A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A newly discovered burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings provides
a rare glimpse into the life of an ancient Egyptian singer
A wooden coffin holding
the remains of a temple
singer sat inside a tomb
undisturbed for nearly
3,000 years. It is the first
unlooted burial to be
found in the Valley of the
Kings since 1922. (Courtesy © University of Basel Kings' Valley Project)
On January 25, 2011, tens of thousands of
protestors flooded Cairo's Tahrir Square,
demanding the end of President Hosni
Mubarak's regime. As the "day of revolt"
filled the streets of Cairo and other cities
with tear gas and flying stones, a team of
archaeologists led by Susanne Bickel of the University of Basel
in Switzerland was about to make one of the most significant
discoveries in the Valley of the Kings in almost a century.
The valley lies on the west bank of the Nile, opposite what was
once Egypt's spiritual center—the city of Thebes, now known as
Luxor. The valley was the final resting place of the pharaohs and
aristocracy beginning in the New Kingdom period (1539–1069
B.C.), when Egyptian wealth and power were at a high point. Dozens
of tombs were cut into the valley's walls, but most of them were
eventually looted. It was in this place that the Basel team came
across what they initially believed to be an unremarkable find.
At the southeastern end of the valley they discovered
three sides of a man-made stone rim surrounding an area
of about three-and-a-half by five feet. The archaeologists
suspected that it was just the top of an abandoned shaft.
But, because of the uncertainty created by Egypt's political
revolution, they covered the stone rim with an iron door
while they informed the authorities and applied for an
official permit to excavate.
A year later, just before the first anniversary of the revolution,
Bickel returned with a team of two dozen people, including
field director Elina Paulin-Grothe of the University of
Basel, Egyptian inspector Ali Reda, and local workmen. They
started clearing the sand and gravel out of the shaft. Eight feet
down, they came upon the upper edge of a door blocked by
large stones. At the bottom of the shaft they found fragments
of pottery made from Nile silt and pieces of plaster, a material commonly used to seal tomb entrances. Those plaster pieces, together with the age of other nearby sites, were the first sign
that the shaft might actually be a tomb dating to between 1539
and 1292 B.C., Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty. The large stones
appeared to have been added later.
Although stones blocked the entrance, there was a hole just
large enough to admit a small digital camera. Bickel, Paulin-
Grothe, and the chief of the Egyptian workmen each took
turns lying on the ground, head pressed against the shaft wall,
one arm through the hole, snapping pictures. The surprising
images revealed a small rock-cut chamber measuring 13 by 8.5
feet, filled to within three feet of the ceiling with debris, leaving
little doubt they had found a tomb. On top of the debris rested
a dusty black coffin carved from sycamore wood and decorated
with large yellow hieroglyphs on its sides and top. "I've never
found a coffin in as good condition before," Bickel says.
The hieroglyphs describe the tomb's occupant, named
Nehemes-Bastet, as a "lady" of the upper class and "chantress
[shemayet] of Amun," whose father was a priest in the temple
complex of Karnak in Thebes. The coffin's color and hieroglyphs
match a style that dates to between 945 and 715 B.C., at least
350 years after the tomb was built. The coffin shows that the
burial chamber had been reused, a common practice at the time.
The only other artifact dating to the same period as the coffin
was a wooden stele, slightly smaller than an iPad, painted with
a prayer to provide for her in the afterlife, and an image that
is believed to be of Nehemes-Bastet in front of the seated sun
god Amun. The white, green, yellow, and red paints hadn't faded
a bit. Bickel says, "It could have been taken from a storeroom
yesterday." The rubble that filled the chamber held the remnants of the original Eighteenth Dynasty burial, she adds, including
pottery, wood fragments, and parts of the unwrapped and dismembered
mummy who first occupied the tomb. It also must
be noted that before the discovery of Nehemes-Bastet's, the
last unlooted tomb found in the valley was the famous burial of
Tutankhamun, discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter.
The coffin was carved from sycamore
wood and decorated with hieroglyphs. (Courtesy © University of Basel Kings' Valley Project)
People have been claiming there was nothing new left to
find in the Valley of the Kings for almost as long as they have
been digging there. The Venetian antiquarian Giovanni Belzoni
believed he had emptied the last of the valley's tombs during
his 1817 expedition. Theodore Davis, who excavated there a
century later, came to a similar conclusion—right before Tutankhamun's
burial was found. Of course, other discoveries have
been made in the valley. In 1995, a team led by Kent Weeks, now retired from the American University in Cairo, was investigating a tomb used by the family of Pharaoh Rameses II.* They found previously unknown corridors, leading to the
resting place of Rameses II's sons, which extended to more
than 121 rooms. Unfortunately, the rooms had been looted
in antiquity and damaged by flash floods. In 2005, a team
led by Otto Schaden of the Amenmesse Project discovered
an unlooted chamber, which held seven coffins and 28 jars
containing mummification materials. The chamber, however,
contained no bodies, so it is unlikely that it was a tomb.
Before Bickel's team could take Nehemes-Bastet's coffin
out of the burial chamber for further study, they had to open
it to make sure that nothing inside would be damaged when
it was moved. It took a professional restorer a day to remove the
nails that held the lid closed. Inspector Ali Reda and Mohammed
el-Bialy, chief inspector of antiquities of Upper Egypt, joined Bickel
and Paulin-Grothe for the opening. Inside they found a carefully
wrapped female mummy, about five feet tall. It was blackened
all over—and stuck to the bottom of the coffin—by a sticky
fruit-based syrup used in the mummification process.
Even in the short time since its discovery, the tomb is
already providing intriguing insights into the life of the
woman who was buried there. The time of Nehemes-Bastet's
burial (sometime between 945 and 715 B.C.) was long after
Egypt had reached the peak of its power and influence.
The Great Pyramid was more than 1,500 years old, and the
prosperous days of the New Kingdom were gone. Nehemes-
Bastet lived during the Third Intermediate Period, a time
when Egypt was split by intermittent wars between the pharaohs
in Tanis and the high priests of Amun in Thebes, who
rivaled the traditional rulers in wealth and power. "It must
have been a pretty unsettling period," says Emily Teeter, an
Egyptologist and research assistant at the Oriental Institute
of the University of Chicago. "There was fighting among
these factions around her time."
"It's interesting that in this period even a wealthy girl
was buried with quite simple things," Bickel says, comparing
Nehemes-Bastet's coffin and stele with the elaborate
pottery, furniture, and food found in earlier tombs. "Her
wooden coffin was certainly quite expensive," she says, but nonetheless, it lacked the elaborate inner
coffins found in similar burials.
More details on Nehemes-Bastet's daily
life can be drawn from a wealth of paintings,
texts, and reliefs carved on statues and stelae
of the time, says Teeter. As a chantress, or
singer, in the temple of Amun, she probably
lived in the 250-acre Karnak temple complex
located in Thebes. Her name, translated as
"may Bastet save her," indicates that she was
under the protection of the feline goddess
and "divine mother" Bastet, the protector of
Lower Egypt. Nehemes-Bastet's occupation,
however, was to worship Amun, the king of
ancient Egyptian gods.
Music was a key ingredient in Egyptian religion. Teeter
explains that it was believed to soothe the gods and encourage
them to provide for their worshippers. Nehemes-Bastet was one
of many priestess-musicians who performed inside the sanctuaries
and in the courts of the temples. "The hypothesis is that these
women would sing, act, and take part in festivities and big ritual
processions that were held several times a year," Bickel says. The
musical instruments that chantresses typically used were the
menat, a multi-strand beaded necklace they would shake, and the
sistrum, a handheld rattle whose sound was said to evoke wind rustling
through papyrus reeds. Other musicians would have played
drums, harps, and lutes during religious processions.
inscription states the name and title of the
coffin's occupant— Nehemes-Bastet, Chantress
of Amun (Courtesy © University of Basel Kings' Valley Project)
"For years people have debated what kind of music it
was," says Teeter. "But there's no musical notation left, and
we're not sure how they tuned the instruments or whether
they sang or chanted." Some scholars have suggested it may
have sounded like an ancient ancestor of rap, she adds. The
emphasis was definitely on percussion. Images often show
people stamping their feet and clapping. Examples of song
lyrics are recorded on temple walls. This one from Luxor refers to the Festival of Opet, when the cult images of the
gods Amun, Mut, and Khonsu were brought by boat down
the Nile to renew the pharoah's divine essence.
Hail Amun-Re, the primeval one of the two lands, foremost
one of Karnak, in your glorious appearance amidst your
[river] fleet, in your beautiful Festival of Opet, may you be
pleased with it.
The title "Chantress of Amun" belonged to women of the
upper classes, Teeter says. Genealogies show multiple generations
of women held the title, with mothers probably teaching
the profession to their daughters. "It was a very honorable
profession," says Teeter. "These women were well respected
in society, which is why [Nehemes-Bastet] was buried in the
Valley of the Kings." As was the case with the priests, temple
singers were paid from the income generated by the huge
tracts of land that Amun "owned" across Egypt. Some priests
and priestesses served in the temples only a few months out
of the year before returning home. There's little information
about what women like Nehemes-Bastet would have done
while at home, Teeter says, but it probably wasn't too different
from other women's traditional duties of the time: running the
household, raising children, and supporting their husbands.
To learn more about Nehemes-Bastet, Bickel's team needed to move the mummy to their lab. After reinforcing the coffin
and securing the mummy, Bickel's team carefully removed
them from the burial chamber and transported them across the
Nile to Luxor, where they are being fully restored. Theteam has
emptied and sealed the tomb, but plans to return to complete
an architectural analysis so they can learn more about its construction.
The bodies from both of the tomb's burials will be
examined in detail. Bickel hopes to find the name or at least
the title of the tomb's original Eighteenth Dynasty occupant.
In addition, a CT scan of Nehemes-Bastet is planned for later
this year or early 2013. Preliminary reports will be published
by the end of 2012, she says, but final analyses of the tomb and
its artifacts will probably take four to five years.
As surprising as finding Nehemes-Bastet's tomb was, archaeologists
believe it probably isn't the last major discovery that will
be made in the Valley of the Kings. "The valley has many nooks
and crannies," says Otto Schaden, "so it is still premature to set
any limits on the possibility of finding more tombs."
Julian Smith is a contributing editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Donald Ryan of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington led a team to investigate the tomb of Rameses II's family. Kent Weeks led the project to excavate that tomb.