The blog post for this week is written by Vanessa Foott. Vanessa’s lifelong passion is ancient Egypt and for the last five years she has been studying Egyptology at the University of Manchester. She is very excited to be starting their Masters Degree in Egyptology in October so she is practically a professional student! Vanessa has filled her time since retiring from her main career by travelling all over the country attending and also giving talks on Egyptology, representing the Egypt Exploration Society as one of their Local Ambassadors, and writing articles for Nile Magazine.
This week saw the start of Dr. Ken Griffin’s new five-part course looking at different aspects of the Valley of the Kings, or the “Wadi Biban el-Muluk” as it is known in Arabic (fig. 1). The necropolis actually occupies two valleys; the majority being in the main Eastern branch, with a few, such as that of Ay, located in the Western Valley (sometimes called the “Valley of the Monkeys”). The first week introduced participants to useful background reading and websites, some of which can be found at the end of this post.
It is very easy when visiting the valley, especially for the first time, to focus on the magnificent wall scenes and really to gloss over the other considerations and logistics that went in to the building of these tombs. New Kingdom rulers chose to be buried in Thebes, known then as ni͗wt-rst, the Southern City, or i͗wnw-šmꜥ, Southern Heliopolis. The main god worshipped here was Amun, who became combined with Re to form Amun-Re. Re’s cult centre was Heliopolis, now a suburb of modern Cairo, and therefore Thebes was its southern equivalent. Both the East and West Bank of Thebes were part of the sacred landscape. Re set in the west and travelled through the Amduat to merge with Osiris and be reborn in the morning as Khepri or Re-Horakhty in the east (fig. 2). The deceased metaphorically hitched a lift on the barque of Re to travel with the god and share in the rebirth.
|Fig. 2: The union of Osiris and Re (tomb of Nefertari)|
The rulers of the Seventeenth Dynasty chose to be buried in the area of Dra Abu el-Naga. However, the pharaohs of the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Dynasties favoured a valley to the south, at the head of which was a convenient pyramid shaped mountain, tꜣ-dhnt, these days known as Al-Qurn (“the Horn”). This was the home of the snake goddess Meretseger, “she who loves silence”, together with Hathor, lady of the western mountain (fig. 3).
|Fig. 3: Ostracon depicting Meretseger: |
The area of Thebes had been occupied long before it became the religious capital of Egypt. Indeed, it is thought that as long ago as 1,000,000 BCE people were living in the area. These days there is a distinct edge to the cultivation and it is possible to stand with one foot in verdant green fields with the other in dry barren sand (fig. 4). In ancient days, this demarcation would not have been so distinct as the Nile would flood annually to different levels. This does not happen anymore due to the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s and the fields are now watered by irrigation.
|Fig. 4: Where the desert meets the cultivation|
Astonishingly, the sedimentary rock here, some 35–55 million years ago, was the floor of the Mediterranean Sea when its levels fluctuated so much that sometimes it reached as far as Aswan. The valley was then formed by a combination of uplifting during the Tertiary Period between 66 million to 2.6 million years ago and heavy rainfall that occurred in the Pleistocene Era between 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago years ago. The resulting riverbeds are called wadis and can have water flowing through them even in modern times during the sudden and violent storms that occasionally happen in Egypt. This has caused immense damage to some tombs over the years, with new precautions installed to prevent further damage (fig. 5). There are three types of rock present in the valley: Dakhla chalk, Esna shale, and Theban limestone. The area is crisscrossed by faults caused by the fluctuation of ground water. The main fault is known as the King’s Fault and this is closely monitored by instruments placed in the tombs above it.
|Fig. 5: Flood protection in the Valley (Theban Mapping Project)|
Various factors must have been taken into account when selecting a site to place a tomb. A balance needed to be achieved between security and accessibility, but surely one of the prime factors would have been the type and quality of the rock. It is thought that the Vizier, in conjunction with architects who were familiar with the stone, would have recommended a suitable site to the king. This was not too problematic with the first tombs, but by the Nineteenth Dynasty the valley was becoming very crowded and there is no evidence of any kind of master plan. This meant that collisions between tombs could, and indeed, did happen on at least three occasions. Perhaps most notably the clash when KV 10 was broken into whilst KV 11 was being dug only about fifteen years later (fig. 6)! It must also be remembered that despite the name of the valley, high-ranking officials, including the parents of Queen Tiye and parents in law of Amenhotep III, could be buried here.
|Fig. 6: Breakthrough of KV 11 into KV 10 (Theban Mapping Project)|
Once a site had been chosen, foundation deposits of miniature tools, vessels, and amulets, together with food offerings were placed in pits outside the tomb entrance. These were to magically ensure that the construction had a successful outcome. The quarrymen then began to cut into the rock using cutting tools of flint or chert, hammerstones, and wooden mallets. It may have been criminals that were sent to do this initial hard work as there is evidence mentioning that they were punished by “going to cut the rock”. The passages were firstly roughly cut and then smoothed and the columns finished using copper chisels. The limestone is stronger than the shale, which is friable, but the quality of all varied and a final layer of gypsum plaster was applied to provide a suitable surface for carving and painting. To ensure that the walls were parallel and doorways were properly aligned, an axial line was painted on the ceiling creating a base line from which the other measurements were taken. Because many of the tombs were unfinished, it is easy to see the various stages of building and decoration (fig. 7).
|Fig. 7: Decoration states in KV 57 (Theban Mapping Project)|
The men who created these tombs lived in the nearby purpose-built village of Deir el-Medina, known in ancient days as st-mꜣꜥt, “The Place of Truth” (fig. 8). It was possibly founded by Amenhotep I as he was later worshipped as a local deity in the village. His original tomb has not been identified (although his mummy was found in the royal cache) and it is thought that the first burial in the valley was that of Thutmose I. We have much information about the village and workers thanks to a feature called the Great Pit. This was an attempt to dig a well for the village but had to be abandoned as the ground water was too deep to reach. The villagers subsequently used it as a rubbish dump and when excavated, thousands of ostraca giving information about the day to day lives of the inhabitants were found. The village was destroyed by fire during the Amarna Period, but was enlarged during Ramesside times. Workers were divided into two teams and the total numbers of workers varied between 32 and 120 men depending on the urgency of the work with the highest number being used at the beginning of reigns and tapering off as the tomb was completed.
This is just a small snapshot of the information gained from this first session. Our appetites have certainly been whetted for next week’s instalment when Ken will begin to look at some of the major tombs.
Bierbrier, M. (1982) The Tomb Builders of the Pharaohs. American University in Cairo Press: Cairo.
Hornung, E. (1999) The Ancient Egyptian Books of the Afterlife. Cornell University Press: Ithaca & London.
Reeves, N. (1994) The Complete Tutankhamun. Thames & Hudson: London.
Reeves, N. & R. Wilinson (1996) The Complete Valley of the Kings. Thames & Hudson: London.
Weeks, K. (2001) Valley of the Kings: the tombs and the funerary temples of Thebes West. Whitestar: Italy.
Wilkinson, R. Weeks, K. (eds) (2016) The Oxford Handbook of the Valley of the Kings. Oxford University Press: Oxford.