The Case of the Empty Egyptian Tomb: Where Are the Mummies?


Kent Weeks likens an archeologist's work to that of a detective. But when he discovered the largest tomb in the ancient Valley of the Kings, he dug up more mysteries than he solved.

Where, for instance, are the bodies?

Weeks' unearthing of the sprawling complex, carved 3,200 years ago in the royal burial ground, has been called the most important since the discovery of King Tut's tomb--with its wealth of gold--in 1922.

The tomb is believed to be the burial place for dozens of sons of Ramses the Great, whose colossal statues stand at Abu Simbel in upper Egypt. He ruled for 67 years and sired at least 100 children. It's also argued, though not proven, that Ramses is the biblical Pharaoh who ruled when the Jews fled Egypt.

Thus, if Weeks, a professor of Egyptology at Cairo's American University, could just find the mummies, he could learn more about Egypt's pharaohs--what they ate, how they died, how they conducted life at court. He also might shed light on whether Ramses was the biblical Pharaoh.

Last May, when Weeks announced the discovery of the tomb across the River Nile from Luxor, he had located 67 rooms after eight years of digging. He has since found 16 more rooms, but the only signs of bodies are some mummy fragments probably left when the great tomb was looted long ago.

He believes that at least 12 other rooms--which may contain mummies--are on a level below where he has been digging. But he has yet to find a way down.

Weeks, of Everett, Wash., says the upper rooms probably were used by priests making offerings to the dead, not for burials. He explains that the doors were too narrow--a little more than shoulder-width--to get a bulky stone coffin, or sarcophagus, into the rooms.

"They could not have served as burial chambers if the sons had been buried in sarcophagi, and we're finding sarcophagus fragments in the tomb," he said.

The chunks of granite, basalt and serpentine coffins--along with wall inscriptions, bones from mummified bodies and fragments of jars used to hold mummies' organs--have convinced Weeks that this is the tomb of the Pharaoh's sons.

Still, he's finding mostly puzzles.

For example, a corridor that seemed to be sloping down to the elusive lower floor abruptly ended instead.

And one of 16 matching pillars in the main court is for unknown reasons made of plaster, while the others are carved in place out of limestone. Weeks speculates that the "false pillar" was created to hide something, maybe even a passageway leading down to the bodies of the Pharaoh's sons.

Most of the rooms and much of the columned court are still blocked by debris. Weeks estimates that it will take six to 10 years more to dig out the whole tomb.

When he left off excavating in November so he could teach in the spring semester, he was working in a deeply sloped corridor running opposite to other passages, toward the tomb of Ramses. He thinks that it's possible, but highly improbable, that the corridor could connect to the father's tomb.

More likely, he hopes, is that it leads to the lower level. Weeks says more sarcophagus fragments are scattered in the corridor than anywhere in the tomb--a sign that he may be nearing where the bodies were hidden.

"I would like to think," he said, "that when we get back to work . . . continuing down that corridor may very well lead us to the burial chambers, which I'm still convinced are in the tomb."

Already the tomb is seven times larger than surrounding royal crypts--most have fewer than a dozen rooms--and it appears to be the only royal mausoleum. Weeks says it's so unlike the others that he has "given up trying to second-guess the ancient engineers."

"Every time I say, 'Well, I think this is where we ought to go because that's what we're going to find,' the tomb does something completely different," he said.

Weeks first started looking for the crypt in 1987. He actually was trying to rediscover it, since its existence had long been known.

It was shown on a map drawn by scholars who joined Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798. A British adventurer, James Burton, saw it again in 1825. From Burton's find, it was named KV-5--the fifth tomb recorded in the Kings Valley, burial place of the New Kingdom Pharaohs who ruled Egypt from 1550 to 1070 BC.

In this century, the tomb was seen by Howard Carter, who discovered the treasure of Tutankhamen. But Carter explored only a few feet, and rubble that he dumped at the site from other digs obscured the tomb's exact location.

So, although the tomb was known to exist, no one was certain what--or who--was inside.

Weeks was moved to find out when plans were announced for a road over the likely site. His first discoveries, inscriptions with the names of Ramses and some of his sons, were enough to scrap the road project.

But that was just the beginning of Weeks' work. It took eight years to reach the main corridors, digging through debris that was deposited in the tomb by ancient floods and hardened like cement. The unstable rock means that he still must dig cautiously.

Ibrahim Mahmoud Soliman, the government's chief antiquities inspector for the Valley of the Kings, points to a spot only a few inches from the 9-foot-high ceiling to show how far up the debris was in some places.

After all the digging, the place still looks more like a mine than restored Pharaonic tombs with intricate carvings familiar to tourists. Metal bars and wooden braces shore up the roof. A string of electric lights casts shadows across the rock-hard earth and white limestone.

The tomb is T-shaped. Two small rooms are at the entrance, then comes the central court with its 16 columns. Next is a corridor about 30 yards long that ends in another corridor--the top bar of the T--measuring more than 50 yards. The corridors are lined with the tomb's many chambers.

Where the two corridors meet, Soliman pointed to a statue of Osiris, the god of the afterworld, as a sign of the tomb's importance. The only other Osiris statue found in the valley was in the tomb of Ramses himself, which is about 30 yards opposite KV-5's entrance.

Soliman, who has worked in the valley for 14 years, is certain much more will be found in the tomb. But, like Weeks, he doesn't know where.

"Maybe there is a shaft here, maybe there is another corridor there. No one knows," he said.

He stomped on the floor in one room, and it gave off a hollow sound. Weeks says this a sign there is a level below.

Now is a frustrating time for Weeks. He is in Cairo, 500 miles to the north, because he's teaching this semester and cannot return to excavating until summer.

"I'm just holding my breath until we can get back there in June," he said.

Weeks, his assistants and his wife, Susan, an artist who has done the drawings of the tomb's finds, are studying the thousands of fragments recovered so far, looking for clues to the tomb's secrets.

"Archeology is nothing more than detective work," said Weeks, the son of a police officer. "It's just taking clues and trying to piece together the crime scene."

Among the clues are wall inscriptions or fragments with the names of Ramses and four of his sons, including the eldest, Amon-her-khepeshef. Weeks also has found representations of 24 sons, but the accompanying texts that would show their names are missing.

Ramses II, known as Ramses the Great, is believed to have had 52 sons. As many as 50 could be in the crypt, since only one son has a definite tomb and another is believed buried at Saqqara, near Cairo.

Weeks hopes to find intact mummies, so that with DNA testing he might give shape to Ramses' family. So far, little more than the sons' names are known.

DNA could tell who were born to which mother. Piecing together inscriptions could show their titles, explaining how Ramses used the princes to help rule ancient Egypt.

Weeks thinks pathological studies could divulge more about the sons' daily lives.

"It may be possible to determine what their health was, what kind of diet they had, what diseases they suffered, how they died . . . how old they were when they died," he said.

Another puzzle concerns the sexual practices of the pharaohs.

Two bodies found in royal tombs in southern Egypt were women identified both as daughters and wives of Ramses. But it's not known if "wife" was an honorary title or if Ramses indeed married his daughters. DNA tests of the sons could provide an answer.

Weeks warns, however, that DNA testing has not yet proved very successful in archeology. And he admits that there are some things he will probably never find in the tomb.

One is a treasure such as that hauled from Tut's crypt. Weeks says the tomb seems to have been thoroughly plundered millennia ago. In fact, a papyrus fragment from 1150 BC in an Italian museum tells of a grave robbery in what's believed to be KV-5.

Weeks also expects to disappoint biblical scholars who hope that studying the mummy of Amon-her-khepeshef--Ramses's firstborn son--could give clues to how he died, somehow confirming Ramses as the Pharaoh of the Bible.

In the story of Moses in Exodus 11:5, it's recounted that "all the firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant" as divine retribution for the Pharaoh's failure to free the Jewish people.

But Weeks pointed out that some biblical scholars now believe that the flight from Egypt was more parable than fact. He added: "How are we going to prove he was killed by an act of God if we don't find a lightning bolt stuck through his chest?"


History Tour of the Mystery Tomb

Background on Egyptian tomb that is believed to hold sons of Pharaoh Ramses II:

Valley of the Kings: Contains 62 known tombs, some of royalty, others of high officials. Last found was that of Tutankhamen--King Tut--whose hoard of gold has come to symbolize the wealth and majesty of ancient Egypt. Pharaohs buried here are from the 18th to 20th dynasties; they ruled 1550-1070 B.C.

Ramses II: Also known as Ramses the Great. Ruled 1304-1237 B.C. and lived into his 90s. Traditionally identified as the ruler called only "Pharaoh" in the Bible, because his reign coincided with the time of Moses. Temples he built to himself and his favorite queen, Nefertari, are among Egypt's great monuments.

Sons of the Pharaoh: Ancient texts indicate Ramses had 52 sons and 48 daughters. Eldest son, Amun-her-khepeshef, believed to have lived into his 20s, took part in Ramses' military campaigns and was named "general in chief." His name and those of three other sons--Ramses (junior), Sethi and Mery-Atum--have been found in the mystery tomb.

Associated Press

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