Sunday, 20 January 2013

KV55 - Mystery Tomb of the Valley of the Kings

In the Aten Sequence books, Aten needs gold and he is not particularly scrupulous as to where he gets it from, so he sets up a little tomb robbing with Piy on the side.  During this period of Egypt’s history Pharaohs were buried in rock cut tombs in a remote, arid valley on the west bank of the Nile called the Valley of the Kings and then, during the reign of Akhenaten, tombs were dug at Akhetaten.  But so much of the history of the Amarna period is still not clear and there is a tomb in the Valley of the Kings that has raised at least as many questions as it has answered – the mysterious KV55.

So when did the first pharaoh get buried in the royal valley and why was this remote valley chosen?  Early in the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom one of pharaoh’s architects, a government official called Ineni, broke away from hundreds of years of royal tradition and dug the first royal rock cut tomb in a remote, lonely valley  ‘alone, no one seeing and no one hearing’.  Before this time the pharaohs had been buried in above-ground structures, initially in mastabas and then in pyramids and the larger and more visible they were the better.

Sarcophagus from KV55
Sarcophagus from KV55

We will never know for sure what led to this breaking away from tradition, but it may have been due to the fact that it did not matter how big or solid the structure was, these above-ground tombs were almost inevitably penetrated by tomb robbers and the rich contents of the burial chamber stolen and the mummy of the king ripped apart and destroyed to find the precious amulets and jewellery that were hidden in the wrappings.

To date sixty four tombs have been found in the Valley of the Kings, although many Egyptologists believe that there are more waiting to be discovered.  These are the tombs of pharaohs, queens, royal children and favoured officials and are labelled numerically from KV1 to KV64.  Some of these tombs are huge constructions reaching deep into the cliffs, elaborately carved and painted, and some are little more than shallow pits scratched out of the rock.

The Valley of the Kings has been a tourist attraction since Roman times, as is attested by the graffiti found in some of the tombs, and since the 19th century has attracted visitors from all over the world.  The spectacular discovery of the undisturbed tomb of Tutankhamun in 1921 increased the flood of visitors and it has been declared that there is nothing left to find in the royal valley.

This has been refuted in recent years by the discovery of KV63 and now KV64, but with all the wealth of knowledge that we have about the royal valley, there is still a lot that we do not know and mysteries abound.

KV55 – the mysterious ‘Amarna’ Cache

In 1907 Edward R Ayrton, working on the behest of Theodore M Davis, uncovered a set of steps and the entrance to a previously unknown tomb. There was excitement when the sloping passage was found to be filled with clean loose chippings and they encountered two blocking walls, one a wall plastered and bearing the unbroken seal of the Royal Valley – the impression of a seated jackal, the god Anubis on a shrine and the crouching figures of nine bound captives.

When the walls were demolished they found two side panels of a wooden shrine covered in fine gold leaf and richly inscribed. They were in very poor condition but the hieroglyphs could still be read; they had belonged to Queen Tiye, the Great Royal Wife of Amenophis III and the mother of the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten.  The end of the sloping passage led to a large, undecorated chamber containing further parts of the shrines, a battered mummy case and other objects apparently randomly strewn across the floor of the room.

All of these objects were also in very poor condition and the gold leaf fell to the floor as the air was disturbed.  Four alabaster canopic jars with exquisitely carved portrait heads were found in a niche in the far wall, but the name of the owner had been deliberately destroyed.

Canopic Jar From KV55 - Kiya
Canopic Jar From KV55 

On examination, they found that the golden coffin was collapsing onto the floor and contained a poorly preserved, albeit obviously royal, mummy with its left arm crossed over its chest and the right arm extended.  A gold vulture pectoral had been placed on the head of the mummy.  The mummy was unwrapped and examined in the tomb and sheets of gold removed, one with a cartouche on it thought to be that of Akhenaten.

There were also a couple of wooden boxes whose contents had been strewn across the floor, four magic bricks, some seals bearing the name of Tutankhamun and other fragments of furniture.  The wooden objects had all been damaged by water entering the tomb.

Some of the confusion surrounding the tomb concerns the poor documentation of the objects in situ, the lack of work done on preserving the objects and the rapid clearing of the tomb.  But who had the tomb been prepared for?  Who was the decaying mummy in the battered coffin?  Theodore Davis was convinced that he had found the burial of the great queen Tiye and the once magnificent golden shrine had indeed been made for her by her son Akhenaten.  With one exception, the name of Akhenaten had been deliberately erased and the images decorating the panels show Akhenaten and Tiye worshipping the sun disc.  The way that the parts of the shrine have been stacked in the tomb, indicate that it might have once been erected in the chamber and then later dismantled, probably in antiquity.

There is also evidence that the coffin had been made for a female occupant and then later adapted for a male; there was a false beard, a crook and a flail added and the inscriptions were altered.  The titles of Akhenaten have been found on the coffin and it is now thought that the coffin was originally made, along with the four canopic jars, for a lesser wife of his, Kiya, and then later adapted for him.

However, is the mummy really that of Akhenaten?  Davis had the bones pronounced as those of a woman, but later examinations showed the bones belonging to a young male aged between twenty and thirty.  The skull was found to be platycephalic and very similar to the skull of Tutankhamun.  In addition, specialised blood tests showed that the mummy discovered in KV55 was either the father or brother of Tutankhamun.  The age of the mummy is much too young to have been that of the heretic Pharaoh and so the body has been identified by many as that of Smenkhkare.

Smenkhkare was a shadowy figure who ruled Egypt for a scant three years after the death of Akhenaten.  There are arguments that he was co-ruler with Akhenaten for a while and even that Smenkhkare was a name assumed by Akhenaten’s wife Nefertiti, so that she could rule as pharaoh in her own right.  He is generally believed to be the elder brother of Tutankhamun and was married to Akhenaten’s eldest daughter Meritaten.
In 2010 Dr Hawass released a paper on the recent DNA testing of the royal mummies which suggests that the KV55 mummy is that of Akhenaten.  However, this has stirred up even more debate with some experts rejecting this identification.

So what really happened in this tomb?  Was KV55 a cache of miscellaneous funerary objects from the Amarna period that had been brought back from the royal necropolis at Akhetaten for safe keeping?  Was the tomb the original burial of Queen Tiye, the tomb being opened in antiquity and the remains of the burial of Akhenaten placed in the tomb, with at some later stage the burial of Tiye being removed elsewhere and the funerary objects of Akhenaten defaced and his name removed?  Were the burials of Tiye, Akhenaten and Smenkhkare all in the tomb together at some stage?

Skull from KV55
Skull from KV55

Unless some new evidence is uncovered, we might never know.  It is perhaps worth remembering that several of the funerary items, including one of the coffins, found in the burial of Tutankhamun are believed to have previously belonged to Smenkhkare.  They were referred to as ‘heirlooms’ by Howard Carter, but would such costly items really have been excluded from Smenkhkare’s burial?  Maybe they were not unused ‘heirlooms’ that had been put into storage at all, maybe they had once been part of Smenkhkare’s grave goods and had either been taken from KV55 directly or brought from a another location and briefly stored in KV55 before being used in the burial of Tutankhamun?

There is so much more evidence and knowledge still to emerge from the shifting sands of Egypt; hopefully some of it will help to shed more light on the riddle that is KV55.

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Get Twitter Buttons KV55 sarcophagus image Hans Ollermann Wikimedia Creative Commons Share Alike Attribution 2.0 Generic
Canopic jar image Captmondo Wikimedia Creative Commons Share Alike Attribution 2.5 Generic
KV55 Skull Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

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