On Friday 10 February 2006 Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities made public at last what had been rumoured among Egyptologists for many months: the discovery of a new and completely undisturbed tomb in the Valley of the Kings, located beneath ancient workmen’s houses outside the entrance to the long-known sepulchre of pharaoh Amenmesse. KV63, as it soon became known, represented the first new tomb to have been found in the royal Valley since the discovery of Tutankhamun by Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter in 1922.
Six months later and the KV63 chamber stands fully cleared, revealed (to evident media disappointment) not as a burial proper but as an embalmers’ cache of surplus coffins and mummification refuse dating from the very end of the Amarna period. It is an interesting find—and far more significant than the commentators seem to have realized. For what KV63 clearly signals is the existence in the Valley of the Kings of yet another tomb—one containing the burial(s) to which these embalming materials relate. And this further tomb is one upon which the Amarna Royal Tombs Project (ARTP) is potentially able to shed some intriguing light.
Observant followers of the KV63 story will have noticed that ARTP had some small involvement in that particular find—not as the tomb’s physical discoverers, who were of course a University of Memphis mission led by Dr Otto Schaden, nor as KV63’s excavators, but as the team which first pinpointed the existence of an anomaly at this spot in 2000 using ground-penetrating radar (GPR). The KV63 anomaly looked to us at that time very much like a void—a tomb—but we could not be certain. Time, we believed, would tell: it was a feature we had slated for future investigation as and when our project, working systematically, reached that particular part of our concession. But then—crisis! Politics intervened, and ARTP found itself out in the cold.
However disappointing it was for ARTP to have missed the chance of excavating KV63, the physical location of that tomb by Schaden’s team was for our project immensely helpful. Not only did it confirm that the theory of further Amarna burials which had been driving us these past years was indeed soundly based, but it provided also the vital corroboration needed properly to evaluate the output of our 2000 GPR survey. After the uncovering of KV63 it was possible to assess—with a great deal more insight than previously—what our team’s GPR had and had not revealed.
The practicalities of GPR survey are straightforward enough; the key to the process is a sober analysis of the data generated. ARTP were lucky: through friends and colleagues in Japan we were able to enlist the services of Hirokatsu Watanabe, one of the most experienced GPR specialists in the field, with impressive results to his credit at sites in Japan itself and at the rich royal cemetery-site of Sican in Peru. Watanabe’s radar survey was not only systematic and thorough, taking in most of the ARTP concession and other parts of the Valley also, but extremely measured in its conclusions.
The GPR equipment Watanabe employed for the ARTP Valley survey was a customized 400 Mhz system. The way the technology works is as follows: an electromagnetic wave is emitted downwards (at pulse intervals of 6 nanoseconds) from a boxed antenna dragged along the ground; the reflection echo is received and displayed on a monitor as a traverse profile. This raw data is recorded for subsequent laboratory processing—the disentangling of what is actually there from a multitude of confusing reflections. The images generated do not represent the actual form or dimension of the object detected but are mere patterns, to be analysed as aggregates of arcs with the display colours varying according to the force and velocity of the various reflection echoes. The basic trick is that different types of underground features produce distinct screen patterns: a pipe, for example, will generate a couple of nested arcs; a ditch a cross-pattern above a couple of nested arcs; and a void or underground chamber a distinctive pattern of radiating arcs.
The most recent of ARTP’s GPR readings to be analysed by Watanabe is shown in fig. 1. It is an image which has caused much excitement in recent weeks because its radiating arcs clearly indicate a void—which in a cemetery context almost certainly means a tomb. The feature itself is located not far distant from KV63, at a significant depth adjacent to the southeast corner of the modern flood barrier erected around Tutankhamun. For ease of reference ARTP has labelled this void ‘KV64’—the inverted commas acknowledging the obviously tentative nature of the identification at this stage.
The possibility of yet another tomb in a cemetery which was merely presumed to be exhausted should cause no surprise: Belzoni wrongly declared the Valley to be worked out in 1820; several tens of tombs later Theodore Davis incorrectly ventured the same opinion in 1912; and it is an assessment most have tended tacitly to assume since the finding of Tutankhamun in 1922. By 1997 I had become convinced, from a library-based analysis of the situation, that beneath the Valley floor were concealed still one or more additional Amarna-period reburials—reburials analogous to that of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten discovered in 1907 in tomb KV55 in the central part of the Valley. This belief inspired me to set up the Amarna Royal Tombs Project to investigate selected parts of the site afresh beginning in 1998.
My particular quarry at that time (though priorities changed when we discovered the extraordinary state of preservation of the archaeological record beneath the tourist paths) was the burial place of Nefertiti, Akhenaten’s wife and coregent, but also the whereabouts of Akhenaten’s secondary consort Kiya and his second daughter Meketaten. These were all women upon whose funerary furniture, I’d concluded, Tutankhamun had drawn either for the preparation of his own burial or for the refurbishment of Akhenaten’s before the young king reinterred the ladies’ bodies close by.
It is a question bound to be asked: could it be that the radar image now before us represents not only a tomb but a tomb containing the body or bodies of one or more of these missing Amarna women—the burials for which ARTP had been searching since 1998? It is at least a possibility—and all the more fascinating since the site has clearly not been disturbed since antiquity.
The temptation to investigate this new and potentially significant feature in the Valley of the Kings will undoubtedly be strong. If Egyptology decides to do so then let it be cautiously, in the right way and at the right time, and not at the expense of the immensely important overlying stratigraphy. The work requires a strategy; there is an obvious need to consult widely in advance; and the excavators—whoever they may be—must be certain, before any work begins, that they are physically capable of attaining all possible objectives, with adequate funding, expert staff, and access to every sort of technology.
The Valley of the Kings is no ordinary site; the stakes here are incredibly high. It was the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, Carter`s sponsor, who commented that you either find great things in the Valley, or nothing at all. ARTP may have found nothing—that possibility surely exists; but then again we might, in all seriousness, be in the presence of a second Tutankhamun—another find of quite extraordinary importance containing a wealth of magnificent burial equipment; a tomb hermetically sealed and preserving air samples, smells, pollen, insects, microbes, dust—an entire ancient environment of inestimable scientific value. We should recall that in the case of Tutankhamen the treasure was rescued, but the potential of the tomb’s more fugitive data was lost forever when the excavators excitedly broke through the sealed doorway to peer in. In 1922 they knew no better; Egyptologists today have no such excuse.
If there is to be another Tutankhamun, then we must be prepared. Whatever ‘KV64’ eventually turns out to be, we have to take it seriously; we cannot risk selling it short.
Dr Nicholas Reeves is Director of the Amarna Royal Tombs Project which excavated in the Valley of the Kings between 1998 and 2002 (www.valleyofthekings.org). His books include Valley of the Kings: the decline of a royal necropolis (KPI, 1990) and (with Richard H. Wilkinson) The Complete Valley of the Kings (Thames and Hudson, 1996).