Behind a debrisobscured door in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, an American-led archaeological team has uncovered a discovery that rivals that of King Tutankhamen’s tomb: an immense royal mausoleum believed to hold the remains of 50 sons of Pharoah Ramses II.
Archaeologists are calling it one of the most significant discoveries in Egyptology this century.
The massive duplex structure, containing at least 67 chambers, may be the largest and most architecturally complex ever excavated in Egypt. Dating from the 13th century B.C., during the 19th Egyptian Dynasty, the tomb is the first multiple royal burial site found.
Dr. Kent R. Weeks, director of the Theban Mapping Project and professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, led the archaeological team that penetrated the elaborately designed tomb in February after seven years’ work on the site.
In terms of architectural precedent, with the exception of a couple of tombs dating from 200 years later, “there is nothing to my knowledge that comes even close to the plan of this tomb and nothing to my knowledge that is built on two levels,” said Weeks, 54, speaking on a news conference call from his home in Seattle.
Although the majority of the tomb remains under 2,000 years of floodborne debris, Weeks anticipates that its treasure will be more in the nature of scholarly knowledge about the lifestyle, architecture and engineering aspects of the 19th Egyptian Dynasty than in the sort of glittering artifacts found when Tut’s tomb was discovered in 1922.
“The tomb was very heavily pillaged in antiquity. I don’t hold out much hope of finding a lot of gold and jewels as we did in Tutankhamen’s tomb,” said Weeks, whose 30-year archaeological career included a stint as director of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute headquarters in Luxor, Egypt.
Although Weeks believes that Ramses II might not have been unique in building a mausoleum for his children, there is little doubt that Ramses II was among the most flamboyant of pharaohs.
During a spectacular 67-year reign believed to include the biblical Exodus of Israelites from Egypt, Ramses II boasted that he fathered more than 100 children, including 52 sons, all of whose names are known. Until now, however, only one son had a known burial site, said Weeks.
A flashy ruler who built massive monuments to himself throughout Egypt, Ramses’ architectural excesses were immortalized by Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 19th century sonnet “Ozymandias.” Using the Greek version of the pharoah’s name, the sonnet captures the vainglorious, fleeting nature of power.
Referred to by Shelley, Ramses’ 66-foot-high sculpture of himself at Abu Simbel was the largest colossus ever raised by a pharoah and its inscription among the most arrogant: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Just before the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, the firstborn son of the pharoah was slain by God, according to the biblical account. That son would have been Ramses’ eldest, Amon-herkhepeshef, who is buried in the newfound tomb.
Nothing in the tomb inscriptions about this son, however, suggest a dramatic, untimely death, Weeks noted.
Excavating the tomb is an arduous task, complicated by debris, including blocks of stone and sludge, that rises anywhere from four feet to within inches of chamber ceilings 8 to 12 feet in height, said Weeks.
Based on the excavation so far, the first level of the tomb contains at least 67 chambers, none smaller than 10-by-10 feet, and is distinguished by two T-shaped corridors. Most previously found tombs have fewer, smaller rooms laid out along a single axis, Weeks said.
Wall art and inscriptions containing the names of some of the royal princes clearly suggest that the complex, hewn into bedrock, was intended to be a burial place for Ramses’ sons.
“We have with certainty (sons) 1, 2, 7 and 15,” said Weeks. “We have room for all the rest of 50 as well, but if they’re all there, we don’t know.”
Intriguingly, the entire tomb appears to have been built at one time; the artwork suggests it may have been begun early in Ramses reign, circa 1292-1225 B.C. Weeks believes the bodies of the royal princes may have been collected and reburied in the complex toward the end of Ramses’ life.
So far, the team has found bits of funerary-style pottery, statues, wooden furniture, ceramic jewelry and, most importantly, fragments of the mummies of young males and pieces of smashed sarcophagi made of precious alabaster and red granite.
Weeks believes the actual tombs of the princes may have been on the mausoleum’s lower level. Grave robbers may have hacked up the mummies in search of amulets and other precious trinkets often concealed inside the bodies and smashed up the sarcophagi to sell chunks of the valuable stone leaving a trail of debris on the upper level.
Costing an estimated $210,000 to date, the excavation is expected to continue over the summer during which preservative measures, such as humidity control, will be taken at the site. By the end of the year, Weeks said, the team hopes to get far enough down a staircase to know the extent of the tomb’s lower level.