The Valley of the Kings is a valley in Egypt where for a period of nearly 500 years from the 16th to 11th century BC, tombs were constructed for the kings and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom (the Eighteenth through Twentieth Dynasties of Ancient Egypt). The valley stands on the west bank of the Nile, across from Thebes (modern Luxor), within the heart of the Theban Necropolis. The wadi consists of two valleys, East Valley (where the majority of the royal tombs situated) and West Valley.
The area has been a focus of concentrated archaeological and Egyptological exploration since the end of the eighteenth century, and its tombs and burials continue to stimulate research and interest. In modern times the valley has become famous for the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun (with its rumors of the Curse of the Pharaohs), and is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. In 1979, it became a World Heritage Site, along with the rest of the Theban Necropolis.
The tombs are numbered in the order of ‘discovery’ with the modern abbreviation “KV” standing for “Kings’ Valley.” The sequencing begins with Ramesses VII (KV1) to KV63 (which was discovered in 2005), although many of the tombs have been open since antiquity, and KV5 was only rediscovered in the 1990s (after being dismissed as unimportant by previous investigators). The West Valley tombs often have the “WV” prefix but follow the same numbering system. A number of the tombs are unoccupied, the owners of others remain unknown, and others are merely pits used for storage. Most of the open tombs in the Valley of the Kings are located in the East Valley, and this is where most tourists and facilities can be found.
The Valley was used for primary burials from approximately 1539 BC to 1075 BC, and contains some 60 tombs, starting with the reign of Thutmose I and ending with Ramesses X or XI.
The Valley of the Kings also had tombs for the favorite nobles and the wives and children of both the nobles and pharaohs. Around the time of Ramesses I (ca. 1300 BC) the Valley of the Queens was begun, although some wives were still buried with their husbands.
The quality of the rock in the Valley is very inconsistent. Tombs were built, by cutting through various layers of limestone, each with its own quality. This poses problems for modern day conservators, as it must have to the original architects. Building plans were probably changed on account of this. The most serious problem are the shale layers. This fine material expands when it comes into contact with water. This has damaged many tombs, particularly during floods.
Most of the tombs were cut into the limestone following a similar pattern: three corridors, an antechamber and a sunken sarcophagus chamber. These catacombs were harder to rob and were more easily concealed. The switch to burying the pharaohs within the valley instead of pyramids, was intended to safeguard against tomb robbers. In most cases this did not prove to be affective. Many of the bodies, of the pharaohs, where moved by the Egyptian priests, and placed in several caches, during the political upheaval of the 21st Dynasty.
Construction of a tomb usually lasted six years, beginning with each new reign.
As indicated earlier, The Valley of the Kings has two components – the East Valley and the West Valley. It is the East Valley which is the most popular tourist attraction and in which most of the tombs of the New Kingdom Pharaohs can be found.
Historical research of the Middle East reveals that by the end of the New Kingdom, Egypt had entered a long period of political and economic decline. The priests at Thebes grew in power and effectively administered Upper Egypt, while kings ruling from Tanis controlled Lower Egypt. The Valley began to be heavily plundered, so the priests of Amen during 21st Dynasty to open most of the tombs and move the mummies into three tombs in order to better protect them. Later most of these were moved to a single cache near Deir el-Bari. During the later Third Intermediate Period and later intrusive burials were introduced into many of the open tombs.
Almost all of the tombs have been ransacked, including Tutankhamun’s, though in his case, it seems that the robbers were interrupted, so very little was removed. The valley was surrounded by steep cliffs and heavily guarded. In 1090 BC, or the year of the Hyena, there was a collapse in Egypt’s economy leading to the emergence of tomb robbers. Because of this, it was also the last year that the valley was used for burial. The valley also seems to have suffered an official plundering during the virtual civil war which started in the reign of Ramesses XI. The tombs were opened, all the valuables removed, and the mummies collected into two large caches. One, the so-called Deir el-Bahri cache, contained no less than forty royal mummies and their coffins. The other, in the tomb of Amenhotep II, contained a further sixteen.
The Valley of the Kings has been a major area of modern Egyptian archeology for the last two centuries. Previously this part of the Middle East was a location for tourism in antiquity (especially during Roman times). The site illustrates the changes in the study of ancient Egypt, starting as antiquity hunting, and ending as scientific excavation of the whole Theban Necropolis. Despite the exploration and investigation noted below, only eleven of the tombs have actually been completely recorded.
The Greek writers Strabo and Diodorus Siculus were able to report that the total number of Theban royal tombs was 47, of which at the time only 17 were believed to be undestroyed. Pausanias and others wrote of the pipe-like corridors of the Valley – i.e. the tombs.
Clearly others also visited the valley in these times, as many of the tombs have graffiti written by these ancient tourists. One traveller, Jules Baillet, located over 2000 Greek and Latin graffiti, along with a smaller number in Phoenician, Cypriot, Lycian, Coptic, and other languages.
Before the nineteenth century, travel from Europe to Thebes (and indeed anywhere in Egypt) was difficult, time-consuming and expensive, and only the hardiest of European travelers visited The Valley Of The Kings. It was known to be on the Nile, but it was often confused with Memphis and several other sites. One of the first travelers to record what he saw at Thebes was Frederic Louis Norden, a Danish adventurer and artist. He was followed by Richard Pococke, who published the first modern map of the valley itself in 1743.
In 1799, Napoleon’s expedition drew maps and plans of the known tombs, and for the first time noted the Western Valley (where Prosper Jollois and edouard de Villiers du Terrage located the tomb of Amenhotep III, WV22). The Description de l’Egypte contains two volumes (out a total of 19) on the area around Thebes.
European exploration continued in the area around Thebes during the Nineteenth Century, boosted by Champollion’s translation of hieroglyphs early in the century. Early in the century, the area was visited by Belzoni, working for Henry Salt, who discovered several tombs, including that of those of Ay in the West Valley (WV23) in 1816, and Seti I, KV17 the next year. At the end of his visits, Belzoni declared that all of the tombs had been found and nothing of note remained to be found.
In 1827 John Gardiner Wilkinson was assigned to paint the entry of every tomb, giving them each a designation that is still in use today. They were numbered KV1 to KV21 (although the maps show 28 entrances, some of which were unexplored). These paintings and maps were later published in The Topography of Thebes and General Survey of Egypt in 1830. At the same time the Egyptologist James Burton explored the valley. His works included making KV17 safer from flooding, but he is more well known for entering KV5.
In 1845 – 1846 the valley was explored by Carl Richard Lepsius’ expedition. They explored and documented 25 main valleys and 4 in the west. The later half of the century saw a more concerted effort to preserve rather than simply gathering antiquities. Auguste Mariette’s Egyptian Antiqities Service started to explore the valley, first with Eugene Lefebre in 1883, then Jules Balliet and George Benedite in early 1888 and finally Victor Loret in 1898 to 1899. During this time George Daressy explored KV9 and KV6. Loret added an additional 16 tombs to the list and explored several sites that had already been discovered.
Around the turn of the Twentieth Century, the American Theodore Davis had the excavation permit in the valley, and his team (led mosty by Edward R. Ayrton) discovered several royal and non-royal tombs (KV43, KV46 & KV57 being the most important). In 1907 they discovered the possible Amarna Period cache in KV55. After finding what they thought was the burial of Tutankhamun (KV61), it was announced that the valley was completely explored and no further burials were to be found.
Howard Carter then acquired the right to explore the valley and after a systematic search discovered the actual tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62) in November 1922.
At end of the century, the Theban Mapping Project re-discovered and explored tomb KV55, which has since be discovered to be probably the largest in the valley, and was either a cenotaph or real burial for the sons of Ramesses II. Elsewhere in the eastern and western branches of the valley several other expeditions cleared and studied other tombs. Recently the Amarna Royal Tombs Project has been exploring the area around KV55 and KV62, the Amarna Period tombs in the main valley.
Various expeditions have continued to explore the valley, adding greatly to the knowledge of the area. In 2001 the Theban Mapping Project designed new signs for the tombs,providing information and plans of the open tombs. A new visitors’ centre is currently being planned. On February 8, 2006, American archaeologists uncovered a pharaonic-era tomb (KV63), the first uncovered there since King Tutankhamun’s in 1922. The 18th Dynasty tomb included five mummies in intact sarcophagi with coloured funerary masks along with more than 20 large storage jars, sealed with pharaonic seals.
Itnsource gives us a glimpse inside Tutankhamen’s tomb: