There is big news in Egypt since my return at the end of July from a tomb project there. Respected UK Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves reported in September that the most famous tomb of all, KV62, of the boy Pharaoh Tutankhamun, may have rooms beneath it. Some are guessing they even contain Queen Nefertiti, one of the most famous women in Egyptology and history.
However, it is speculative for now until a more thorough investigation and ground-penetrating radar are conducted. Reeves has based his theory on the artwork, architecture and details of Tutankhamun’s tomb. If he is correct, this is the biggest discovery in Egypt since 1922.
That was the year the tomb was discovered by Howard Carter, and it has been researched ever since. I study and have visited the tomb often. My take is that it is highly possible that rooms or another burial exist beneath, as scans are showing delineating lines of other rooms. If so, this has gone mostly unnoticed for almost 100 years.
If a tomb is found with a mummy, it could be Nefertiti, but I personally think it could be Ankhesenamun beneath Tutankhamun in KV62. She was his young wife, and he was buried with their two infant stillborn fetuses, so why would she not be buried beneath?
However, in that complicated family hierarchy of Dynasty 18, it could be anyone’s tomb. There are many undiscovered tombs in Egypt, and many universities lead projects every year to the Valley of the Kings and Egypt in general. My research and work for the past 10 years has been on the unique artifacts from this tomb, KV62, and I write about it in Ancient Egypt and Ancient American magazines.
The 18th Dynasty family includes, among others, Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun; Nefertiti, wife of Pharaoh Akhenaten (his father, according to DNA); his mother, YL34 (mummy identified by DNA but not named); his grandfather Amunhotep III; five Amarna princesses and more. DNA studies and a Journal of the American Medical Association report have already started to define who is who in this ruling family of ancient Egypt, but there is still much to learn.
My work in Egypt includes travel to Alexandria and then to the site of Mendes in the Nile Delta with a Penn State program excavating burials. Later I returned to the el Asasif area near the Valley of the Kings, where a project is working on tombs uncovered under a small town. I worked there in 2006 and 2010 and visited the project again in July. I was amazed to see the size and depth of these important finds of the 25th and 26th Dynasties. In particular, tomb TT223, just after several years, has expanded and is still being discovered. My latest project, tomb TT209, has also uncovered some interesting facts about the later dynasties.
Farther up the valley in the famous Valley of the Kings is the much talked about tomb of Tutankhamun, which is still open to the public as of this writing. The pharaoh, who died at age 19, still lies in the tomb, and it is amazing to see him there (coincidentally, I was there a few days before the big announcement about possible rooms below).
A day in the life of an Egyptologist
A rare scene today is a bus full of tourists at one of the loveliest temples in Egypt — Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Pharaoh Ramses III. I never fail to go there, as it brings back nice memories. It sits not far from the Valley of the Kings and my apartment, where I stay while working on the tomb project with a Spanish team I was asked to join early this year.
Egypt’s economy has suffered greatly due to threats of terrorism, but in the area of Luxor, I have seen nothing related to this. Archaeology teams from various universities and museums come every season to discover new things for history, excavate new finds such as new tombs and keep Egyptology alive, as there is still much to be discovered. Luxor sits alongside the Nile and has a charm of its own. The people are very nice and helpful, although the economy is at its lowest. A new discovery may surely change this.
Archaeological excavations proceed by careful rules and guidelines in Egypt. After permits and permission are given by the Ministry of Antiquities, Mamdouh Eldamaty, the minister of Antiquities and Heritage, forms a team, which is assembled with an objective to clear and excavate the outer areas of tombs and chambers. This year’s tomb project has many people on board, including surveyors, architects, a photographer, students and, most importantly, the Egyptian workers, laborers who dig and carry away the debitage and debris from many other tombs laid on top of others.
The workers are overseen at the dig site by a reis, or foreman. The reis is a respected and interesting figure in Egyptology who selects and organizes the workmen on a dig and makes sure everything is running smoothly. It is a long tradition in Egyptian archaeology and dates back more than a century, and many men who become a reis have been involved in archaeological work their whole lives.
Thursday is payday and much is celebrated at that time. Friday is always a day off in Egypt. Our reis was one we relied on every day. He of course spoke English and saw to our every need, something Egyptians do readily.
His father, a well-known reis for German and American excavations for over 40 years, wears the traditional long robes, which most workers do, and carries a wooden staff. Our reis, however, carried a cell phone, which is needed desperately for communications between teams. Not only did he grow up around excavations, but his family home was built over a tomb, which is not unusual in this land. (His family now lives in a house near the colossi of Memnon, a great restoration project that is seen alongside the road into the Valley of the Kings).
Many of these traditions and tasks are the same ones employed by Howard Carter in 1922 (and even earlier) and his team when they cleared the workers’ huts on top of KV62, discovering Egypt’s most famous tomb in history.
A rewarding, but difficult job
An archaeologist’s work, or that of anyone on a team, is not glamorous. Rising at 4 a.m. to be in the valley before sunup — where by 11 a.m. the heat can reach 112 degrees — can be rough: setting up the work tent above the tomb to record and photograph finds, pottery, lithics, beads, ushabtis (little statues to do the work in the afterlife for the deceased), etc. From archaeologists to ceramicists, pottery experts and students, everyone who comes to study something assembles here, which makes for an interesting group.
My particular daily work is usually focused on funerary artifacts or on pottery types and lithic styles found while excavating the tomb chambers. Onsite work ends at noon, when some rest is taken inside the cooler tomb until the hired taxi car arrives to drive our team members back to their respective dig houses, small hotels, apartments or houses. We study and do computer work, and then begin in the afternoon assessing the finds and putting them into categories through measuring, weighing and labeling. It is all considered just a day’s work in Egypt.
New finds every year
After work, rest comes easily for an hour or two, and then we get together to eat our meal. We were very lucky this year to have a cook who made us delicious but basic food when we all assembled once a day for a meal. There are no big supermarkets — just roadside stands for fruits, vegetables, etc. A typical tasty meal would be some chicken, beef with rice, potatoes and fresh tomatoes.
The most recent Theban tomb was discovered in 2012 and each year excavated has revealed a pillared hall, a transversal hall and other chambers, which are still being carefully excavated down to bedrock. The amount of limestone, rock and debris from this can be overwhelming and is carried away to other parts of the landscape. The tomb is actually in a wadi valley — a depressed valley — which revealed that much debris was washed down into it from other areas and flash floods, which occasionally occur.
This is important for knowing that many objects excavated and found need to be dated to other eras of history — for example Egypt’s Old Kingdom (2686-2181 BC), the pyramid burials of pharaohs; the New Kingdom (1570-1293 BC), the hidden tombs in the Valley of the Kings; and the Middle Kingdom (2135-1990 BC); or with our current tomb, the 25th Dynasty, a time of the Nubian or Kushite pharaohs (746-635 BC).
One of our first and most important discoveries this summer besides pottery and lithics was the uncovering of limestone hieroglyphic reliefs testifying to the tomb owner’s name. This is a goal not always reached in tomb excavation but helps define which era the tomb was built and what we might look for in future excavations. Much information is still unpublished and not revealed until the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities receives the report. The ministry uses careful guidelines for new discoveries and is informed first and foremost of all finds.
Some members of a team stay in a dig house or, like this year, in the apartments of The American Research Center of Egypt, where the accommodations were exceptional. The center has now moved its offices to nearby Luxor, so I stopped in and met the staff. These are the people who are helping train the Egyptian workers properly in excavation techniques and, most importantly, conservation of the artifacts. The overall objective, naturally, is opening tombs to the paying public to increase tourism for Egypt’s revenue.
Days off while there are spent visiting places I had been before but could not miss going to again. One is the lovely temples of Medinet Habu, also known as Djanet; the New Kingdom mortuary temple of Ramses III; the Valley of the Queens (Biban el Harim), which was mostly vacant and, with my special permission card as a worker, free to me.
As I walked up the limestone paths to the tombs, I stopped to enter the Western Valley, my favorite desolate place. Here, hidden 1.3 miles into limestone cliffs, sits the tomb of Ay (KV23), the pharaoh who ruled after Tutankhamun and who is perhaps his grandfather.
Mysteries still abound about this 18th Dynasty family, and DNA is revealing new information. This valley is curious in that it is remote and only a few tombs have been found, but they are important ones, and there is the undeniable fact that the tomb of Ay is similar in decoration and texts to that of KV62 — Tutankhamun’s. Although Ay’s tomb is rarely visited, Reeves speculates that it may have been made for Tutankhamun instead.
A visit to Egypt, whether for work or on a tour to Egypt, cannot go without saying how safe it is. At the beginning of my trip I stayed in Cairo near the pyramids within a hotel complex and was able to visit the Giza plateau, pyramids and more, which I had done previously. However, it is noted that Cairo is a big, busy, congested city, so once I was on my way to Luxor (a one-hour flight), I was most relieved. The Egyptian people are mostly concerned that Americans see their land as safe, as basically it is. I have never felt at risk anytime I have been to Egypt or worked there. The people are warm, friendly and always anxious to help.
Jan Summers Duffy, an archaeologist, is curator and Egyptologist of the Orma J. Smith Museum of Natural History at The College of Idaho.