was nothing but blackness. Strange, I thought. The light should reflect off a wall. Crawling forward, we found that the corridor, which was about nine feet wide, continued a hundred feet into the hillside. There was one door on the left, another on the right, then two more, then four. We counted doors as we crawled forward: 10, 12, 16, 18. Other tomb corridors in the Valley of the Kings have at most one or two doorways cut into their walls. I had never seen a corridor like this one in any Egyptian tomb.

Muhammad pointed his flashlight down the corridor. "What's that?" he asked suddenly.

"Oh, my God!" Marjorie gasped. As we turned our flashlights that way, a human form took shape. Muhammad began whispering a prayer from the Koran.

The figure stood ghostlike in a niche at the end of the corridor. As we inched closer, the form became clearer: It was a five-foot carving coated with plaster painted gray-green. Even though the face was missing, we recognized it as the quintessential god of the afterlife, Osiris, who is often shown as a mummiform figure with his arms crossed over his chest. Each hand held a shepherd's crook and a flail.

We sat for several minutes at Osiris' feet, slowly moving the flashlight beam over the figure from head to toe, again and again. It was a strange feeling, sitting 200 feet underground in utter silence, our light focused on an image of the god of the afterlife. For an instant it was 1275 B.C. again, and this was ancient Thebes. I could imagine priests chanting prayers and shaking tambourines. I could feel the floor tremble as great sarcophagi were dragged down the corridor. I could smell incense and feel priestly robes brush my arm as the funeral procession moved slowly past.

Finally I aimed my beam at the doorways to the left and right of the statue. More surprises. These doors didn't lead to small side chambers, as the other doorways in the corridor did, but into yet other corridors that extended even deeper into the bedrock. And there were yet more doorways cut into their walls.

"I can't believe it," Marjorie kept repeating.

Suddenly KV 5 had gone from a small, unimportant tomb to … to what? We crawled back down the corridor, re-counting the doors.

"There have to be over 65 chambers in the tomb," I said—underestimating, as we later discovered. No tomb in the Valley of the Kings has more than 30 chambers; most have only six or eight. Many tombs plunge straight into the steep hillsides, but KV 5 resembles an octopus surrounded by its tentacles.

And there was something else: Inscriptions in Chambers 1 and 2 indicated that KV 5 was the burial place of several sons of Ramses II. Ramses "Junior," the second son, bore titles similar to those of his elder brother, Amonherkhopshef: "Fan-bearer on the King's Right Hand, Heir, Prince, Royal Scribe, General, King's Eldest Son, First King's Son and First of His Majesty, Beloved of Him, Ramses." Of the 30-plus sons, we knew that Merneptah was buried in his own tomb in the Valley of the Kings; two others may also have had separate tombs. Could the rest be here in KV 5? Could the corridors to the left and right of the Osiris figure slope downward to a lower level of rooms? Or might other corridors descend to a cluster of burial chambers? It will probably be many more years before we find out.

Marjorie, Muhammad, and I were the first people in millennia to see these corridors, to touch these carvings, to breathe this stale air. What a humbling experience to sit where Ramses II had come on sad occasions to bury his sons. None of us said a word.

Twenty minutes later we crawled out of the tomb, sweating and filthy and smiling. As the magnitude of our discovery began to sink in, I thought to myself: "I know how we're going to be spending the next 20 years."

Outliving at least 12 of his sons and his favorite wife, Nefertari, Ramses II ruled for an impressive 66 years. During his long reign Ramses expanded and secured Egypt's borders and built grandiose temples and colossal statues of himself and Nefertari up and down the Nile Valley.

Ramses II was tall for an ancient Egyptian, five foot eight, until arthritis forced him to stoop. Slight but well muscled, he had a narrow chin, high cheekbones, an aquiline profile, and large ears. His teeth were so severely worn that the pulp cavities and nerves were exposed; his gums were badly abscessed. His red hair must have set him apart from the typically dark-haired population of Egypt and western Asia.

Ramses II died in August 1213 B.C., when he was about 90 years old. His tomb, which lies less than 200 feet from KV 5, remains one of the great unknowns in the Valley of the Kings. Though the entrance corridor has been accessible since antiquity, thick layers of flood debris still fill most of the tomb, so our knowledge of its art and architecture is sketchy. When our Theban Mapping Project worked there, the debris was so deep we were often unsure whether we were walking down sloping corridors or silt-covered stairways.

By contrast, the tomb of Ramses' beloved Nefertari is well known. It is the largest and loveliest in the nearby Valley of the Queens. We know little about Nefertari herself, for custom seems to have dictated that the biographical details of royal wives go unrecorded. Perhaps the daughter of a Theban nobleman, Nefertari was one of the first women wed to Ramses II. Paintings depict her as beautiful. Her skin is rosy, unlike the pale yellow that characterizes females in most Egyptian paintings. Her high status as principal wife earned her an honor enjoyed by only a few Egyptian women before her: She was deified in her lifetime.

Ramses too was worshiped as a deity in his own time. Since he was a living god, his sons attended to many of his secular duties—settling legal disputes, conducting foreign relations, and overseeing Egypt's agriculture, irrigation, and economy. This may explain why a tomb as unusual as KV 5 came into existence. His sons held positions of greater responsibility than crown princes had in the past, so when they died before he did, each was given a tomb more elaborate than that of an ordinary prince. Each may have had not only a burial chamber but also several beautifully decorated rooms filled with offerings and funerary goods.

This past year we unearthed an adult male skeleton from a pit in Chamber 2. A son of Ramses II? Our workmen talked excitedly about that possibility. I warned them that the bones might have come from a later burial or been washed into KV 5 by flash floods, but nothing diminished their enthusiasm.

"You know," one workman said, "Egyptian mummies are stuffed with gold. Even if we can see only bones now, there will be gold too."

"I will be on television," another said. "My mother will be so proud."

Toward the center of the pit we uncovered the mummified leg of a young cow lying on top of more traces of human bone. This must have been one of the food offerings brought to the tomb to sustain the deceased in the afterlife. Another day we found three human skulls.

Excavating the skeleton proved extremely difficult: The bones were soft, and the fragments were embedded in a cement-like matrix of mud and limestone chips. We had to work with dental picks and artist's brushes to loosen the debris and gently brush it away. Some bones were in such bad shape that we had to apply a thin solution of adhesive every few minutes to keep them from disintegrating.

I squatted in a space only 30 inches wide, braced against the wall with one hand to keep from falling over while I cleaned the skeleton with the other. It often took 10 or 15 minutes to clean and stabilize a single square inch. Every half hour one of the workmen had to help me out of the pit so I could hobble about and restore my blocked circulation.

How did the human bones and skulls get tossed into the pit? I have a theory. Let's imagine that ancient thieves entered KV 5 and stole objects from Chamber 2. Most likely a human mummy had been buried there in a wooden coffin. The pit is too narrow for a stone sarcophagus, and we've found traces of wood. Hastily they hacked through the coffin and the mummy's wrappings, searching for gold, jewelry, and amulets.

Later robbers removed whatever treasures still lay deep inside the tomb. Somewhere they discovered at least three more mummies and dragged them into Chambers 1 and 2, where light streaming through the front door made it easier to see as they hacked heads from torsos, tossed the skulls into the pit, tore away bandages to rip out the amulets placed across the torsos, and then left the remains scattered over the floor.

To find out if the skulls and skeleton belong to Ramses' sons, we'll need to run DNA analyses. X-rays and other tests will tell us their age at death, cause of death, ailments, and injuries—the parts of life no hieroglyphic texts ever discuss. The main problem will be finding tissue samples to compare with our material. The chances of getting uncontaminated samples from the mummy of Ramses II are almost nil. None were taken before the mummy was shipped to Paris in 1976, where it was treated with radiation and chemicals to protect it from bacteriological damage.

One solution would be to compare the DNA results from each of the four skulls. If closely related, then almost certainly they are Ramses' sons. Another possibility would be to analyze tissue from the mummy of Merneptah, one of Ramses' sons and his successor.

Just before shutting down for the season, we removed the three skulls from the pit but left the skeleton in place. At some point we'll have him x-rayed, but for now, as Ahmed Mahmoud Hassan, our excavation foreman, said, "We can let him sleep."

We have collected so much material from KV 5 that it will take us years to analyze it all. There are fragments of plaster reliefs to compare with decorations in other tombs, pottery to reconstruct and date, and bones to identify and test. As a general rule, one day's work in the field generates three or four days' work in the laboratory, library, computer room, and office.

At the end of the 1997-98 field season, my wife, Susan, and I sat on the Amoun Hotel balcony, watching the sunbirds take a final flight before settling in for the night. It was our last evening in Thebes, and as the sun set, one of our workmen called from the courtyard below.

"Doctor. Hello, doctor," Nubie said. "Can I come up, doctor? I have some news."

"Of course, Nubie," I called back.

Nubie climbed the stairs to our balcony. "My wife had our new baby last night." He looked at Susan. "We named her Jasmine, but whenever you are here, we will call her Susan in your honor."

Ahmed Hassan and several of the hotel staff heard our laughter and came up to offer their congratulations.

Ahmed turned to me. "It is good, isn't it, doctor? There are problems, but then we remember that we have family and friends, and sometimes God blesses us even more with babies. And our work is going well, and when you return I am sure we will find many wonderful things in KV 5." He paused, then looked at me and smiled. "God is great! Life is very nice here in our village, doctor. Don't you think so?"