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Valley of the Kings Cliffhanger May 31, 2006
by Mark Rose

The KV63 documentary raises questions, offers tantalizing evidence, and...well, you'll just have to wait.

[image] Otto Schaden of the University of Memphis holds the gilded coffinette from KV 63 as Mansour Boraik of Egypt's Supreme Council for Antiquities looks on. (Amenmesse Project) [LARGER IMAGE]

Airing this Sunday (June 4, 9:00 pm), the Discovery Channel program "Egypt's New Tomb Revealed" is a progress report on the investigation of KV 63 by Otto Schaden and his team in cooperation with the Supreme Council for Antiquities. Just what to make of this tomb--with its seven coffins, sealed jars, embalming materials, and a newly found gilded miniature coffin--has had everybody guessing. For the background on it--the first tomb found in the Valley of the Kings since Tutankhamun's more than 80 years ago--see KV 63: A Look at the New Tomb and visit the project's website at (they have several pictures of the gilded coffinette and nice photo galleries showing the work, team members, and artifacts).

The program begins with the usual for television archaeology: portentous language ("a time of darkness and violence") and a flurry of questions ("Who or what lies inside?" "Is this the final resting place of his lost queen?"). Fortunately this dies down to a great extent after the opening, and the re-creations that Discovery favors (and which I find distracting) are kept to a minimum. Instead, Ken Nystrom arrives on scene. A biological anthropologist, he was one of the team that appeared in the Discovery Channel series "Mummy Autopsy." His job here is to prompt Schaden and his colleagues with questions and periodically summarize the evidence for the viewers, and this works pretty well (though I wish he hadn't said on entering the tomb, "An honest to goodness Egyptian find!").

Some effort was made to highlight stress in the unfolding story of the investigation: the project blows through its budget for workmen simply clearing the entrance shaft; once opened, the tomb is vulnerable to the occasional flashfloods that hit the valley of the Kings. Then there's the removal of the 90-100 pound storage jars, encased in bubble wrap and wafted up using a basket-rope-pulley mechanism. (More stress there when, later in the show, fragile wooden coffins are lifted up.)

A brief interlude (narrator plus re-creation) introduces mummy caches and the efforts later priests made to protect the royal dead ("archaeologists call these simple chambers cache tombs"). That had been one possible explanation of KV 63. But soon we get back to the investigation, with Salima Ikram opening one of the storage jars. She removes a large plug of mud and plaster, then reaches in and brings out things, such as a carved wooden cobra head and sherds, on two of which are inscriptions. One of these has "year five" (a regnal year) and "wine" but lacks the name of the pharaoh.

[image] Coffin E, at back with head to right, may still contain a mummy. If so, hieroglyphs on the coffin might identify the deceased. (Amenmesse Project) [LARGER IMAGE]

After another portentous bit--promising evidence that KV 63 "was filled during one of the most turbulent episodes in Egyptian history"--we're back in the tomb as Ted Brock, while photographing the coffin farthest back, notices that it has three bands of hieroglyphic text beneath its coating of black resin. That's coffin E, which appears to be sealed. Sitting next to it is the coffin on an infant (coffin D), which also appears to be still sealed. There's no way to get to those without first dealing with the other five coffins, some of which were nearly destroyed by termites. Enter conservator Nadia Lukma, who saves the day with cotton wool and P72 solution. The program does a good job of showing the conservation work on the coffins, especially one of the yellow faces. Earl Ertman, the project's associate director, analyses the face--the treatment of the eyes and lips, angle of the eyes, etc.--and declares it likely to be from the time of the later 18th Dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep III.

Returning to Schaden, he is shown examining a very faint inscription on an alabaster jar. Tanatalizing, with individual words ("eternity" and "life") readable, but that's all. The stress motif is hit again: Where and when will the team find out who put all the stuff into KV 63? Salima has opened ten of the jars already... Then, there's excitement as the cameras roll--mud sealings!! The narrator lets loose, indicating that "clues which shed a startling new light" are forthcoming and that the evidence is "so controversial that the team is unwilling to talk about it." Ertman is cautious and doesn't give the game away (he knows one sealing is matched by a sealing found in Tutankhamun's tomb). Mansour Boraik of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, however, makes the leap with the hieroglyphs on another sealing. "Pa is the bird," he says, "this is the Aten." Mention of the Aten is the cue for a re-creation (mercifully short). Boraik does not maintain that the sealing must be a reference to Tutankhamun's wife Ankhesenamun (Ankhespaaten), but that it is, to his mind, a possibility. The coffin at the back of the tomb (coffin E), Boraik later says, might be hers. Schaden doesn't go so far, but he says this to Nystrom concerning what name might eventually be found on a KV 63 sealing: it is "most likely going to be Tutankhamun if we find any name on the seals. So, I'm taking a risk by giving you a name here."

With the focus on Tutankhamun, the show begins to look at possible explanations for KV 63. Earl Ertman, giving Nystrom a tour of Tut's tomb, suggests it was a rush job. Plaster was left uneven; details were missed in the wall paintings. And several of the tomb furnishings were recycled. What if the seven coffins in KV 63 were originally in Tut's tomb, then were moved out to make room for the pharaoh? Brock questions this idea, which is presented as Ertman's, noting that if such were the case the coffins would still have mummies in them. Brock shows Nystrom what was found in one coffin: bundles of natron, the natural salt used in embalming. Ikram has something to add to that--the natron she is looking at has bits of desiccated human flesh adhering to it. The natron has been used. Could KV 63 be a cache of embalming supplies? If so, she says, "this one is weird because it has coffins." And, Schaden notes, the two apparently sealed coffins in the back might yet prove to contain mummies. The narrator gets in a final word: maybe it's the secret burial of two of Tut's family members hidden behind waste material. He suggests there was some sort of rush to "hide all evidence of religious turmoil" from early in Tut's reign. Hmm....

Meanwhile, the stress level has been dropping, so it's time for the project to reach "its most critical phase" as the operation takes the team and the coffins "to the breaking point." With the tomb open, the environment is no longer stable. A hole is opening up in the face of coffin E as the paper-thin wood is splitting and cracking. The coffin of a youth (coffin G), which is set atop two other coffins (B and C), has to be removed. But it also abuts coffin E, and moving it might allow E to shift and crush the infant's coffin (D). Conservator Nadia Lukma and Otto Schaden are, without doubt, a bit stressed as the youth's coffin (fortunately still in good shape) is lifted with slings and a two-by-four. The operation is successful and the team has a peak inside coffin G, revealing a number of linen pillows!

[image] Partial conservation in KV 63 made it possible to move fragile pieces such as this face from one of the coffins. (Heather Alexander/Amenmesse Project) [LARGER IMAGE]

Later examination of the contents of coffin G yielded the gilded coffinette, but that apparently occurred after the show was wrapped up. In the version I had for review, the video of the coffinette's discovery is separate from the program, with no commentary other than the discussion and cheerful banter between Schaden, Boraik, and others.

As it is, the program ends with Lukma examining the sealed coffin E. Then Schaden is shown having a look at it, noting that the area around the feet, where he says you might expect to find a name, is the least accessible. For the rest of the coffins, he says, "perhaps one of the reasons for this collection was simply to hide away these two coffins that are sealed." (Hence the narrator's earlier suggestion.) A title at the end notes that the team hopes to open the two coffins by the end of this summer. Guess we'll have to wait!!

Despite my carping about the re-creations and narrator, the program's very well done. In fact, it's one of the best archaeology shows I've seen in a long time. Credit is due the television crew, to be sure, but KV 63 is an exciting and puzzling discovery, and the archaeology and conservation carry the program. And the team members do a good job in front of the camera. While "Egypt's New Tomb Revealed" doesn't resolve the who and why of KV 63, you'll enjoy watching it (except maybe those re-creations!).

[image] Coffin D, made for a youth, contained linen pillows and the gilded miniature coffin. (Amenmesse Project) [LARGER IMAGE]

Mark Rose is executive and online editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America