LUXOR, Egypt -- For more than 12 years, an American archaeological team had been excavating a long-known tomb in the Valley of the Kings, the ancient necropolis that had not yielded an intact burial site since the discovery of King Tutankhamun's treasures in 1922.
Last year, while searching for offerings sometimes placed outside tombs, the University of Memphis-based team was surprised to note a rectangular depression in the earth -- the top of a shaft that could lead to a tomb. But with so many plundered tombs in Egypt, and an 84-year drought in discoveries, they did not know what to expect.
After an anxious break during the off-season, when scorching temperatures prevent work at this desert site, the team returned to months of digging that ended with a startling discovery last week.
Behind the stone-block doorway at the bottom of the 5-yard-long shaft was an intact tomb, holding five wooden sarcophagi, carved in human form and painted, and at least 20 jars used by ancient Egyptians to store food and drink for the afterlife.
"After all these years we've worked on tombs which have been known for a long time and had been partly cleared, and we just followed excavators and restorers. Here we finally have something new for ourselves," said Otto Schaden, who headed the team that uncovered the site.
A grinning Schaden spoke to reporters Friday at the bottom of the shaft, peering through the partially opened doorway at the sarcophagi, one of which lay on its side and offered a clear view of a face painted in typical ancient Egyptian style -- black hair in a blunt cut, thin arched eyebrows and kohl-lined eyes. Gold patterns of a thick necklace or breastplate are visible, but the lower half of the coffin is splintered and rotting -- the work of termites, said one team member.
In one corner, a coffin seems to have been partially pried open. The brown cloth below the lid is likely to be a mummy.
At the back of the chamber is the silhouette of another coffin, the stately face staring upward and the hands folded on the chest.
There are five sarcophagi in the tomb, but the archaeologists have not gotten close enough to assess their condition.
The team says the style of the coffins and pottery dates to the late 18th Dynasty, some 3,000 years ago. Still unknown is whose mummies are in the undecorated, single-chamber tomb, measuring about 4 by 5 yards.
Schaden and his team said it does not appear to belong to a pharaoh. But it could be for members of a royal court, said Edwin Brock, co-director of the team.
"Contemporaries of Tutankhamun are possible -- or of Amenhotep III or even Horemheb," he said, referring to three pharaohs from the 18th Dynasty, which lasted from around 1500 B.C. to 1300 B.C.
The chief of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, said they hope to find hieroglyphs on the coffins that will identify the mummies.
"Maybe they are mummies of kings or queens or nobles, we don't know. But it's definitely someone connected to the royal family," Hawass said, adding that otherwise, they would not have been buried in the Valley of the Kings.
The tomb -- dubbed KV63 because it is the 63rd royal or private tomb in the valley -- is just across the pathway from that of Tutankhamun -- the last new burial site discovered in the valley, discovered by British archaeologist Howard Carter on Nov. 4, 1922.
Last week's discovery broke the long-held belief that there's nothing left to dig up in the Valley of the Kings, the desert region near the city of Luxor 300 miles south of Cairo that was used as a burial ground for pharaohs, queens and nobles in the 1500 B.C. to 1000 B.C. New Kingdom.
"It's a dream come true," said Brock. "It was just so amazing to find an intact tomb here after all the work that's been done before."
Schaden and Brock hope to enter the tomb within a few days, after clearing the rubble from the shaft floor and carefully removing the rest of the door. They hope to remove the coffins before the end of the digging season.
Kent Weeks, an American archaeologist who was not involved in the new discovery, told AP that he knows of a papyrus that refers to a tomb of a secondary wife of Ramses II.
"Reading that papyrus, it gave a description of where the tomb was located," he said. "I hypothesized that it might be located in one of three spots in the Valley of the Kings. Interestingly, one of the spots was where this new tomb was found. That doesn't mean I think it is her tomb. But it does fit that ancient papyrus description."
Weeks made the last major discovery in the valley when he opened a previously known tomb -- KV5 -- in 1995 and found it was far larger than expected: more than 120 chambers, which he determined were meant for sons of the pharaoh Ramses II.