Pharaoh Seti I's Tomb Bigger Than Thought

Andrew Bossone in Cairo, Egypt
for National Geographic News
April 17, 2008
Egyptian archaeologists have discovered that the tomb of the powerful pharaoh Seti I—the largest tomb in the Valley of the Kings—is bigger than originally believed.

During a recent excavation, the team found that the crypt is actually 446 feet (136 meters) in length. Giovanni Battista Belzoni, who discovered the tomb in 1817, had noted the tomb at 328 feet (100 meters).

"[This is] the largest tomb and this is longest tunnel that's ever found in any place in the Valley of the Kings," said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).

"And we still did not find its end until now," said Hawass, who is also a National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Uncovering new parts of previously discovered tombs is rare, although not unprecedented.

In 1995, for example, U.S. archaeologist Kent Weeks opened the KV5 tomb that housed the sons of Ramses II—the son of Seti I—and found that it too was larger than expected, with multiple passageways and more than a hundred small chambers.

The tomb of Seti I, who ruled Egypt from 1313 to 1292 B.C. at the apex of its artistic accomplishments, is impressive not only for its size but also for the breadth of art on its walls, experts say. But its size could be expanded even farther by future expeditions.

"The ancient Egyptians never built something without a plan, without an aim or a target to do this, so I think this tunnel [in the tomb of Seti I] will lead to something important," said Mansour Boraik, director of Luxor Antiquities.

Washed Away

Archaeologists also found clay vessels, fragments of the tomb's painted wall reliefs, and a quartzite ushabti figure—a funerary statue—during their search for artifacts and efforts to clear debris.

These objects could have washed into the tunnel during floods starting from the 21st dynasty, between 1090 and 945 B.C., according to archaeologist W. Raymond Johnson, director of the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

Pharaohs from the 21st dynasty onward quarried the tombs of their predecessors for their own royal burials, he pointed out.

During this process they rewrapped and reburied the royal dead in hidden cachette tombs, such as that of Amenhotep II, located near the tomb of Seti I.

They also filled in the deep shafts typically cut into the ground of the tomb after the second entry corridor. The shafts—known as wells—were filled in to make removing heavy objects from the tomb easier.

These shafts likely served the ceremonial purpose of establishing a direct connection with the underworld, but also had a practical advantage: flood protection.

"These shafts would catch the rainwater if it did get in the tomb," Johnson said.

"It would catch [rainwater] before it went to the burial chamber and divert it downward. But [many of] these [shafts] got filled in order to drag the sarcophagi out, and they didn't clear them out."

The filled-in shafts left tombs susceptible to flooding from rainwater. Other locations in the Valley of the Kings, such as KV5 and the tomb of Ramses II, show signs of such flooding, Johnson said.

(Related: Surprise Finds at Egypt Temple 'Change Everything'" [December 17, 2007].)

After torrential rains in 1994, the SCA built protective raised edges on the front of all the royal tombs as protection from rainfall.

An All-Egyptian Team

The objects found in the tomb of Seti I would have washed into the tunnel long before the side chamber to the tomb collapsed during excavations nearly 50 years ago by the Abdul Rasul family.

Until the current excavation, the tomb was deemed too dangerous to enter because a small section of the vaulted ceiling of the burial chamber had since collapsed.

The excavation is the first discovery by an all-Egyptian archaeological team in the Valley of Kings. Foreign archaeologists have traditionally led missions in the past two centuries.

The team of five archaeologists and one geologist is also looking for other tombs. They believe they could find the tomb of Ramses VIII (circa 1150 B.C.) near the tomb of Merenptah (1225-1215 B.C.) because ancient graffiti indicates a tomb in that location.

"The Valley of the Kings still has a lot of mysteries and a lot of tombs that need to be excavated," Boraik, of Luxor Antiquities, said. "All of the scholarship has not been exhausted."

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