Ancient Egyptian Burial Ground Is ‘Misunderstood and Misnamed’

Associated Press Writer

This quiet, bone-dry ravine of death, overshadowed since antiquity by the Valley of the Kings just over the hills, slowly is shedding its mystery.

And with the mystery, its name.

Ancients called the valley Ta-Set Neferu, the Place of Beauty. To the Arabs it was Gates of the Ladies. Egyptologists and guidebooks perpetuate the homage to entombed royal women: the Valley of the Queens.

“It’s wrong. This valley has been misunderstood and misnamed by all Egyptologists,” said Christian LeBlanc, field director for a continuing 17-year French-Egyptian project to record and study its history.


“We should be calling it the Valley of the Royal Children. They were here first, but the valley became tied only to the queens and named by tradition rather than history.”

Hillsides Scoured

Season after archeological season, LeBlanc’s team has scoured the sloping, dusty hillsides dotted with cave-like tombs to find the origins of a sequence of burials that would last almost 2,000 years. Tombs were used repeatedly, as late as the Christian era when Pharaonic designs sometimes were plastered over and crosses painted on.

LeBlanc said the first burials were princes and princesses of ancient Egypt’s 18th Dynasty, a 243-year renaissance when, after a period of decline, Pharaohs and their kin once again lived and died like kings.

That dynasty ended in 1307 B.C., and Ramses I, founder of the 19th Dynasty, changed tradition by burying his queen Sat-Re here.

LeBlanc said it is unclear why he did or why the practice continued. In addition to queens, royal children still were buried here, and concubines who cared for them and Pharaohs’ mothers.

Paintings in some of the tombs show Hathor, the goddess of women and love, emerging from a grotto that dominates the valley. LeBlanc said perhaps this indicates that religion brought the ancients here, because Hathor’s realm also included the cemeteries on what is called the West Bank across the Nile from present-day Luxor.

Treasure-Filled Tombs

The 18th Dynasty, when the graveyard for royal children began, was a time when queens traditionally shared their Pharaoh’s tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Many of ancient Egypt’s greatest rulers were buried there, along with the young Pharaoh Tutankhamun, whose treasure-filled tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922.

That discovery brought international fame to the Valley of the Kings. Hundreds of other royals and officials also were buried on the West Bank. But to the world, the glory of the Pharaohs meant the Valley of the Kings--not the Valley of the Queens, the Valley of the Monkeys or the Tombs of the Nobles.

For tourist agencies, the Valley of the Queens became an afterthought, a place to fill a half-hour after an exhausting visit to the Valley of the Kings.

When the joint expedition began, 78 burial places had been found in the limestone hillsides enclosing the valley. Today 98 are known.

“We couldn’t understand the cemetery before, because we were working tomb-by-tomb,” LeBlanc said. “Today, we’ve uncovered all the major tombs and have returned the valley to the way it would have looked when burials began.

“For the first time, we can write its history.”

As LeBlanc talked, he and Fathy Hassanein, director of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization’s National Documentation Center, walked through scores of excavators digging toward the valley’s bedrock. The job at hand was almost done, another tomb uncovered from rubble that has obscured the cemetery for most of its existence.

Restoration Work

An aim of the project is to restore tombs in the valley so that more can be opened to tourists. Fewer than six are now.

The valley’s most beautiful tomb, the fabulous burial chambers of Ramses II’s powerful queen Nefertari, is among those so deteriorated that they remain off-limits. More than half its paintings of the elaborately dressed and coiffured queen have been destroyed by natural forces.

LeBlanc said one source for the valley’s history has been tidbits left by workers who built and decorated the tombs. For generations they lived in a village inside the valley. Their records, on papyrus, provided the team not only with answers but with mysteries.

Workers recorded the construction of tombs for Queen Isis Nefret, one of Ramses II’s many wives, and a queen named Duat-Iny-Pet.

LeBlanc said they might have been same person, but “where are they?”

He also is intrigued by a lack of burial objects or pieces of the queens’ mummies.

“This is strange,” he said. “Did those who came afterwards destroy them?” He added that it could mean another royal cache exists, perhaps mummies of queens and children.

Mummified Fetus

Typical of the tales LeBlanc has faced in rewriting a new history for the valley is the story of a mummified fetus inside the tomb of 9-year-old prince Amon-Hir-Khopshef, son of Ramses III.

Local guides tell fascinated visitors that Ramses’ queen became so distraught over the death of their son that she miscarried and the mummies of both Amon-Hir-Khopshef and the fetus were entombed.

The story is nonsense, LeBlanc said.

Early this century, the Italian excavator Ernesto Schiaparelli found the fetus in a rubbish pile outside the Valley of the Queens. It was Schiaparelli, not ancient priests, who placed it inside the prince’s empty sarcophagus.

Today, the mummified fetus is so popular a tourist attraction that it has its own tiny case.