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New tomb discovered in Egypt's Valley of the Kings

Friday, February 10, 2006

CAIRO, Egypt -- The first tomb to be discovered in the Valley of the Kings since King Tut's in 1922 contains five sarcophagi with mummies, breaking the nearly centurylong belief that there's nothing more to find in the valley where some of Egypt's greatest pharaohs were buried.

The tomb's spare appearance suggests it was not dug for a pharaoh, said U.S. archaeologist Kent Weeks, who was not involved in the University of Memphis team's find but has seen photographs of the site. "It could be the tomb of a king's wife or son, or of a priest or court official," he said Thursday.

So far, authorities haven't had a close enough look to know who is in the tomb. Workers have been clearing rubble to allow archaeologists to examine it.

Egypt's antiquities authority has said only that the single-chamber tomb contains five wooden sarcophagi, in human shapes with colored funerary masks, surrounded by 20 jars with their pharaonic seals intact -- and that the sarcophagi contain mummies, likely from the 18th Dynasty, some 3,300 to 3,500 years ago.

Further details were expected today, when antiquities chief Zahi Hawass was to unveil the tomb.

Photos released by the Supreme Council of Antiquities showed the interior of the tomb -- the bare stone walls undecorated -- with at least five sarcophagi of blackened wood amid white jars, some apparently broken. What appeared to be a sixth sarcophagus was set on top of two of the other coffins, though the council's statement mentioned only five.

The tomb may provide less drama than the famed opening of King Tut's tomb in 1922 by American archaeologist Howard Carter, a discovery which revealed a treasure trove of gold artifacts along with the boy-king's mummy.

But it raises hopes that even more burial sites will be found in the Valley of the Kings, which experts believed held only 62 tombs, labeled KV1-KV62 by archaeologists.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we discover more tombs in the next 10 years. For a long time, people thought there was nothing left to find and excavations seemed unlikely to produce much. So instead, they concentrated on recording what was already there," Weeks said.

Weeks made the last major discovery in the valley. In 1995, he opened a previously known tomb -- KV5 -- and found it was far larger than expected: more than 120 chambers, which he determined were meant for sons of the pharaoh Ramses II.

"It's ironic. A century ago, people said the Valley of the Kings is exhausted, there's nothing left," he said. "Suddenly Carter found Tutankhamun. So then they said, 'Now there's nothing to find.' Then we found KV5. Now we have KV63."

The 18th Dynasty, which lasted from about 1500 B.C. to 1300 B.C., was the first dynasty of the New Kingdom, the pharaonic empire than lasted until about 1000 B.C. and made its capital in Thebes -- the present day city of Luxor, 300 miles south of Cairo. Tutankhamun is believed to be the 12th ruler of the 18th Dynasty.

The Valley of the Kings was used as a burial ground throughout the New Kingdom, though contrary to its name not all the tombs are of kings.

Schaden's team uncovered shafts leading to the tomb -- about 15 feet from Tut's tomb -- while conducting "routine digs," the antiquities council said in a statement Wednesday. The haphazard placement of the jars and coffins suggested the burial was completed quickly, it said.

The fact that the tomb is a single chamber likely means it was meant for only one mummy, Weeks said.

More likely is that the tomb was used as a storeroom for sarcophagi moved from other tombs later -- either by priests to protect them from thieves, or by thieves to stash before removing them completely. The jars, he said, appear to be meat jars for food offerings.

Archaeologists will have to determine not only the date of the tomb's creation but also the dates of the individual sarcophagi and mummies to find which -- if any of them -- are the tomb's owner.

The tomb's architecture will give hints on when it was dug. Early New Kingdom tombs have doors of different width and height than later ones, Weeks said. Inscriptions on the sarcophagi -- if present -- and the wrappings and other materials used in the mummies help determine their age.

"The objects in the tomb don't necessarily date to the original tomb," Weeks said. "The objects could be 200 to 400 years later than the original cutting of the tomb."


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