Further Observations Concerning
the Valley of the Kings

by: Donald P. Ryan

FIVE YEARS AGO, on the occasion of the 1990 "After Tutankhamun" conference held at Highclere Castle, I authored a paper entitled "Observations concerning undecorated tombs in the Valley of the Kings."1 At that time, I was in the midst of a second field season in the Valley. With the completion of that season, and the two which followed, the 1994 Interna-tional Conference on the Valley of the Kings held in Tucson offered an opportunity for retrospect on these tombs and the Valley in general. At the outset, I will admit that I did not anticipate the many surprises that the tombs would hold nor did I expect the extent of the continuing richness of research that work in the Valley holds. The brief comments below offer a few thoughts and observations inspired by our efforts.

Undecorated Tombs

In 1989, the Pacific Lutheran University Valley of the Kings Project began its first field season with the goal of investigating six tombs: KV 21, KV 27, KV 28, KV 44, KV 45, and KV 60.2 Lacking decoration, tombs of this sort have typically received very little attention since the time of their initial discoveries in the 19th century or the early years of the present century. All of these tombs, however, are worthy of scholarly attention. Each has a unique story to tell; certainly the ones we have dealt with have left us intrigued.

One of the more fascinating aspects of our work in these tombs has been discoveries of human remains. The wonderfully preserved female mummy found in KV 60 and the two mutilated female mummies from KV 21 were found embalmed in a special pose with their left arm bent at the elbow across the chest and with the left hand clenched, the right arm held straight at its side. If the identification of this rare pose as that belonging to royal females of the 18th Dynasty is correct,3 then perhaps we have the existence of queens' tombs in the Valley of the Kings. This might provide a solution to the question of the whereabouts of the tombs of a number of the queens of that time period.4

In KV 44, which is a small 18th Dynasty shaft tomb usurped in the 22nd Dynasty, we found the remains of seven individuals from what is presumed to be the original burial. The bodies included three children, one as young as two years of age, and two young women.5 Though all these individuals encountered during our work remain nameless in their undecorated tombs, they provide the knowledge that there were a greater number and variety of people buried in the Valley of the Kings than previously suspected.

Conservation Concerns

During the summer of 1993, a conservation study season was conducted in order to further explore the physical threats to the tombs in the Valley. The "Valley of the Kings Preservation Project" updated a map of the Valley to incorporate recently exposed, added or eliminated physical features and conducted a survey to produce natural hazards assess-ments for each individual tomb and for the Valley as a whole. In doing so, we built upon the work of earlier projects, most notably, the reports by members of the Brooklyn Museum's Theban Royal Tombs Project of the late 1970's.6

The biggest threat, of course, is flood water penetration by flash flooding, as illustrated by the dramatic and tragic events during the Fall of 1994. Incidents of heavy rains in the Theban mountains are not unusual and have been noted from ancient times.7 There are several eyewitness accounts of flooding during the last two centuries, Howard Carter having witnessed probably the hitherto last major flood event during 1918.8 Several tombs in the Valley of the Kings are completely choked or contain chambers that are thoroughly encumbered with the debris of flooding. In KV 27, for example, we noted sediment layers representing a minimum of seven separate flood events. In mapping the Valley floor, cliffs and surrounding features, we were able to determine the relative degree of threat that flooding poses to each tomb.9 Although few tomb protection measures were in place during the 1994 flooding, our 1993 data should provide a "before" picture of the Valley to which the recent flood damage data can be applied for use in planning. Though unfortunate, much can be learned from the recent flooding which can assist in better rem-edying of future events.

In constructing schemes to prevent flood water damage to tombs in the Valley of the Kings, one can learn lessons from the history of archaeology. It is worthwhile to examine the context of those discoveries in which the contents of tombs were found dry and well preserved. A few examples will suffice. The tomb of Tutankhamun (KV 62) was found well buried with its doors sealed as were the tombs of Yuya and Thuya (KV 46) and Mahirpra (KV 36).10 In 1989, our expedition rediscovered KV 60 which had been robbed in ancient times and then revisited in 1903 and 1906. Though its ancient sealings were long gone, the latest visitor had blocked the door with boulders and the tomb was subsequently reburied in Valley debris to the point of becoming "lost." We found its contents dry and splendidly preserved.

The lesson is simple. Most tombs whose doors were closed and whose entrances were buried have maintained dry and relatively stable environments within.11 This, then, pre-sents a solution for dealing with the maintenance of perhaps a third of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings: seal their doors and bury them. Shaft tombs in particular could easily be maintained this way as could those tombs whose accessibility is not a regular require-ment. Markers could note their location and corners. Re-excavation by a local work crew when an inspection is desired would be a small price to pay for the preservation of these tombs.

There are several other sources of tomb damage (some related to flooding), such as rain water penetration through rock faults, rock expansion and desiccation, and damage related to tourism, and these have been noted elsewhere.12 During the 1993 expedition, though, we observed two other factors that deserve attention: aeolian erosion and damage caused by bats.

Aeolian Erosion: High winds are not uncommon in the Theban mountains, and on more than one occasion I have been able to examine clean Valley tombs in their aftermath and found significant quantities of wind-blown sand, dust and tourist litter. Many of the tombs of the 19th and 20th Dynasties with their large openings guarded by grated doors are susceptible to this sort of abrasive erosion and such should be considered in future preser-vation schemes.

Bat Damage: Bats can also play a deleterious role in the decay of tombs all over Egypt. Stains from their excreta can be found on the ceilings and walls of tombs carved in light-colored limestone, and their dung can literally blanket a floor. KV 20 in the Valley of the Kings provides a dramatic example. Its lower chambers are foul almost to the point of being poisonous. An early remedy was to simply build a screen door at its entrance to keep the bats from coming and going. A visit to the tomb in 1993 revealed the skeletons of hundreds of bats along the tomb's corridor who were apparently trapped with the installa-tion of such a screen door. The screen door was later demolished by vandals and the bats came back.

Merely killing the bats, however, is not a modern solution. Bats play an important role in the ecology of the area,13 and exterminating them is questionable in terms of environ-mental ethics if not inhumane. Shutting them out during their daily nocturnal exodus is likewise unsound; they will find another roost which just might be another tomb some-where. Though I have no firm solution to offer at this time, I believe the problem is worthy of further consideration.

What are the solutions for the preservation of the Valley of the Kings? Ancient plaster-ing over ancient cracks provides ample evidence that the tombs were decaying even as they were being constructed.14 The speed and nature of the process of decay, of course, has been different for each tomb as a result of its particular exposure to the variety of affecting variables. One thing, though, remains consistent: the tombs of the Valley of the Kings were never intended to be visited by millions of curious tourists nor were they designed to com-pletely sustain the ravages of intrusive natural forces. Engineering solutions to protect the tombs from the latter will likely be enacted in the near future. There have also been pro-posed solutions to limit the impact of tourism by limiting the number of tombs accessible to tourists or rotating those tombs which are available to visitors. In seeking solutions, let us not forget that above all, the Valley of the Kings was the royal cemetery for the great kings (and a select few others) of the New Kingdom.

An Ultimate Solution?

A radical, and likely unpopular, ultimate solution might be to restore the Valley of the Kings to its former dignity as a royal cemetery. Each of the tombs could be cleared, thor-oughly documented, and stabilized prior to having their doors closed and rarely reopened. Visitors could pass through the Valley in quiet respect; the Valley itself possessing its own intrinsic beauty which is greatly magnified by its historical importance. As has been previ-ously proposed, tourists could gain a sense of the interior of the royal tombs by visiting replicas. Located outside of the Valley, visitors would be able to examine several select monuments reproduced in their pristine condition.15 Such an approach has proved very effective at the site of the Lascaux caves in France which contain spectacular examples of Paleolithic rock art.16

Would tourists travel to Egypt and tolerate replicas? I would guess that they would. There are many splendid relatively intact monuments outside of the Valley, and a visit to the magnificence of a redignified royal cemetery and the beauty of Egypt and its people as a whole would continue to make a visit to Egypt a desirable and wonderful experience.


In 1820, Giovanni Belzoni felt that there were no more tombs to be found in the Valley of the Kings.17 Similar sentiments were put forth by Theodore Davis in l9l2;18 and in the aftermath of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, there have been relatively few expeditions at work in the Valley of the Kings. The likelihood of finding new tombs in the Valley of the Kings is slight. The likelihood of finding intact new tombs in the Valley of the Kings is miniscule. Recent research, though, demonstrates that there still is a wealth of knowledge to be gleaned from that site, and the Valley of the Kings will continue to present the occasional surprise. Our priorities, though, must now emphasize conservation. The immediate need of preventing further damage to these precious monuments from both natural and human forces is clear. Archaeology and conservation have not always been practiced with the same energy. In the future, perhaps the needs of the archaeologist in the Valley of the Kings will be addressed as a by-product of the pursuit of the latter.


1 Published in C.N. Reeves, ed., After Tutankhanum: Research and Excavation in the Royal Necropolis at Thebes (London, 1992), pp.21-27.

2 For summaries of our work on undecorated tombs, see: D. Ryan, "The Pacific Lutheran University Valley of the Kings Project: A Synopsis of the First (1989) Season," Newsletter of the American Research Center in Egypt 146(1989), 8-10; D. Ryan, "Who is Buried in KV 60?" KMT 1:1(1990), 34-39,58-59,63; D.Ryan, "Return to Wadi Biban el Moluk: The Second Field Season of the Valley of the Kings Project," KMT 2:l (1991), 26-31; D. Ryan, "The Valley Again," KMT 3:l (1992), 44-47.69; D. Ryan, "Exploring the Valley of the Kings," Archaeology 47:1 (1994), 52-59.

I would like to acknowledge the following for their support of our work: Mr. & Mrs. M.D. Schwartz, Mr. Albert Haas, Mr. Jerry Vincent, Sherry & Samuel Ryan, Madame Tauni De Lesseps; The Egyptian Antiquities Organization, Pacific Lutheran University, The American Research Center in Egypt, Edwin Brock and the Canadian Institute in Egypt; our various expedition members including Dr. Mark Papworth, Mr. John Rutherford, Dr. Daris Swindler, Mr. Tony Cagle, Dr. Barbara Aston, Dr. David Aston, Prof. Brian Holmes, Prof. Lawry Gold, Madame Adina Savin, Mr. Steve DaIly, Mr. Jeff Gee; our Egyptian archaeological associates from the Luxor area, especially Dr. Mohammed Saghir and Dr. Mohammed Nasr; and by no means least, Reis Nubie Abd el-Baset and our wonderful crew of workmen from the Luxor West Bank.

3 For a discussion of a "type" model for this rare pose, see J. Harris et al., "Mummy of the 'Elder Lady' in the Tomb of Amenhotep II: Egyptian Museum Catalog 61070," Science 200 (1978), 1149-51.

4 Though usually surmised to be principally situated in a series of areas labeled "the Queens' cliffs" and the "Valley of the Queens" (E. Thomas, The Royal Necropoleis of Thebes [Princeton, 1966], pp.170-227), many of the burials of the numerous royal females of the New Kingdom are not well identi-fied. Evidence for their existence in the Valley of the Kings is suggested by the material of Queen Tiye in the controversial KV 55, the mummy of the "Elder Lady" cited above in Note 3, and in foundation deposits belonging to Merytre associated with KV 42. (For archaeological summaries of these two tombs consult E. Thomas, op. cit, and C.N. Reeves, Valley of the Kings [London, l990]. KV 55: Thomas, pp.144-6; Reeves, pp.42-49. KV 42: Thomas, pp.78-80; Reeves, pp.24-25.)

5 Aspects of these burials are described in D. Swindler, D. Ryan and B. Rothschild, "Dental Remains from the Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt," in: J. Moggi-Cecchi (ed.), Aspects of Dental Biology.(Cortona, 1995) 365-372.

6 The Brooklyn Museum Royal Tombs Project (1977-1979) produced several useful unpublished reports including: I. Romer and I. Rutherford, "Damage in the Royal Tombs in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes"; J. Romer, "A History of Floods in the Valley of the Kings"; G. Curtis, "The Geology of the Valley of the Kings"; M. Monaghan, "Surficial Geology of the Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt"; J. Esherick, "An Environmental Master Plan for the Valley of the Kings."

7 A. Sadek, "Varia Graffitica" (pp.112-19), Varia Aegyptiaca 6:3 (1990), 109-20. See also: J. Romer, "A History of Floods in the Valley of the Kings," unpublished report of the Brooklyn Museum's Theban Royal Tomb Project (1989).

8 T.G.H. James, Howard Carter: The Path to Tutankhamun (London, 1992), p.202. A dramatic description of an earlier storm in the Theban mountains as described by Carter can be found on p. 186.

9 See J. Rutherford and D. Ryan, "Tentative Tomb Protection Priorities, Valley of the Kings, Egypt." in Richard Wilkinson, ed., Valley of the Sun Kings: New Explorations in the Tombs of the Pharaohs. (Tucson, 1995)134-156.

10 For archaeological summaries of these tombs consult Thomas, op. cit., and Reeves, Valley of the Kings. KV 62: Thomas, pp.89-90; Reeves, pp.61-69. KV 46: Thomas, pp.143-4; Reeves, pp.148-53. KV 36: Thomas, pp.157-8; Reeves, pp.140-7.

11 Useful tests concerning interior tomb environments (including temperature and humidity) have been conducted on the tomb of Nefertari in the Valley of the Kings (S. Maekawa, "Environmental Monitoring in the Tomb of Nefertari" in Art and Eternity, M. Corzo and M. Afshar, eds. [Getty Conservation Institute, 1993]; G. Burns, KM. Wilson-Yang and I.E. Smeaton, "Archaeological Sites as Physiochemical Systems: the Tomb of Nefertari, Egypt," Archaeological Chemistry IV, Advances in Chemistry Series No.220 [l988], 289-310). Further studies of this sort applied in the Valley of the Kings will provide valuable information toward maintaining the long-term stability of the tombs.

12 E.g., J. Rutherford and J. Romer, "Damage in the Royal Tombs in the Valley of the Kings at Thebes," unpublished report of the Brooklyn Museum's Theban Royal Tomb Project (1977); J. Rutherford, "Physical Deterioration of the Royal Tombs in the Valley of the Kings," unpublished (1980); G. Curtis and J. Rutherford, "Expansive Shale Damage, Theban Royal Tombs, Egypt," in Proceedings of the 10th International Congress on Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering 3 (1981), pp.71-74.

13 For an overview of the ecological role of bats: J. Hill and J.D. Smith, Bats: A Natural History (Dorset, 1984), especially Chapter 10. One of the beneficial roles is the consumption of pest insects such as mosquitoes.

14 In KV 21, for example, being completely undecorated and with walls not prepared for painting, extensive ancient plastering over cracks is readily observed.

15 The idea of replica tombs was presented by the "Society of Friends of the Royal Tombs of Egypt" at the "After Tutankhamun" Valley of the Kings conference held at Highclere Castle, June 15-17,1990.

16 B. Delluc and G. Delluc (P Bahn, trans.), "Lascaux II: A Faithful Copy," Antiquity 58 (1984), 194-6; J.-F Tournepiche, "Faux Lascaux," Natural History 102:4(1993), 72.

17 G. Belzoni, Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries in Egypt and Nubia (London,1820), p.226. "...it is my firm opinion, that in the valley of Beban el Malook, there are no more [tombs] than are now known, in consequence of my late discoveries; for, previously to my quitting that place, I exerted all my humble abilities in endeavouring to find another tomb, but could not succeed."

18 T. Davis et al., The Tombs of Harmharbi and Touatankhamanou (London, 1912), p.3. "I fear that the Valley of the Tombs is now exhausted."

* This article was first presented at the International Conference on the Valley of the Kings held at the University of Arizona in October, 1994 and has been published in Richard Wilkinson, ed., Valley of the Sun Kings: New Explorations in the Tombs of the Pharaohs. (Tucson, 1995)157-161.

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