Some Observations Concerning
Uninscribed Tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

by: Donald P. Ryan


ALTHOUGH the Valley of the Kings is internationally celebrated for its beautifully decorated and inscribed tombs, a closer examination of the numbered tombs in the Wadi Biban el-Moluk demonstrates that approximately half of these tombs are uninscribed (see Table 1). Knowing this, one is struck by the amazing lack of interest in and documentation for most of these tombs. Sheer numbers alone demand that these uninscribed monuments are worthy of attention as does their location in this most special of valleys. This paper will briefly comment upon the nature, problems, and challenges of uninscribed tombs in the Valley of the Kings and will occasionally use examples and insights gathered from the first two seasons of work of the Pacific Lutheran University Valley of the Kings Project (1989 and 1990).1 It is the goal of the Project to clear, document, and conserve a series of six uninscribed tombs located north and east behind the Valley's prominent hill (KV 21, 27, 28, 44, 45, and 60).

The Nature of Uninscribed Tombs

The term 'uninscribed' here refers to tombs which bear no inscriptions and generally applies to those tombs whose walls are blank. There are some tombs, however, that are uninscribed but slightly decorated (e.g. KV 38 2 and 42 3) in which the term undecorated would be inappropriate. Examples of graffiti and masons' marks are not considered as intentional attempts to decorate the tombs. Uninscribed tombs offer a host of intriguing problems. Most obvious is the fact that one cannot simply 'read the walls' of a tomb to determine its date, ownership, and other information of interest. Without the crutch of texts and decorations, the tombs become archaeological problems compounded in the Valley of the Kings by their serious lack of documentation.

Typically, most of the uninscribed tombs were savagely robbed in antiquity. This fact, combined with the tombs' relative simplicity, seems to have generated a profound lack of interest by their nineteenth century or early twentieth century discoverers. With archaeological thought and technique in its infancy and with the possibilities of richer, more colourful discoveries ahead, it is not surprising that these early excavators showed little interest in the examination or recording of uninscribed corridors and chambers and bits of broken wood and pottery.

TABLE 1: Uninscribed Tombs in the Valley of the Kings +

Tomb/Tomb Owner(s)

12 ?
20 Tuthmosis I, Hatshepsut
21 two women
24 ?
25 ?
26 ?
27 ?
28 ?
30 ?
31 ?
32 ?
33 ?
36 Maiherpri
37 ?
38 Tuthmosis I
39 ?
40 ?
42 Hatshepsut~Meryetre, Sennufer (?)
44 Twenty-second Dynasty usurpation
45 Twenty-second Dynasty usurpation of Userhet
46 Yuia and Tjuia
48 Amenemopet
49 ?
50-52  animals. (tombs intended for human burials?)
53 ?
55 'Amarna cache'. Tiye?
56 ?
58 ?
59 ?
60 Sitre + another female
61 apparently unused

+ Though formally numbered in the Valley of the Kings tomb series, KV 54 is not a tomb but a shallow rock cut excavation containing a cache of materials related to the burial of Tutankhamun. It is thus not included on this list. Neither is KV 41 which has now been shown to consist of nothing more than a deep shaft. The lettered series of tomb 'commencements' and miscellaneous 'pits' are likewise not included.

Various processes following the original interments have also made tomb interpretation more difficult. These often inhibiting forces are indeed typical of the agents of disruption and destruction found throughout the Valley. In the case of KV 27 4, for example, the original excavator is not known. and there are consequently no records of its discovery or possible contents. The tomb has suffered the effects of several flood events and has also served as a human shelter until relatively recently. Portions of the ceiling and walls are blackened by the soot of fires. As late as 1990, local men used the tomb for escaping the heat, and small broken 'antiquities' of modern manufacture attest to the tomb's use as an occasional storage depot for souvenir dealers. (A funerarv cone found in the debris of neighbouring KV 28 provides another example.) Additionally. KV 27 has been used by local dogs as a haven for raising their offspring. An angry protective mother and six puppies were found domiciled there during our second field season.

In KV 21 5 it seems that most of the damage took place after its discovery by Giovanni Belzoni in 1817. James Burton referred to the tomb as 'a clean new tomb - the water not having got into it'.6 Such was not the case upon our reopening of this monument in 1989. The entranceway of the tomb itself was buried under many feet of flood debris. The door of the tomb had fortunately been blocked by stones, but water had nonetheless entered the tomb leaving a thin layer of fine silt in its lower reaches. Watermarks on the walls in the tomb's burial chamber indicate several centimetres of slowly evaporating standing water. The water has taken its toll on most of the artifacts found on the floor and the two mummies found inside were likewise affected.

Evidence of vandalism is clear in KV 21. The well-preserved mummies in the burial chamber, described by Belzoni, were found broken in pieces here and there in the tomb. A graffito by a certain 'ME!' was left in the tomb's small side chamber with a date of 1826. Additionally, some hefty rocks had been thrown amidst the large, whitened pots that were stored in this room, perhaps for the dubious pleasure of hearing the shatter of ancient pottery. Extensive deposits of bat guano in the tomb demonstrate that the tomb was open for some time.

In contrast, there is KV 60 7 which has suffered neither from floods. recent occupation, nor modern vandalism. An uninterested Howard Carter encountered this anciently robbed tomb in 1903 and reburied it, removing only some examples of mummified geese, and leaving two mummies and a coffin along with many other objects. His notes include neither a plan nor a map. An apparent subsequent entry by Edward Ayrton in 1906 is only indirectly documented.8 He took the coffin and one of the mummies and reburied the tomb. The tomb then became 'lost' yet again until 1989.9

Tomb Ownership and Dating

There are few examples of uninscribed tombs in the Valley of the Kings where the owners are known. The partially intact burials of Maiherpri (KV36 10) and Yuia and Tjuia (KV 46 11) are truly exceptional. Again, a lack of archaeological documentation is a major factor in our ignorance concerning these tombs. The matter of ownership can also be complicated by such factors as usurpations. In KV 45, for example, Howard Carter discovered an intact double burial of Twenty-second Dynasty date placed amongst the debris of what seems to have been the original Eighteenth Dynasty burial.12 All that Carter recovered from this first burial were a few pieces of inscribed canopic jars. Another example is seen with the foundation deposits of KV 42 which indicate that the tomb was constructed for Hatshepsut-Meryetre. The meagre contents, however, included material from the burial of Sennufer and others.13 The classic example of the problem of tomb ownership is, of course, the enduring controversy of KV 55 14. Other intriguing and hitherto nameless occupants of uninscribed tombs, such as those recently rediscovered in KV 60 and 21 will provide much fodder for future speculation.

It is tempting to suggest that the majority of the uninscribed tombs belong to private non-royal individuals. Insufficient data and counter-examples (e.g.Tuthmosis I, KV 38 15 and Hatshepsut/Tuthmosis I, KV 20 16) do not allow for such an assumption. Additionally, in terms of tomb ownership one must take into account some of the mummies gathered into the royal caches of Deir el-Bahri and KV 35 for whom no tombs are known.17

The dating of the uninscribed tombs would certainly be enhanced by a knowledge of ownership, but in its absence there are stylistic trends which might assist. The stylistic evolution of the royal tomb plan has long been recognized, and further trends concerning design and dimension will hopefully be discerned if more of the uninscribed tombs are investigated in the future. Trends in location might also be established. Uninscribed pit tombs KV 27, 28, 44, and 45 all appear to be of Eighteenth Dynasty date and were constructed on the north and eastern sides of the Valley's prominent hill. Their similarity in design and location suggests a temporal relationship.

Why Uninscribed?

An obvious question comes to mind when dealing with these tombs: why are these tombs devoid of inscription or decoration while others nearby are abundantly adorned? KV 60. for example. contains many examples of incomplete carving or hasty work. KV 21, on the other hand, is finely cut, prepared for plastering, and essentially ready for decoration. Many of the royal tombs in the Valley are far from complete in their decoration, but they are indeed at least partially inscribed. Across the cliffs in the private necropoleis there are numerous examples of even the simplest of tombs bearing inscriptions.

In dealing with this problem, there are several points of consideration. Uninscribed tombs have not been unusual across the history of Egyptian tomb building.18 Secondly, the timing of each tomb's building commission could play a major role in the tomb's size and decoration. If, for example, private tombs in the Valley of the Kings were commissioned by royalty at the time of an esteemed individual's death. one might expect a small, somewhat simple, perhaps hastily carved construction. Thirdly, the unfinished nature of many of the royal incompletely decorated tombs attests that a completed tomb was not a prerequisite to burial.19 Another question could also be asked: might the lack of inscription, at times, have served as an intentional status-differential between royalty and those private individuals privileged to be buried in the Valley?

Earlier Excavators

Working with uninscribed tombs in the Valley of the Kings in the aftermath of Howard Carter (1874-1939) and Giovanni Belzoni (1778-1823) has afforded me the opportunity to reflect on the work of both of these extraordinary individuals. A few comments about each follow:

Howard Carter

Carter's work in KV 44 (1901)20, (KV 45 (1902)21 and KV 60 (1903)22 was not particularly inconsistent with the archaeological standards of his day. The Petrie revolution advocating systematic archaeology was just emerging when young Carter was discovering these little tombs.23 With a background primarily as a copyist, it may not be surprising that he was apparently uninterested in these heavily looted and uninscribed monuments. Furthermore, these relatively 'poor' burials might have seemed somewhat insignificant in comparison with some of the more dramatic discoveries or royal tombs being made at the turn of the century.

Howard Carter did copy most of the intact inscribed objects and usually offered brief descriptions of his findings, although most scholars today would probably prefer a little more documentation on his part. Perhaps he had the insight to leave well enough alone and intentionally left the task of more thorough documentation for future, more interested parties. His closing of Tomb 60 might suggest such an attitude. Happily, Carter's archaeological technique and interests improved and expanded significantly in the years prior to 1922, and he should be credited for having the wisdom to assemble a truly outstanding cast of experts who assisted him in the clearance of the tomb of Tutankhamun.

Giovanni Belzoni

Giovanni Belzoni, the oft-maligned Italian carnival performer-turned-antiquarian, was the first Westerner known to have excavated in the Valley of the Kings.24 Many historians have saddled Belzoni with such unflattering titles as 'tomb robber' and 'the greatest plunderer of them all'. 25 Such writers tend to emphasize the more flamboyant aspects of Belzoni's personal history, ignore the context of his time, and usually neglect the activities which clearly set him apart and ahead of most of his contemporaries. It is my belief that Belzoni's work in the Valley of the Kings does, in fact, provide an excellent example of genuine archaeological activity. Case in point: Belzoni considered one of his greatest achievements to have been the discovery in 1817 of the tomb of Sethos I (KV 17).26 Contrary to his modern reputation as a tomb robber, Belzoni carefully described and measured this tomb, all of which can be found published in his 1820 Narrative for any who care to take a careful look.27 He also took great efforts to record the tomb in beautiful watercolours.28 It should be noted, too, that Belzoni was not merely searching for especially lovely pieces of ancient art but possessed a very wide interest in Egyptian antiquities of all sorts. including those considered relatively mundane. His exhibition at Piccadilly, London. in 1821 included not only mummies, wooden and stone statues, and other exotic crowd-pleasing items, but also displayed examples of baskets, sandals. ropes, and other objects of daily life, which are hardly the booty of a tomb robber!29

A few years ago I was privileged to study an ancient rope in the British Museum which Belzoni had found hanging in the well-shaft of Sethos' tomb. His foresight in collecting such an object produced very interesting results over 165 years later.30 Furthermore, in the plates which accompany Belzoni's Narrative, a topographic map of the Valley of the Kings can be found locating the subterranean features of his discoveries.31 In Tomb 21, we have found many of the objects and features mentioned by Belzoni. A plan of Tomb 21, complete with scale, was included in his published illustrations.32 Given the above facts, I offer no hesitation in my consideration of Giovanni Belzoni as a father of Egyptian archaeology.

Final Comments

Though their lack of inscriptions often severely complicates their interpretation, the uninscribed tombs provide an archaeological challenge with the possibility of a substantial contribution to our knowledge of the Valley of the Kings. Apart from their inherent historical value, the uninscribed tombs also possess the potential to serve as models for conservation. Given the possibility of future flooding and increased pollution in the Valley, there is a need to protect the tombs, especially those which are decorated. with special doors or other protective devices. Experimental doors, for example, could be installed on an undecorated tomb along with the appropriate instruments for measuring the temperature, humidity, etc. of the interior environment. Thus these tombs, worthy of protection in and of themselves, might greatly assist in conservation experimentation without risk to the beautiful decoration found in many of the other tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Despite their neglect by earlier investigators, the re-examination of these tombs is proving a worthwhile venture. Rather than being dismayed by the lack of an easy solution, one can instead view these monuments as exciting opportunities for investigation.


Thomas. E. Thomas, The Royal Necropoleis of Thebes. (Princeton, 1966).
Reeves. C. N. Reeves. Valley Of the Kings. (Kegan Paul-London, 1990)

1 The Project has been conducted with the kind permission of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization and is affiliated with the American Research Center in Egypt. Thanks are extended to Mr. and Mrs. M. D. Schwartz, Mr. Albert Haas, and Mr. Gerald Vincent for their generous support.
2 Thomas, 71-3; Reeves. 17-18. Data on each of the tombs mentioned in this article are excellently provided in the volumes authored by Thomas and by Reeves where full references may be consulted.
3 Thomas, 78-80; Reeves, 24-5.
4 Thomas, 138; Reeves, 154.
5 Thomas, 139; Reeves, 153-4..
6 James Burton, c. 1826. British Library, Add. MS 25642, 23. Tomb 'T'.
7 H. Carter. 'Report of work done in Upper Egypt'. ASAE 4 (1903). 176-7; Thomas,
137-8; Reeves, 139 and addenda.
8 The coffin and mummy of Sitre are noted in the Temporary Register of the Cairo Museum. (24/21/16/1) with a comment referring to Ayrton.
9 D. Ryan, 'The Pacific Lutheran University Valley of the Kings Project: a Synopsis of the First (1989) Season'. NARCE 146 (1989). 8-10.
10 Thomas, 157-8; Reeves. 140-7.
11 Thomas, 143-4; Reeves. 148-53.
12 Thomas, 162; Reeves, 147.
13 Thomas, 78-80; Reeves. 24-5.
14 Thomas, 144~; Reeves. 42-9.
15 Thomas, 71-3; Reeves, 17-18.
16 Thomas, 75-7; Reeves, 13, 16-17.
17 Thomas, 228-48; Reeves. 245-57.
18 The pyramid of Khufu at Giza offers the biggest such example.
19 J. Cerny, 'The Valley of the Kings'. IFAO Bibliothèque d'étude 61 (1973), 11.
20 H. Carter, 'Report on tomb-pit opened on the 26th January 1901 in the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings', ASAE 2 (1901). 144-5; A. Rowe. 'Corrections and additions to Report on Tomb Pit.', ASAE 41(1942). 346-7.
21 H. Carter, 'Report on General Work done in the Southern Inspectorate'. ASAE 4 (1903), 45-6.
22 H. Carter, 'Report of work done in Upper Egypt', ASAE 4 (1903). 176-7.
23 W. M. F. Petrie summarized his methodology in Methods and Aims in Archaeology (Blom-New York, 1904).
24 S. Mayes, The Great Belzoni (Walker-New York, 1961): D. Ryan. 'Giovanni Battista Belzoni', Biblical Archaeologist 49 (1986). 133-8.
25 G. Daniel, 150 Years of Archaeology (Duckworth-London. 1975) 69.155; B. Fagan, The Rape of the Nile (Scribner's-New York, 1975), 95.
26 Thomas 104-7; Reeves 92-4.
27 Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries in Egypt and Nubia (Murray--London, 1820). 230-46.
28 The watercolours are housed at the City Museum, Bristol. England.
29 Anonymous, Description of the Egyptian Tomb discovered by G. Belzoni (Murray-London, 1821), 15; Anonymous, Catalogue of the Various Articles of Antiquity, to be disposed of, at the Egyptian Tomb, by Auction or by Private Contract (Clowes-London, 1822), 8-9. (A copy of each of these can be found in the Percival Collection, British Library).
30 D. Ryan, 'Belzoni's Rope from the Tomb of Sethos I.' SAK Beiheft 2 (1989), l39-42; D. Ryan and D. Hansen, 'A study of ancient Egyptian Cordage in the British
Museum', British Museum Occasional Papers 62 (1987), 15-17.
31 G, Belzoni, Forty-four Plates illustrative of the Researches and Operations of Belzoni in Egypt and Nubia (Murray-London. 1820). p1. 39, Tomb 5.
32 Ibid., pl. 32, Tomb 3.

* This article has been published in: C.N. Reeves (ed.), After Tutankhamun: Research and Excavation in the Royal Necropolis at Thebes (Kegan-Paul-London, 1992), 21-27, and was originally presented at the International Conference on the Valley of the Kings held at Highclere Castle, June 1990.

Donald P. Ryan
Division of Humanities
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, Washington USA