Re-excavating ‘The Gold Tomb’
Nicholas Reeves
Text of a lecture delivered at the UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, London, at the Day School Valley of the Kings:
The Amarna Royal Tombs Project 1998-2001, 29 September 2001

Bordering the Amarna Royal Tombs Project`s original site on the west, with its entrance shaft located just across the path from the tomb of Ramesses III, lies an undecorated tomb, KV 56, first discovered by Edward Ayrton, Davis’s excavator, on 5 January 1908. By chance, Ayrton’s letter to Arthur Weigall, the then Inspector of the area, informing him of the discovery, has survived:

‘I beg to advise you that I have this day discovered what I suppose to be a large tomb’, Ayrton wrote, obviously struck by the dimensions of its shaft-opening. This, on clearance, gave access to a single chamber of irregular shape but with walls nonetheless neatly and expertly chiselled in the manner found in Tomb 55 and the tomb of Tutankhamun.

The initial appearance of this chamber Ayrton subsequently described in Davis’s official publication of the find, The Tomb of Siphtah: ‘entirely filled with washed-in debris’, on the west to a depth of 41 inches, of which a shadowy ghost may still be seen on the western wall. As Ayrton subsequently discovered, this fill consisted of two distinct strata:

- the first, an upper layer of ‘rubbish’, consisting of ‘limestone chippings and mud, evidently washed in by water’;

- and a ‘lower level’ of ‘lighter dust consolidated by water’, in which the finds were concentrated, some 6-12 inches above floor level.

It was obvious that KV56 been deluged more than once in its history—and, indeed, as a recent report by the American Research Center observes, by its position at the base of not one but several watercourses it is one of the most prone to flooding anywhere in the Valley of the Kings.

Despite the damage prolonged pooling had caused, the finds recovered by Ayrton from KV 56 were quite extraordinary. As listed and recorded in Davis’s report, they consisted of a circlet, shown here, earrings, several finger-rings, bracelets, a series of necklace ornaments and amulets, a pair of silver ‘gloves’ and a tiny silver sandal. In addition, from a mass of fragments, the excavator was able to reconstruct three vases of calcite and a single vessel of faience.

Ayrton had clearly stumbled upon a burial of the highest rank, the names associated with this assemblage being those of pharaoh Seti II and and the later-ruling Queen Tawosret—though the names led Gaston Maspero, then Director of the Cairo Museum, to suggest that Davis had found not a tomb proper but merely a cache of materials salvaged from the funerary equipment of Tawosret when her own tomb was usurped by Sethnakhte. Half a century later, Cyril Aldred came up with another explanation—that Ayrton’s finds not only represented the remains of a burial, but a burial which was essentially intact.

Over an area more than a metre in diameter, close to the tomb’s west wall, Ayrton had uncovered a concentration of gold foil, faience wig-curls and inlays and the bulk of the jewellery. For Aldred, this represented ‘all that remained of a coffin rotted by the weight of mud and water washed into the tomb’. Ayrton’s pair of silver ‘gloves’ moreover, when found containing eight finger rings, had probably covered the hands of the mummy in the same way as a pair of similar hand-shaped coverings found in place on the body of Tutankhamun.

As Aldred suggested, the size of these gloves and the single silver sandal seemed to indicate that the burial in question belonged to a small child who, by the inscriptions of the finds, was most likely an offspring of Seti II and Tawosret. More interesting to us, the fact that the burial had been deposited on a pre-existing, 6-12 inches of mud fill, seemed to show that it was secondary, a burial made in an older tomb which had clearly lain open for some time.

Ninety years on from the initial discovery, ARTP determined to take a closer look at the problem and, from what the excavators might have missed, try to learn a little more about the tomb’s original date and employment.
We first examined the tomb, which had stood open since 1908, at the end of 1998. Our initial survey revealed that, since the discovery, further deposits of mud had built up close to the entrance within the tomb’s single chamber. These were now topped by a mass of post-1908 debris including a dead dog, shattered (and sadly blank) photographic plates, and hundreds of modern plastic water bottles—and scorpions, here modelled by Paul Sussman. Further into the tomb, these modern layers petered out, to reveal the central space taken up by a quantity of rough limestone blocks--seemingly the original blocking of the tomb which Ayrton had left in the tomb rather than trouble to remove.

A systematic re-clearance of the tomb was begun in the winter of 1999, with the chamber floor divided into a series of rectangular areas influenced by the chamber shape. Each of these areas was excavated in roughly 2-inch deep spits, and each basket of material was carefully examined on the surface first with wide and then with narrow mesh sieves.

Though it proved an unbelievably dirty job, we would be well rewarded for our efforts. A number of interesting strays from the Davis burial were brought to light, including single beads of gold and carnelian and many faience wig-curls--as well as a mass of gold foil similar to the fragments recovered by Ayrton and assigned by Aldred to the decayed coffin. Much of the gold was still embedded within chunks of the rock-hard mud matrix from which Ayrton had extracted the treasure in 1908, his men, after a cursory perusal, dumping the chunks on the east side of the chamber as they were released from the matrix. In order that nothing should be missed during the modern reclearance, each of these ‘nuggets’ was reduced to its constituent mud by extended soaking in water, and many more pieces of crumpled gold foil were recovered as a result of the effort.

Almost all of these pieces of gold foil were paper-thin, delicate to the touch, lacking any decoration and not at all diagnostic--with one notable exception. Gently trowelling through the layers within the chamber at the end of November last year, our second season of actual clearance in the tomb, Paul Sussman noticed a familiar yellow glint which brought the work to a temporary halt. On closer examination, the glint proved to come not from another scrap of gold foil but from a substantial piece of ancient jewellery—a rectangular plaque of sheet gold, the outer surface chased with two vertical cartouches of Seti II. To each corner of the plaque had been soldered a gold ring, and we recognized it at once as one of several similar pieces recovered by Ayrton in 1908—a total of 13 recorded in his publication, though perhaps with rather more than this displayed in the Cairo Museum. Now we had another to add to the list.

Clearly intended, from their rudimentary manufacture, for funerary use, the precise nature of the pieces is nonetheless intriguing. As a comparison with certain (rather better) jewels from the tomb of Tutankhamun shows, these plaques represent elements from the suspension chain of a pectoral ornament. Strangely, though, during their clearance of this ‘intact’ burial, Ayrton and Davis found no such item—which makes us wonder whether, as we continue and complete the work next season, we will be rewarded by the pectoral itself. Certainly we have high hopes, if only in terms of preserved stratigraphy, for the bottom of the shaft, which is an area generally skimped by earlier excavators over-eager to gain access to the tomb proper.

As clearances go, Ayrton’s had clearly not been as thorough as it might—though we have to appreciate that the lighting available today is incomparably superior to that which was available to Davis’s team a century ago. As with all such ‘excavated’ tombs, there is almost always something extra to be found—if one looks carefully enough. And the less information that is left, clearly the more carefully the re-excavation has to be carried out.
What of the architecture of this tomb? Was it actually prepared for the late 19th Dynasty child-burial Davis found? I have never believed so, and the few scraps of fresh evidence we have been able to recover during our re-clearance over the past two seasons only confirms me in that view.

The objects in question are small but significant. The first is a canopic jar fragment, unlike most of extremely fine quality and cut from an almost identical piece of alabaster as the famous canopic jars from Tomb 55. Both this fragment and the Tomb 55 set are distinguished by the same milky translucence. More significant than the stone, though, is the fact that a section of the outer surface of this jar has been systematically ground away—just like the Tomb 55 jars, where the name and titulary of their first owner, Akhenaten’s secondary wife Kiya, had been deliberately removed to render the jars suitable for re-employment by another. Sadly, in the case of The Gold Tomb jar, no traces of an original inscription can be discerned; nor has the fragment any secure archaeological context—it was found uncomfortably close to the surface rubble of the chamber.

The second interesting object from KV 56, recovered from a little deeper within the chamber mix, is a fragment of dark, close-grained wood, carved with a series of tight ringlets and evidently from a coffin wig closely similar, again, to the coffin from Tomb 55.

The likelihood is that both of these fragments are not only 18th Dynasty in date, but, like their Tomb 55 parallels, items manufactured specifically during the Amarna period.

Is it possible, perhaps, that these earlier fragments somehow relate to an earlier occupation of The Gold Tomb, before the chamber was re-employed for the burial of Seti II and Tawosret’s infant child and its jewellery? Future work will hopefully tell us. Even at this stage, however, there seems every reason to believe, on the basis of the cutting (a detail of which is shown here) and the architecture that KV 56 is a tomb of 18th Dynasty rather than 19th Dynasty origin. I’ll finish with this ground-plan of the tomb—and my suggested reconstruction of its intended, single pillared form, the hallmark of an 18th Dynasty queen’s burial chamber.

Our work within KV 56 has got us thinking. Might The Gold Tomb be one of the Amarna-period tombs we are seeking? Might it, perhaps, have been cut for the reburial of one of Akhenaten’s queens—for the coregent Nefertiti, with an exceptionally large shaft to allow the introduction of a coregent’s funerary shrines? Or might it have been employed for Kiya herself, parts of whose burial equipment was given over to the use of Akhenaten himself within Tomb 55? And, if this is considered a serious possibility, might KV 56 or its immediate environs have been the original findspot of the fragmentary cosmetic jars of Kiya now in London and New York—those jars inscribed with the same text-panels as the Tomb 55 canopic jars which first alerted Egyptologists to the mysterious lady’s existence? Many questions, and at the moment too few answers—more of which, perhaps, our completion of the work this coming season will provide.

Thank you.